The two most important things in a trench-digger's world
I am a student at Cambridge University (England), studying Archaeology. I've been out in the wild for a while now and I thought I'd start a place to collect all my thoughts and experiences. Fire a question my way if you get curious (or confused)!
Before we get started: Warning for nudity below the cut, may be NSFW.
What’s the Mona Lisa of the archaeological world? Tough question, but many would argue that a strong contender would be the Venus figurines.
These little sculptures are large enough to fit in the palm of your hand and older than the Ice Age – in fact, most were probably made around 27,000 – 21,000 BCE (AKA: Before the Common Era). Impressive vintage, certainly, but I think something else about this sculpture catches your attention.
I’m sorry to say I’ve been very negligent about this blog this past year or so. I would make some grand excuses about how I’m on the cusp of the greatest discovery since sliced bread, but that would be unfair to you guys reading this.
(And to the Romans. They did the sliced bread thing first.)
Truth is, I’ve had a post in the works for months now, but I’ve been distracted by my doctorate studies, supervision meetings, fieldwork organising, and personal health issues. However, I am feeling more on top of things now. I’m going to aim to post once every two weeks or so, on a Wednesday so I (and hopefully all of you guys, gals, and non-binary pals) have something to look forward to mid-week.
I am sorry I let this space go silent for so long, but I promise I will try my best to keep it busy from now on.
When I say “archaeologist” to most of the people I meet, the usual response ranges from “Indiana Jones” to “digging in fields” to “Pardon?” or even “Do I know you?”. By and large, almost every response reveals one common thing: digging from the surface, down.
Now, don’t get me wrong, lots of archaeology does rely on looking at where people lived and died, but here’s the thing that’s true about humans the world over, no matter when they lived:
Humans go everywhere.
Dark, dank cave? They’re in there. Seas or lakes? They’re getting boats ready to go. Dangerously high mountains where the air’s too thin and it’s easy to freeze to death? Too late, the humans are up there and they think the views very pretty indeed, thank you for asking.
Accidents happen, shipwrecks occur, sometimes things are built. Whatever the reason, humans leave a mark, and those marks are siren calls to archaeologists aching to understand why.
So I’ve been out of my normal stomping grounds for about a month now, rolling around in a different country’s dust. Which country? Hungary (as you may have guessed from my last few posts mentioning it)! What have I been working on? Well, the opportunity came up to work on one of the country’s Bronze Age Tell sites at a little town called Százhalombatta.
Before I go into complete Geek Mode, let’s sort out one thing…
“What is a Tell site?”
Glad you asked! A Tell site is one of the most complex and interesting early sites you could ever hope to end up on. It’s an early city, usually on top of a prominent place like a hill or cliff. In some areas of the Middle/Near East, the hills that Tells are built on aren’t natural, they’re ancient layers of the Tell! And that’s the major defining factor of these sites: these cities are built on top of the previous city’s foundations. Every time a building is demolished so a new one can be rebuilt, the rubble isn’t cleared out completely. Instead, it’s often used to level the area before the new building is made. Not to mention that things are lost or thrown away in the course of everyday life, so Tell sites can produce huge amounts of finds. Usually nothing more than pottery shards and old bones, but sometimes you get buttons, toys, scraps of personal belongings… all of these give you a real feeling for the people living back then.
A city, built on a city, on top of a city…. sometimes these Tells were occupied for over a thousand years, making the mound they stood on several metres high.
Százhalombatta is one such place. It was built on a cliff overlooking the Danube river, just south of Budapest. It’s the perfect place to see exactly who’s trying to travel up and down the country, perfect place for stopping these travellers (and so controlling who goes where and with what), but also a brilliant defensive position. The ramparts that defend its land-ward entrance are steep and several metres high. Some of the lads working on site climbed these ramparts to see how difficult it was and they told me later that they wouldn’t have made it up them without using the trees as hand/foot-holds.
When I arrived at this dig, it had already been open and worked on for 17 years. The trench was at least 2 1/2 – 3 metres deep and we were only just entering the stuff from the Middle Bronze Age. 700 years of archaeology (roughly), all contained within a few metres of earth…
I’m from Britain. That’s unheard of here. It’s unimaginable. When we dig on Bronze Age sites, half of the work’s done with pickaxes and shovels! It’s the only way to clear out a ditch without spending half the week on it!
