WHAT’S INDIANA JONES GOT THAT I HAVEN’T?
On yesterday’s post I talked about the importance of infusing archaeological work with a certain amount of humanity, citing a quote by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. I also included a quote from David Hurst Thomas that went, “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” And that quote is the heart and soul of archaeological endeavour.
Most people think that archaeology is all about finding “things.” But it really isn’t. Archaeology, contrary to the Hollywood fabricated fantasies along the lines of Indiana Jones, which are filled with infuriating (at least to archaeologists) little inaccuracies like people leaning on transits, is not a treasure hunt. The objects one finds are important yes, but they only have scientific value in context with the information that can be ascertained in thoroughly documenting the situation in which they are found. The hero-archaeologist in films who pulls the long sought after Mayan Golden Sun disk from the ground and holds it aloft while proclaiming, “Eureka!” is a fool. He or she has just destroyed all the valuable archaeological information that could have been documented and assessed, the archaeological equivalent of who, what, where, when and why. Without that kind of information, the object is, for all practical purposes, scientifically worthless. This is what most hobby archaeologists, whose thrill is in just finding stuff, and those who loot sites, who are only out to find and sell things for a profit, fail to comprehend. Once the site’s delicate information has been disturbed, it is lost for all time. It usually cannot be reconstructed. That is also one of the hard rules of my profession. You have one chance to get things right, so you’d better get it right that first time. Since archaeology is a destructive science there is little room for making mistakes.
Which all leads me up to today’s post. As an excavation technician (you would equate that with a crew chief in the United States, we do all the grunt work and the scientists analyse, publish and get the credit) it was my job to clear a site, expose and clean the surface and structures and then photograph, illustrate, describe and finally survey each level that we worked on. Only then would we label and subsequently collect the find material before the whole process would start over again as we dug deeper. When I was responsible for the site direction of the excavation of a Roman temple in Mainz, Germany over 17 months, from the end of 1999 to the beginning of 2001, after meticulous and extensive documentation, which produced 410 ‘to scale’ illustrations, hundreds of pages of written text and thousands of photos, we had collected 15 tons (30,000 lbs.) of soil samples that had to be carefully sieved in several stages and some 48 cubic meters (that’s the volume of a medium sized room; imagine a room that has 4 meters by 4 meters of floor space, equivalent to a bit over 13 feet by 13 feet, and is 3 meters or 10 feet high; that gives a volume of 48 cubic meters for the room.) of find material (pottery shards, bones, stones etc.) that had to be cleaned first and then eventually sorted and cataloged. That’s the unglamorous work that gets done outside in courtyards, in offices, basements and storage rooms that you don’t see portrayed in the Hollywood fictions. The sieving of all that soil alone took several years and was well worth the time and effort for the incredible information it provided.
I was solely responsible for washing all the find material, the delicate and fragile things by hand, most of the more robust pottery shards with a high pressure cleaner over a period of two years, sometimes for months on end when I wasn’t called out on other excavations. The three different views of the find cases in the photos below will give you an idea of just how much material that actually was. The photo from a newspaper article reproduced here was featured in the local newspaper, when they did a weekly feature on several of the workers in our bureau. I was usually sought out for such features because I became known over the years as an “Exot,” a foreigner who was a “Lebenskunstler” (roughly translated as a master of the art of living, we might say a “jack of all trades”). I was often in the papers not only as an excavator, but as a local musician too. They seemed to always think that it made for good feature stories, since several like that were done about me during my career. Similar to the feeling that I wrote about in my post last week about performing, I never feel really comfortable being the center of attention, yet somehow always manage to end up there. Oh well, I suppose that I’ve learned to live with it. As one of my friends so kindly commented on one of the social media sites in reference to my blog post yesterday, which featured a picture of a younger, more muscular me at an excavation, “Oh, we love your mind, your music, and your vision. But there’s no denying the animal magnetism of a rock n roll archaeologist.” Indiana Jones, eat your heart out…
Photo from a newspaper feature article.
All photos taken in 2003.
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