Drawing Pretty Pictures of Broken Pots

The single most ubiquitous artifact type for archaeologists working on most time periods is ceramics. The wonders of chemistry and physics have resulted in a materiel that once produced is nigh well indestructible. Ceramics can be used to produce all sorts of different objects from electrical insulators to building materials like roof tiles and pipes, but the form we find most frequently is pottery. Pottery vessels are used for carrying liquids, storing dry goods, cooking, even as burial repositories. And they break with astounding frequency, and thousands of years later, the pieces are still around, sometimes even in the exact same condition they were the day the pot was dropped. Archaeologists rarely find intact pots – unless we’re excavating tombs, when people would intentionally place whole pots, perhaps filled with some sort of mortuary offerings or with the remains of a funeral feast, with the body of the deceased. But most of the time what we find are sherds… the detritus of pots broken during daily use or after they were discarded for other reasons.

Now the uses of pottery to archaeologists can’t begin to be overstated. Pots can allow us to study social organization, political developments, economic strategies, exchange of ideas, movement of populations, and any number of other topics. Because of the ways in which new styles are adopted, developed, discarded and replaced, pottery can be used for establishing relative, or even absolute, dates. A lot of these things though, require us to know what the pots looked like, not just cataloging the dirty sherds that come out of the ground. So, what does an archaeologist do with all these thousands of pot sherds?!

Well, first we wash them! But after that, we count them and we record them. Recording a pot sherd usually just involves determining what kind of clay it was made from and how it was finished and fired – different wares are made of different clays, that are treated in different fashions – think of the difference between fine china and earthenware. However, if a sherd has some sort of decoration, or if its part of a pot that is recognizable, we call it “diagnostic.” This is sort of like being a symptom that lets you diagnose the disease. Well, a diagnostic sherd lets us diagnose something about the pot – what shape the pot was, what kind of decoration it had, or maybe whether it was made a special way.

Diagnostic sherds receive special treatment. We carefully measure them, record details about the fabric (the clay and other materials the pot was made from), the finish (firing methods, burnishing, slips, glazes, painted, inciside, or relief decoration, etc.), and what part of the vessel they were. Sometimes from all of this information we’re ale to tell exactly what kind of pot the sherd came from! And then the sherds are drawn and photographed. As a pottery analyst, drawing pottery is a skill I had to learn, and trust me, I have no innate artistic talent! I’ve been doing it for long enough now that my drawings are acceptable, but there are many (if not most) archaeological illustrators out there who put my drawings to shame. Still, I do all right, and I thought I’d give you guys a little look at how I spend some of my days…

To start, I have to get all of the tools of my trade. Here you can see some nice heavy tracing paper, taped down to a smooth, flat table, over a sheet of graph paper. This way the graph paper can be reused, and the lines don’t have to be removed when the drawings are scanned into Adobe Illustrator and inked, but the grid is still there to help with the drawing process. I also have an architect’s ruler, a triangle, a profile gauge, a set of calipers, a rim gauge, my favorite mechanical pencil, and the pot sherd that I’m going to draw with its ID tag.

Here’s a clearer shot of the sherd in question as well as some of my earlier drawings so you can see what the goal is. This particular sherd is the rim, and a significant chunk of the profile of the body of a hemispherical bowl, a very common form in the bronze age on Cyprus. Specifically, this sherd is a variety of Red Polished ware local to the Pafos region in the SW of the island, dating to the Early or Middle Bronze Age.

The trick to being able to reconstruct a vessel from a single sherd is being able to orient the sherd correctly so you can figure out what the profile of the sherd would have looked like. Normally this requires having a rim, or at least a significant part of it. IF the piece of rim is to small, you can’t tell what angle to hold the pot at. In this picture I’m holding the sherd at close the correct angle. If a piece of pottery is well-made, then the rim should be even, and if the rim is even then if you hold the sherd so the rim is flat, you’ve figured out the correct angle that the sherd should be at! Another way to do it is to place the sherd on the table rim-edge down. You lean the sherd back and forth until you find the angle where no light is passing under the sherd – this means you’ve found the correct angle where the rim in lying flat against the table. Once you have this angle there are a couple important measurements you can take.