Magdolna Vicze, or Magdi as we knew her, was the head of the local Matrica Museum and the main director of the excavation. She told us that everything we knew about digging in British sites did not apply here. Trowels only, every bucket of waste earth sieved before it was discarded, sort and label finds as you go. We weren’t even allowed to wear boots in the trench – the first time I’d ever been on a site where you were told off for wearing safety boots! We were allowed to wear light shoes that had no patterns on the soles, but usually people went barefoot. It was almost unbelievable until we were reminded that on a Tell, everything is archaeology.
May sound obvious, but hear me out.
On a British site, you can walk over a round house floor and step out of it, straight onto untouched, undisturbed, non-archaeological earth. And that applies to any period of site you may work on. On a Tell? Not a chance. The very earth that floor is built on is a man-made layer from the previous era. It’s all archaeology.
Honestly, I think that if Magdi saw us anywhere near her site with heavy shoes, she might have beaten us to death with her own bucket.
“Okay, so you got to work on a different place. But Bone Digger!” I hear you cry, “What’s so great about this place – other than being nothing but archaeology all the way down?”
First off, how dare you imply that’s not a good enough reason to geek out. Bad readers.
Secondly, it’s all because of Hungarian archaeology in general.
Hungary has thousands of Tell sites dotted around the country, particularly in the Carpathian Basin area where different cultures followed the Danube inland throughout the ages. Guess how many have been excavated?
That’s right, Százhalombatta is the only Tell site that’s been excavated. And it’s still ongoing! Over dinner one night, the excavation directors told me just how nerve-wracking it was when they first approached the excavation.
“When we began, things were very different back then.” Prof. Marie Louise Sørensen of Cambridge University explained. “I asked Magdi, ‘So what’s the literature on these sites?’ and she said ‘You don’t understand – there’s isn’t any!’ We were the very first to begin digging these sites, so we had to be very conscious about how we approached it.”
“Exactly,” Magdi agreed. “We would be setting the example for the rest of the country. If we did it wrong, it would’ve been a disaster!”
And I have to say, the level of detail that goes into the recording systems on this site is amazing. The site is divided into 2m by 2m squares, each with it’s own Master ID number. As the diggers work in these squares, any new features they come across (floors, walls, pits, etc.) is given another number, an individual ID number. If particularly interesting finds are discovered (such as mouse skeletons, encrusted pottery shards, bronze artefacts, etc.), they get their own personal ID number and their position is recorded via a digital mapping system.
Very thorough, very complex, very different from any other British or European system that I’ve worked on, but honestly? On such a complicated site, it works really well. Particularly when you have to work with the finds later on and match up your conclusions to certain areas on the sites. Or when all the information has to be collected and published at the end of it. It wouldn’t be worth following on simpler sites, but I could certainly see its merits on this one.
That’s all for this time round. I may come back to my experiences at Százhalombatta in later posts, but for now…
Congratulations! It’s a boy…. uh, girl?…… um, it’s – it’s a skeleton!
Burial archaeology largely depends on being able to make clear, neat little categories. Age, sex, grave goods, large and important graves, or little and insignificant graves. These are the sorts of things you can make charts on and draw up a population estimate from. They’re the sort of things that you can use to make conclusions about the sort of society people lived in. So, what’s the problem?
Well, perhaps you’ve heard of the research done on Viking warrior burials by the University of Western Australia? They went through the remains that had already been examined and, after a closer look at the bones themselves they found that almost half the “male” warriors were actually women. Is this under-representation normal?
Well, the problem lies with us. Or at least, the previous generations of archaeologists. When the field was beginning the only people really accepted into the fold were, sadly, white men from Victorian Europe. They were hugely affected by ideas of empire, “superior” races, and unchanging gender roles. In other words, they were taking their own societies and forcing the past to match them. Re-writing history to either explain or justify the way things were in their lifetimes.
What made these Victorians think the female graves were male warriors? Simple: their grave goods. Warrior graves always had swords, spears, and other battle equipment. Female graves had oval brooches and…. well, that’s about it, really. The skeletons themselves became nothing more than a backdrop for the grave goods which (to the stereotypical Victorian scientist) were clearly “for men” or “for women”.
Of course, the past doesn’t like to be confined by modern society. Particularly not when societies in the past had to deal with things that modern society rarely has to worry about. When your town could come under siege from enemies who want to kill or enslave everyone, saying who can grab a sword and who can’t depending on whether they wear a dress seems rather petty. Not to mention stupid, since that’s half your defending force ordered to sit on the sidelines.
