Excavating an Archaeologist’s Desk

In honor of the Day of Archaeology, in which we endeavor to display the “wide variety of work our profession undertakes day-to-day across the globe” (Day of Archaeology 2012 [archaeologists cite things]), I’m throwing this together as an archaeologist who embraces three different roles within the profession, has worked across 10 states and 3 foreign countries (Mexico, Cuba, and the British Virgin Islands), and still hasn’t finished graduate school (much to the chagrin of many, including myself).
To convey this complex existence, I’m choosing an archaeological metaphor and excavating my desk. My workspace is, to no surprise, a reflection of the many things that occupy my time, pique my interest, and, I hope, lead to some insight into the pasts of the common people of history, a group that counts my ancestors, German and Welsh immigrants, among its numbers. I have imposed a classification system on the contents of my desk, by which I will unpack the contents and, in turn, my life as an archaeologist working in the SAU Research Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
Indiana Jones once told a student (while running from the KGB) “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library.” While I fully endorse this sentiment, you must realize that a lot of archaeological research involves bookwork. We read a lot about the work of our forebears as a way to help orient our own research, building on and modifying that which came before, and to avoid scientific dead-ends. The books on my desk include those oriented towards:
Dissertation: I am a doctoral candidate at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the cradle of historical archaeology in the United States. I am trying to knock out a dissertation that will be the final step in my formalized education. This requires both books on epistemological issues relevant to the way I do research, such as Tim Murray’s Time and Archaeology or Anders Andrén’s Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. Combining the clarity of thinking derived from such sources with the results of fieldwork are then combined with the insight derived from other books, such as D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America and Kenneth Lewis’s The American Frontier to produce a document that will add to the historiography of southwest Arkansas and the American West… and earn me a diploma (please please please).
Teaching: I just finished teaching two classes at Southern Arkansas University, one a survey of world archaeology and the other a criminal justice research methods class. The detritus from preparing the lectures, including Catherine Hakim’s Research Design and Henn et al’s A Critical Introduction to Social Research still haven’t left my desk. They’re actually checked out from the University of Arkansas (5 hours away), so the next time I get called up to the coordinating office in Fayetteville, I’ll drop them off.
Methods: We demonstrate our competence as archaeologists in the field, showing each other and the cosmos that we can dig properly (carefully and fast), map precisely, and document our findings appropriately. I’ve got Hester et al’s Field Methods in Archaeology on my book rack for reference, and the bookshelves surrounding my desk are full of books on aerial remote sensing and LiDAR research.
Conference preparation:  One of the high points of any archaeologist’s professional year is a conference. For me, that usually means the Society for Historical Archaeology meetings, though in my current position the Arkansas Archeological Society conference is important as well. I’d like to go to the Fields of Conflict conference this year, but Budapest is a bit out of the range of my wallet (my truck needs work…). This week, I’ve been pulling together a session for the SHA with colleagues and classmates at William & Mary, and I’ve been using the abstract books from past conferences and De Cunzo and Jameson’s Unlocking the Past to write abstracts and encourage the session to take form.
Fieldwork Papers
As mentioned above, proper note taking is an integral part of archaeology. Documentation of context is key. It separates us from looters, provides a basis for scientific work, and is a backstop for ideas and information that might otherwise get missed. If ideas were baseballs, an archaeological dig is like being a catcher behind home plate, facing a battalion of pitching machines. Even if you’re Johnny Bench, you can only hold so many of those baseballs at once. Paperwork is like having a canvas bag to put those ideaballs (I’m liking this metaphor less and less) in so you don’t lose them. On my desk may be found
–        A green 3-ring binder from Area B of the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Training Dig, directed by my boss/friend/mentor Jamie Brandon. See his post here on the dig itself. The stack of papers inside is probably 2 inches thick. All of that came from two weeks in the field. It’s a lot of stuff to sift through, but every sweat-stained word is archaeological gold.
–        Field books. I see three, though there may be more buried in there somewhere. These nifty little books, usually with yellow covers, have waxed pages, making them resilient in rainy or sweaty conditions, and are the place where we jot our notes about the project we’re working on. My field book from the Society Dig contains the shot log for our surveyor’s total station, so we have a redundant copy of all that information. I also have my field book for site visits done on behalf of the Survey. The notes I take in the field can then be transposed into either a site form, which I submit by way of report to the Survey, or included in subsequent publications on that research. Writing notes, particularly under hot or busy conditions, is one of the disciplines that archaeologists must learn. As with so many other things, when it comes to notes, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. In some positions, such as federal jobs, field books are part of the paperwork associated with a project and subject to subpoena and other legal strictures, so don’t draw too many cartoons about gophers in them.
