Asia

The Greater Angkor Project at Ta Prohm, Cambodia

My name is Dr. Alison Carter and I’m co-Field Director of excavations currently taking place at the temple of Ta Prohm, part of the Angkorian civilization, near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.  These excavations are part of the Greater Angkor Project  (GAP) Phase III, which is focused in part on investigating Angkorian habitation patterns.  Angkor was one of the largest pre-industrial civilizations in the world, however most research has largely focused on monuments, sculpture, and inscriptions. Recent work by the Greater Angkor Project has been looking at where people were living around some of these famous temple enclosures (last year we worked at Angkor Wat).  We have an international team with participants from Cambodia, the US, Australia, Germany, Thailand, and Vietnam.

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Part of the North Gate of Ta Prohm

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Our international team members inspecting an excavation trench

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Penn Museum Archaeologist; Part 2

My Day of Archaeology continues (for first half, click this link)

12:00 Lunch with my Research Associate, Ryan Placchetti, discussing our efforts and the closer and closer ties with our British colleagues; how to make the definitive version of the dataset. We have recorded all of the field catalogues at this point and are moving on to examining every artifact we have from Ur, starting with a small subset, that of cylinder seals. Those need to be updated in a unified database, but the unified (if still somewhat flawed) database won’t be up for another week or two according to our colleague, Birger Helgestad, in London.

Got a message from a friend who is a professional photographer that he will be available to help document the second half of my day (he took the picture in my first post, but months ago). My computer secretary file shows that the afternoon should be spent as most afternoons have been this week, writing entries for an artifact loan from Penn Museum to La Caixa Museum in Spain. Many of these artifacts were excavated at Ur and thus relate to my overall project. I have written 14 entries so far, but there are at least another 20 that need to be done. I’ve farmed a further dozen out to Phil Jones, a Sumerologist here at Penn, since they have lengthy cuneiform inscriptions. I have studied both Akkadian and Sumerian but am by no means a specialist in the languages.

Writing entries for artifacts going on loan; photos by Kyle Cassidy

Some of the objects we’re sending have been sent out on traveling exhibits before. I wrote entries for a few of them when they went to Beijing, but those were around 1,000 words each. These have to be only about 100 words. It’s good practice to be concise, but any archaeologist will tell you that every object is more complicated than it looks, and when you want to discuss the significance of a particular object, you are almost inevitably tempted to write and write and, well you get the point. Much like this blog entry, I could be more concise, so I’ll just get to the task of writing exhibit catalogue entries.

High prow and stern boat model is in the background; flat, decked boat is in the foreground.

3:30pm I’ve spent the past hour and a half in the Traveling Exhibits holding room, examining some of the more complex artifacts that I am writing about. The first is a pair of clay boats that seem simple enough, but one of them is expected, the other is not. As I write about these artifacts, I try to make sure that all of our info on them is correct, correlates with field records where available and with archaeological thought of the period, styles, etc. The boat from Fara with high, curved prow and stern is exactly what we would expect from southern Mesooptamia in the Early-Middle Bronze Age, a reed river or marsh boat, with bundles of reeds tied together at stem and stern. The other, said in our records to be from Ur in the Old Babylonian (Middle Bronze) period doesn’t quite fit. First of all, the excavator at Ur does not mention a model boat from this season or any season within four years of the accession date. Secondly, the flat form with partial deck at prow and stern is in the history of ship building usually seen to be later, typically the end of the Late Bronze Age. Essentially, this appears to be a sea-going, plank-built vessel, akin to those on the Mediterranean at the time of the Sea Peoples and beyond. Maybe this is an early occurrence of that type, but without good context, I can’t know. I can’t solve the issues right now, but I can mention the questions in the interpretation of significance in the brief catalogue entry.

