archaeologist

Archives and a whole lot more!

As the Archives Officer for Cotswold Archaeology, one of the UKs largest commercial units, my job does involve working with our site archives, but today like most days is much more varied.

I’ve been in this role for just over a year. I started my career as a trainee archaeologist and worked in the field for 9 years, becoming a supervisor and then a site manager. I made the move into this position as it offered such a variety of tasks and required a background in fieldwork and report writing as well as archives experience. I manage our team of post-excavation supervisors and processing staff, so even though I sometimes miss being on site I still get to see the finds as they come back to the office. I’m usually working on such a variety of different projects that there is always something interesting going on.

Today I’ve got some arrangements to make with several museums over depositing some of our archives, most are just a box or two, but we are hoping to deposit a large infrastructure project of 170 boxes soon! There are also some smaller jobs that I can deal with quickly like issuing site codes to our field staff.

I’m the co-ordinator of our volunteer programme and overnight we’ve had a few enquiries from members of the public who want to know what sort of work we do and are interested in joining us. The people who volunteer their time with us do an amazing job and help us make sure that some of the finds from historic projects which would otherwise sit on our shelves actually make it to the local museums where they can be displayed. We’ve got a work experience student in with us next week so later on I’ll be talking to colleagues in some of our other departments and organising a series of talks and workshops so they can get a taster of as many different aspects of what we do here at Cotswold, as possible.

I’ve got some costings to review and need to place several orders for more supplies for the post-excavation team, not my favourite part of the job but a very important one.

I’ll also be working on some of our annual fieldwork summaries to be included in several regional journals and providing time and cost estimates to project managers for processing and archiving work.

Finally, I’ll be helping out on our stall at a Festival of Archaeology event in Bristol tomorrow (http://www.archaeologyfestival.org.uk/events/2780) so I’m running through my checklist and making sure there won’t be any last minute hiccups (well other than the rain that is!).

 

Day of Archaeology: Camping in Mongolia

Day of Archaeology: Camping in Mongolia

So on the actual Day of Archaeology I was in my archaeological office job daydreaming about my recent fieldwork in Mongolia. Here is the story of my Mongolia summertime excavation amid wildflowers and beautiful mountain passes in pictures …

The roads were fairly rough; this is the main road between the Soyo site and the tiny mountain village of Ulaan-uul. Tiny ground squirrels bounded around among the trackways, and often yaks or herds of other animals including camels, goats, sheep or horses, would cross the road in front of us.

The vans that took us were built to a 1950s Russian design. They were made for Siberian winters, with an engine inside so it could be fixed in relative warmth even if it was snowing outside. They forded many rivers remarkably well, but in the instance above, we did get stuck. Our driver changed to four-wheel drive but on several occasions we had to get out and push the car.

We camped beside beautiful clear streams in meadows filled with wildflowers. Mongolia is great for camping! Our site office in the field was a ger, which took a remarkably short time to set up and was very weatherproof! We drank from the local clear streams as well; I used a water-filter to purify the water before drinking.

The food at the dig was typically Mongolian – lots of meat, and very freshly cooked! The head is considered one of the best bits; a special portable blow-torch is used to remove the hair from the skin so that the skin can also be eaten. I really enjoyed the breakfast porridge or khosh; there was a delicious breakfast donut that was quickly became one of my favourite foods!

 

We surveyed and sampled and excavated different parts of the Soyo landscape; I was hoping to find out more about the environmental changes that happened when pastoralism increased and large herds of animals began roaming the central Asian steppes. It will take some time to process the samples I collected in the laboratory and answer the question of how much things changed under a mobile, pastoral economy. Thanks to Dr. Julia Clark at the American Center for Mongolian Studies for a really great archaeological research opportunity!

A history of the pot in 5000 years

I’m Rob Hedge, and I work for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service in The Hive, Worcester. I’m a Community Project Officer, and I spend some of my time doing outreach and education work for the service, and some of it locked away in the basement working on archaeological finds. Today, I’m in the Finds Room.

I began the day by preparing to get rid of several boxes of artefacts. This goes against many people’s expectations of an archaeologist’s role. Shouldn’t we peculiar basement-dwellers be hoarding everything, clinging onto dusty consignments of mysterious treasures for all eternity? Well, maybe, but the unfortunate truth is that British archaeology faces a storage crisis. Besides, there’s a limit to how often museum curators can feign interest in the contents of a Victorian dump.

