A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project

Disclaimer: This post is a time-stamped “day in the life” of MARBAL (Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape) co-director Jess Beck, and is brought to you by approximately 17 cups of coffee.

6:40 am: Consume first two cups of coffee. Begin analyzing bones in home lab.

8:53 am: Two cups of coffee later, head out the door for the museum. Demolish  breakfast of Cascaval, bread, and delicious Romanian red peppers that project member Emilie Cobb thoughtfully prepared for me.

9:24 am: Arrive at our collaborator Horia Ciugudean’s lab at the National Museum of the Union. Emilie begins size-sorting fragments, while I finish entering  data on an adolescent pair of scapulae, clavicles, and innominates.

10:53 am: I continue my analysis, moving on to the fragmentary adolescent cranium. Please notice the binder clip I have fetchingly clipped to my shirt so that I do not lose track of it.

12:25 pm: The most important meal of the day! Cookie break as we pack up for the field.
The MOST important meal of the day
12:46 pm: Make a brief detour to the train station to procure tickets for our trip back to Budapest on Monday.

1:13 pm: Stock up on field snacks at local supermarket.

Important healthy snacks
1:33 pm: En route from the train station in Alba Iulia to our field site in the mountains. I nurse my current thermos of coffee on the ride.

Alba --> Teius

2:17 pm: Arrive at field site to find it only SLIGHTLY more glorious than morning lab setting.

2:47 pm: Project co-director Colin Quinn begins putting in shovel test pits.

4:06 pm: Colin bemoans not taking a charcoal sample two years ago after we hit multiple sterile test pits.

4:11 pm: After being (foolishly) entrusted with making a sketch map of our STPs, it becomes clear that I do not in fact know where North is.

5:01 pm: After a rough half-hour of realizing our own limitations, we switch locations, and begin putting in a 1mx1m to examine the profile of an area in which a modern road cuts through an Early Bronze Age tomb.

The 1x1
5:07 pm: Colin teaches Emilie how to package a charcoal sample.

6:15 pm: After taking some closing photos, we stock up on glamour selfies and pack out.

6:30 pm: Important car snacks are consumed in celebration of a stratigraphically informative 1×1.

7:30 pm: Return to the house to shower, eat, and load and label photos from the day. Next up: publishing this post, and then immediately copying this Romanian buddy I spotted yesterday:

Why does an archaeologist archaeologize?

Finally — after bemoaning archival work and archaeological bits and bytes in previous posts — I stepped into a trench on a Day of Archaeology, for the first time in five years. Ok, it wasn’t my trench, or my site, and no one was actually digging in it at the time, and it was only for a few minutes… but it was a trench, with dirt and walls and sherds and mysterious rocks and baulks and everything. And it means I’m a step closer to having my hands in the dirt again.

I am writing from the Dobrogea region of Romania, where I’ve come to explore the archaeological situation and identify possibilities for a collaborative field project in the future. Archaeologists from Institutul de Arheologie Vasile Pârvan in Bucharest and from the museums of Constanta and Tomis have been incredibly kind and generous with their time, explaining their sites and material to me, showing me around, and answering lots of what I suspect are annoyingly obvious questions about archaeological practice and heritage management in Romania. And feeding me. I’m hoping that some of these conversations may grow into a project focused on the countryside in the Greek period and on the relationships between Greek settlers and local populations.

I haven’t been back to Chersonesos in Crimea, where I had been carrying out a project, since 2011, and given the current political situation, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back (unless the Russian claim to Crimea is recognized under a President Trump, in which case we will all have much bigger problems). As those who read my previous posts know, the longer I’m away from a dig, the more restless I become. I was conscious of this as I planned this trip, and although there are a number of solid reasons to begin a new project — to investigate unanswered questions, to bring students into the field, to build international collaborative relationships, to test novel recording methods — there are lots of reasons not to dig, both professional and personal. So I’ve been wondering lately why I feel such a pull back to to dusty gray soil and sun-baked hilltops. This is the question I wanted to explore for this Day of Archaeology.

