Syro-Palestinian archaeology

In Small Things Remembered

Among other things, I chose archaeology for one primary reason – I did not want to be stuck in an office working nine to five.  Inundated with commercial television, I assumed, as many, that archaeology was all about traveling to exotic places to solve ancient mysteries of long-lost civilizations.  Archaeology, not dissimilar to the adventures of a certain Dr. Jones, was about adventure and big, spectacular discoveries.  My 18-year-old self would probably be horrified to learn that I do, in fact, work nine to five and much of the discoveries I deal with are neither ancient nor big.  In fact, now, I commute on a bicycle, work in an air conditioned Toronto office, and get to sleep in my own bed every night.  I work in commercial (aka CRM) archaeology as a report writer and a material culture analyst and I get REALLY excited if my Euro-Canadian site pre-dates 1800 AD.  Despite all this, I am happier and much more self-fulfilled than my 18-year-old self ever imagined myself being.

Today, I spent my day analyzing artifacts from a survey of an 1830s to 1850s Euro-Canadian farmhouse located about an hour’s drive north of Toronto and as far as big ancient mysteries were concerned, it was neither big nor ancient nor particularly mysterious.  In fact, it was a scatter of early-to-mid nineteenth century artifacts that was sparce by any standards.  The occupants of the site, tenants who were among the earliest settlers in the area, lived a frugal existance in a sparcely occupied landscape that did not warrant a large accumulation of material goods.  The number of tenants that occupied the site is unknown and the site’s name comes from an individual who is listed on the property only once in an 1837 directory for the area.  This is no grand Egyptian temple.

Ceramics, a bottle base, buttons, a pipe, and some nails:  A small sample of the artifacts from an early nineteenth-century Ontario farmstead.

Yet, this small site is an excellent example why archaeology, especially historical archaeology, is important.  Much of all written history was written by the privileged elites who, through their perceptions of what is significant and fundamental left to us a written record that has narrowed our vision of the past by reproducing in us what they considered important.  Archaeology challenges the bias of written history since the disposal of refuse is a universal activity done by everyone within any given society.  While the archaeological record can be obscured, manipulated, and altered, the traces of past human activities remain to be discovered and interpreted.  By that fact, the study of that refuse, archaeology, is an increadibly democratic process.

Nowhere is this more true in historical archaeology than the excavation of lowly log cabins of early European settlers.  From politics, economics, cultural norms, and the geography of the land itself, the work and social interactions of countless of individuals in the recent centuries has transformed the economic and social landscape into what is recognizeable today.  Over the years, historical archaeology has contributed to the understanding of a variety of topics including the development of modern foodways, the growth of industrial capitalism, and the institutionalization of present day socio-economic hierarchies.  Yet, these studies have started through the analysis of simple sparce farmsteads occupied by more-or-less nameless individuals such as the one I’m working on.  The lives of the people that discarded these ceramic sherds and pieces of bottle glass had a lasting effect on the sorts of lives we experience today.  These people have lived as long and as complex lives as we have and yet we do not know who these people are and have only vague ideas about their daily lives.  Their non-degradable material on farmstead and concrete-covered urban lots is the only record they left behind for archaeologists to study.  It is through this record we can know something about them and thus know something about ourselves.  Every day, the work of contract archaeologists continues to discover and document humble homes of lowly individuals and it is up to us to tell their stories and interpret our findings, we owe them that much for all the world they have created.

Pen, paper, and plastic bags in front of a computer: The necessities for analyzing artifacts.

Anatolijs Venovcevs
Historical Archaeologist
Toronto, Ontario

Making Archaeologists. Caerleon Excavations.

As ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ sprung into life, the excavations on the Iron Age Caerleon 2012 dig came to a close. This is our final day of a brisk five day project. At the moment it’s about 8:15 in the morning, and I am looking out towards the University of Wales, Newport campus. There are clouds, lots of them, and they are not the fluffy light ones, they have a pretty foreboding look about them… The campus is roughly a twenty minute drive from our excavation site, and our team this year has been dependent on our committed core of undergraduates. I should clarify that these are history undergraduate students, rather than archaeology undergraduates. Time was, our university had a bustling and well respected archaeology department, but for a variety of reasons, we sadly lost that department, and history was left standing alone. However, there are enough of us archaeologists who survive in and near to the university, and the desire for archaeological research stands strong, even if we don’t have the name ‘archaeology’ on our department notice board anymore. A strong tenant of our excavations in the past was to train prospective field archaeologists, and that has been seen again this year, with the majority of the team being made up of first time archaeologists.

You would not know to look at them, but all five of the team members here are on their very first field excavation.


The excavations this year are just below an Iron Age hillfort (Lodge Hill), which overlooks the Roman fortress at Caerleon. We’ve been following up on a number of features, and today we are focusing on the second of our two sites, the excavation of a trackway feature. We have some great maps that suggest the length of the trackway to be pretty significant, and running in a temptingly straight line (tempting if you like Roman features that is), going straight over the top of the hillfort. Lots of questions were being asked of this feature, how was it made, how old was it, what was it used for? As the final day of our excavations proceed, hopefully we’ll be able to deal with some of those queries.

The trackway.

(…several hours later…)

Well, back home now, 6pm(ish), in the warmth of the office, feet up and in front of the computer. Those black clouds spied earlier gave as expected, and turned the majority of our ‘day of archaeology’, into a day of mini trench floods and occasional soakings. Such is the way with field archaeology. That though is not to say that our last day of excavation was in any way a negative, in fact we had quite a successful day.