The final big section of research-related equipment can be classed as technology.  Technological advancements in computing, remote sensing (Johnson 2005), data sharing (Kansa 2012), and numerous other fronts in the past twenty years is revolutionizing archaeology. The very fact of this blog post, the internet, and personal computing is evidence of this. Hallmarks of this advancement are, of course, found on my desk.
–        Computer: Shocking, I know. Nowadays, computers are everywhere and used in most pursuits, but mine is special, consarnit! First, it’s a laptop on a dock, which is necessary given the high mobility of many archaeologists. Since you can’t bring sites to you, we have to go to the sites, often for extended periods of time. We just finished two weeks at Historic Washington State Park, and in the last year, I’ve spent weeks at Toltec Mounds, Wallace’s Ferry, and Prairie Grove, all in Arkansas, as well as making numerous trips to the Coordinating Office in Fayetteville. My Army job was just like that, as was my time with the NPS, just that in the federal gigs, the projects are usually spread over greater areas. Laptops are essential in taking our computing power along with. Crucial to that computing power is the software held on the machine, particularly, in my case…
–        Geographic information system (GIS) software. I do a lot of work with spatial documentation and analysis, so I need mapping software. Being able to document the location of sites and areas within sites is an important part of the documentation process.
–          Scanner: I scan lots of things, primarily to make back-ups (hard to lose all copies of a document) and to share them with colleagues. Information sharing is a big part of the research process, as those who share your interests and expertise are not likely under the same roof as you. This is partly why conferences are so important. Information exchange stimulates, as Poirot liked to call them, “the little grey cells” and advance the discipline. Scanners help make that possible.
–        Telephone: Again, rather mundane, but an important part of my job. The Arkansas Archeological Survey does a lot of public outreach work for people of all walks of life from across the state. My station covers 11 counties in southwest Arkansas, and I get calls to come out and look at sites or assist colleagues at museums and parks in the area with public outreach work (come to the Red River Heritage Symposium at Historic Washington State Park on the 28th of July). Much of that begins with a phone call.
As this all should indicate, I spend a LOT of time working, well more than 40 hours a week. As a result, I spend a lot of time in the office or in the field, and my desk contents reflect that.
–        Coffee mug and empty Coke/Diet Coke cans: I am a caffeine addict, plain and simple. I often get little more than 5 hours of sleep a night, and with as stacked of a to-do list as I have, it’s rather unavoidable. I can’t keep up with a friend, who runs on five cappuccinos a day, but there are times when I wonder how awesome that feels. I’m guessing “pretty.”
–        Mulerider Baseball cup: Our host institution and my erstwhile employer, Southern Arkansas University has a great baseball team, and the Muleriders just won the GAC Championship… again. Great job, guys! One of the ways I avoid having the pressures of all of these jobs and responsibilities burn me out is by having a mental outlet. For me, that’s baseball and hockey. We don’t get much of the latter down here. However, the baseball stadium is right across the parking lot from the office (really, I can see it from my desk), and those evening games are a nice break from the grind.
–        Yellow duct tape: Why yellow, you might ask? Because every station in the Survey system was allocated a color to mark their equipment with so that we could tell whose stuff is whose when we collaborate on projects. Our station’s color is yellow, Henderson State’s is orange, Toltec’s is blue, etc. etc. etc. Marking things as ours helps avoid confusion and trowel fights.
–        Field hat: I saved this for last because it’s one of my favorite things. For archaeologists, the attachments we form with crucial bits of equipment can be very strong. Many people still have their first trowels, and carefully guard them (think of a mitt for a baseball player). They’re things, but they’re things intimately tied up in the art of our discipline, and that makes them special. For me, there are three things that fall into this category. My trowel is the first, and I keep it distinct from all other trowels by wrapping the handle in hockey stick tape. The second is my Brunton pocket transit (think a compass on steroids with neon flames shooting down its hood), which is not only a very useful bit of equipment, it was also my father’s when he was doing his dissertation, and that carries great meaning to me. Finally, there is my field hat, a mid-crown cattleman with a 4” brim from Sunbody Hats in Houston, Texas. No matter how hot it gets, it’s always a little cooler under this thing, and it was a wedding gift from Jimmy Pryor, the owner of Sunbody and a childhood friend. It’s a link to home and my wife all at once, and it cheers me up when I’ve been out on a project for a couple of weeks and starting to get a little barn sour.
Now, having looked at these piles for a few hours while writing this, it may be time to do some cleaning…
Andrén, Anders
1997     Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. New York: Plenum Press
Day of Archaeology
2012    About the Project. Electronic resource (, accessed 29 June 2012).
De Cunzo, Lu Ann and John H. Jameson, Jr.
2005     Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Hakim, Catherine
2000     Research Design: Successful Designs for Social and Economic Research. New York: Routledge.
Henn, Matt, Mark Weinstein, and Nick Foard
2006     A Critical Introduction to Social Research. Los Angeles: Sage.
Hester, Thomas R., Harry J. Shafer, and Kenneth L. Feder
2009     Field Methods in Archaeology. 7th edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Lewis, Kenneth
1984     The American Frontier: An Archaeological Study of Settlement Pattern and Process. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Meinig, D.W.
1988     The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Murray, Tim, editor
1999     Time and Archaeology. New York: Routledge.

