Archaeological Excavation: Remembering the Human Element

by Christy Vanden
               It’s your first trench, your first artifact. This is it – you are finally “doing” archaeology. You excitedly pull up ceramic sherds and exclaim their beauty to those around you, who note your geeky enthusiasm with amusement. The first week goes by, your muscles ache and protest against all forms of movement, and you become familiar with dust and dirt coating your entire being. Everything is new, slightly intimidating, but mostly exhaustingly exciting.
Then, experience sets in. As you move into subsequent weeks of the project, roof tiles are irritants and miniatures cause collective groans at pottery washing. You toss sherds into the bucket, grunt with satisfaction when you note your increased sherd-tossing accuracy, and wipe away the sweat from your brow as you watch with predator-like awareness for the arrival of food every morning. In previous days, you could have never imagined throwing a sherd for fear of chipping ever so slightly this holy object. Now, you are old hand at recognizing rim pieces and bases, checking for painted designs and acting derisive when you do not find any. Even if you do find a painted design, you’ve seen this before during pottery washing and you are only mildly impressed. Suddenly you find yourself stronger than your first week, and you relish in clicking the zambilli count higher throughout the day, aiming for more impressive numbers. And new trenches? You long for nothing more than to cut through those fun, but annoyingly recent Byzantine layers and move as much earth as humanly possible.
And then you see something that you didn’t notice before…You peer closer at the figurine fragment in the soil: someone’s fingerprint is pressed into the interior fragment of the sherd. Suddenly everything comes into focus, and the delirious heat of the day recedes into the background for just a moment as you realize you are the first human being to see the stoic expression on this figurine’s face in some 2400 years. While you were moving piles of dirt throughout the day to get to this level of stratigraphy, you were moving a people’s history with you. People made these sherds, figurines, miniatures, and walls. People lived at Eleon throughout its phases of habitation.
A connection has been made…
More often than I would like to admit, I am the one who forgets the humanity behind the artifact as I am standing in the trench, thinking about how hot the day is. I am the one who contemplates her hatred toward crouching when the day grows thin. These things settle in my mind like the dirt that settles over my clothes. Then it came to me the other day as I was excavating that I had gone too long without remembering the people involved in what I was uncovering. Archaeology isn’t static, it is alive with the essence left behind by the people who created and fabricated these artifacts. And it is this point that I have had to continually remind myself about while I am on site. Eleon is bursting with mystery and intrigue, and every part each one of us plays in this project brings us closer to the people and their respective lives. At the end of the day, despite whatever sore muscles or dirt encrusted dig pants I may have, this is the beauty of archaeology, the allure of people’s lives that are so near and yet so far from our own.


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