I had some ideas about what I was going to write, and a few very strong visuals from my younger days: some rusty tools I dug up near our house when I was eight or nine, from a shed that had been bulldozed long ago; an image of the site director buzzing an excavation in Sicily in an ultralight aircraft that happened to fly by and offered to help us with aerial photographs (this was back in the old days of kites and balloons, none of these drones the kids all have now); the delicate bones of the first skeleton I excavated. I usually try to explain the draw of archaeology in terms of stories — our work, at its best, makes us the world’s remembrancers, restoring the forgotten stories of the vast crowd of the dead a few people at a time. It also allows us, as archaeologists, to add lost time to our own share of life. For me, at least, engagement in an archaeological project can seem like living two lives at once: your own, with your trowel or books or sunburn or scraped knuckles or hunger pangs, and the one you’re creating in your mind’s eye as you try to make sense of the physical fragments of past time.

This is the direction I’d planned to take until this afternoon, when a colleague with an excavation in the Roman town of Tropaeum Traiani in Adamclisi, in the Dobrogea region of Romania, gave me a tour around the site and then arranged for us to climb up to the top of the modern reconstruction that surrounds the Trajanic victory monument. It reminded me a bit of climbing to the top of Trajan’s Column in Rome a long time ago, when I was a student at the Centro (apparently I only climb to the top of tall ancient things built by Trajan).

Sitting on the roof of the Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan's victory monument at Adamclisi, Romania.

Sitting on the roof of the Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan’s victory monument at Adamclisi, Romania.

As with Trajan’s Column, climbing the Tropaeum is not an experience open to the general public — it’s one of those gifts that archaeologists give each other, in recognition of a shared love of the past. And it made me realize that there’s another reason altogether why archaeologists archaeologize (or at least why I archaeologize): you get access to secrets. Not political or military secrets, not celebrity secrets, but secrets in the ground, secrets in objects, secrets in trash, secrets inside reconstructions or restorations that seem seamless and natural from outside, secrets in people’s very bones.

This desire for intimate secret knowledge of the past underlies treasure-hunting, too, at least as it’s always represented in the movies (remember Indy and the Staff of Ra?), and it drives aliens-built-the-pyramids and lost-city-of-Atlantis pseudoscience. It’s a lot less noble than serving the memory of the world, and a lot more self-indulgent. When it leads to the hoarding of archaeological information by scholars or to the purchase of looted antiquities by wealthy collectors, I’d classify it as a sin. But when it’s channeled toward curiosity rather than greed, and toward sharing rather than covetousness, it can be a powerful engine for good storytelling. When we’re nosy, we’re not satisfied with easy answers, and we want to get to the bottom of things. We don’t want to accept what people in the past tell us about themselves; we want to know what they were really up to.

This is one of the central paradoxes of archaeology, along with the notion that we destroy the object of our investigation by investigating it. In the real world, secrets are valuable when they’re kept, or divulged in very controlled ways (see the Wikileaks dump of the DNC emails). But in archaeology, those secrets that keep us coming back are only valuable when they are not kept. They acquire value by being shared, especially when they help us to tell richer, more complicated, more human stories. This is the point of our endeavor, if it is to be meaningful and not just a narcissistic exercise in collecting preciousssessss. Archaeologists, let’s find better ways to share the secrets we find with each other and with the wider world. And for those readers who are not archaeologists, ask one of us to tell you a story — and don’t settle for any old tired story about the past. Ask for one with secrets.

SIM cards, Skeletons, and Celebrations: Our Transylvanian Day of Archaeology

To celebrate the 2014 Day of Archaeology, Transylvania Bioarchaeology (a non-profit community interest company), had quite a lively day with both summer field projects. Our Day of Archaeology also reminded us that when trying to run archaeological field schools, a lot of what we do isn’t archaeology!

