Not Indiana Jones: The work of real archaeologists

(This post is from the evening of September 28th)

For the past week-and-a-half, I’ve been taking a break from my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena, in order to try something I’ve always been interested in but never had the chance to do—archaeology.  That’s right, I am one of those people you see on the History Channel, digging up pieces of buried treasure and learning about the world of the ancient past.  So far, my archaeological experience has been entertaining and interesting, but not exactly what I was expecting.

I arrived at the train station last Sunday, after surviving absurd delays and train cancellations due to one of Italy’s national railway strikes, to be picked up by some people from the dig who would take me to the agriturismo where everyone lives while working on the archaeological projects in this area.  Arriving at the same time was a couple who were going to be digging for a week as part of their vacation.  The man was British, and his wife of Italian origin, and they pretty much sum up the composition of the group we have working on these nearby sites.

The leaders of the project are all Italian, as is the first portion of the work crew, who are Italian archaeology students.  This fieldwork constitutes part of their studies, and they stay at the agriturismo during the work week, and return to school on the weekends.  Then, there is a group of mainly British archaeology students who comprise the second half of the workforce.  The remainder of the crew is made up of people like me—those who are interested in archaeology, but who have no real experience.

The overall project is divided into three sites that are being excavated: two tombs—one newly discovered—and one Etruscan house.  I was a bit bummed to find out that I had been put on the house excavation, but have learned to feel honored to be a part of it. Very few Etruscan houses have ever been excavated, and none whatsoever from this period—7th Century BCE.  Also, from what I hear, they don’t really find much at the tombs, whereas a day has yet to go by without my finding some piece of pot or tile in the remains of the house.

The way excavation is portrayed on TV—and therefore what I was expecting to find—is not really the same as what is practiced here. From my extensive TV-watching experience, there are two sorts of excavations—the Discovery Channel ones and those from NOVA on PBS.  On the Discovery Channel, digs like this are often depicted as exciting affairs—often using action-filled reenactment scenes filling in the dull bits—with earth-shattering discoveries made after each commercial break.  On PBS, they portray archaeology the way I thought it was actually done.  Everything is very carefully mapped, and progress is painstaking.  Things go slowly enough to bore many viewers, who later realize they have cable and switch to Discovery’s more exciting programming.

It turns out that archaeology—at least at this site—is a mix of both of these models.  There are times when long arguments occur about which layer of earth lies below another and about which direction a certain wall fell when it collapsed thousands of years ago. Times like this halt the digging, and leave me feeling that we could answer the questions being discussed if we were only allowed to dig a bit deeper and see what is there.  That is not the way things work, however, and there is a system to how things are done to make sure each layer of earth is recorded in a hand-drawn picture—using a compass and triangulated points to define the edges of an area—and a photograph.  Important finds—versus unimportant ones (a distinction that isn’t necessarily clear to me)—are marked with their own number and are noted on the drawing of each area; the artifact is marked with its relative height within the earth.  This kind of exacting work really seems to slow the pace and doesn’t prove terribly useful for an unskilled participant like me.

On the other hand, there are times when I think the excavation is much less precise than it should be.  Often I cringe when someone—especially someone completely inexperienced in archaeology—sweeps up the loose dirt where they’ve been working, empties it into their dustpan, and puts it in their bucket to throw into the waste pile outside the walls of the site.  I wonder how many full Etruscan pots one could put together solely by using the pieces that have been thrown out accidentally.  We walk over the places being dug constantly and tiles and pottery pieces get crushed underfoot all the time.

I’m sure there’s actually a plan for all this that I’m not actually seeing due to my inexperience—after all, these are the experts—but it’s pretty amusing to think that I am the one in control of whether the next great discovery of Etruscan history gets made or is lost forever, all based on my ability with a trowel.

(Pictures of the site to come soon!)

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~ by pminnig on September 30, 2011.

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