Soil, sweat and the art of documentation

This past month I participated in an archaeological excavation at a site called Marzuolo in Tuscany. There were a few of us from Cambridge: five undergraduate students, one of the project directors Dr Astrid van Oyen (about to move to Cornell University) and me, a Phd student. The rest of the team consisted of Dr Rhodora G. Vennarucci (the second of the three directors) and staff and students from the US, Italy and the Netherlands. The area we excavated is thought to have been part of a ceramic production site from the late republican period onward, with medieval constructions interlaced through their Roman predecessors.

RG first day pic

The first day.

There are other blogs that feature tales of life on a dig (eg. from the excavations at Paphos and Gabii), so I will not go into too much detail here. There were very early mornings (ready to leave by 6am!), very hot afternoons (the temperature in the car got up to 51 degrees!), occasional rain (we discovered that the medieval drain we uncovered still works!), endless pottery washing, rage released through pickaxing, lots of fancy technology, a shovel we named Hodor, amazing Italian food, hilarious encounters with locals (who were incredibly welcoming to the loud archaeologists in their tiny town), weekend trips, cats, every kind of bug imaginable, card games (against humanity and not), many captured Pokemon, lots of archaeology learned and lots of new friends made.

RG tools pic

All tools deserve a name.

Writing this blog post and all the writing I did during the excavation made me reflect on what we were doing and on the discipline of archaeology itself. First there are the objects. Since x never, ever marks the spot (obligatory Indiana Jones reference – tick) and the treasure we hunt for does not always glisten (spotting new shades of brown among a lot of other shades of brown is definitely a useful skill), the days can seem long and the piles of pottery endless. Our project directors emphasised the importance of having a central question, even if it evolves as you find things you do not expect and this made the process much more interesting. I have written some thoughts about the place of broken pottery in classical archaeology on this blog before and as I got back into the rhythm of hunting for these fragments in the soil, I was reminded again of the strangeness of the enterprise. Apart from being called the science of rubbish, I’ve also often heard archaeology compared to a jigsaw puzzle, with people carefully piecing small things together to make something bigger and easier to understand. In reality, it feels more like someone took handfuls from thousands of blank jigsaw puzzles and threw the pieces into one big pile. These pieces are not just broken pots, but also soil samples, bones, discarded tiles, misplaced stones, bits of charcoal and much more. Some of these jigsaw puzzle pieces could possibly fit together, but the larger picture is yet to be drawn onto them as different people interpret them in different ways and search for answers to different questions. Similarly, as technologies and interests change, the picture and our understanding of the ancient world and its rubbish also inevitably changes with them.

RG mosaic pic

Images of rubbish also existed in the ancient world. This unswept floor would be an archaeologist’s treasure trove. Asarotos oikos mosaic c.2nd cent.AD (Vatican).

After the objects, there is the documentation. Throughout the month we recorded all the layers, walls and other features on paper and then this information was put into a computer database along with photos, measurements and other bits of information about all the finds. Some members of our team also worked tirelessly to take countless photos and create three dimensional models of the site so that every stage of excavation could be studied later. Because of all of this, we can now see the space at more angles than any ancient visitor would have thought possible. The time and care spent on all this documentation, whether by hand or behind the computer screen or camera lens, and the hope and creativity invested in it makes the process feel like an art. It is an art, however, that works within the parameters of a discipline. The sheets we fill out have boxes to tick, computer software processes certain types of information and so we remain well aware that the questions we think to ask and the answers we are driven to provide are tied to these practices. We inevitably lament that early archaeologists did not document as meticulously us, while at the same time drowning in our own stacks of computer files and paper.

RG dobbins complaint

Excerpt of a complaint about the recording of 19th century excavations of the forum at Pompeii. Dobbins (1994) AJA, 98 (4): 634.

When they find the funds, some excavations are going digital – no more sheets of paper flying away with the wind and no more lost pencils and erasers. Does this change the discipline and the meaning we create from the objects of its enquiry? Just as some say holding a Kindle cannot replace the feeling of holding a book, will people miss the accidental soil (and sometimes, yes, even sweat…) stains found on archaeological context sheets that have been out in the field? We certainly don’t think of these elements as having academic value, but they do attest to the very human act of interpretation: its urgency and its perceived authenticity. In the digital age, will information seen on a scratched tablet screen instead feel somehow more authentic because the device was there on the site when those interpretations were made? And, as things become easier to draw with computers, will we value those images less than those that took hours to draw with a pencil, and will we see less in the objects because we didn’t spend as long drawing them?

RG arch report painting

When archaeological reports were literally works of art. Painted after excavations at Massaciuccoli, 1756. Painter of the Lucca school. Museum at Villa Guinigi, Lucca.

As we document more and more, we can also wonder whether this greater wealth of information equals a greater wealth of meaning and what place forgetting and erasure should be allowed in our enquiry into the past. Keeping the tradition of our modern hyper-recorded world alive, I will probably consider some of these ideas more in future posts. To finish, I just want to say thank you to all those that were at the excavation with me, it was a great month and I hope we can all come back to dig and document another year!





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