But one person’s junk is another’s treasure, and I confess to being fond of the detritus of late-19th century throwaway consumerism. In this case, the finds in question were uncovered in Evesham, having spent the last 120 years in a pit. The museum didn’t want them for their archaeological collections, but thankfully a sympathetic social history curator was only too keen to snap them up for their educational handling collections. So, my lovely assortment of ‘Virol’ bone marrow containers, beer bottles and the ubiquitous ‘Camp Coffee’ jars were handed over to their new home, and will once more sit proudly on a shelf.

One item that wasn’t complete enough to be taken was this plate, depicting the bell tower of once-mighty Evesham Abbey. I love it because it highlights a very human desire to mark significance and local identity, and its discovery just a few hundred metres from the landmark it depicts amuses me. It’s as if the tower, still standing defiant and isolated, is stubbornly outliving our attempts to immortalise it in commemorative crockery.

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, c.1900

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, discarded around 1900

From one pot to another: having set up some of our volunteers and our work experience student with their tasks, I turn my attention to a site that couldn’t be further from the familiar world of late Victorian dumps. Project Officer Richard Bradley and I are working on the report for an excavation he led at Shifnal, Shropshire. It’s a fascinating but elusive site: occupied in the Neolithic period around 5000 years ago, then seemingly abandoned before once again being a focus of activity in the Iron Age, about 2500 years ago. There are few finds (a common feature of prehistoric sites in this region), plenty of pits and ditches, and a tangled web of radiocarbon dates. It’s a real challenge to unpick which features belong to which periods. One issue is resolved when we identify some grotty fired clay as ‘briquetage’: coarse Iron Age salt containers used to pack salt for transportation from the brine wells at Droitwich.

What the Neolithic finds lack in quantity, they make up in quality. Tell-tale parallel worn grooves and a smoothed, ground surface reveal a block of stone to be a rare ‘polissoir’, for polishing Neolithic stone axes. And a large chunk of a Mortlake style Peterborough ware bowl, around 5000 years old, displays the unmistakable imprint of the potter’s fingernail in the elaborate chevron decoration. A pattern which, like the bell tower, serves as a mark of identity. Pots like this were produced across Britain, in a huge variety of designs but with strong regional trends in ‘fabric’ (the material incorporated into the clay during manufacture) that seem to defy purely functional explanations. Mass produced or hand-made, ancient or modern, a pot is never just a pot – it’s a window on a world-view, and in this case a direct connection to the delicate, precise actions of a craftsperson across around 250 generations.

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Archaeologists are a merciless bunch. “Where’s the rest of it?” they tease Richard. Elsewhere, work experience student Kat is tasked with counting, weighing and piecing together an impressive assemblage of Iron Age pottery. You can see how she got on in her own day of archaeology post. I welcome a group of school and 6th form students, who get to work on processing some finds from an HLF-funded community archaeology investigation into intriguing early ironworking sites in the Forest of Dean. Later, as staff and volunteers trickle home, I set up some photographs, bringing together two pots separated by 5000 years, but crossing paths on my day of archaeology.

On my way out, I pause to check on a very exciting discovery, recovered by our archaeologists from a Worcestershire quarry a few months ago. It returned from its trip to the conservator yesterday, and soon it’ll be going on display for the summer at Worcester Museum, to delight children and adults alike… can you guess what it is?

Mystery find - watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Mystery find – watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!


Archaeologist, but not only…

Since 2014, I have been a permanent agent at Inrap where I work as an archaeologist. I intervene specifically in operations concerning the Roman period due to my university education.
For this “Day of Archaeology”, I would like to share with you my vision of the profession of an archaeologist and his or her role in the promotion of archaeology. In my experience, I have observed that archaeological news is sometimes transmitted late to the public due to the sequence of operations dictated by the profession.
From research to valorisation
I began to think about this during my training as a guide, and realized that it is sometimes difficult to gather all the information generated by an excavation and then rapidly transmit it to the public. This observation led me to create the association “Alter Ego Rennes”, dedicated to the promotion of archaeology in universities. This association, which I preside, create exhibits, organizes presentations and educational workshops, supports student projects and organizes thematic sessions on archaeology and excavations in Morocco.
My work at Inrap inspires and give meaning to my desire to transmit archaeological information. Indeed each time I was offered the opportunity, I participated in valorisation projects such as the National Archaeology Days, the European Heritage Days, and other events; for example, I have led guided visits to the 3rd century fortified wall of Rennes and organized an initiation to archaeology program in four sessions for an elementary school group from Rennes.

