Monthly Archives: July 2012

Inspiring the Next Generation, Part 2: Creating an Excavation Exhibit for a Children’s Museum

Our project coinciding with the Day of Archaeology 2012 was to build up an “excavation” for children to dig at the Cheshire Children’s Museum in Keene, NH, USA. The excavation activity will be in the Egypt themed area. At first I fretted over how we could possibly replicate an Egyptian excavation within our 2 m x 1 m box (that just wasn’t going to happen!). I decided to focus on simply portraying a few main ideas–the measured square units that archaeologists dig; the idea of layers– so that this excavation activity would look more like archaeology and a little less like a sandbox.

I am very lucky that my husband Randall, an architect, designer, and person who knows how to make anything with fiberglass, agreed to help with this project. First we stacked sheets of foam into an excavation grid with several different “layers.” After a messy first attempt that caused some of our materials to self-destruct, Randall worked with sticky resin and fiberglass fabric to mold the excavation units and places for artifacts, while I made some “ancient” ceramic sherds out of pots from Agway. (As I mentioned in my preliminary post, it proved to be rather difficult to find suitable artifact replicas to purchase for the exhibit.) Later, we applied more sloppy glue and a bucket of sand to the fiberglass surface, and glued the artifacts into their layers (based on rather loose relative dating).

Creating archaeology = messy basement!

What a relief when we delivered this mold to the museum and it fit right into its designated crate! To this will be added some loose sand, so that children can dig and discover the artifacts. Setting the scene further will be excavation tools (or, children’s shovels, etc.) and grid indicators/measurements, and an Egyptian desert mural behind the excavation. In addition to digging, we plan to provide clipboards so that children can choose to draw or record their finds. Based on my 7-year-old’s suggestion, we’ll also provide an “artifact report”/ “fun facts” sheet for each of the artifacts. She and her sister are really excited to learn more about these mysterious items, so I’m hoping that will be true for all the local children who visit the museum!

The mock excavation table, in situ in its museum home.

If time, space, and budgets permit, I’d love to add additional activities or games, perhaps some puzzle activities for the younger children. But this is only one small part of a museum with many different topics and activities. So for now, if a few children share in the fun of discovery, and leave with some idea that real archaeological excavation involves those neat square holes in the ground,* or if a few children are inspired to learn about ancient cultures, we’ll be thrilled!


*My subliminal anti-looting message for the youngsters!

In addition to thanking Randall Walter, who did all the dirty work here, I’d also like to thank the Cheshire Children’s Museum for the opportunity to work on this fun project, and Rita Elliott, a fellow archaeologist who, although I have never met her, took time out to discuss with me ideas for “mock excavation” activities. Thank you!

Digging in the Archives: Re-Discovering the Excavations of John D. Evans

I saw the poster for the Day of Archaeology (DoA) in our lift and thought I’d join in, looking at the importance of archives to the documentation and re-interpretation of older excavations. I planned to focus on archives related to the first century of excavations by a fairly eccentric cast of characters from the British School at Athens, at Knossos in Crete, where I am currently working. But in the event, I’ve been side-tracked in quite different directions, digging into the archives of John Evans, allowing me to dip into archaeology in five countries in one day, all without leaving an overcast London.

Last July, one of the former Directors of the Institute here in London, Professor John Davies Evans, died at the age of 86. I didn’t know John well, we had only met a few times, but we had a good talk at a workshop held at Sheffield in 2006, organised in honour of John and his excavations at Knossos in 1958-60 and 1969-70, which provide the entire framework for, and our most comprehensive evidence supporting, our understanding of the four millennia of the Neolithic period on Crete (see V. Isaakidou and P. Tomkins (eds) 2008. Escaping the Labyrinth. The Cretan Neolithic in Context. Oxford: Oxbow Books). As we talked, it was clear John was extremely pleased that his work at the site was still considered so fundamental, and he was also immensely relieved to be able to hand over the completion of its publication to others.

Fig. 1. Saliagos. Left: the islet of Saliagos; right: the main trench

I was working at Knossos on a current project when I learned of John’s death. I knew that while he had handed over much of his Knossos excavation archive, a large amount of the original documentation had not yet been collected from him. This was needed for the full publication of his excavations, and would eventually be archived in the British School at Athens.

Fig. 2. John Evans sorting Saliagos pottery on Antiparos

Via e-mail, I contacted his family, and we agreed that on my return from Crete in September, I would collect his academic papers, sort them, and determine how and where it would be most appropriate to archive them. With my Institute colleague Andrew Reynolds, and with help from John Lewis of the Society of Antiquaries, we collected all of John’s academic papers, and they have been taking up about half of my office ever since. (On the plus side, any meeting involving more than one other person has had to take place elsewhere – fa’coffee.)

Fig. 3. Excavations in the central court of the Minoan palace at Knossos

My original hope of sorting the papers over the Christmas or Easter breaks disappeared behind mountains of marking, and it was only last week, when I finished that and could take over one of our vacant teaching rooms to unpack it all, that I had a chance to find out what’s there. Now having consolidated it into some 40 boxes, in place of the odd assortment of boxes, suitcases, a filing cabinet, card and slide chests and a full chest of drawers, I now don’t have to slam my door whenever our fire safety officer walks by.