Our Jucu necropolis excavation started bright and early…well, not so bright as the torrential [trench-ial] rain dampened the clothes, but not spirits, of our brave excavation crew, led by Assistant Project Director Katie Hunt, as they left for the train station at 7am. Nick Ogden, Field Assistant and chauffeur extraordinaire, carted a lucky few in the dig car at 7.30 and looked for comical license plates away from the downpour.

Our illustrious Project Directors (Dr. Katie Tucker and Dr. Ioan Stanciu (and his Macedonian friend who we eventually discovered is called Sote) started their day with a trip to the local bus station, where they were directed from window to window and then finally up some stairs and down a corridor, to book some buses for our weekend field trips to a salt mine and a Roman frontier camp.

Meanwhile in the well churned earth of the site, duckboards were liberated from the kindly solar farm owner’s stash, to prevent the earth from swallowing the students and creating more excavation opportunities for the following season. Work continued to draw the plan of skeleton number 4 under a well duct taped covering whilst other students continued to excavate skeletons neck deep in mud, the students that is.


Katie and Dr. Stanciu’s day continued with a trip to the shopping mall in order to unlock Katie’s Romanian mobile, which had been turned off the previous night after repeated prank calls by a random Romanian bloke, only to discover this morning that the piece of paper with the unlocking code had been very successfully tidied away by the owners of the Pension we are all staying in. They arrived to find that the mobile phone shop wouldn’t open for another 30 minutes, so beat a hasty retreat to Starbucks to wait with a coffee. Phone successfully unlocked, they could finally make their way to site, and after battling against Cluj traffic and the less than perfect directions of Dr. Stanciu, they arrived, just in time to see the clouds part and allow the extraction of skeleton number 4 from his eternal resting place.

Students excavating a skeleton.

Students excavating a skeleton.

Katie and Dr. Stanciu (and Sote) discussed (in a combination of Romanian, German and English) the complicated ins and outs of the next few seasons of the project, while lifting of the skeleton from its concrete-like grave fill could begin. This took a team of six of us about two hours, while Nick had to start ferrying the rest of the site crew back to the train station for our normal Friday half working day trip home. Nick then sat in the car waiting for the rest of us to finish, so we could all go back to the Pension. The drive back included a stop at a petrol station to buy a week’s worth of road tax, only to be told that we didn’t need it because our car still had temporary number plates, swiftly followed by an ominous snapping noise from the suspension. Nick’s driving became somewhat more cautious for the rest of the journey but the car did its job and got us back to the Pension.


In the museum this morning we started out with a lively discussion about the Osteological Paradox. The students grappled with the conceptual issues brought up in the article and we all enjoyed the thoughts and points brought up by everyone.  After our discussion group had finished, all of the students donned their lab coats and excitedly entered the lab for another day full of accomplishment and frustration. Our five fragmented skeletons have proven to be a fantastic learning experience as well as an intellectual challenge to all of the students in the lab. Interesting pathologies as well as difficult fragment identification has made this session’s individuals a challenge to everyone who comes through. Kori Filipek-Ogden, Program Director, went over sex and age estimations with two of our groups, and Kayla Crowder our Museum Assistant Director helped with the stature estimation and equations for another one of our individuals.

Kayla Crowder estimating stature by looking at a femur.

Kayla Crowder estimating stature by looking at a femur.

During our lunch hour we have the pleasure of experiencing many different food options that include local restaurants, food stands, a variety of pastry shops and gelato stalls. Once everyone had their fill of amazing food and drink we went back up to the lab to start the second half of our day.

students studying non-metric traits.

students studying non-metric traits.

Meanwhile at the Pension, Nick and Katie Hunt discover that one of our ill excavation students had taken a turn for the worse and decide to take her to the hospital for treatment. After waiting for four hours they were finally able to see a doctor and get her on the track to recovery.