"My work at Inrap inspires and give meaning to my desire to transmit archaeological information" © Inrap

“My work at Inrap inspires and give meaning to my desire to transmit archaeological information” © Inrap

The Alter Ego Rennes – Inrap partnership
In 2014, I was happily surprised to see my professional and associative projects converge: Inrap wanted to develop a partnership with the project I was organizing with the students in the association on Antique pottery, called « pottery in archaeology: digging up the past in old pots ».

« pottery in archaeology: digging up the past in old pots » poster

« pottery in archaeology: digging up the past in old pots » poster

The event was so successful that the association was asked to participate in the National Archaeology Days. On this occasion, we presented our new project “Wood, the bark of our past”. My double duty nonetheless complicated my life: I not only had to both help my colleagues responsible for cultural development and communication in the creation of the archaeology village at the Musée des Champs Libres in Rennes, but also help the students finish the project on wood. Suffice it to say that the days leading up to the National Archaeology Days were very long!
From 8:00 to 17:00, I was at the archaeological centre of Rennes: printing-cutting and assembling the participant’s badges, installing the “mock excavation”, preparing pedagogical documents for the physical anthropology and pottery workshops, shopping for various materials for the events, preparing t-shirts for the Inrap colleagues participating in the events, plastifying the visit materials, verifying the exhibit panels when they were delivered, transporting materials to the Champs Libres museum, installing the stands, constructing the exhibits, distributing brochures, etc…
Before 8:00 and after 17:00, I worked with Alter Ego Rennes: correcting the exhibit panels, contacting the specialists providing materials, making round-trips to the print-shop, cutting-painting-plastifying various materials for the events, coordinating students, looking for funding, shopping for numerous and varied items in hardware stores, repairing a Playmobile diorama, etc… Not to mention the well-deserved hours reserved for sleeping !

During the French National Archaeology Days ©  Inrap

During the French National Archaeology Days © Inrap

“Wood, the bark of our past” project © Inrap

“Wood, the bark of our past” project © Inrap

Conclusion: “I am an archaeologist, but not only…”
Through my work in the field, on Inrap valorisation projects, and on those of the association, I try to bring together the many people who participate to greater or lesser extent in archaeology: students, archaeologists, pottery specialists, topographers, physical anthropologists, as well as all of the specialists from other institutions, without forgetting… the public, so that all of these people can meet, share and promote archaeology together !

It's me, on the field ! © Inrap

It’s me, on the field ! © Inrap

Marie-Laure Thierry, Inrap archaeologist, chairwoman of Alter Ego Rennes association

From earth to light: photographic and documentary revelations

Hello ! My name is Emilie Trébuchet and I’ve been an archivist with Inrap for 7 years. Before that I was an archaeologist, also with Inrap, and I directed several operations. After ten years of fieldwork in many different places, searching for new knowledge and perspectives, I felt a need to return to my early interests (books, writing, images, and documentation). I thus have a double education, as an archaeologist and archivist, specializing in images. My work day revolves around these two disciplines, which I find amazing and would like to share with you. My perspective as an archaeologist influences my perception of the archives, and vice versa.

The archaeology of photographic archives

And today, 13 May 2015, happens to be a very special day: it is the inauguration of the exhibit “Dans l’oeil du viseur. Pictures revealing archaeology” at the Saint-Raymond museum in Toulouse, of which I am the scientific curator.
This exhibit, and its catalog, is the outcome of an internship I did at the municipal archives bureau of Toulouse, as part of my Master 2 Professional degree “Archives and Images”, which I realized in 2010-2011 in Toulouse (Université du Mirail, Educational leave funded by Inrap). It is the result of an intensive search for images of archaeology over a 3 month period in the ancient photograph collection of Toulouse: this work involved research, analysis and the processing and valorization of archival documents, which was just as exciting as an archaeological operation. It was also an unforgettable adventure which will be continued through various projects in progress.