One of our recent PhD graduates who specialises in the history of archaeology, Amara Thornton, very kindly gave up her week to help me, and we’ve done a first sort of everything. So we now have an overview of the material, which allows us to approach others who we suspect may be interested in particular elements of the archive, and gives us an idea of the scale of the further detailed cataloguing which will be involved. I have no idea when we will be able to do this, and we will have to find some funding, as there will be a couple of months worth of work involved. But particularly relevant to today, are John’s excavation records, so let’s go digging in the archives, working, as archaeology usually does, from the known to the unknown.

I was familiar with John’s excavations on the tiny Greek Cycladic islet of Saliagos, co-directed with Colin Renfrew in 1964-65 and published in 1968 as Excavations at Saliagos Near Antiparos. [Figs 1-2 above] I talked a local boatman into taking me to the tiny offshore islet about 20 years ago to see the over-grown ruins, so seeing colour slides of the site under excavation was a treat. Colin handed over the bulk of the excavation archive to the British School some years ago, but John kept his correspondence and many slides, so I’ll copy a few for teaching, before I pack them off to Athens.

I was also very familiar with John’s Knossos excavations (Fig. 3 above and Fig. 4 below) from 1958-60 and 1969-70, through my own work at the site (our current project was the subject of a post for last year’s DoA by my colleague Andrew Shapland at the British Museum). The eight boxes of notebooks, finds lists, photos, and numerous rolls of plans and sections will be absolutely essential to complete the full publication of this major excavation. I’ve scanned and sent a couple of documents to Peter Tomkins in Leuven, which I know will help his current work on reconstructing the development of the Neolithic community.

Fig. 4. The deep sounding in the central court at Knossos

John is particularly well known for sorting out the sequence of prehistoric occupation on Malta, documented in his 1959 Malta in the classic Thames and Hudson ‘Peoples and Places’ series, and in more detail in his monumental survey of Maltese prehistory, The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands, published in 1971. [Fig. 5 below] Tucked away in the latter are extremely succinct accounts of small but strategic stratigraphic tests he did in 1953-55 in eight Maltese monuments, which enabled him to establish the cultural sequence used in his publications (and still valid) to organise the results from all previous investigations. I have found about 100 photographic negatives and some section sketches from these excavations, but so far, no detailed excavation notes, nor any plans; it is just possible he archived these in Malta, and any plans may be hiding among the many rolls of drawings which I have yet to sort through individually [Fig. 6 below].

Fig. 5. John Evans on Malta, 1954-56.

An exciting surprise was recognising several original excavation notebooks by other investigators on Malta, from 1911 to 1930, which John must have brought back to the UK to draw on for his synthesis, and over 300 early photos of sites and excavations, which should go to the archive of the National Museum in Malta. Some of these seem to have come to John from the Palestine Exploration Fund, and a note says ominously ‘Harris Colt Malta orig: throw away if not wanted 20s or 30s’ – thankfully he didn’t!

I’ve e-mailed a former student, Anthony Pace, now the superintendent for cultural heritage on Malta, to work out how best to return this material. I hope we can locate John’s excavation notes, and link these with his abundant photographic documentation. As well as photos documenting his own tests, there are some 600 negatives of pottery and other finds, only some of which were used in his 1971 volume. More significant are some 300 negatives representing site visits he made in the early 1950s, only a few of which were eventually published, which document the condition of many monuments half a century ago. Altogether, this might just be the spur for a busman’s holiday to Malta, which I’ve wanted to visit for over 30 years.

Fig. 6. Malta excavations 1954. Left: Hagr Qim trench E; right: Mnajdra trench C

What I wasn’t at all familiar with, were John’s unpublished excavations, and I spent the week dashing off to the library, doing web-searches or sending e-mails to colleagues and former students, each time I stumbled across a new paper trail. With some follow-ups this week, I think I’ve now got the outlines, and since none of them are in my own field of specialisation, they generate some of the excitement of discovery, without having to say au revoir to decent coffee.

The first surprise was an excavation John conducted jointly with Francisco Jordá Cerdá of the Seminario de Historia Primitiva del Hombre, in 1950, at the earlier Bronze Age Argaric site of La Bastida de Totana in south-east Spain. This was the last in a series of campaigns in a settlement with abundant intra-mural burials. [Fig. 7 below] I haven’t yet discovered any correspondence to indicate why John got involved, but he spent much of that year in Spain researching his PhD dissertation on the possible relations between Argaric Spain and Early Bronze Age Anatolia. The specifics of how he got involved in the project may eventually emerge from his papers, though I’ve found no clues so far.

Fig. 7. La Bastida, 1950. Left: the excavation area; right: jar burial.

An e-mail to a Spanish former PhD student, Borja Legarra Herrero, now working in both the Aegean and Spain, pointed me to the web-site of the recently resumed excavations at the site, now one of the largest field projects in Spai. There, and in interim publications, the directors indicate that in 2009 John had sent them the original excavation notebooks of his Spanish collaborator, which had been bequeathed to him in 1960, along with a photocopy of his own 1950 excavation notebook (still among his papers). [Fig. 8 below] Seemingly over-looked by John at that time, are 78 cards mounted with excavation photographs, primarily of burials in situ, identified by burial and context. These relate to the 1944-45 seasons of excavations, before John became involved in the project; there must be an interesting story of personalities and politics behind why these were sent to John, but whether we can piece it together from surviving clues at either end remains to be seen.

By chance, I had taught Roberto Risch, a co-director of the new project, during his MA nearly 20 years ago, and an e-mail out of the blue from me received a reply within a couple of hours (though he cut it short because the Portugal vs Czech Republic Euro 2012 game was starting – I guess we all have priorities).