Back at the museum we were joined by Jucu Project Director Katie Tucker and one brave excavation student who was ready and willing to wash and separate some stubborn vertebrae that had been excavated from Jucu earlier in the season.


Katie Tucker and Kori went around the lab to assess the possible differential diagnoses for our many unique pathologies on our individuals. After a long and cloudy day in the lab, the students packed up and headed back to the Pension while Kori, Katie, and Kayla made their way to the cake shop to pick up a special birthday surprise cake for one of the excavation students. After retrieving the cake the cheerful trio started home but got caught in a rain shower with no taxis in sight. Immediately after phoning Nick for a lift, as fate would have, it they found a taxi to take them back.

They got back to the Pension only to discover that the birthday girl, as well as 90% of the remaining students had gone to the mall. When they eventually returned we were able to finally eat the delicious cake, celebrate a great birthday and reflect upon our Day of Archaeology.

photo (2)

Apulum Mithraeum III Project in Alba Iulia 2014

The archaeological campaign of 2013 on the Cartier Cetate site, findspot Mithraeum III, from Alba Iulia, Alba District, is part of a multi-annual research project developed by the National Museum of Unification.

Alba Iulia worked together with the Princeton University (USA), Babeş-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca and the Institute of Archaeology and History of Art Cluj-Napoca. The main scope of this campaign, carried out in July – August 2013 and 2014, was to systematically uncover the building identified in a 2008 rescue excavation as the sanctuary of Mithras, using a complex, interdisciplinary approach.The investigations led to the identification of a complex stratigraphy, consisting of several layers belonging to different chronological phases, which were dated according to the archaeological evidence. Besides the structure of the sanctuary, which has a NW – SE orientation, the excavations also uncovered a large refuse pit that predates the building and a part of a rectangular timber structure, both belonging to the Roman period, as well as a part of a medieval house.

The recovered inventory consists of: altars, architectural elements, pottery, objects made of glass, iron, bronze, stone, coins and a large quantity of animal bones. Sets of palynological, archaeobotanical, archaeozoological, soil and radiocarbon samples were also collected.

Our team is two weeks into the second season of the Mithraeum III Project and so far, progress is being made. We have made important finds and are moving in the right direction to understand several layers of different occupation occurring on site. The hope of the site is to unearth the mithraeum structure in it’s entirety and to understand the human occupation surrounding. This year we have a geophysical science student collecting geophysical data of unexcavated areas near the excavation and we hope to understand what is happening around the Mithraeum.

We are staying in the University of Alba Iulia’s accommodation, about twenty minutes from our site, and our day begins around 7:30am and we work until 4:30pm with lunch and a few breaks in between from Monday to Saturday (Saturday is a half-day). Sunday is our free day in which we go to select locations in the Transylvanian region, such as the mines of Rosa Montana or the Roman capital of Sarmizegetusa as our team visited last year.

As the Student Education Coordinator, I have had the pleasure of working with the directors to plan a weekly lecture for the students and creating a manual for quick archaeological information. This has been a sensational project to be a part of and this season promises to answer many questions our team holds. Thank you to all members of the excavation team, universities, museums, and the city of Alba Iulia for your support!

Stuck at my Desk With a Packet of Jaffa Cakes

As has already been posted today, the osteo team from Cardiff University are currently out in Turkey, on site at Catalhoyuk and apparently for their day off are lounging by the pool, a particularly difficult task I imagine. As well as the bone-iologists, one colleague is in Iceland working on a site out there and another is currently excavating in Romania. Cardiff is seeming massively unappealing and rather dull at this point in time. Why a PhD in medieval and early post-medieval pottery from Wales seemed a good idea three years ago when I applied for the studentship here is beyond me.


Despite my jealous grumblings (mostly to myself as the post-graduate room is so quiet and now to you) this has been an informative, busy and exciting couple of years. Having the ability to spend three years on a subject you love is a luxury and one I keep having to remind myself of in the dark writing up stage. Post-graduate life here in Cardiff has been amazing fun and it is strange to think that that will all have to end once finished. It is quite difficult to watch others around you completing and passing vivas, which ultimately leads to a change in dynamic within the community you live and work in, as well as rely on, to provide support through what can be incredibly challenging years.