A day in the life of the Archaeological Research Project at Dobri Dyal, Bulgaria

On Friday 29th July 2011 I was working as site surveyor on a site at Dobri Dyal, a Roman fortified hilltop camp believed to date from the early 6th century AD and located in the central region of Bulgaria approximately 200km east of the capital Sofia. The Dobri Dyal project has about 50 participants mostly students from Nottingham and Cardiff universities but also with a smattering of students from Edinburgh, UCL a couple from Oxbridge and some from other places. There are a dozen or so supervisors, mainly professional archaeologists, covering all the main field functions, finds and environmental management, surveying and digital documentation, under the direction of Professor Andrew Poulter of the University of Nottingham. The British part of the project works in co-operation with a Bulgarian team organised through the regional museum at nearby Veiko Turnovo.

The Dobri Dyal team….

Project Background*

From northern Italy to the Black Sea coast, the only identified human impact upon the landscape during the early Byzantine period is the appearance of countless hill-top fortifications; only a few have been partially excavated, and none has been subjected to systematic archaeological research, employing the full range or modern techniques. The function of these sites and the character of the countryside during the final years of Byzantine rule, central as they are for understanding the period, remain unknown.

It is generally accepted that the early Byzantine Empire was at its height during the 6th century: Justinian retook North Africa and Italy and the emperor Maurice campaigned on and beyond the Danubian frontier. The lower Danube was of fundamental importance; it represented the economic hinterland and frontier, supporting and protecting the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Literary sources for the region, describing the second half of the century, have generated opposing interpretations; on the one hand, that this period witnessed a revival in Byzantine military strength or, on the other, that this century saw the progressive collapse of the empire’s economic and military power (Whitby and Liebeschuetz in Poulter 2007a). In particular, there is no agreement as to the veracity of The Buildings written by Procopius: a key reference point for any discussion of the period. However, book 4 (which covers the eastern Balkans) is unique in that the text was never completed and, in its rough form, it can be demonstrated that the author relied upon a variety of different sources, including itineraries (Poulter 2007a, 9-11). Although this conclusion does not necessarily discredit Procopius’ narrative, it raises suspicions about the authenticity of his detailed descriptions which can only be tested by targeted archaeological research.