Fig. 8. La Bastida, 1950, excavation notebook

While the notebooks John sent them have allowed members of the current project to restudy the original material for publication, they had not come across these photographs in any archive in Spain, and they have had difficulty reconstructing the contexts of individual burials. (Purely coincidentally, Borja and Roberto met at a conference in Denmark a few weeks ago, and had arranged to meet for dinner while the former is working with me, and the latter is on holiday, on Crete in August; Borja planned to bring me along, though hadn’t yet mentioned it to me – I think I’d better go via the cashpoint, just to play it safe.)

So the first of today’s tasks has been to finish scanning these photographs. Ultimately, I hope the originals will be returned to Spain for archiving with the other dig records and the finds in the newly built museum at the site. In the meantime, the scans should assist the study of the old material, which has been going on for several years, and Roberto is going to get back to me for higher resolution scans of some of the photos, for incorporation into the new museum displays.

The second surprise was a series of small notebooks, a few photographs, more negatives, a few small bags with potsherds, and a box with 1/3 of a skull, from John’s 1956 excavation of three Bronze Age barrows at Earl’s Farm Down, just east of Amesbury, ca. 6 kilometres south-east of Stonehenge. [Fig. 9 below]

John Evans at Earl’s Farm Down, 1956

Amara had her laptop with her, and a Google led to the Wiltshire sites and monuments record, which, while not seemingly aware of John’s excavation, noted the excavation of four nearby barrows by Paul Ashbee in 1956. A quick run up to the library to consult Ashbee’s 1983 publication in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine confirms which barrows were excavated by John, so we can put them on the map. A contemporary report (by John – uncredited, but the typescript is among his papers), included in N. Thomas 1958, ‘Excavation and field-work in Wiltshire: 1956’ Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 56:238-40) provides information on each barrow, and indicates that these, as well as Ashbee’s excavations, were undertaken for the Department of the Environment, so this seems to have been fill-in employment just before John took up his appointment as Professor of Prehistoric European Archaeology at the Institute, to succeed Gordon Childe. [Fig. 10 below]


Fig. 10. Earl’s Farm Down, 1956, excavation notebook

A much later letter mentions in passing that John thought the finds were all stored in the Institute. On the off chance that there were more than the few sherds he had kept with the notebooks, I fired off an e-mail to my colleague Rachel Sparks, who manages our collections, only to get her out of office message – jury duty! However, that evening I got a message back that a search of the records suggests we have material from Earl’s Farm Down which wasn’t identified as John’s excavation in our records, so has been in that special limbo all collections have for under-documented material.

So the second of today’s tasks has been to see whether this material is from the barrows, and to get an idea of the potential size of a publication project. The writing on the bags is John’s, and the recording system matches that on the few bags he kept with his notes, so that’s confirmed (see Rachel’s DoA entry). There is a fair collection of material, and with it in the box were a few more negatives, as well as a few finds from other sites which had been mis-filed in the same box. So confirmation for me, a few mysteries back to limbo for Rachel to try to sort out – but fewer than she started her DoA with, so I’d say we’re winning.

Writing-up this excavation should be suitable as a student dissertation project, possibly for publication in WAM (I mentioned it in passing to Andrew Reynolds, the editor, and he’s interested), after which the finds and records should probably be archived with other local material in the Salisbury Museum.

A third surprise was that John conducted a single season of trial tests in 1972 in collaboration with local archaeologists at the Iron Age hillfort of Segovia in southern Portugal. John’s principal academic interests were in the Mediterranean Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, so what led him to get involved in a major Iron Age and Roman site? [Fig. 11 below] Hopefully there will be some hint when I can work through the documentation and correspondence systematically.

Again, purely coincidentally, his Portuguese collaborator, José Morais Arnaud, was completing his PhD at Cambridge when I began mine in 1980, and Teresa Judice Gamito expanded the 1972 trenches in connection with her own doctoral research in the early 1980s, publishing her thesis with BAR (Social Complexity in Southwest Iberia 800-300 B.C.), which we have upstairs, though we don’t have the Portuguese journal where she reported her excavations. Her summary indicates the importance of the excavation, providing the principal regional stratified sequence from the Late Bronze Age through the Roman conquest.

Fig 11. Segovia, 1972. Left: site; right, summit trenches

The documentation for this excavation is more extensive, involving several trench notebooks, photos, plans, sections and finds drawings, which I will need more time to sort through. Because the trenches were subsequently extended, I expect John gave his collaborators copies of everything, but I’m chasing this up with José to see if we can supply whatever may be needed for their archives, to facilitate future study.

Following this trial field season, John became Director of the Institute, and administration seems to have taken over his life (a feeling all of us are now experiencing) and he stopped fieldwork; he was only able to return to working on his excavations after his retirement, as several boxes of transcribed notebooks, finds and photo lists for Knossos, along with a large box of computer disks testify (now I have to find a working Amstrad computer, to read the disks, to make sure we have copies of all the relevant files).