First things first though, for many of the entries posted for Day of Archaeology, we have been treated to some stunning artefacts and insights. Alas, the most time consuming activity that took place on our final day, was, as is often the case for field excavation, back filling! It’s one of those questions that is often asked of us by passing visitors, ‘what are you going to do with it (the archaeology) once you’ve finished?’, the standard short answer is ‘fill it in’. So for our day in the life of an archaeologist, it was a day of hole filling, more so than it was for hole excavation (although it’s not always a dull affair as these keen excavators hopefully show)!

As some of the trenches were being filled in though, we had sunk two test pit sections through our trackway feature, which previously in the week had revealed two distinct surfaces, and in the last hour or so of the day, revealed a third. Coming down on a really compact clay surface (you can see the moment when it was revealed here), the most obvious inclusion was a wealth of charcoal material.

The discovery of this surface was one of the last acts of archaeology on site for the year. However, the questions go on. Dating from the charcoal will be next on the agenda. We only returned a few sherds of probably post medieval pottery (though it might be late, you never know) from the first two surfaces, but the charcoal may well let us take our site back much further, we’ll have to wait and see. When we do get the results though, that should go a long way to helping us tackle some of those many questions we had going into this, so it’s a great result, even if the result means that we must wait on some more results.

And so as the day of archaeology ends, so does our excavation. It’s been a blast being involved in field archaeology again after some time away, but as interesting as the excavation element has been, today, as with the rest of this week has reminded me of one thing in particular. Field excavation has a funny effect on people. There is something about going through the hours of excavation, be it in sunshine or rain, be it through the excitement of discovering a road surface untouched for however many centuries, or the frustration of sifting through yet another find free ditch (two of our team know what that is all about now), that brings people together. At the start of this week, we had probably four distinct groups of people, different backgrounds, different social groups, different interests, yet spending the week sharing the experience of field excavation, those barriers gradually whittled away. Those involved became friends, became united, and that is both a surprising but also familiarly reassuring thing about field excavation. At the end of it all, we had had a wonderful time, become good friends, and ultimately, we were united as archaeologists. Here’s hoping your day of archaeology was as good as ours!


Archaeology on the web

My name is Tom Goskar, and I am Wessex Archaeology‘s web manager. I am also one one of the team behind the Day of Archaeology, an international online event which has taken months in the planning.

Like the rest of the Day of Archaeology team, my day has been an incredibly busy one. Essentially it began in earnest yesterday evening (if that’s not cheating) putting the final touches to the DoA website, through to seeing the first post from the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy go online.

After some sleep, I have been helping to keep the website well-oiled and ticking along. I have been doing this whilst publishing and planning web content for Wessex Archeology, who have helped to support the Day of Archaeology by providing some of my time during the day to help run it. Today, I have published some updates about a large excavation that is happening in the heart of Dorchester, the Roman town of Durnovaria. I’ve also been following back people who have recently started following Wessex on Twitter, planning some future web content for an industrial site that we are working on in the north of England, and looking at ideas for publishing some of our content as e-books (in EPUB format) and how we might fit that into our existing design workflows. There are some promising tools out there, and it’s exciting to think of the possibilities of publishing content that will look good on devices from smartphones to Kindles, iPads, etc. Especially when you have a back-catalogue of titles which are now out of print. We could give some publications a new lease of life. Specialist books which when printed are only ever available to a small number of people could have global distribution and benefit many more. Keep your eyes on the Wessex Archaeology website, there’s lots of exciting things planned for the future.

Today I have also just finished an article for a forthcoming publication based upon a talk I gave earlier this year as part the Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology (CASPAR) “Archaeologists & the Digital: Towards Strategies of Engagement” workshop in May 2011 at UCL in London. My paper is called Wessex Archaeology and the Web, a simple title, but one that explores how the organisation’s website has grown from a small nine page brochure-style website in 2001 to the  socially connected 4000+ page site that it is today. Major archaeological discoveries, such as the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen amongst others were catalysts to expand and change the way we published information online. We’ve been earlier adopters of many “Web 2.0” (despite my hating that term) technologies and web services, as well as starting the first archaeology podcast, Archaeocast. Many other heritage organisations have looked to us for trying things out first, so we have been in the spotlight on many occasions. It’s been some journey since I relaunched the website in May 2002, and it still feels like this is just the beginning.

My philosophy has always been that archaeology is all about people; as archaeologists we have a duty to make our work available to as many people as possible, otherwise there is little point in what we do. We run the risk of becoming irrelevant to society if we do not broaden access to the information that we uncover. The web is instrumental to helping us to help people learn about their pasts, and the Day of Archaeology is a fantastic way of showing the sheer diversity of work that goes on inside archaeology, and how exciting and relevant it all is.

It has been wonderful to, throughout the day, read many of the posts as they have been published. It makes me excited to see so much happening in the world (literally – see the map of posts!) of archaeology, and that so many people have been passionate enough about their subject to tell the world about it through the Day of Archaeology website. I do hope that it inspires more archaeologists to shout about their work (we’re often quite shy) and see the benefits of the web, and that it inspires readers of this site to follow up the projects that they see here. Maybe some will be moved to take up archaeology in some way, maybe as a volunteer, joining a local dig, or even thinking about archaeology as a profession.

So, a big thank you to all who have contributed an entry to the Day of Archaeology so far, and to fellow organisers Lorna, Matt, Dan, Jess, Stu, and Andy. And thank you, dear reader, for supporting us by visiting and reading all about a day in the life of what is now 422 archaeologists.

It’s been a fun journey, and fingers crossed, there will be a Day of Archaeology 2012!

2. Getting started in Archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

Getting started in archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

I’m going to explain how and why I came into archaeology (which will discuss volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student), and why I went into the field of early medieval archaeology. I hope this will show the positive effects of history and archaeology in schools, the role of museums in stimulating interest, and the significance of public access to archaeology. It will also hopefully provide some insight into the value of education, and the challenges of studying archaeology as a mature student.