An exhibit space. ©J.F. Peiré

The exhibit space. ©J.F. Peiré

Example of a photograph displayed and showing, in 1869, a last pile of the Daurade bridge in Toulouse, shortly before its destruction (1875). © Municipal Archives of Toulouse

Example of a photograph displayed and showing, in 1869, a last pile of the Daurade bridge in Toulouse, shortly before its destruction (1875). © Municipal Archives of Toulouse

The inauguration was an opportunity to thank the museum (Cl. Jacquet on the left, general curator of the exhibit, and me), the Municipal Archives of Toulouse and Inrap. The speeches were followed by a guided visit of the exhibit and a reception. © M. Dayrens

The inauguration was an opportunity to thank the museum (Cl. Jacquet on the left, general curator of the exhibit, and me), the Municipal Archives of Toulouse and Inrap. The speeches were followed by a guided visit of the exhibit and a reception. © M. Dayrens

Archives of archaeology

Archival management is the work of a team, at Inrap made up of 13 agents, distributed (répartis) among different archaeological centers across France. Since I find the French grammatical rule of gender ridiculous, I am going to write “réparties” (the feminine form of “distributed”) since we are 12 women out of 13! We would like to have a louder voice, and to be more numerous because:
– the production of documents and data continues to grow and constitutes the heart of the activity of archaeologists,
– the sources of information are multiplying,
– new technologies continually transform our profession.

My typical day as an archivist at the Inrap bureau in Tours is filled with many tasks, and discussions as well. When I arrive at the office in the morning, I take a look at the new documents to be catalogued, I greet my colleagues and answer their questions, and ensure that the documentation center can welcome them. My main task is in effect to manage the archival documents and facilitate their access to archaeologists: in our on-line document catalog, Dolia, we continually announce the new publications acquired, as well as the reports produced by archaeologists – an exceptional resource for research! For the past two years, I have also been very interested in the digital records of excavation and its archiving. There is a lot to do…

The Inrap documentation center in Tours © G. Babin, intern at Inrap

The Inrap documentation center in Tours © G. Babin, intern at Inrap

The reports © G. Babin, intern at Inrap

The reports
© G. Babin, intern at Inrap

My days can be filled with many other priorities as well: locating information for archaeological operations, developing tools (synthesis, curation, information transmission, etc.), education, intern training, student orientation, meetings, orders, etc. I also communicate regularly with archivists in other structures.

This profession, which requires continual evolution and is situated at the interface of other professions (AST, archaeologists, CAD-CAM, research and development, etc. at Inrap), is very interesting, even if is sometimes a battle to make its importance known. It amuses me to think that archivists are sometimes perceived as archives themselves: they represent the memory of activities and are regularly consulted. We never really know how to use them, nor what purpose they will serve, but we know that one day they will become indispensable…

Emilie Trébuchet, Inrap archivist and archaeologist, UMR 7324

Catacombs and dolce vita

Passionate about archaeology from a very young age, I began, like most of my colleagues, as a volunteer at sites when I was 16. My professional career began in 1991 with my first contracts as an excavator for Afan, now I’m currently working for Inrap.
The funerary domain always fascinated me and I oriented my career toward the direction of archaeological operations in this field (university education and choice of field sites when possible). My research topics concerned funerary practices, and in particular:
– the excavation of Jewish medieval cemeteries in Europe,
– mortality crises (epidemics and violent inter-human phenomena),
– monastic spaces (funerary or not),
– the chronology and typology of burials.
For the past twenty years, I have worked to communicate the results of my research through articles, conferences and exhibits because I consider that the profession of archaeology does not stop with excavation report writing and that it is our job to transmit our knowledge to both the scientific community and the general public.
On the occasion this “Day of Archeology”, I would like to share a typical day on an exceptional project in the Saint Peter and Saint Marcellinus catacomb in Rome.

In 2005, my colleague Dominique Castex (CNRS, Bordeaux), with whom I regularly collaborate, asked me to co-direct a mission with her in the funerary space then managed by the Vatican.
This kind of opportunity knocks only once and I had to cease it even if:
1/it was a two month mission,
2/my wife was six months pregnant,
3/we had to move the day before my departure for Rome!
Thanks to her devotion and sacrifice, we quickly found a solution: I left her with our boxes and I flew home often until she could join me for a bit of the Dolce Vita herself.