Sorting the Segovia records, along with more detailed cataloguing of all of John’s papers, will have to wait until sometime in the winter at earliest, when I may get another chance to unpack the boxes. So I’ve just had to figuratively back-fill my excavation in the archives, until the next season.
But as a final surprise, my query to Rachel about Earl’s Farm Down, has turned-up other materials in our storerooms, brought in by John, and checking these with Rachel is my third task for the DoA, which she has noted in her own DoA account. As well as various small bits of pottery useful for teaching purposes, given to John by excavators during his early travels in Spain, which we may be able to document more fully (presently simply catalogued by site name), two more significant collections exist. We have the human and animal skeletal material from his excavation of six communal rock-cut tombs at Xemxija on Malta. Summary reports on this material were included as appendices in John’s 1971 volume, but more could now be done to study the human remains in terms of community demography, the health and life history of individuals, and the social and ritual contexts of burial; the much smaller collection of animal bones holds much less potential. The former would repay new study, particularly in comparison with more recently excavated material, and could make an excellent dissertation project for a student on our MSc in skeletal and dental bioarchaeology.

The second collection consists of two boxes of carbonised plant remains and soil samples (to which I can add another box John had at home) from Knossos. The site is one of half a dozen representing the earliest Neolithic communities in Europe, established ca. 7000 BC. The plant remains were originally studied as part of the British Academy’s Major Research Project on the Early History of Agriculture, with John taking enthusiastic advantage of the newly developed flotation recovery technique and fine sieving in his 1969-70 excavations. The botanical samples from the two different campaigns were distributed among different specialists in the UK and Denmark.

I had hoped we could track down all of these through the paper trail of John’s administrative correspondence for the project – I wasn’t expecting to find any still in London. Checking them, they are still in bags with their context labels (Rachel and I took the opportunity to replace a few fragile bags) so their study should contribute to our understanding of early agriculture in the Aegean. I’ve notified Valasia Isaakidou of Sheffield University of this material, as she is co-ordinating the study and publication of the environmental and bioarchaeological material recovered by John at Knossos.

Finally, still completely unexplored, are some rolls of plans and a box with the documentation and a few finds from several small excavations conducted by John’s wife, Evelyn Sladdin, before she started her undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge and met John. She published one, but the others, small Roman and Medieval digs, apparently not. I may have to pencil-in the ‘excavation’ of that multi-site box for the DoA next year.

So what’s next? My priority for the autumn and winter, to fit in around teaching, will be to catalogue the Knossos documentation, about five times as much as all the rest together, as this major excavation is actively being worked up for publication by a number of colleagues, and the full documentation is eagerly awaited. Peter Tomkins, who is writing-up the stratigraphy and pottery from John’s excavations, and synthesising this with his own extensive work with Sir Arthur Evans’ tests below the Bronze Age palace, is coming to London in September for a meeting at the Society of Antiquaries being organised to commemorate John’s career, so I hope we can start going through this material together then.

It’s frustrating to have started this ‘excavation’, but have to leave it – but then most real excavations are like that too. This has turned into a far larger, but also much more interesting task than I anticipated nearly a year ago when I contacted John’s family. From my conversation with John in 2006, when he was both pleased that his excavations at Knossos were still important, and relieved that their publication would be completed, I’m sure he would approve our excavating his archive, to make the material available to other researchers.

This Day of Archaeology marks the last attention I can give to it for some time, but has clarified what we have, and what we need to do next. Realistically, considering the job ahead (and there is a lot more to his papers than just his excavation documentation), I think it may be some time before I’ll see the floor on that half of my office again. It’s been busy but intriguing – and it isn’t often that one can dig into archaeology in five different countries in one day.

Today has also brought home forcefully three things that confront me every time I work on Knossian material: how productive and cost effective re-examining older material can be, despite the constant push to recover new evidence with up-to-date techniques; that we have a responsibility to squeeze as much information as we can out of what we dig up – it is a non-renewable resource; and how crucial it is to understand our own disciplinary history – who collected what, when and why – to understand that evidence most effectively.

I’d like to thank Judith and Mike Conway, John Lewis, Andrew Reynolds, Kelly Trifilo, Stephen Shennan, Cathy Morgan, Peter Warren, Sandra Bond, Katie Meheux and Gabe Moshenska who helped arrange for and assisted the transfer of the material to the Institute of Archaeology; Lisa Fentress, Reuben Grima, Borja Legarra Herrero, José Morais Arnaud, Anthony Pace, Colin Renfrew, Artur Ribeiro, Roberto Risch and Tim Schadla-Hall for responding to my queries; Stuart Laidlaw for scanning slides and negatives; Amara Thornton for helping me sort John’s papers and providing details about some of the colourful characters who dug on the then colonial ‘circuit’; Rachel Sparks for chasing Institute collections records, digging out John’s material from the Institute storerooms, and helping me look through it; and the DoA folks for coping with this submission.

All images from J. D. Evans archive.

An Exciting End to the Day

The day turned out to be very exciting as, at last, we have entered the 21st century with satellite broadband. This morning, 3 minutes per Mb, yes you read that right. Now, unimaginable speeds.

Why does that matter so much? Time was, as a contracting archaeological surveyor I would have to go down to Edinburgh, over 4 hours drive each way, to look at databases and archives, and noted findings manually onto paper maps with pens and tippex. Now it’s all online, including reporting, and digital mapping has been a real headache.