First, you can use a rim guage to figure out what the diameter of your pot’s rim was. Here you can see me using the rim guage, holding the sherd so no light passes under the rim (i.e., the rim is flat, and I’m holding the sherd at the correct angle). I slide the sherd in and out on the gauge until I find a rim diameter that matches the curve of the rim on my sherd. Voila! I know how big around my pot’s rim was! In this case, 14 cm…

Using this rim measurement, I’m able to sketch in this T. Basically the cross bar is the rim, and the upright is just the axis of reflection (i.e. the other side of the line will be a mirror image of whatever I’ve drawn). By aligning my sherd at the correct angle again, this time on the T, I’ll be able to measure how high the sherd is and how far in it reaches. I’ll do this using the graph paper underneath and the architect’s triangle:

These measurements allow me to mark the bottom of the sherd on my drawing. The trick now is figuring out the curve between the edge of the rim and this bottom point. And the way we do that is with the profil gauge. These are also tools used by carpenters and other craftsmen. The metal pins push in easily, but remain in place horizontally. By pressing the gauge up against any object (even your face, but its kind of uncomfortable), when the pins push in you get the curve of the profile of the object you’re measuring. Good profile gauges also have built in rulers, allowing you to measure the distance between different points in your curve, which is great if its a complicated curve (like your face). In this case, though, I’ve got a pretty simple curve, so I can just put my sherd on the table and press the gauge down, being careful to press the guage in at an angle that would point towards the imaginary middle of the pot.

This last picture actual skipped a step (whoops!). One I’ve gotten the profile of the pot in the gauge, I line that profile up with the edge of the rim on my T and with the bottom of the sherd which I marked after measuring with the triangle. This lets me draw the curve of the outside of the pot. For the interior curve I use the calipers to measure the thickness of the sherd at various points. I marke these distances in on the drawing, and then basically connect the dots: instant inner surface!

Now, using the grid paper as a guide, I draw in the mirror image of the profile on the other side. Little conventions like a broken rim line tells us that the rim is incomplete, and extension lines at the base of the sherd show the sherd is broken here and would be expected to continue in a certain direction. Then I label the drawing with the project abbreviation and excavation year, the trench and context numbers where the sherd was excavated, and my initials and the date the drawing was completed. Done!


Thoughts on the Greek Economic Crisis (and how foreign archaeologists might help)

Just a few thoughts on how foreign archaeologists and schools might aid in the current crisis… I am only a graduate student, with with limited knowledge of the administration of the foreign schools and the Department of Antiquities, so these are only offered as the roughest of ideas:

I could be mistaken, but outside of the normal 3 excavation permits per year per Foreign School, doesn’t the Department at times grant some sort of “rescue” permit with a 3 year limit specifically for the purpose of foreign projects aiding in the preservation of threatened sites? Could lists of immediately threatened sites be produced, and foreign teams put together with experience in a given period or region that could then offer their services at whatever site the Department
felt most needing?

It seems that the long-term major excavations of the Foreign schools, such as the Athenian Agora, Corinth, Lefkandi, Knossos, Tiryns, Olympia (to name a few) must be quite expensive, and are at sites that are perhaps not at such immediate risk. Likewise, these projects entail the work of a veritable army of students, specialists, and scholars, whose efforts could be directed temporarily and productively elsewhere. I don’t mean in any way to suggest that these sorts of projects aren’t of tremendous value, both scholarly and for continued tourism, but only that the immediate economic situation may call for
us to reassess where our efforts and monetary resources are best directed in the short term. The major ongoing excavations are at sites that will still be there in 5 years, while we are all, rightfully, aghast at the loss of sites we didn’t even know existed!

With news of the layoffs and pay cuts at the main Department and the local Ephorates of experienced scholars and field archaeologists, who (if I read the NYT article correctly) even at the best of times made less a year than a well-paid post-doc at an American university, shouldn’t we be exploring alternative cooperative funding and hiring practices? For example, might a system be developed where foreign “rescue” projects are responsible for paying the salary of the Ephorate archaeologist assigned to monitor or even co-direct their project? If two or three projects operating in the same region coordinated their work schedules, they could provide 3 months or more of continuous full-time contract work for a Greek archaeologist, while simultaneously benefiting from a wealth of experience and knowledge. By providing funds for the hiring of Greek archaeologists on contract, we would be providing much needed employment opportunities and reducing the workload on the Ephorates.

