Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jordan Challenge 26: Go on a Dig

Of all the things on my list for the second half of my Jordan experience, I think this is the one I most hoped would come to pass, and I am happy to report that it has.  I just came back from an amazing day spent mainly digging in the mud -- but this was no ordinary mud. This mud lies within Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project (TeHEP), the archaeological site near the Dead Sea where I spent the day.

I learned so much it's impossible to encapsulate in a blog-style post, so I thought I'd do what I do best -- which is to make a list -- in this case, a list of Five Things I Learned from my Day at TeHEP.  Here they are:

1.  Excavation sites can be enormous.  The excavation team that has been working on Tall el-Hammam for the past six seasons (the seventh is now nearing its end) believes that the site is actually the ancient city of Sodom, which was written about in the Bible (and, I've since learned, the Torah and Quran as well).  The site being work on is a square kilometer, and in the walk around tour that Area Supervisor and Senior Archaeologist Steve McAllister conducted for us, we went up and down talls (hills) and areas with springs and areas where walls and gates had been at a fairly dizzying pace.
Here's Elizabeth standing in the square she's been working on for much of this dig season.  It turned out to be an outdoor kitchen courtyard, complete with remnants from the circle where the fire was and pots and cooking implements.

One of the most interesting things I learned about was the theory that this site also contains the remnants of a Roman-era city, Livius -- or at least that's the theory of David, who just published a paper on the subject and has been a part of this project for seven years.  He's the one standing furthest to the right. He and Irina (in the red jacket) came all the way from Moscow for the dig.

2.  Archeology requires patience, and also a willingness to get very dirty. The site we are working is divided into something like 60 THOUSAND squares.  In seven seasons of digging less than one half of one percent of those squares have been opened up and explored.  And the process of "opening up" a square is actually a euphemism for "digging very slowly, and in shallow layers, usually with hand tools, while looking for bits of past civilizations via foundations of buildings and structures and pieces of pottery shards and domestic items."  The process of moving dirt by hand is by definition dirty, and at the end of the day, once all the equipment has been cleaned and packed up, and the volunteers and staff dispersed, there is a regathering of people to do yet another dirty process -- scrubbing pottery shards.  The shards of the day are put in tagged buckets showing where they came from, and the previous day's soaked shards are scrubbed clean and sorted for the staff to "read", which means figure out where the bits came from, and more importantly, when they were created and used.  Unusual or more intact pieces (a very small percentage of all that were gathered) are individually tagged, bagged and saved.  The rest are brought back to a "pottery dump" near where the equipment is stored.
Some of the many, many shards of pottery in the dump.  I had not thought about the fact that you can't just put them any old place on the site -- that could be extremely misleading for future excavators.  So, you designate a dump site and they all go there.

Elizabeth and I split a bucket of shards to scrub before we could call it a day.

Another nice aspect of the dig is the camaraderie.  At the end of the day, everyone wants a little down time, but everyone pitches in and does the pottery washing before anyone calls it quits.

3.  Archeology is part science, part art, with a big dose of imagination thrown in the mix.
How do you know what level of precision (and hence what tools to use) when digging?  What is fact?  What is theory?  How do you take a row of stones and surmise existence of a whole wall or rampart or fortress?  The Tall el-Hamman project is a perfect example of many of these dilemmas.  Since it's so huge, the team that has been working on it for the past seven years must balance the urgency of getting some results in a season that lasts 6-8 weeks with the need to be as careful as possible with excavations so as not to miss important things or accidentally destroy important evidence (like mud brick walls, which to untrained eyes like mine look amazingly like plain old packed dirt).  Then there's the whole big picture issue.  For some, Tall el-Hamman is the city of Sodom, vividly described in the Book of Genesis as the place where Abraham's nephew Lot relocated, but which was so wicked that it contained not even 10 good men, so was ultimately destroyed by God. Lot suffered still another misfortune when he fled with his family, and his wife disregarded God's warning, turned and looked one last time, and was turned into a pillar of salt.  Others argue that, Biblical interpretation or no, there was clearly one very big city there, and there is a gap in its habitation during the Late Bronze period (1550 - 1200 BC) that needs explaining. 
It wasn't the perfect workday weather wise -- cold and rainy and windy.  But of course, that didn't stop me from peppering Steve  with a million questions while I tried to move a little dirt around.

4.  The archaeological subculture is fascinating.  A day delving into a whole new world or subculture is not really enough time to learn very much.  But it is sufficient for giving a sense of what you don't know.  I now know that archeology has its own methodologies, debates, tools (my favorite new word: "gufa" is a basket for dirt made out of old tires) and types of people that are drawn to it.  Some of these people, like Dr. Stephen Collins, who is the director of the whole enterprise, and the senior staff, have devoted their lives to archeology and either have their PhDs or are in the pursuit of them.  But others have whole different careers and lives for the rest of the year, but carefully organize their years around "dig season" to come back and participate again and again.
Scrabble players and crossword puzzlers take note: behold the gufa. It's a basket made out of old tires for lugging dirt around.

5.  Archeology can be fun!  Easy for me to say, since most things are really fun the first day you try them.  But actually, the whole thing was just awesome.  I got really muddy, learned a lot about what Elizabeth's been working on all this time, and selfishly, feel like I got to see a whole new world -- archeology-- in action after years of Indiana Jones images dancing in my head.  I might have to do some investigation and see about actually volunteering in a dig for all or part of a season sometime.  But whether I do or I don't, this definitely will have been one of the most memorable days in one of the most memorable years of my life, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people of the TeHEP, and especially to Elizabeth, for letting me crash for a day.
My favorite moment in a wonderful day.  Senior Archaeologist Steve McAllister had thoughtfully set up a car stereo so we could have some music to dig by.  When "Sweet Caroline" came on, he and Director Steven Cullins suddenly broke out in a synchronized dance.  Nothing like seeing two eminent archaeologists dance in the rain, whilst Elizabeth and I were digging in the mud below.

The day got called early because of the rain.  Here are Elizabeth and I, pretty muddy, but otherwise feeling like a great day had been had by all -- especially me.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post!! Sounds like it was great despite it being cold and windy!! This adds to the building reasons why I must make Jordan a 'must visit' place! :)