Now I’ve no excuse. It has seemed to me recently that good skills in identifying archaeological sites in the field, interpretation and placing them in their historical context, which I’m good at, comes definitely second to being able to keep up with technological advances. It’s hard as an independent contractor, with no buzzing office full of IT geeks to help out and no salary to allow time out for training. Still, all that time I can now waste watching YouTube clips…

Excavating a Beautiful 18th Century Landscape Garden

My day started at 5.30am to prepare for the long drive to the site,  the little inn where we have been lodged offers a large full English breakfast, which would really keep you going for most of the day, unfortunately though we are leaving too early so no breakfast, just a cup of questionable  coffee ( mostly due to the UHT milk supplied in the little plastic pre-dosed container) in my  room.  I knock on the door of my colleague to make sure he is awake and after 10 minute we leave toward our site.

We drive for 1 and a half hours on beautiful country roads , between spells of rain, sun and blast of strong me and my colleague joke about the weather changes that saying we are time travelling and we are quickly passing through each season of the year as the kilometers go by.  When we arrive on site we are greeted by our other colleague and the manager of the beautiful 18th century garden we are excavating, as we enter the garden a flock of roe deers with their babies run pass us and cheer all of us up!

The project is trying to relocate several features of the ancient garden  as the Lord that owns it  (is manor house is within the garden/ estate) wants to restore it to its former beauty.  Suddenly a heavy rain fall comes down and in few minutes rivers of water come down from everywhere, lightening and thunder seems to fall just next to us, and being in the middle of a woodlands is not really a safe place to be during thunderstorm… Thanks god the master gardener came to rescue us and with our extreme surprise and relief he takes us  to the house, he said we  have been permitted to use the “posh” toilets instead of the public one, and that he arranged for tea and coffee to be served to us to warm us up, since by then we were as wet as the pond we were excavating! In order to be allowed in the toilet the maid, with a horrified face requested us that we took off our boots and waterproof gear as we are too dirty to be allowed in even if only for the toilet!! So there we go in the toilet shoeless ( they were spotless)! Though we get rewarded by been offered proper coffee and tea in one of the tea room of the house, all accompanied by the most beautiful  and tasty biscuits ever! As we are terrorised to dirt or stain of mud the sitting we just all stand around (still shoeless) with our warm tea and lovely biscuits in the hand, and marvel at the fact that they gave  real delicate china tea cups and real silver spoons!!

The rain eventually stopped and we got back to the real world of archaeology, muddy boots and all. After few hours we pack our tools and head back toward  our little inn in what it use to be the first Saxon town ( or so the sign at the town entrance says) we time travel again for 1 and half our through the 4 seasons and eventually arrive to the inn, quick shower , something to eat in the little pub down the road and then  finally to bad to prepare for another day of archaeology and hopefully more silver spoons and lovely tea cakes!!

Meeting the Challenge of Public Archaeology

Who knew that the meeting Kary and I would have with the folks at the Capitol City Museum in downtown Frankfort, Kentucky on Day of Archaeology 2012 would be such a pregnant one! and actually, as our picture shows, Kary IS pregnant…


Kary Stackelbeck and Gwynn Henderson just before we left for our incredible Day of Archaeology 2012 meeting

Our meeting was about planning an education project for school students to be held on National Archaeology Day in October at the site of an historic dairy atop Fort Hill in Frankfort. But by the time our meeting was over, 2.5 hours later, all of us in attendance (Kary, me, John, and Mike) had laid the foundation for a much longer-term project. It included a survey for all prehistoric and historic sites on the city park; and the development of a long-term research, education, interpretation, and management program for the sites.

For 2012, there will be visits to the local schools with artifacts already recovered from historic sites on the park to show students tangible remains of their local history; and tours will be held at the park, to engage the public and to kick-off the project.

WOO HOO!!!! This is what public archaeology is all about!! Archaeolgists and community members collaborating for the benefit of everyone and for the resource, too.

It just goes to show you, that in ANY aspect of archaeology, in the field or out of it, you don’t always know what you’ll find, and you need to be prepared for anything!!!

Hope everyone’s Day of Archaeology 2012 was as productive as Kary’s and mine!


An Archaeologist Through Digital Era

I’ll write this post in Italian because I’m more familiar with my language: at the end of the post you’ll find an English abstract of my report.

La vita dell’archeologo digitale, nonostante il periodo che viviamo pieno di computer e “diavolerie” tecnologiche, è tutt’altro che facile: non è un problema soltanto italiano, seppure l’Italia è il Paese che meno a livello accademico sta facendo per mantenersi al passo e, mai come in questo caso, la colpa non è degli amministratori che ci governano. Personalmente mi ritengo uno dei fortunati che è riuscito a portare avanti la sua passione verso le nuove tecnologie fino al dottorato, che sto per concludere all’Università di Roma “La Sapienza”. I problemi sono molteplici e non è certo questa la sede per affrontarli, ma molta strada è ancora da percorrere, soprattutto finché ogni gruppo di ricerca si farà il suo digitale, invece che lavorare con gli altri gruppi per creare delle best practices comuni che possano armonizzare le grandi quantità di dati digitali che vengono generati. Da anni cerco di seguire il più possibile, attraverso convegni nazionali ed internazionali, i lavori dei principali gruppi che si occupano di Virtual Heritage, dalle esperienze di Frisher in Virginia, a quelle di Donaeu a Vienna, piuttosto che in Italia al CNR di Roma o presso FBK a Trento. Mi sono anche quest’anno fatto promotore di un incontro dedicato all’archeologia virtuale, dove sono state mostrate diverse indagini legate alla possibilità di comunicare l’archeologia attraverso i nuovi media digitali: il materiale ed i video dell’evento sono o saranno presto in rete.