The post-graduate room here at Cardiff is central to the developing research community and it is where many a thesis has been written and are in the process of being written now. Friendships, relationships and collaborative projects are developed in this room, many of which last beyond the PhD timescale.


One collaborative project which has been recognised as important to all who spend time in this room is the Jaffa Cake challenge. We have sampled and tested the full range of Jaffa Cakes available, including the time old favourite McVities as well as the other supermarket alternatives. I’m afraid I don’t have any official stats and as the room is empty have not been able to call for a show of hands today on the matter, but we believe as a collective to have come to a conclusion on the perfect Jaffa Cake: Lidl’s finest Sondey Orange Jaffa Cake. It has the perfect balance of chocolate, orange and soft cake base, none of this slightly crunchy, could actually be stale, quality you often find with the branded variety.


I couldn’t imagine doing anything but archaeology with regards to a career and even though the last 6 months have been a struggle, my archaeological spirits have not been dampened, for at least I always know that the post-graduate room (even on a quiet day like today) can provide solace, a friendly ear – when people aren’t on amazing field projects – and a packet of Jaffa Cakes.



The end of a season: Teleac, Romania

An overview of the trench earlier in the season, when the weather was better!

The end of any excavation is usually an experience outside the normal routine of the dig; this seems to be especially the case in academic excavations, where many of the participants may have left prior to the final day due to other commitments. This was at least the case this year at the site of Teleac; a late Bronze Age hillfort in the Transylvanian region of Romania, run by the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin (DAI). I was taking part in the field school as a PhD student of the Forging Identities project.

Putting the magnetometer together to carry it up to site

On the last day on site we were down to a rather small team, which meant that I was the only student to go up to site, whilst the others stayed at base camp to finish tasks there, such as packing up the artefacts. I got a lift to site with the Bulgarian geomagnetics team; these guys were surveying the site with equipment that can detect differences in the magnetic field of the ground, which means that archaeological features such as ditches can be seen through their difference to the surrounding undisturbed soil. Since we arrived a little later than usual, we had missed the tractor which usually pulled all the equipment up to site; therefore we had to carry everything up the steep hill where the site is located by ourselves. This was facilitated by carrying the magnetometer without its case.

Drawing a section in the rain – hence the use of the beach umbrella to keep the paper dry!

Once I finally made it up the hill along the slippery, muddy track to the site, it had started raining pretty heavily. It was then my job to draw the section of a sondage; this means drawing the vertical face of the small but fairly deep trench we had dug in a corner of the overall excavation area, whose purpose had been to find out how deep the cultural deposits of the site went before reaching the natural, undisturbed soil of the hill below.

Back-filling in action

Once I had completed my drawings, I helped the local workmen (high school students earning a bit of holiday money by helping out on site) with back-filling the excavation area. This means putting back all the soil we removed over the course of the fieldwork, so that the site is protected until used again, and no animals or people can get hurt falling into the deeper parts of the trench.

Almost back at the modern village of Teleac

Thanks to the rain, it was no longer possible for the tractor to safely make it back up the hill to collect us and the equipment, so we had a long, muddy walk back down the hill again, taking great care not to slip or fall.

Back at the home base, various final tasks were being completed in between power cuts caused by the thunderstorm…

Pottery reconstruction in progress; these ceramics were found this year at the site

Artefacts and equipment packed up for transportation

Taking samples for metallurgical analysis, to investigate the composition of the bronze

Shooting the final artefact photos

Trying to interpret the geomagnetic survey results, and pondering the future of research at the site

After at last managing to find enough time between power outages to shower, it was finally time to pack my own things and have a last farewell drink with what was left of the team. The end of another good season, and for me – time to think about my journey to the next one!