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb © SSPM

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb. © SSPM

Life on an archaeological site in the Vatican

A typical day began at around 6:00 am for breakfast with the team. The team was composed of anthropology students from Bordeaux and sometimes a few colleagues and friends who found time to participate in this amazing experience.
We were housed in the center of Rome which was great for enjoying the charms of this marvelous city. The disadvantage was the commuting time to get to the site: taking the metro to the Termini station and then bus #105 for 40 minutes.

The doors of the catacomb opened at 8:00 for the fossores, the Vatican employees specialized in the very specific work of managing the catacomb. Their help was essential for the technical organization of the excavation and for finding our way around in the underground tunnels. This space consists of nearly 4.5 kilometers of galleries distributed across two or three levels in places, where it is very easy to get lost.

We then reached sector “X” of the catacomb where we excavated cavities filled skeletons covered with plaster. Each of us got into a horizontal position on our board and uncovered the bones peeking out a few centimeters below. Once they were uncovered, it was time to record, photograph, and draw them. We then “unearthed” the skeletons and put them into bags to take them up to the surface to be studied by other members of the team. After a short lunch break at Anna’s, the local pizzeria, we returned to our cool little hideaway (always 16-17°) while the “surface” was assaulted by the sun with temperatures over 30° during this month of September.

On the field © Denis Gliksman

On the field. © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

After the effort, a bit of comfort?

At around 4:00, the doors were closed again and we began the long journey back to our much awaited showers and beds.
It is then that the second day of the archaeologist’s began: that of administrative and scientific tasks. From 6:00 to 8:00 pm, I checked my email and answered the most urgent messages, while remembering to call home for news from the future mom. It was then time to write various articles that were urgently due “yesterday, of course”!

After the effort, a bit of comfort! This came with the meal regularly enjoyed as a group, like monks in the priory, except when we gave in to the temptation of the numerous trattoria in the neighborhood, or the diversity of pasta and pizzas rivalling the marvelous Italian wines. We solved the world’s problems during the time of a meal before ending the evening with an ice cream near the Trevi Fountain, always teeming with tourists. Such is the hard life of an archaeologist in exile…

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

Philippe Blanchard, Inrap archaeologist, UMR 51 99

Over one million years ago, stone flaking experts at Canteen Kopje in South Africa

Entrance to the site of Canteen Kopje, slightly modified to accommodate visitors. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

Entrance to the site of Canteen Kopje, slightly modified to accommodate visitors. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

My name is Vincent Mourre and I am an archaeologist with Inrap. For this “Day of Archaeology”, I would like to present my speciality, the study of prehistoric stone flaking techniques. I will use the example of a study that I recently conducted in South Africa. Though most of my work consists of preventative excavations in France, in the framework of the Scientific Activity Projects of Inrap I participate in programs in other countries.
For the past twenty years or so, I have conducted stone flaking experiments. In the beginning, stone flaking is mostly like a game to avoid crushing or cutting your fingers… It then quickly becomes a powerful scientific tool for obtaining a better understanding of the technical behaviors of Prehistoric humans. We must of course work within the technical context of the time, using only materials that were available then: for example, we detach flakes with hammerstone (stone), or billet (bone, antler or wood). The first type of stone I flaked was flint, which is the one that most often comes to mind when we think of prehistoric tools, and which is one of the easiest to flake. But since I like challenges I have also worked with other materials that are a bit more, let us say…rebellious: first quartz and quartzite, and then other stones such as rhyolite, lydian and schist. We must remember that flint is not present everywhere and is even relatively rare at the scale of the planet. There are entire regions where prehistoric people used other materials that they easily found in their environment. This is the case in Africa, for example, where flint is almost totally absent, while a vast range of other useable materials are readily available.

Experimental flaking of silcrete points in the gardens of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, under the watchful eyes of intrigued South African school children and my daughter © Céline Thiébaut

Experimental flaking of silcrete points in the gardens of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, under the watchful eyes of intrigued South African school children and my daughter © Céline Thiébaut

In June 2015, I was invited by Kathleen Kuman, professor at the University of the Witwatersand in Johannesburg, and George M. Leader, assistant professor at the College of New Jersey, to study a very specific flaking method called the Victoria West method. It was first described in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century and it is well represented in the archaeological site of Canteen Kopje, which has been explored by these two researchers for the past ten years.

