I studied archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) where apart from feeling like Nemo in a sea of students, I also had the opportunity to attend a course module on human remains and ancient disease as part of my undergraduate degree. After a brief(-ish) hiatus helping to conserve turtles in the Caribbean, I went on to study for an MSc in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Bradford. Following the completion of my dissertation, I helped out re-boxing some of the human remains collections and it was at this point one of my tutors asked me if I’d be interested in joining an excavation in Lebanon.
Almost 15 years later, I am still heavily involved here at Sidon, having long since decided it’s highly unlikely I will get to dig another site like it. I have also been lucky enough here to excavate human remains (a group of crusaders from two mass grave deposits) which are currently the focus of my own PhD research at Bournemouth University, (thanks again to my old tutor, now supervisor, Professor Holger Schutkowski), but that’s a story for another day… ?
Here in Sidon, my typical day starts at 4:55am with the usual panic that I am last to get up.
A typical breakfast consists of the following:
- one flatbread neatly torn into three parts upon each of which I spread the following delicacies – Picon (the local equivalent of Dairy Lea/La vache qui rie e. processed cheese), raspberry jam and Nutella (the latter assuming Hassan has not finished it off…)
- one small cup of industrial strength Arabic coffee as kindly made each morning by our lovely conservator Ms P.
Khaled, our driver picks us up in his minibus at 5:30 and we’re off with a clatter of clean cooking pots and Tupperware to Sidon proper where the excavation site is located right on the edge of the old town.
I’m lucky enough that where I am currently digging is beneath the superstructure of the new museum (currently under construction over part of the site). Not only does this keep me out of the baking sun most of the day, but it also provides me with the rather weak excuse that it is too dark to excavate the delicate remains of the burial we are uncovering at present for another hour or so. Consequently, I can get on with some paperwork and catch up with the recording of the burial archaeology. It also allows me to partake of Fadia’s (one of Claude, our director’s right-hand ladies) generosity and accept a fortuitous extra cup of coffee – even stronger than the first!
I can generally start down on site just before 7am. This year I’m experimenting with some time-lapse video footage of one of the burials, which involves lugging the giant tripod down along with all my tools, finds bags, camera, notebook and the ever-essential large bottle of water.
My work on site invariably involves me sitting or lying down for long periods of time. Often as not, I’m to be found in one or other dubious positions, precariously balanced over one of a variety of different types of bronze age burial.
Up until recently, the focus of the research excavations has been mainly on the Bronze Age deposits and the Middle Bronze Age cemetery, which began about 2000 BC, its use continuing until approximately 1400 BC.
While the initial use of the cemetery began with some rather fancy, high status burials (single individuals, usually males with lots of grave goods such as bronze axes and spearheads and plenty of animal remains presumably to keep them going in the afterlife…), it’s clear that the cemetery soon came to include everyone from Bronze Age Sidon and burial practices became more variable, ranging from high status stone-lined ‘tombs’ to mudbrick ‘cists’ to the very neat jar burials usually accommodating children.
It’s also clear that space gradually became a premium and one of the main problems we encounter is trying to glean as much information from the truncated burials often missing parts or sections of the individuals’ bodies because of later activity cutting into earlier deposits. Things are made even more difficult as people appear to have revisited the burials, sometimes clearing the remains of previous burials but arranging them in neat stacks
This photo of a section shows an exposed child’s burial located directly above a jar burial, most likely containing another subadult. You can clearly see how the burial of the large jar involved digging a hole into the orange sand layer.
The sand layer is a very useful part of what we call the stratigraphy of the site. It sits directly on top of the Early Bronze Age deposits, effectively sealing them and provides us with a horizon marking the start of the Middle Bronze Age, so anything that cuts into the sand must be later than c.2000 BC.
Unfortunately, it is rare that the skeletal remains survive well after exposure and lifting here in the Near East. The great age of the remains (at least 3,500 years in most cases) along with the ground conditions and long-term continuous urban activity on site, often result in a situation where the bones are softer than the soil around them and both dry out very rapidly in the extreme heat of the summer here. The sun especially has a detrimental effect on the remains almost as soon as they are exposed, with bones literally crumbling at the slightest touch. In the past, I have had to make do with some comedy parasols to protect the bones and allow us to get a good photograph.
However, this year patience has already been rewarded with a couple of burials which have turned out very well.