Dal canto mio, le giornate scorrono piuttosto tranquillamente, tra scadenze da rispettare, vita da biblioteca, PC sempre troppo acceso. Negli ultimi tempi, per rimanere in tema al “Day of Archaeology”, per il mio progetto di dottorato sulle Terme di Traiano sto lavorando ad una riproduzione digitale dell’antica Roma in 3D relativa al tardo II secolo d.C., ovvero post adrianea ma pre-severiana, assolutamente in low-poly e naturalmente di tipo esclusivamente “visuale”, da paesaggio, che possa fare da sfondo coerente con la proposta ricostruttiva relativa alle terme, centro focale del mio percorso di ricerca. Naturalmente si tratta di una quantità di edifici impressionante che non è possibile modellare tutti da solo, sebbene come detto in modo molto veloce. Il primo passo è la necessaria raccolta di informazioni bibliografiche dalle quali recuperare misure, piante, prospetti, sezioni, le migliori delle quali possono anche essere utilizzate come blue-prints, li digitalizzo attraverso una fotocamera ma ultimamente anche attraverso il sensore dello smartphone, sufficientemente risoluto (5MP); questo naturalmente introduce una serie di deformazioni non controllabili, in genere cerco di stare il più attento possibile affinché il disegno sia in piano e la camera sia ortogonale ad esso. In Photoshop una passata al “lens correction” consente di correggere matematicamente le distorsioni più evidenti, il free trasform in seguito può aiutare a raddrizzare ulteriormente le linee più ostiche: bisogna sempre essere coscienti che questo tipo di procedimento non è scientifico, ma il mio obiettivo è appunto soltanto visuale. Un controllo all’istogramma ed il file è pronto per essere importato in AutoCAD, dove un’opportuna scalatura mi consente di verificare il grado di accuratezza dei vari elementi: in base a quanto detto prima, può capitare che un angolo del foglio sia coerente ma l’angolo opposto no, in tal caso bisognerà fare attenzione e proprio per questo motivo a volte faccio la scalatura su elementi del disegno con misure note piuttosto che sulla scala metrica. Prima della vettorizalizzazione, preparo i layer in modo opportuno, generalmente distinguendo tra pianta, colonne, etc. e nel caso dei prospetti tra scalea, podio, tetto. In CAD mi limito al 2D, solo in casi particolari mi accingo a fare delle estrusioni per il calcolo dei volumi, solitamente utilizzando la proprità “spessore” delle polilinee chiuse, una modalità di tridimensionalizzare il disegno che mantiene il desktop operativo del programma molto leggero per la scheda video. Sono pronto: apro 3DS Max, attraverso il link manager collego  il disegno di AutoCAD al file di Max (modalità che mi consente di riflettere automaticamente qualsiasi modifica che faccio in CAD dentro 3DS), imposto i layer per il 3D e inizio a lavorare. È importante ricordarsi sempre di non toccare mai i layer collegati. Con lo snap vertex e gli oggetti line e box procedo a ricalcare gli elementi fondamentali della pianta/alzato in CAD a cui poi darò la corretta estrusione: come dicevo, le digitalizzazioni migliori possono essere usate come blue-prints, sfondi di modellazione che aiutano a lavorare l’elemento 3D in modo più rapido e preciso, quando magari ci sono degli elementi architettonici che richiedono una modellazione cosiddetta “organica”. Il resto fa parte della normale operatività del 3D, che non sto qui a spiegare, magari presentando un WIP del lavoro relativo al Teatro di Marcello, la cui immagine apre l’articolo. Mediamente si riesce a lavorare un monumento in 2 giorni, a seconda naturalmente della complessità richiesta. La difficoltà sarà mettere insieme tutti i vari elementi cercando di rimanere entro i 10.000.000 di poligoni (Rome Reborn nella seconda versione ha superato quota 9 milioni): lo saprete al Day of Archaeology 2013, quando il mio progetto di dottorato sarà appena concluso.

English abstract

The digital era is very difficult today for an archaeologist: the most difficult consist in academia and university where the technologies and methodologies not are implemented yet. All over still remain at personal choiche of students, and a self-knowledge of it. Following the most important works of archaeologists and researcher around the world about Virtual Heritage, I promote this year the 3° seminar on Virtual Archaeology in Rome.

For my PhD project I working on an low-poly and visual (not scientific) Ancient Digital Rome in 3D at the end of II century AD. Tipically, my lasts “Day of Archaeology” are as this: in library I search for update bibliography about the monuments, digitalized plants and other images for blue-prints, importing in AutoCAD to vectorialize it (using layer named correctly) in 2D. In 3DS Max I link the CAD file for 3D: also in 3DS I use new layer for tridimensional data. Naturally, the sequence of 3D is the normal sequence in computer graphic. At the beginning of this post you find a picture of Theatre of Marcellus in WIP mode.

My Day at Grave Creek Mound

A Day in Archaeology at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, for this volunteer, means doing whatever is necessary to help the staff of the complex.

This location consists of a mound built from 250 BC to 150 BC by Early Woodland Indians to honor three persons who held some position of regard in their culture, a museum which holds exhibits of the Adena culture of these Indians, and provides background of other West Virginia sites and Adena mounds.  Added to this is the history of efforts of modern man to preserve the Mound. A recent addition to the museum is the research complex which houses and archives artifacts found throughout the State of West Virginia and also archives reports and other written material relevant to prehistoric and historical archaeology for the State.