Nowadays, archaeologists have far more women working in the field (not to mention people of colour, members of the LGBTQIA community, and people from different religious or socio-economic backgrounds). This means we’ve got a much wider pool of knowledge, experience, and backgrounds available to assess the data and help us understand it. More people can confuse things, but they can also ask questions that a narrower selection wouldn’t think to ask. They can point out flaws, oddities, and solutions that would otherwise not occur to us. This all means better examination of the evidence.
That’s probably why the sexing of skeletons has become important again – but not too much. Knowing the sex is one thing; how that translated into gender and social roles or responsibilities is completely another. Modern burial archaeology balances out the skeletal data with the grave goods and how they were buried to try to get a better sense of the individual as well as the society. To understand why a young man might be buried with several spindle whorls (traditionally considered a “women’s tool”) while an old woman might be buried with a shield and dagger.
Any questions? Points to bring up? Please leave a comment or send a question!
The Beaker Culture of the Neolithic Bronze Age is, perhaps, one of the “purest” cultures that existed way back when. We’re talking 2900 – 1800 B.C.E, here, that’s some serious staying power. And some serious membership material. From Britain to central Europe, everyone everywhere had the same stuff buried with them. If you wanted to be part of the Beaker club, you had to have the right pottery, an awesome archery arm-guard (or two), copper daggers, and some fancy decorated buttons.
Not to mention, you had to buried in the right way: in your own individual mounds with all your amazing Beaker Culture stuff around you. This was a massive change from earlier burial practices. Before, everyone was laid to rest in large stone structures called “megaliths” (aka “large stones”, because archaeologists are simple and straightforward folk) and brought out on special occasions to join the rest of the tribe/town in the event. To go from group burial in open structures, where the ancestors remained part of the living community, to single burials in closed-off mounds, which required just as much work to make, is a huge step. From the group, to the individual; from the “present” ancestors, to the “absent” dead.
Why the change? Honestly, we don’t know. Without written records or folk stories, we never will. We can only track the change and acknowledge the difference in the materials left behind. Welcome to the frustrating part of the archaeological world.
But getting back to the Beakers…
Here’s the other strange thing about this new, fashionable burial style: It doesn’t change. Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy – all of the burials have exactly the same things included in them. Any differences are superficial; certain decoration motifs may only appear in one area and not another, or perhaps one group of people prefer their beakers to have longer necks. Other than that, nothing else deviates from the set pattern.
Burial mounds. Daggers. Archery arm guards. Buttons. Beakers. This is what makes a Beaker Culture burial, no matter where or who you are apparently.
Except in one place.
The Carpathian Basin in and around Hungary is the furthest East the Beaker Culture ever travelled, arriving around 2500 B.C.E. Did it catch on? Yep. Was it just as unaltered as elsewhere? Absolutely not.
The people of the Basin mixed the traditional Beaker recipe with their own ideas of what should be included as grave goods. They placed swords, arrows, and spears alongside the usual copper daggers. Brooches and belts accompanied the buttons. A single Beaker vessel was alright, but would the dead need more? Well, they included cups, bowls, and larger storage vessels with food or drink in the mounds.
As with anything else in archaeology, this leads us back to the eternal question: why? What was it about the Carpathian people that made them alter the set formula so much? Is this an example of people not respecting the Beaker traditions enough to follow it like everyone else, or a case of people liking it enough to include it into their usual burial traditions? Was this Basin an area where several cultures met, so the people had no problems with adopting a bit of this or that? Was that why we don’t see this sort of change anywhere else?
With more research and excavations, perhaps we’ll be able to answer these questions. For now, share your ideas and theories below, and keep on digging!
I have been adventuring in muddy fields and scorching dust-bowls alike for a good few years now and I’ve finally decided I’d do something about it.
And by that, I mean, share some of the weird, some of the wonderful, and some of the interesting things that I’ve come across in my time as an archaeologist. I started before I was even a student (fresh faced and just dipping my toes into the world of trowels), I’ve dug throughout my years at uni, and even in the commercial world (which was a way different experience than anything I’d had before). Bottom line – you can be sure there will be a lot to tell.
But more than that, I also want to share some of the theories and news that I find really, really, hold-me-back-I’m-about-to-Geek interesting. Why? Because, well come on, humans are amazing and fascinating and the way that we grew and learned and developed in all climates and environs and despite all difficulties is – for lack of a better word – just cool!
So stay tuned for articles (tagged as appropriately as I can) and stories. The ones that have happened to me will be tagged as “Tales from the trenches” and names will be changed to Protect the Innocent, but everything else will be 100% truthful and accurate. And send a question or two my way if you find something confusing or if you just want to know more.