George Leader at Canteen Kopje. Today the site consists of a group of craters created by ancient diamondiferous mining. The refuse pile is full of prehistoric tools. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

George Leader at Canteen Kopje. Today the site consists of a group of craters created by ancient diamondiferous mining. The refuse pile is full of prehistoric tools. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

In the town of Barkly West, not far from Kimberley (Northern Cape Province), Canteen Kopje was one of the first sites exploited by diamond hunters in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. The sediments deposited by the Vaal River yielded 10,000 to 15,000 carats of diamonds! To extract them, the miners dug many holes into the sediments containing the natural pebbles, as well as hundreds of thousands of prehistoric tools deposited by the ancient flowing river. These tools were recognized in the 1920’s and numerous prehistorians have since visited the site. Henri Breuil’s cassock was even spotted there during one of his voyages in southern Africa…

 

An Acheulean cleaver in andesite from Canteen Kopje, also heavily smoothed. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

An Acheulean cleaver in andesite from Canteen Kopje, also heavily smoothed. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

An Acheulean biface in andesite discovered during the excavations by George Leader and Kathleen Kuman at Canteen Kopje (It was heavily smoothed by its time spent in the Vaal River). © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

An Acheulean biface in andesite discovered during the excavations by George Leader and Kathleen Kuman at Canteen Kopje (It was heavily smoothed by its time spent in the Vaal River). © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

The layers in which the Victoria West method has been found correspond to a prehistoric culture called the Acheulean. This culture appeared in eastern or southern Africa around 1.7 million years ago and then spread across all of the African continent, southern Europe, the Near East and a large part of Asia. One of its most emblematic artefacts is the biface, a large symmetrical, almond-shaped tool, gradually sculpted by removing flakes from both faces of the stone. The Acheulean is also characterized by another tool called a cleaver. Its active part is not pointed like a biface, but formed by a long, sharp edge. It is also particular in that it is shaped from a large flake, which is a piece of stone detached from a block called a “core”, with one blow with a hammer. The Victoria West method is a very elaborate method for detaching the flakes to be transformed into cleavers.

Collecting andesite on the banks of the Vaal River: detaching large flakes with a very big hammerstone (nothing like it for warming up on a June morning…  the beginning of winter in South Africa) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

Collecting andesite on the banks of the Vaal River: detaching large flakes with a very big hammerstone (nothing like it for warming up on a June morning… the beginning of winter in South Africa) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

The beginning of an andesite flaking session (the waste products will be carefully collected and deposited in a refuse dump to avoid tricking future archaeologists…) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

The beginning of an andesite flaking session (the waste products will be carefully collected and deposited in a refuse dump to avoid tricking future archaeologists…) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

Preparing an andesite core with an ophite hammerstone, a very hard pyrenean stone © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

Preparing an andesite core with an ophite hammerstone, a very hard pyrenean stone © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

A little vervet monkey discovering a new passion for experimental archaeology. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

A little vervet monkey discovering a new passion for experimental archaeology. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

After visiting the archaeological site and closely observing the Victoria West cores found there, I collected blocks of andesite, the volcanic stone most often used in this region. This stone is very hard and much more difficult to flake than flint. It took me a few days to adapt to this material. I had to use a heavier hammer than I usually use, for example. After many failed attempts, I finally got close to achieving the result obtained by the prehistoric flakers at Canteen Kopje, though not completely… They carefully prepared their core by giving it a very specific form resembling a large dissymmetric biface. Then, with a single blow, they detached a large flake from one of the faces of the core, which itself had the form of a cleaver nearly ready for use. Usually, very little retouching was needed to finish making a cleaver. It is this last step, the detachment of a large flake from a prepared core, that I still have trouble with: the stone is so hard that it is very difficult to strike a blow that is both powerful and precise. Several possibilities remain to be explored: using an even heavier, or perhaps hafted, hammerstone; perfecting the core preparation; or preparing myself with steroids, as K. Kuman jokingly suggested…

A Victoria West core in andesite from Canteen Kopje and a sketch showing the direction of flake detachments © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

A Victoria West core in andesite from Canteen Kopje and a sketch showing the direction of flake detachments © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