I began volunteering two years ago after having retired from a social service agency here in West Virginia.  I have been interested in archaeology since I was 13, but at that time I thought it was done only in Egypt, so I put my energies into other studies.  It was unfortunate for me that as a teenager I was not aware that two very important archaeological sites (Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania and Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia) were within a 30-mile radius of my home, and if I had been born 10 years later (and had good vocational guidance), I may have had the opportunity to work on one of the sites as part of an undergraduate or graduate program.

In my current volunteer experience I have done many things, the most important to me being work with the exhibits.  I have been doing data-entry of all the text in the core displays of the museum. The original intent of this effort was that by converting this information into digital form it would enable it to be accessible to those with vision impairment (as a social service worker, this was one population with which I became concerned).  To supplement the text, I would enter a description of the accompanying display.  I started this project nearly two years ago and I am still at it.

There are two major secondary benefits to this project.  This information documents the exhibits which will be helpful for future work with exhibits and public programs.  Also, my having to read (and re-read) every single word of each display has familiarized me with the exhibit to such an extent that I am comfortable in providing an introduction to the museum for the visitors.

Today three of us are working and it is a busy day in the summer. In my three hours here today, I am needed at the front desk, to greet visitors and help customers in the gift shop. I provide an orientation to the exhibits to 24 adults and 11 children, some coming individually and others in small groups. Some of these visitors came from Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina,  Arkansas and Louisiana. In addition, 25 people came as part of a cub scout troop for an educational program and activities conducted by Andrea, the educator on staff.  After Andrea took the cub scouts and their adult leaders outside to do a demonstration, and then to try their hand in atlatl-throwing, the museum became quiet. I would have liked to have gone out to watch them — 8-12 year old competitive boys, doing something outside their normal activities. I enjoy watching young people learn about the Indians and archaeology, but a large group is difficult to manage — thank goodness for Andrea.

I would advise anyone who has an interest in archaeology to volunteer at a place like this.  The staff is appreciative of the help and shows it by word and deed. They include me in many of their activities and conferences, so that I get hands-on experiences and hear presentations from experts in various fields of studies.   Having the opportunity to go through the exhibits on a weekly basis provides me with vastly more knowledge of the subject matter than anyone can hope to acquire in just occassional visits to the museum.


A Busy Day for an Archaeology Educator

My name is Andrea Keller, and I am an archaeologist working as “cultural program coordinator” in museum education at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in West Virginia, USA.

When I was a kid, our family had a subscription to National Geographic. Every month, this magazine brought stories of fabulous people and places from faraway into our home. I decided early on that I wanted to be a jungle explorer. However, an article about Queen Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt gave my youthful interests a whole new direction.

It turns out you don’t necessarily have to travel to remote places to learn about ancient cultures and how they lived their lives. While I have had the good fortune to have worked in Switzerland, Arizona, Illinois, and several other states in eastern and midwestern USA, I am now at home in West Virginia and discovering a rich archaeological heritage here. From early ice-age hunter-gatherers to hard-working industrial era folks, people have left their marks on the land and have left clues to their daily lives for us to ponder.

Our facility is open on weekends;  it is my turn to work on Sundays but I have Fridays off. Since the official Day of Archaeology is on Friday, June 29, I will describe an actual working day, that is, Thursday, June 28.

Working with the public, no two days are ever the same, and Thursday promises to be one of our busy days. We are expecting a group that consists of children and adult leaders from two local day care centers, who have reserved time for a guided tour of the museum and mound and one of our hands-on programs. Thursday evening we will also be hosting the June installment of our monthly lecture and film series. We usually feature speakers from other organizations, or films.  This evening, I will be presenting a slide show and leading a tour of our Interpretive Garden.

Thursday, June 28

Our work day starts at 9 am which is when the museum opens.  Some last minute preparations are to be made for the day care group.  They will arrive at 11 am to tour the mound and museum, eat a picnic lunch, and try out some replicas of prehistoric tools in our “Prehistoric Tools” program. I take out a trash can to the picnic area, and check the Activity Room where we will be experimenting with the replica tools. I set out corn for making corn meal on our grinding stones, and make sure the other tools are ready.

It is a record-setting hot and dry June, so the next order of business is to water the Interpretive Garden.  I am hoping the garden will be looking O.K. for the program tonight.  The plants are getting stressed from the heat and lack of rain.  Our garden represents prehistoric Native American gardens in this region. It is partially based on archaeological information, and partially on historic accounts of Native American gardening techniques.  My favorite account is Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, by a Hidatsa woman who lived in North Dakota.  It is incredibly detailed, with precise instructions on how to plan, plant, and harvest a garden.  You can find her account on-line – it’s worth a look if you have an interest in Native American gardening.

Watering the Interpretive Garden at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex

At 10:30 am I am inside.  There is a little time to polish my slide show for the evening and start my write-up for the Day of Archaeology.  I get three sentences written for the latter, and my group is here. Time to hit ”save” and get the show on the road.

The Day Care Group

The group today is a day-care group consisting of children ages 2 – 13 years, a range of abilities that can be a challenge for a museum educator.   The Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex consists of several parts: the Grave Creek Mound and surrounding grounds which include the Interpretive Garden, the Delf Norona Museum (Delf Norona was a local historian and one of the founders of the West Virginia Archaeological Society), and the Research Facility.  The group will tour these areas with me.