Another thought is that if plowing and bulldozing in order to prepare fields for the sowing of fodder is such a widespread problem, an educational campaign within the country could be funded with international cooperation. It is my understanding that the optimal plowing depth in limestone rich soils for the sowing of legumes and grasses is only 9 inches, a depth which if adhered to would minimize the damage to underlying cultural deposits. We cannot expect farmers not to plant the crops needed to feed their animals, but education and an appeal to their pride in their cultural patrimony might go a long
way towards better agricultural practices.

(This article was written as an email to the AegeaNet mailing list, prompted by a discussion surrounding this recent NYT article: “Archaeologists Say Greek Antiquities Threatened by Austerity”

The Beauty of Uncertainty, or Why the Neolithic Tower at Jericho has not been “Solved”

The mainstream media this past week picked up an archaeological story and ran with it. By the end of the week, ever major news outlet had said something on the subject. Now I think this is great; archaeology needs more attention from the media. The public likes archaeology, and those of us who are archaeologists should be willingly and happily indulging their interest. Archaeology isn’t profitable. It never will be, nor should it be, but that means that our profession and field’s continued existence hinges on a public that sees the value in what we do and is willing to fund our research.

Even more exciting in my view was that this story wasn’t about some new discovery. New excavations are of course important and exciting, but there’s plenty of material that has already seen the light of day that sits in museums or warehouses, or that stands in archaeological parks or completed excavations sites slowly being  sucked back under the earth by erosion and plant growth, that archaeologists work every day to say new things about: new theories that attempt to explain how those people who came before us lived and thought. Its no longer the 19th century, and archaeologists don’t simply seek to describe, we seek to understand, and so we build models and theories to explain what we see in the data. These theories are really the most important thing that archaeologists do, and certainly what we spend the most time thinking about.

But that’s where the problem come in – A theory is just that: A theory.

This week the internet was swept with stories concerned a large stone tower found at the site of Jericho in Israel. Built during approximately 11,000 years ago, the tower has nothing to do with Biblical Jericho (its arguable whether Iron Age Jericho did either, some day maybe I’ll talk about that, too!), but was instead a major structure associated with a large Neolithic village.  The tower was excavated in 1952 by Dame Kathleen Kenyon (one of the all-time great archaeologists, and oh by the way, she was a woman), and has been a subject of much debate and analysis ever since.

The tower itself is indeed an imposing and remarkable construction. Built entirely of uncut stone, it is nearly 9 meters in diameter and stands preserved to a height of over 7 meters (nearly 28 feet), though its original height remains unavoidably unknown. Its current size, including the associated wall, it would have taken 100 men 100 work days to build, a more than significant investment in time and labour, and arguably the most energy-consuming structure built up to that point in history (of which we know, of course). Through the center of this tower is a staircase allowing access to the top, which was found stuffed full of bodies – 12 to be precise – though it was clear that these were not part of the towers original purpose, as at the time they were interred, the passage through the base of the tower was almost completely filled with soil. The tower was also rebuilt at least twice, as can be determined by two successive “skins” or outer layers of stone, added most likely at times that the town walls were being reconstructed. The tower and settlement were abandoned after only a few centuries of use, and the next settlement wasn’t built on the site for another 2000 years, sometime in the early 7th millennium B.C.E.

Dame Kenyon’s original interpretation was that the tower was a defensive structure, connected as it was with the walls that encircled the village. Later scholars, including O. Bar-Yosef, thought this unlikely, since the tower is actually inside the walls, whereas a practical defensive structure might be expected to jut out from the walls, giving a good view and angle of attack for defenders. Also, there’s no evidence for any kind of inter-site conflict during this period, so Bar-Yosef theorized that the walls and ditches were built as defense against flooding, not attack. The tower he suggests was instead used for ritual activities or served as some other central focus for the community. Danny Naveh, in 2003, took a more anthropological approach to interpreting the tower and other monumental features of early Neolithic Jericho. He put forward the idea that the tower (and walls) were built as signs of power, on the one hand to people not outside the village at a sign of power and control over the local territory and natural resources, and on the other hand, as a message to the inhabitants of the village of new social distinctions and power within the community, a daily reminder that someone within the community had enough influence to martial the manpower to build such an imposing structure.