This first experimentation session had at least one positive result: it showed that more than one million years ago, stone flaking experts lived on the banks of the Vaal River. They were capable of conceiving and realizing a sophisticated flaking method that enabled them to make large flakes whose shape and dimensions were predetermined by the meticulous preparation of the core. This made me think of those relevant words by Donald Crabtree, one of the pioneers of experimental stone flaking: « It is apparent that past stoneworkers had a greater understanding of what constituted lithic materials and the longer I attempt to increase my knowledge of the lithic materials, the more respect I have for ancient man.. »
Today, the archaeological site of Canteen Kopje is threatened by the exact thing that enabled its discovery: diamond fever… A new diamond mining project covers the entire site and could lead to its pure and simple destruction, despite the fragile protection afforded by its designation as Provincial heritage site. And this despite the many secrets it still has to reveal…

Vincent Mourre, Inrap archaeologist, UMR 5608

Why become an Archaeologist?

You’re at a posh frock gathering. Polite social ‘chit-chat’ is going on around you. Before long you know that someone’s going to ask you what you do for a living.

Is it time to fib and give a glib “nothing much, I’m an office worker” as your reply or is it time to take a deep breath before truthfully answering “I’m an Archaeologist”… (or in my case, a “lapsed archaeologist”!)

Your honest response may well be greeted with a slightly disappointed “oh…” followed by an awkward silence so painfully long and drawn out that you feel compelled (even as the wronged party) to do the correct British thing and start talking about the perfectly dreadful weather we’re having or some sporting fixture England have recently been defeated in, before politely parting ways and avoiding eye contact for the rest of the evening.

The comedians will respond with bog-standard Indiana Jones jokes. Accordingly my bog-standard answers are: “No, I don’t have a whip”, “even if I had, I won’t whip you with it” and “no, I don’t have the hat either”. Time for another hasty exit, using vines to jump over collapsing floors, outrunning massive rolling stone balls and agilely avoiding spiked dungeons.

Sometimes you’ll get “Wow, excellent! Have you designed any local buildings?”  At this point my glass is suddenly empty, or I start waving manically at a bemused stranger in the distance before making my excuses and disappearing into the crowd.

Then you get the class of ‘Elderly Explorers’. With these lovely people any conversation you start is drowned out by long winded tales of their exploits in whatever war, desert, wilderness, mountain, rainforest or hell hole they were last in, as they insist on telling you in varying degrees of graphic detail, everything to do with a most memorable trek they took part in back in some dim distant era before giving you their politically incorrect opinion about some remote region of western South America you’ve never heard of.

They do this without letting you get a word in edgeways and you wonder, as your neck starts to cramp from all the polite nodding you’re doing, how they manage to breathe, as their well-meaning but very tedious diatribe drones on and on.

You have to give others credit for even trying to continue the conversation. Some ask how much money you’ve made from the gold coins you’ve found with your metal detector and whether eBay is a good place to buy ‘genuine old stuff’. They also tend to ask whether you have your detector in the boot of your car and whether they could have a go with it as they want to throw their handful of coins in the undergrowth to see if they can find them again.

Erm, no, no, no and no.

Others ask the well meaning “what’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever dug up” question; a harmless enquiry to delight all archaeologists! They then expect you to dutifully come up with some incredibly intricate story about the bounty of rare ancient and mystical treasures you’ve located in the midst of some remote desert cave and the plethora of articles you’ve had published.

Those are the ones who look sadly crestfallen when you say, “oh, just a few bits of bone and teeth”…

‘Were they human?’ will always be their interrupting comeback, as you continue describing fragments of gnawed wood, bits of broken pottery, lumps of rusty metal and other bits and pieces thrown away as rubbish by our ancestors. All artefacts of wonder and interest to you, but another kiss of death to conversation!

You long for the day when you meet a kindred spirit – not even another archaeologist – just someone who has an equally strange profession. A profession like a Pathologist or Undertaker, as I’ve been told that they have similar conversation stopping moments! Perhaps it could be a chance encounter with someone who knows that the likelihood of excavating something truly astonishing is actually quite rare and nods with interest at what you have to say.

Yes, I’ve found the normal bits and pieces you would expect to find in generic sites in the UK. Evidence of habitation, bones – human and otherwise – lots of glazed and unglazed pottery and ceramics, worked flint scatters, some coins, lumpy pieces of misshapen metal, tile and general building materials, gnawed wood (no beaver jokes please) and the obligatory catch all for everything else, the very technical category of ‘stuff’.