The project requires the total excavation of the well-preserved 6th_ century fortress of ‘Dobri Dyal’ in north central Bulgaria. The objective is to discover the economic role of the type site during the 6th century. Essential projects will include zooarchaeological, archaeobotanical, small-finds and ceramic research, providing datasets which can be directly compared with the substantial results from the first two programmes (cf. 24,000 bone fragments from Nicopolis and 10,000 from the late Roman fortress). The excavations will explore the functionof the site during the 6th to 7th centuries.


* written by project director Professor Andrew Poulter and cribbed from the project handbook

5am…..I leave the farm in Nicup and walk the kilometre or so into the middle of the village We have commandeered a restaurant in the middle of the village to provide us with food, starting with coffee and a snack at 5.30 each morning, before we leave for site at 6am. The site at Dobri Dyal is about 45 mins drive south of Nicup, so today like most days we are standing at the bottom of the hill at about 6.45am. The Nottingham team opened 5 excavation areas on the top of the mound last season. Three of these areas (A, B and E) are being dug again this year and two new areas (J and K) have been opened in locations where the 2010 geophysical survey indicated areas of high resistivity. A Bulgarian team from Turnovo museum are opening a trench on the southern downslope of the hill where they think the main gatehouse and approach road to the hillfort are located.

7am….The actual change in level from the bottom to the top of the hill is only about 30 metres, but some days it seems much much higher. Especially when you are carrying tools from the caravan to the top, or in my case two tripods, a total station, a prism pole and a box of assorted grid pegs, tapes, club hammer and nails. I am the site surveyor at Dobri Dyal. Most of my recent archaeological work has been in Norway and Qatar although I have been involved in a couple of English Heritage projects back in the UK in the past 3 years. Today I am assisted by two student volunteers (Hannah and Jade) and the main task for the survey team is to locate grid pegs around trench E to enable the students to practice their planning skills.

In addition to laying out grids we are 3-D locating small finds, as and when they are discovered and plotting the defensive walls on the south side of the fort currently being uncovered by a Bulgarian archaeological team. We are using two Leica 400 total stations for the day to day survey work. These are fairly straightforward machines to use and so far all of the students I have tutored have learnt to set up the machines and carry out simple survey functions (point location, setting out grid-pegs and trench locations using the stake-out function). I of course miss the robotic Leica 1200 machine that I normally use in Norway, but for training purposes it is probably more useful for the students to get acquainted with the simpler machine……For some reason I have not been able to work out, we are burning through batteries today and by lunch time have used 4 sets…..hopefully there is just enough left in the last set to see us to the end of the day…(there was – just!!)

10am…..Lunch!! Each day we are supplied lunch by a local supermarket. Like most archaeological projects we have a mix of carnivores and veggies, a smattering of vegans and the occasional allergy sufferer as well as the downright awkward, making the supply of suitable ‘off the shelf’ sandwiches fraught with difficulty. Today’s vegetarian offering is just about inedible, but I have a large jar of pickled chilli peppers in the site hut that disguises the tastlessness of the cheese and peps up the cucumber. And an apple. And a litre and a half bottle of water. The temperature in central Bulgaria gets into the high 30s in July…which is very nice, but does require drinking plenty of water if you are out on site.