So this week the public learned not of these theories, but of a new one recently published by Roy Liran and Ran Barkai, two scholars from Tel Aviv University, in the major archaeological journal, Antiquity. These researchers discovered using computer models that on the solstice the shadow of a nearby hill would have hit the top of the tower first, before engulfing the rest of the settlement. They’ve hypothesized that the tower was therefore built both as a time-keeping device and as a magical guardian against the darkness of winter, while serving as a monument connecting the settlement to the sky and land. Whatever person or persons who mobilized the population into building the tower may have used the people’s fears as motivation.

Now, I study ideational or cognitive landscapes (i.e. what people think of their landscape and how they understand how it works in relation to them and their society), so I actually think this is a pretty cool theory. I’m not sure I’d go quite as metaphysical as they did but still, it’s a pretty awesome theory, and I think it’s great (a bit weird, but great!) that MSNBC, CBS, and other news outlets have decided to report on this fascinating piece of archaeological theorizing.

The important thing to remember, though, is that it IS just theorizing. It is based on evidence, so its more than mere speculation, but its still just an idea. Nothing has been proven, no great mystery has been securely and confidently solved.  So why the ridiculous headlines? MSNBC declares, “Jericho mystery solved: It was a tower of power” and that “Archaeologists reach conclusion,” even though two paragraphs in, the quotation from the actual researchers begins, “We suggest…” SiFy titled their article, “Archaeologists solve tower of Jericho puzzle?” Perhaps the question mark is supposed to make it better? And several other stories inform us that, “Jericho Tower Was A Monument To Intimidation,” which interestingly isn’t the main thesis of the current investigators, but that of Naveh, published 8 years ago, and which again is just a theory.

All of these news articles try to tell us that the “mystery has been solved” that somehow the case is closed, and we now know just what the tower at Jericho was all about. And really, we don’t. We don’t know what it was all about, because we can’t go back in time and ask these people what is was all about, but we have some pretty good ideas. And honestly, most of the researchers if asked, would probably agree that the complete story is most likely some combination of these ideas. Humans aren’t simple creatures, and we rarely just have one thought about something: the story is –always- multifaceted. And archaeologists are just trying to get a better understanding of that story. Is there some reason why we can’t just tell the public that?

In conclusion, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the French writer and philosopher Voltaire:

“Doubt is not a pleasant situation, but certainty is absurd.”

Bar-Yosef, O. “The Walls of Jericho: An Alternative Interpretation,” in Current Anthropology, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr. 1986), pp. 157-162.

Kenyon, K.M. 1957. Digging Up Jericho. London: Ernest Benn.

Liran, R. & R. Barkai, “Casting a shadow on Neolithic Jericho.” Antiquity Online Project Gallery. http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/barkai327/

Naveh, D. “PPNA Jericho: A Socio-Political Perspective” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Col. 13, No. 1 (Aug. 2003), pp. 83-96.

New Business Cards!

Its not a very good picture, but I still wanted to show it off: My new business cards!! My brother-in-law made these for me as a Christmas gift. Figure they’re a nice thing to have, hand out to people who might be interested in having me work for them either on field projects, or as a copyeditor/writer/talking-head for any kind of media production. “Look how professional I am!” Ha!
In the meantime, its the holidays, and I’m making some spare cash between semesters working in that joyful *ahem* profession known as retail. I’ve worked in retail off and on for over 10 years now, and the sad thing is that I’m really good at it. Charming, reasonably attractive, good at sales pitches. And so whenever I return to retail, within a week they have me jacked back up to 40 hours a week. So, I’m off to work a 2pm to 11pm shift at one of Seattle’s busiest shopping centers. My excitement is positively underwhelming, and my feet are already aching just thinking about it. Oh, how I miss being in the field, with the sun beating down on me while I get all dirty and sweaty!!