Apart from boat models, I’m also covering stone statuary today. I look again at

Examining ED sculpture from Khafaje; notice the resemblance?

an example from Khafaje and wonder where the left eye came from. In early photos, it is missing, yet this statue has two eyes. The left (proper) is a replacement, but I’m not sure when it was put there or by whom. We are sending two similar statue heads to Spain as well and I take a look at them. I take notes on these and a few other pieces, formulating most of about six catalogue entries, though I still have to chase down references for the bibliographic sections.

Even though I’ve been working with artifacts for 20 years, I still get an extraordinary feeling when in the presence of something so old, something formed by human hands thousands of years ago. Even in a relatively clinical environment, the power of ancient artwork is palpable. This is the kind of inspiration that keeps me going in writing some of the entries that might otherwise seem mundane. It’s why I wanted to be in the holding area today rather than only in my office checking books. When working directly with the objects, I notice things I can’t possibly notice in photos, and the personal enjoyment I get at staring into the shell and bitumen eyes of a 4500-year-old stone worshiper, or feeling the curve of a 3600-year-old model boat is indescribable. I may be working on virtual recreations of the ancient city of Ur, but I still believe in the importance of physical museums and the power of seeing ancient things in person. We need digital collections for study and understanding, dissemination of information, teaching, and for many other reasons; but, we need the presence of antiquities in publically accessible institutions as well to promote that unusually motivating and inspiring connection with too-long forgotten people across millennia.

We are all people, and we all are part of history.

Excavation & Skeletal Analysis

For many years I would be on my way to Egypt at this time of year, trying to figure out how to stretch the grant money to cover as much time in the field as possible. But this year I’m in my research lab at the university, working on the final stages of several projects.

As an archaeology student I discovered that I was mainly interested in the people themselves, rather than their garbage. So my specialization is in human skeletal remains (bioarchaeology). I’m particularly interested in how human skeletons reveal aspects of the interrelationships between culture, environment, and health. I have excavated ancient cemeteries in Egypt and Pakistan, and have studied human skeletal remains from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley Civilization, and from historic cemeteries of the Fur Trade Period in western Canada.

A 2,000 year old cemetery in Egypt.

Today I’m examining 2,000 year old human bones and teeth for evidence of fractures and various forms of disease.

Tuberculosis in the spine.

Usually there are one or two interesting or important discoveries made in the field, but often the significance of your work isn’t clear until you’ve had a chance to examine all of the finds and to determine where they fit in the big picture of the site, and of the ancient culture more broadly. That process usually takes years!

I also study the historic and prehistoric ways in which people dealt with their dead. With this research I don’t excavate, but instead I examine the above-ground and archival record of historic cemeteries in western Canada in order to assess the fit between archaeological interpretive models for prehistoric cemeteries and the documented evidence for burial practices.

If you’d like to learn more about my research, please check the website on my profile.

Accessing Egyptian archaeology through a British Museum exhibition

As an Egyptologist, currently working at the British Museum, I’ve been involved in a number of archaeological digs, but most of my research life has been devoted to trying to make sense of what other people have dug up and trying to share it with a wider audience. And that’s what I’ve been busy doing today.

A lot more ancient material than people might imagine has been found and then relatively ignored in pursuit of new discoveries, and it’s not always shared with as many people as it could be. Part of the work of the curators at the British Museum, whom I have been lucky to join as part of the BM’s Future Curators programme, is trying to make sense of the archaeological legacy that has been left to us. Curators have many different responsibilities, including current fieldwork, but they also persevere in contributing research on the museum’s existing collections, which is made freely available to the public in an online database, online research catalogues, and online journals. Outside researchers are also gladly welcomed to work on the collections; there’s always more that can be learnt from the objects.

Most of what I’ve been working on today relates to a BM UK touring exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Egypt, which I’ve been highly involved in, that opened recently in Newcastle before it tours the country. The exhibition explores the ideals and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt, and, as part of the BM’s Partnership UK programme, allows objects from the national collection to tour to museums outside of London.