10.45am…back to work. We try to make sure that all of the students cover the basic skills needed to work as a field archaeologist (digging, recording, planning, section drawing, surveying) and in the store (finds processing, environmental processing, sieving, sampling etc etc)…..but this is a real research excavation and we try and maintain a high standard of work. Our research aims are to establish the plan and phasing of the settlement, its development and demise using all the facilities and methodologies available to us. The Bulgarian team use a more traditional method and are constantly amazed at how slowly we work. Attempts to explain our ‘single context – stratigraphic excavation’ methodology are met with blank looks by our host archaeologists. It’s about time that someone translated ‘Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy’ into one or more of the eastern European languages…..

1.45pm….Well that’s it for today. We pile back into the minibuses and return to Nicup for lunch. Soup and some baked cheese dish for me, some kind of sausage for the meat eaters. Our restaurant has a bar where drinks are very cheap. A 500ml beer costs 1 lev (45 pence). A double gin and tonic 1.5lev (67 pence). A quadruple gin and tonic 1.9 lev (85 pence), a 330ml glass of local wine 0.60 lev (27 pence)……the local speciality is ‘oblek’ a mixture of green mint liquor and ouzo much loved by men of a certain age (described by one non-archaeological acquaintance in the village as a cross between viagra and laxative!!) and rakia, the local plum or apricot brandy. Being sensible abstemious folk we tend to stick to a small gin and tonic and the occasional beer. Some students sit at the tables outside the bar playing cards, some return to their houses to sleep. Meanwhile….

3.45pm…..A surveyor’s work is never done!! I spend a couple of hours most days downloading the site survey data and preparing maps etc. Today a number of students are working extra hours in the finds store to make up time lost on other occasions during the week or as we like t call it ‘detention’. I slip along to Ann’s digital documentation office to print out a couple of maps. I use Leica Geofffice to download today’s site data. Normally I would use ArcGIS to process the data, create the survey database and make the maps, but as this is a ‘free’ project for me, I am using as far as possibly freely available open source software (not least so I can make the site data available to any students who request it). At present that consists of the Quantum GIS (QGIS) and the ProCAD (AutoCAD clone) packages. I am not a great fan of using AutoCAD for archaeological puposes, but find ProCAD useful for coverting GIS-based shapefiles to dwg and dxf formats for those that want them. The students in detention seem to be fairly happy with their punishment and are discussing whether universities should ‘give up’ student protesters to the Metropolitan Police…..No way!!

6pm….back to the house for a cold shower and then down to the Directors house for a pre-dinner gin and tonic. The gin on sale in the local bar is cheap, but it’s not Bombay Sapphire …. unfortunately Andrew is out of tonic so I end up with gin and lemon.. I manage to struggle through two glasses!! The project works on Saturday mornings so Friday nights are not as relaxing as a normal weekend, but we always manage to have a reasonable time. The nearest large town (Veiko Turnovo) has a culture festival on at the moment with ballet and opera performances most weekends. We have been offered cheap tickets (10lev circa £4.50) for all performances and some staff are going tomorrow to see the opera. Weather permitting, as the performance is open air….

12am……The bars are closed. Some folk drift off to houses, others to sit and chat for a while. Some of us are thinking that we have to be up again in 5 hours…

Field schools are fun, especially when the students are as nice as the bunch we currently have at Dobri Dyal….. Not so sure that many of them will end up with careers in archaeology though. Not through a lack of willingness but just the haphazard way that archaeology is organised in the UK and the failure of the profession to respond in any meaningful way to the current economic and political situation. It may be that in future years, training schools such as Dobri Dyal just won’t be available to UK students. One of the current student participants told me that next year, the archaeology department of his university plan to carry out a series of test pitting exercises in the gardens of houses close to the university campus instead of offering a field school through a project like Dobri Dyal. I think that is very sad….but if this is to be an end to a long standing archaeology tradition, we hope that the next 3 weeks at Dobri Dyal will provide long and happy memories for all those taking part…

Kevin Wooldridge, Bulgaria, August 2011

The Dobri Dyal project staff have a Facebook group called ‘Never Mind the Balkans – Summer Excavations in Bulgaria 2011’