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That was taken out of context

Archaeologists seem to have their own vocabulary. Frequently, this vocabulary is identical to mainstream phraseology, but has a completely different meaning. This leads to a lot of tool-related jokes (“throwing in the trowel”) and unintentional innuendo (“Is that too deep or do you want me to keep going?”). Fortunately, this means when archaeologists date each other, which they will invariably do on site (one marriage has already come about as a result of this project), they have a pre-existing language for stupid in-jokes.


The pre-dawn light as seen from the back of a pickup truck on the way to the site. Try as I might, the camera doesn't do it justice.

The pre-dawn light as seen from the back of a pickup truck on the way to the site. Try as I might, the camera doesn't do it justice.

Unfortunately, sometimes those archaeology double entendres can end up making you very sad.

We’d been digging for several hours in our trench. Good ole N16a9theta12. We’d dug about 10 centimeters, enough to dig past the topsoil to the point where you see a change in the color and texture of the soil. Top soil is useless to archaeologists. Any artifact found there is going to be thrown out. Seriously, you could find a gold medallion inscribed in Linear B with the message “Hi honey, it’s Nestor, just thought I’d send you a postcard from the Siege of Troy. Wish you were here. PS, we’re the Sea Peoples” and it would get thrown out. Anything that high up is out of context. There’s no way to determine what other artifacts or features its associated with. Association and context are two very important concepts to the archos. Your average piece of pottery isn’t going to reveal a whole lot. But a couple of pieces of pottery found together with some animal bones and lots of charcoal, and, voila, you realize you’re digging up someone’s kitchen. The problem is that the top layer of soil is incredibly mixed. Anything from a farmers plow to burrowing field mice can cause cultural material originally deposited at a lower level to rise to the surface. Plant roots are often a big culprit of this mixing of material culture. It’s a process called “Bioturbation,” which would also be a great name for a thrash metal band composed completely of archaeologists.

My trench


We’d gone far past the top soil, of course, and although we’d found tons of pottery that day, we had dutifully tossed it into the consolation pile (a small pile created as we look at a pretty piece of 2500-year-old pottery, mutter “magnificent” and then throw away). Now we were down into the real stuff, that culturally rich layer of soil containing tons of fineware, kalyxes, all sorts of great stuff. It was a fantastic reward for a challenging day’s work. The temperature was about 33 centigrade (go ahead and do the conversion into Farenheit, there’s calculators on the internets), and although the workmen had managed to build jerry-rigged tents to shade some of the trenches, they had gotten around to ours yet. So we’d been struggling to remove a dense clay in the hot sun using pick-axes that had been so far blunted they ceased to be picks and became hammers. Seriously. We weren’t so much picking away at soil as bashing it in the hopes that little chunks might be sent sailing. I was still ornery from a persistent sore throat and we were all feeling pissy in the heat. But the pottery finds we were digging up were making it all worth it, for we knew our labor was incrementally making mankinder more knowledgeable about its own past. This was important work we were doing. Difficult, dangerous work that usually resulted in bulging lumbar discs and melanoma, but important work, necessary, vital work that had to be done by whatever brave souls were willing to do it, and that necessity made any sacrifice worthwhile.

Chris, the most interesting man in the world, taking an elevation. We take a lot of these.

Chris, the most interesting man in the world, taking an elevation. We take a lot of these.

Meredith, the uber-trench supervisor, was doing her usual rounds with her clipboards, keeping a level eye on every trench and jotting down her notes. As she peaked into our trench she studied our soil.

“Huh,” she said, as if she’d just noticed the way Greeks tend to pronounce ‘u’ as ‘f’. “You see those dark streaks on the top of the soil layer you’re working on?”

“Yeah,” said Rebecca, the supervisor for our trench.

“Those are plow marks.”

The laser thingy Chris uses to take his elevations. It has a name, but i just call it the laser thingy

The laser thingy Chris uses to take his elevations. It has a name, but i just call it the laser thingy

Imagine, if you will, getting to the end of your work day, reaching for the ‘Save’ button on your Powerpoint or Excel or whatever document, only to have your desktop crash and your boss say “oh yeah, we disabled the autosave function”.
I stared at Rebecca dumbfounded when she told me to empty the pottery bag in the trash bin. “But we removed the top soil,” I protest. “These pieces are fine.”

She shook her head and pointed to the plow marks in the soil. “They were taken out of context.”

It’s part of the job, it’s part of the job, it’s part of the job…

That night I washed my work clothes in the bathroom sink. Here’s a bit of an experiment for you: take the stickiest, darkest, red clay you can find. Buy 23 tons of it. Put it in an oven (a very large oven). Set to a measly 150 degrees. Jump in. Roll around in the clay for about twelve consecutive days. Exit oven. Go to bathroom. Put clothes in sink. Attempt to wash. How long does it take to get your clothes clean? Take you time, we’ll wait.




  1. Dannie
    June 28, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Since I got home I made a pile of designated site clothes. That were so dirty that even after washing them by use of the washer and drier, they still had dirt marks on them. And so I save them for next year…

    • nycwastrel
      June 29, 2009 at 11:26 pm

      Yeah, I’ve got socks I definitely can’t wear anymore. Fortunately, most of my expedition gear seemed to have cleaned up relatively ok…

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