Salt is bad, Liminality, and the Harbour at Alexandria

I seem to be on a harbour kick this week, but they keep cropping up in my news feeds so they are what I’ve been thinking about. Or as Levi-Strauss would have said, they’re “good to think with.” Because harbours are interesting places. It’s where the water meets the land, a threshold where ships of war and trade dock, where people from different places interact. One of my professors, Dr. Christopher Monroe, a Senior Lecturer at Cornell University, has recently been spending a lot of time thinking about the liminality of harbors and how that liminality can be approached using nautical/maritime/underwater archaeology. His enthusiasm is infectious, and I too have found myself seeing liminality everywhere.

There was a lot of news today on a subject directly related to this: the lifting of a 9-ton red granite slab from the its resting place on the seabed in the harbour at Alexandria. This particular massive block of stone is believed to have come from a temple built by Cleopatra VII (that would be the Cleopatra, the one who ousted her brother, fooled around with Caesar, and then backed the wrong horse with Marc Antony). Archaeological work has been going on in the harbour since 1994, but nothing has been removed from the water since 2002. This was for good reason: the Egyptian archaeological authorities simply didn’t have the resources to deal with the conservation of artifacts and architecture from an underwater excavation.

The BBC reported that it was because the removal might damage them, which is only sort of true. The actual process of removal, like any excavation, is unlikely to damage the items if done with care. It’s really what happens afterwards thats the problem. The Associated Press article correctly reports that the salt in the seawater is the cause for concern, but in an impressive misunderstanding of science, they claim that when the object is in the water the salt acts as a preservative. This really isn’t true. Salt actually has very little effect on most types of material while they are submerged in seawater, except for the indirect effect it has on the how much oxygen there is present in said seawater. An ancient ship sunk in freshwater can be just as well-preserved as one in salt water. But, likewise, the salt doesn’t do any harm.

Think about it: when you dissolve a spoonful of salt in a glass of water it “dissolves,” and vanishes. What’s really happening is that “salt”, i.e. sodium chloride, is what in chemistry is also called a “salt,” which is an ionic compound resulting from a neutralization reaction of acids and bases. In the case of Sodium Chloride (NaCl), or table salt, one atom of sodium, with a single positive charge (Na+), is neutralized by a single atom of chlorine, with a single negative charge (Cl-). When in solution (i.e. dissolved in water), the sodium and chlorine ions interact with the water (H2O) which actually exists in a partially ionized state itself (H+ and OH-). Basically, all the ions are floating around together, neutralized, stable, and happy. But when the water is removed, say for example by evaporation, the sodium and chlorine ions are left on their own, and in a panicked effort to stabilize themselves they link up, and they happen to link up in an orderly fashion, which is what produces crystals. This orderly crystalline structure that the ions aline themselves in is sort of like an open-lattice, so it also takes up way more room in crystalline form than it did when it was just a bunch of little individual ions.

This whole process isn’t so much of a problem when it happens on the surface of something. When you go to the beach and go swimming and then fall asleep in the sun, you just wake up with a thin layer of salt crystals all over your body, which you can just brush off with a towel. But when an object is porous and all the water evaporates from inside it, the salt will crystallize wherever it happens to be and that includes inside the porous object. And in reality, just about everything is porous if you leave it sitting in water for several hundred years. Even granite. And when those ions form up into their surprisingly strong lattice crystalline structure, where they take up way more room than they used to, the resultant salt crystals will push on and possibly even break apart the material that they’re forming inside. Even granite.

So what this means is that if you were to pull an object out of the sea that’s been saturated with saltwater, say a giant slab from the pylon of Cleopatra VII, and then just let it sit in the sun to dry out, little salt crystals would form all over the inside of the stone, and it could quite possibly crumble into a heap of dust. This would be why the Egyptian government didn’t want people pulling things out of the harbour at Alexandria. Fortunately there is a reasonably simple solution to this problem. If you take the object that has been saturated in seawater and soak it for several months in rotating baths of fresh water, the salt can be leached out of the object until it is sufficiently desalinated and safe to allow it to dry. Such will be the fate of this carved granite block, which took three days to drag to safety away from the shipping lanes and close enough to shore for a crane to pull it out of the sea, only to be put back into a giant tank of water.

So, what does this have to do with liminality? The word “liminal” comes from the Latin, limen, meaning “threshold” or “doorway”, and in the early 20th century entered anthropological discourse in Arnold Van Gennep’s seminal work, Les rites de passages. In this work liminality is presented as the second of the three stages a person passes through in a rite of passage: Preliminary (separation), Liminal (transition), and Postliminary (reintegration). The liminal phase is characterized by ambiguity and paradox, during which the participant exists simultaneously to both the preliminary and postliminary states and to neither.

