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Gouge Away: The Destructive Science

Gouge away

Gouge away


One of the concepts they try to pound into you in archaeology classes is that the practice is essentially the act of careful, but deliberate destruction. To excavate a site is to destroy it completely, to leave nothing but the walls and haul everything else back to a museum. It’s one of those things you know intellectually without really appreciating viscerally until you get into the field. Archaeology is science, to be sure, but it’s science done by pick and shovel, screwdriver and chisel, trowel and hammer. Everyone seems to be going through the same learning curve: you move tentatively at first, afraid you’ll inadvertantly shatter that Linear A tablet that would have unlocked the language. You gingerly brush every rock with exaggerated reverence, worship every shard of pottery you find. After all, these could be the very stones Nestor walked, the very bathtub in which Telemachus bathed.

The destructive science

The destructive science

But by the end of Friday, we were bashing through ceramics with abandon. We’re under a bit of a time crunch, trying to push through an area of cobblestone that has been nighmarish to excavate, both because of the cobbles themselves and because of the terrifyingly uncooperative thick red clay that clings to every cranny. We’re a man down on the team, with Kyle posted ot the museum for two days. We’re also finding mountains of pottery in our sector, and every shard uncovered means slowing down, trading the pickaxe for the brush and screwdriver. The ceramics in our trench have been given top priority at the museum, and they’ve been pushing us to finish the job so they can examine all the pottery found together at once (you gather all material found at a certain depth and certain locus at the same time, since these items are said to be associated with each other).

We have two hours left, and we swing our picks with gusto, bashing ancient cobbles to pieces, and pulverizing stubborn mounds of clay that have baked almost to mud-brick in the hot Greek sun. I pity the folks in the second summer session, who will be excavating in July. We occasionally smash through pottery without flinching, knowing we’ve already collected far more by now. Fears of destroying that irreplaceable Linear B tablet have been themselves replaced by a profound, htough possibly unjustified assurance that whatever we smash the lab can easily reassemble. I’m told this change in attitude means I am now a “real” archaeologist.

Despite the pressure and the exhaustion of being in the sun for seven hours, we really do succeed in avoiding major mishaps. The time pressure is real, however, both for us lowly field school kids and for the project head himself. The time given to excavate a site is constrained primarily by funding. Sadly, archaeology is never a huge funding priority even in the best of times. In a recession, we rank somewhere with NASA. We’ll be able to excavate for six weeks this year before the money runs out. THere’s a real possibility that something important, like that potential tholos tomb to the south, will only be half-excavated by the time we have to close up shop. That’s something of a worst-case scenario. Anything left half-excavated is something of a bright neon sign to looters saying “please rob me.” If that hapens, the world loses a valuable piece of its history, possibly for good.

Even when we’re not racing against looters, all too often we’re up against other time constraints. Someone is tapping their foot to put up a shopping mall where you’re digging, some religious group wants to dynamite a 900 year old Buddha carved into a cliff-face. We fight a constant rear-guard action against time and fate, to rescue what little we can before is disappears into the mists of time.

So we gouge away at our destructive science, blasting pottery as we race the clock, all too often trampling the history we’re here to preserve. We save what we can. We bulldoze through the rest.

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