There is a majority of very young children in this group, so we skip the introductory slide show, and head out to the mound.  There are over 50 stone steps to climb to get to the top, and the adults and older kids help the smaller ones along. It’s quite a climb for those little legs!  At the top, we catch our breath.  Climbing to the top of the mound is exhausting even without carrying a load of dirt, as the people who built the mound did around 250-150 BC.  We look for familiar sights such as the Ohio River, Central Elementary School, and the old West Virginia Penitentiary, and wave at the adults with the kids in the strollers who are waiting below.  We look around, and consider how much effort it must have taken to build the mound.  Someone calculated that it took around 3 million loads of dirt, carried by hand. No bulldozers, wheelbarrows, or steel shovels!  Two main tombs were discovered in the mound during excavations back in 1838 – the whole monumental effort of building the Mound was done for three people.  What made these people, and this location worthy of such an investment in time and effort?

Day Care Group at the Top of Grave Creek Mound


The Day Care Group at the Interpretive Garden


We head back down the mound, tie a loose shoe lace, and stop to take a look at the Interpretive Garden.

Next it’s lunch time for the kids, and me, too.

Time to check my e-mail, while I’m in the office.

After lunch, we take a peek into the research lab viewing widow. We see a display of  drilled shells, a piece of elk antler, and chipped stones that were once part of hoes – perhaps similar to tools used to build the mound.  In the back of the room, we see the curators at work and wave at them.  They smile and wave back.  Heather takes our picture – you can see it on her Day of Archaeology post.  On the way out, we pass the Marble King exhibit, which is on loan from the West Virginia State Museum.  We run marbles through the exhibit’s marble machine – fun for kids of all ages!

We continue our tour.  There are models of prehistoric homes, and a hunting scene.  One of the highlights is a model that shows the Grave Creek Mound being built.  Tiny model people are hard at work digging up soil and carrying it to the mound. There is a burial ceremony in progress on top of the mound, and daily tasks such as cooking and scraping a hide can be found by an observant eye.

We enter the Activity Room, where we will do the “Prehistoric Tools” program.  I have set up three stations with replica tools.  There are sandstone abraders that are used to sharpen bone awls, grinding stones for making corn meal, and pump drills for making holes in pieces of wood.  The pump drills are a challenge for smaller hands, but with help from the adults and older kids, everyone gets the hang of it. The kids’ eyes light up when that pump drill is finally spinning and making a hole!  The goal is to drill a hole in a flat wooden shape to make a pendant.  Strings and colorful plastic beads are available for completing a stylish necklace.  I help one small girl tie her necklace and get a great big hug in return.  All to soon it is time for the group to say good bye. A chorus of “thank you” rings out and they are heading out the door.

Corn Grinding

Pump Drill

Awl Sharpening

Time to finish getting ready for the evening.

Before heading upstairs, I check on the condition of the ladies’ rest room – looks OK.  John, our maintenance supervisor, has taken care of the trash from the picnic, which is very much appreciated!  I make more copies of our lecture/film series calendar so there are plenty available tonight.

On the way to my office, I check on the museum’s Discovery Table, where small groups of visitors can make a craft to take home without having to sign up ahead of time. A family is making jewelry using beads made by rolling pieces of copper foil, our craft of the season.  I replenish the supply of copper blanks for making the beads.

Family at Discovery Table

Showing off Copper Bead Jewelry

At 5:00 pm I go home for dinner, a shower, and a change of clothes.

Evening Program

I return at 6:30 pm. Time to start up the audio-visual equipment, and unlock the museum doors. It’s still oppressively hot outside, so we start with the slide show.  The subject is our Interpretive Garden, which we will tour later.  I take the opportunity to thank the many individuals who have helped with the garden: the horticulture students from our local John Marshall High School who prepared the garden back in April as well as volunteers and visitors who helped plant the garden in May.  We go outside, and walk around the garden discussing the plants.

We had an early spring warming, and the larger plants grew from dropped seeds as “volunteers”. The smaller plants were planted May 20th, some even later when the first seeds did not grow. The corn is planted in small hills according to the traditional methods of some Native American gardeners. Beans will be planted when the corn is a little taller, and the weather becomes a little more hospitable to tender young seedlings.  The garden also contains pumpkins, squash and gourds, sunflowers, and goosefoot, also known as Chenopodium, lamb’s quarters, or spinach weed.  The people who built Grave Creek Mound probably were familiar with sunflowers, gourds, squash, and Chenopodium.  Corn and beans probably did not become used widely in our region until later, but their importance on later sites justifies including them in our garden.  It must have been an interesting time as people became more settled, and learned to grow a larger variety of plants.

Examining Goosefoot Plant in Interpretive Garden

The garden looks exhausted in the summer sun.  Legend has it that corn, beans and squash are three sisters that live together in the garden. Tonight, sister squash’s leaves are drooping, and sister corn is curling up her long, pointed leaves.  Sister bean is still very young, and will need water very soon to survive. One of the men in the group volunteers to help water the garden.  His help will be greatly appreciated.

We walk back to the museum in the last of the long summer evening light.  Time to lock up and head home.

 Thank you for sharing the “Day of Archaeology” with me.  If you should find yourself in our “neck of the woods”, please stop by and visit the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

You can learn more about the Complex and West Virginia Archaeology  by visiting the website of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History at  You can also read posts by my colleagues here at Grave Creek and some of our wonderful, couldn’t-do-it-without-them volunteers and interns right here on the Day of Archaeology web site.