I started today with further research into the objects that are currently part of Pharaoh. Exhibitions shed light on objects both literally and figuratively, bringing them out of storage to be shared with thousands of curious people, as well as being an excellent prompt to pursue further research into them. My hands on research, examining the details on objects up close, has sadly already passed, and now I’m chained to the computer and library books, fleshing out the context. Today I finally got round to working on one of my favourite objects from the exhibition, the massive wooden tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramses I. It towers at about two metres high and through the conservation work done on it, we learned that it is surprising in its construction as it is made from native Egyptian sycamore wood rather than the imported cedar wood which was usually used for large objects. Making sense of the object also involves tracing its history back to its discovery by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817 and some subsequent misinterpretation in later publications!

Of course, as all archaeologists will understand, my research time didn’t last long, as administration, meetings, and other commitments took over. I worked on our slowly evolving project of making the Pharaoh website a better guide and online catalogue for the exhibition: today we added the exhibition themes to the website, which you can see here. Then we had a debriefing meeting to discuss what we learned during the installation of the exhibition at the Great North Museum: Hancock to help us better prepare for transporting and installing the objects in the subsequent venues around the UK. All sorts of things like scheduling, personnel, improved packing techniques, security, and providing contextual information and images were discussed.

Finally I also exchanged farewells with our visiting curators from Egypt and around the world, who were here for the past 6 weeks as part of the British Museum’s International Training Programme. I led a couple of sessions with the visiting Egyptian curators, as well as attending some of training sessions alongside the ITP participants, and I certainly learned as much from them as I was able to teach. On their last whole day here yesterday, they presented their ideas for future exhibitions based on some of the new approaches they’d learned from colleagues at the BM, partner museums, and each others. It was amazing to see presentations on exhibition concepts like the trade route between China & Europe or Somali wedding traditions, and given in partnerships such as Brazilian and Nigerian curators working together.

One can always learn more, whether from meeting new people or revisiting old objects, and continually asking questions is one of the most important tenets of archaeology.

The other side of the viva! And working on the Silk Roads

My day started early, checking over my notes for a PhD viva I was examining this morning here at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

I don’t need to go into much detail of the experience as the candidate has already posted his experience of the process below (see James Doeser’s post “Pass – no corrections!”). It was an interesting thesis, and as James said, we had a lively discussion about the data gathered, the approaches and the outcomes. Sadly we failed to live up to his pre-viva fears that it could be “At worst … an aggressive demolition of a new researcher by two senior academics with egos and reputations to protect.” Damn – will try harder next time!

Now I’m back in the office working on a thematic study of the Silk Roads for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments & Sites). It is a broad survey of the evidence for the Silk Roads between Asia and Europe through Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The aim of the study is to provide a platform to help the countries along the routes to develop a strategy for protecting, conserving and communicating this rich archaeology. In part it is hoped it will lead to multi-country nominations of sites (small as well as big) for the UNESCO World Heritage List, but mainly it is about sharing knowledge and experience amongst the countries. My role is to pull together existing information and synthesis this into a broad understanding of the routes and their impacts (great cities, the spread of religions, ideas and technologies, etc) – and the scale of diversity, change and adaption along the routes. It is a massive job (and a lot bigger than I’d planned it to be when I took the study on – but that is the fun of research, it takes you further and pushes you into new areas). The database behind the project has been assembled in a computer-based Geographic Information System (GIS), with a variety of maps, chronologies and information about places and empires. This will be distributed amongst the archaeologists working along the routes, but we also plan to make a lot of it available on the internet to everyone through Google Earth. I have a deadline for the draft report of the end of next week – so I need to get back to it!

However, some of the rest of my day will be spent organising things for an excavation, survey and site management project I run at Ancient Merv, in Turkmenistan (Central Asia). This is a long-running project on one of the great Silk Roads cities – in the 10th century CE Merv was perhaps the third largest city in the world! Today it is a World Heritage Site and managed by the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture, who are our partners on the project. I’ll post up some info on the planning later today.

Tim Williams

Senior Lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, UCL