Yes, I’ve processed finds for days and days, scrubbing away with a toothbrush until my hands are numb from the cold water. Yes, I’ve nearly broken my back pick-axing for hours and lugging endless wheel-barrows of heavy earth. Yes, I’ve been bitten and stung by insects. Yes, I’ve burnt the back of my neck so badly I could hardly bear to move my head. Yes, I’ve slept for weeks in an old, musty, leaky Army tent. Yes, I’ve woken up surrounded by an infestation of literally thousands of earwigs. Yes, I’ve slept in my car when the thunder storms were directly above us. Yes, I’ve slept in a barn when the rain got too much and the site was nearly swept away. Yes, I’ve ‘washed’ with baby-wipes in the absence of anything else. Yes, I’ve been stared and pointed at in Sainsbury’s when I’ve gone directly from site to do the camp shopping trip.

So why be an Archaeologist? Well, why not!?

I’m not an expert in any sense of the word; I haven’t had enough time or experience to become a specialist, but really I enjoy the endless questions relating to the unknown. How did an ancient community survive? What did they make? What did they eat? How did they live? Why did they..? When did they..? Who were they..? For what reason did..? How did they..? What was this..? Where did they go..? How old is it? How does it relate to…?

Layers of deposition, stratigraphy, contexts. Phases and periods of occupation. How did the site form and build up over time? Interpretations, hypothesis, debates, discussions. Endless questions and vivid imaginations… Open minded but yet precise. Determined and flexible.

Sounds like a damn fine career choice to me!

“TrowelPS” by Przemysław Sakrajda – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Archaeology in the Mediterranean: do not drown if you can

On July 11th this year I was in Eastern Crete. In the morning Elisa and I went to Agios Nikolaos to visit Vera Klontza-Jaklova and her team  doing preparation work on the finds from Priniatikos Pyrgos. As always, it was instructing to see material from other research projects and discussing about ceramic finds with the actual thing in your hand is just so much better. Then we headed towards Priniatikos Pyrgos the site, that sits nicely between two sandy beaches just a few kilometers east from Agios Nikolaos. Swimming in the Aegean is one of the many privileges we have as “adoptive citizens” of Crete. After lunch we slowly moved to Mochlos, a Minoan settlement that is partly built on a very small isle, 100 meters away from the coast. There’s a small boat that will bring you on the isle ‒ and pick you up when, after visiting the archaeological site, you ring the bell of the chapel built on the shore. The best part is sitting at one of the bars on the main shore, drinking a φραπέ and looking to those busy Minoans across the minuscule stretch of water.

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The modern village of Mochlos seen from the Minoan site on the islet

 

The title of this post has nothing to do with the waters of the Mediterranean, nor underwater archaeology for that matter, but rather with the reflections I have been making in the days before going to Agios Nikolaos, Priniatikos Pyrgos and Mochlos. On Sunday I had the privilege of being interviewed by Let’s Dig Again about my experience as an Italian archaeologist abroad. During the live broadcast, Cioschi suggested that some of what I said about being careful not to drown in Mediterranean archaeology could be good material for this very post. And here I am, one week later, still with the same motto: do not drown.

It’s not just the sheer size of the storage buildings filled with hundreds of thousands of finds even for single archaeological sites (millions and millions if taken all together), the unmanageable amount of published and unpublished literature even when restricted to small geographical regions and specific chronological periods, the ever increasing difficulties and costs of fieldwork for Mediterranean archaeology. That would be enough to have an headache and give up for good. Rather, I am increasingly worried about the heavy burden of tradition, both “old” and “new”, so to speak. The excavation site of the Byzantine Quarter in Gortyna is only meters away from the 1904-excavated temple of Apollo Pythios, for which we have detailed diaries of Federico Halbherr, the founding father of Italian archaeology in the Mediterranean ‒ and that’s roughly 110 years of studies that seem to stand against you, with the epigraphy and monumental archaeology en vogue until the mid-20th century and then the gradual explosion of modern positivist Mediterranean archaeology with all our stratigraphy and chronotypology and political-historical framework and Roman empire and that. I only study a subset of this, a slice from a bigger cake really: ceramic finds.

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Microphotograph of a ceramic body ‒ a red-slipped dish I still don’t know much about, labeled GQB CER 636.1