This is a great metaphor to consider a harbour with. A harbour is the physical embodiment of a doorway or threshold for a city or civilization. The ships and people who pass through it belong both to their home ports and to those that they visit, while also having no home at all. The harbour is of the sea and of the land, but is also its own thing, and the harbour at Alexandria is no exception.

Berth for the world’s great fleets, former site of mighty palaces and temples, crossroads of the Mediterranean, center of trade, war, and knowledge, the harbour has seen history pass, and it now holds in its depths the remains of that history, the detritus of history trapped in its own liminal state, having both passed out of time and memory, but also preserved, not truly allowed to fade. And this one block (9 tons of carved red granite), of this temple (to the goddess Isis), built by this queen (Cleopatra, perhaps history’s most famous), has finally escaped its liminal state in the murky depths of the harbour…

…only to enter another liminal state, stuck in a tank of fresh water in a conservation lab, thanks to being submerged in salt water for 2000 years. Thankfully, this one should be a lot briefer.

BBC News – Egypt lifts huge ‘Cleopatra temple’ block from sea
Monument lifted from Cleopatra’s underwater city

Stinky Wood, or the Byzantine Harbour at Yenikapi

Cornell University has a world-famous dendrochronology lab. Well, world-famous to people who keep tabs on things like dendrochronology labs. My advisor, Prof. Sturt Manning, is the director of the lab and after I took his dendro course at Cornell, I spent a semester working in the lab for some extra money. One of these days I’m sure I’ll write a post about all of the very cool things that you can do with dendro. Because they are VERY cool. But this post is going to be about dendro samples. Specifically the samples from a site known to the Cornell dendro lab as YNK, or Yenikapi.

The problem with being a grunt in the dendro lab is that you get to work on the material that no one else wants to. When I worked in the lab the post-docs and full-time researchers all had their own personal projects, and the students in the dendro course were given some choice in what kind of material to work on for their final projects. This left for the techs the samples that were hard to work with, boring (there are only so many cedar cores you can read from Cyprus before you want to gouge your eyes out), or… the wood from Yenikapi.

For the past three years the lab at Cornell has been flooded with samples from Yenikapi. The lab techs don’t get told too much about the samples that they are working on. Its just another piece of wood that has to be prepped appropriately, stuck underneath a microscope, and have each of its rings read and recorded in the computer to the precision of 1/100,000th of a meter. That’s 100ths of a millimeter. But even when we didn’t know what Yenikapi meant, me knew what having to work on Yenikapi meant.

See, there are four main kinds of wood that come into a dendro lab. First are your samples from living or recently deceased trees. Theses are cores or slices, usually in really good condition, that just need to be mounted and then sanded to a beautiful mirror finish before they can be read. Second are cores or slices taken from older decease trees… these might come from the wood used in a historical building or from an artifact like a piece of furniture, a coffin, or even the wood panel backing to a Rembrandt. Likewise these must be mounted and sanded, but often the wood isn’t in as good condition and the samples can be smaller and more fragile. The third and fourth categories of samples are the types found in archaeological or paleontological contexts, as they are ancient wood that has been somehow preserved. The third category is burnt wood, or charcoal, as once the wood has been reduced to carbon it usually doesn’t decay any further, unless it is damaged by water or impact (microscopic flakes of burnt wood can’t have the rings read!). The charcoal is wrapped with cotton string and masking tape to stabilize it, and then a clean surface is prepared for reading with a razor blade. The fourth and final category of sample is wet wood. Yenikapi is wet wood.

When wood or other organic material is submersed in water it doesn’t decay the same way it would on land, as there is no oxygen present. However, wood usually isn’t submersed in perfectly clear distilled water, and the salt, other chemicals, and biological agents found in the water have a definite effect. This is why sunken ships and old piers last so long, even for thousands of years, but not forever. The wood becomes dark and discolored, the structure of the wood becomes completely saturated and spongy, and finally it does eventually disintegrate. It can also be pretty gross. To get a smooth surface that allows the rings to be read, the sharpest razor blades must be used, and even they can often only make two or three cuts before they become too dull, and instead of shaving the surface of the delicate sample, you smoosh it into unrecognizable goo or fluff it into a cashmere sweater. The frustration of prepping wet wood must be experienced to be truly appreciated, and takes a remarkable amount of patience, which I really didn’t possess. There was lots of swearing involved. Thank god they put that lab in the basement and the prep room behind its own heavy door.

Additionally, wet wood samples aren’t sent into the lab submersed in water as they were found, as it simply isn’t practical. Instead the wood sample is tagged, and while still dripping wet its sealed in a Zip-Lock baggie. Now ideally, the air is removed from the bag, but its nearly impossible to get it all out, and sometimes the air removal step is skipped entirely. So, take organic material, and stick it in a moist environment in the presence of oxygen, and what do you get? Mold! Mildew! Fungi! Louis Pasteur would be horrified. Not to mention all the weird little insects from the water and the wood which just keep on merrily reproducing! I have seen wet wood under a microscope that looked like the surface of some alien planet, covered in a dense forest of bizzare trees and giant toadstools. It even has its own unique lifeforms, as bright orange and silver and even translucent insects scurry through the spongy remains of the wood.


But really, its the smell that gets to you. Because the wood from Yenikapi is oak that was submerged in the filthy stinking harbour of Istanbul back when it was still Constantinople. Some of it came from the hulls of sunken ships and some from the pilings of the Byzantine piers, but eventually this part of the harbour was filled in, most likely with garbage and household refuse and lord knows what else (the same way Manhattan was expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries), and after sitting down there, muddy and foul for over a thousand years, the whole area gets ripped up during the construction of a new subway system, and the archaeologists swarm in to do their thing.

And several hundred pieces of wood with the consistency of an overcooked souffle and a scent that falls somewhere between a high school linebacker’s jock strap and a rodent that’s been dead for a week, with notes of decaying seaweed, sewage, and the acrid tang of seawater, end up half a world away in the Cornell dendro lab.

The archaeological work on the site has steadily increased since the site’s discovery in 2004, as the Turkish government really wants to move forward with construction, and as a result more and more Yenikapi samples have flooded the lab each year. There was so much of it this year, that I heard its all the students or the lab techs get to work on. For once, I am thankful for my thesis.

CNN article about the construction at Yenikapi
Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory
excellent Saudia Aramco World article about the archaeology

First Post, New Blog

This is basically a holder post, simply pronouncing, that yes, this is my blog. I’m Eilis Monahan, aka Girl Archaeologist. I’m currently a graduate student at Cornell University, where I study (you guessed it!) archaeology. I’m a field archaeologist, a shovelbum, an excavation junky. I’ve dug in 3 continents, 4 countries, and 5 states. When I’m not digging in the ground, I like playing with technology… geophysical and aerial remote sensing, GIS, and videography. I have a bunch of followers on Twitter (User: GirlArchaeo) who I try to keep informed on happenings in the world of archaeology, interspersed with totally off-topic rants, and pictures of my most recent travels.

BTW, I’m also a video-blogger. Check out my YouTube account if you get the chance.

I’m morally opposed to all of the crap archaeoogy programs on tv. And of course, I believe the solution to this is for someone to give me my own show. I actually do have training in acting for stage and television, modeling, voice, and dance. Reel and headshots available upon request.

’10 M.A. in Archaeology, Cornell University
’01 B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College

Excavations and Surveys:
’09 Priniatikos-Pyrgos Project (Crete), Irish Institute for Helladic Studies
’08 Priniatikos-Pyrgos Project (Crete), Irish Institute for Helladic Studies
’08 Kalavasos and Maroni Built Environments Project (Cyprus), Cornell University and Ithaca College
’07 Elaborating Early Neolithic Cyprus, Cornell University and University of Cyprus
’07 Petra Pool and Garden Complex (Jordan), Penn State University
’06 multiple projects in CO, WY, and UT, Metcalf Archaeological Constulants (Eagle, CO) and TRC Mariah (Laramie, WY)
’05 Excavations at Idalion (Cyprus), Lycoming College
’05 multiple projects in Southeastern CT, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Museum and Research Center Archaeological Crew