Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hands Off: Tools As Artifacts at the Archaeological Dig

From the beginning of its existence as a discipline, archaeology has been about objects. While its true that for many projects the dirt itself is starting to get the same respect as the items that are uncovered in it, archaeologists cannot help but remain object-oriented. All day you look for artifacts in the soil- tiles, pottery, worked stone, metals, weaving implements, tools. Your day is centered around 'things.' Your hands are constantly touching and feeling objects to help in their identification - is this ceramic or is it a rock? Your eyes and your body are constantly on tippy-toe, waiting, hanging on the potential appearance of 'things' with every passing clod of earth.

But of course, modern 'things' are just as important as the ancient ones in an archaeologist's daily life; they can receive the same sort of intense focus, adulation and worship as the ancient treasures themselves. I'm talking about tools.

Everyone knows what its like to have a work utensil that's used day after day. It's quite easy to develop a relationship with it, whether it's a crappy keyboard that you grow to loathe or a favorite pen that you jealously guard. It can be a major bummer if your favorite item gets lost, or breaks, or is stolen by a co-worker. It's the same way with an archaeologist's tools. At most excavations, there's often a morning rush as everyone tries to grab their favorite things before someone else does. There's a race for handpicks, for dustpans, for bristle brushes, for the lightest shovel and the sturdiest bucket. These tools can cause a lot of unacknowledged jostling, secret irritation, silent glowering and intense satisfaction.

I myself have become quite fond of the old rounded trowel I found in the tool shed this summer. I bet every person on the Poggio Colla excavation has their own secret attachment. Some of those human-tool relationships are a bit more obvious.

Take PC 42's student-digger Morgan, for example, who has a tool with a story. And a name - Tiger. Most of the students went off to Home Depot or Lowes to buy their trowels before they came to Italy, which means that most of the trowels look pretty much the same. But Morgan found one at her own house. It turns out that her parents once built a deli and her dad was tiling the interior. He shaped his trowel to make it more useful for laying tile, in contrast to the flat brick-laying trowel. And so Morgan decided to adopt her Dad's tool, which he had created and inadvertently imbued with sentiment.

Sure, you can only use it with one hand because if you flip the blade you'll destroy everything in its path. It's a vicious weapon and can bite the hand that wields it; it's a trowel that demands respect. But it's master is Morgan.

Some of the tools are a little more serious. There are even a few that only staff members are allowed to use, for obvious insurance reasons. Like the ax.

PC 42, the ax in use. As it turns out, trench supervisor Kyle used to be a competitive lumber jack. Be gone, tree stump!
And when these really serious tools break, waiting for their replacements can leave everyone on edge. The recent shattering of the ax-handle was just such an affair. At least now we've got it back, and rotten tree stumps are once more flying off the side of the hill.
But besides being mean, lean, archaeological-context-destruction machines, our tools can be an endless source of entertainment as well. They can make a person happy, when not giving blisters and callouses or accidentally stabbing you.

PC 42 student-digger Jack displays the proper way to double-fist the handpick.
While our focus on the ancient objects may be well-recognized, the archaeologist's daily obsession with modern tools is, I think, just as great. Um, unless it's just me.
Keep your paws off my trowel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Eye Candy in Tuscany

Tuscany, it you believe the advertising, is the land of sunflowers. Apparently it must be so, since I've sent many postcards home, covered in lemon-yellow flowers. But maybe it's time I actually proved that those postcards reflect reality.

I actually took this picture. The sunflowers are bigger than my head, like the burritos at that Mexican place across the street from OSU.

There's a little valley between two of the dig houses, with a tiny dell at the bottom cut by a clear creek. I have to walk through the shaded hollow every day to get to dinner. The fields are planted with sunflowers and its been really extraordinary to watch them morph from green stubble to brilliant eye candy.

Reasons why Etruscan excavations rule? This is the view from my bedroom window.

...and the final proof that I speak the truth. This is me and some sunflowers on my way to yet another astonishing Italian dinner. Woo!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Trench Talk

Just a quick update from Poggio Colla and sweltering, blistering Tuscany. It's hot! Things are going along well in the trench. In fact, today was by far our most exciting day yet. Trench 42 now has several different walls and all sorts of spaces in need of excavation. If you want to read more about it, check out the little blog I had to write for the project's website.

So you want to know what happens in my day? We head up every day before the students at 6am so the supervisors get a little time to get some serious work done.

The trench supervisors of PC 43, taking advantage of the dirt pile.

Then the students arrive and we attack the dirt with all we've got, stand around looking perplexed, or play trench games (like 'Guess what so-and-so was like in highschool'). Either that or we're stuffing our faces at Cookie Break.

Members of PC 42 (my trench!) revealing a Hellenistic-era wall. Thank the Lords of Cobal for the Italian forestry service, which declared that the chestnut trees on the hill are protected, and thus ensuring that we're protected, too - from the sun and the hell-sent kamikaze flies that come with it.

The students have had all sorts of workshops, learning about everything from roofing systems to pottery to settlement patterns.

Angela Trentacoste, the Bone Lady, teaches the students about zooarchaeology.

Stratigraphically, things have really picked up in the last few days. In fact, there's been an actual flurry of archaeological activity. Picks flying, trowels slicing, sieves swishing. Tomorrow I promise I'll have exciting things to report, before it's off to Elba or some other beachy place for our four day weekend.

This is what an archaeological flurry looks like. Myself and trench assistant supervisor Mike Guarino.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Here at the Poggio Colla excavation, I eat dinner every evening at the student dig house, where Beppina and her husband Bruno lay out a fantabulous spread. The house is called 'Podere della Vigna,' which pretty much translates as 'vineyard.' I actually do have to walk through a vineyard to get there. One of the best parts is that there at the top of the hill Beppina and Bruno have taken in a little stray who has melted the hearts of every college-aged person in the near vicinity.

His name is Romeo. Let's all say it in Italian: Row-may-OH.

Every excavation or study abroad project ends up having a faunal mascot of some sort. This little guy has turned into ours. Somehow every little thing he does is mesmorizing. Watching his every move is more fun than TV. If he happens to be present during any educational lecture, the learning that actually occurs is minimal. As it's been a while since I posted any gratuitous pictures of cuteness, I might as well let loose with them now.

He recently learned to pounce, so he attacks everything. He can be a vicious little thing now that he's also learned to bite. The other day he got me on the chin and then, as dainty as you please, he practically bit off my nostril.

He can even camaflougue himself.

And of course, he's adorable especially when he runs out of steam.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

A quick photo intro to Poggio Colla

Greetings from Italy. It may seem shocking, but after almost ten years of work in Greece, I am excavating in Tuscany this summer. The reason is simple. While most of my experience is in Greece and my dissertation is on Greek material, my secret love is Etruria and Etruscan religion. Therefore, I am happy to say that this summer I am working at the Etruscan hilltop site of Poggio Colla.

Greg Warden, the excavation director, lectures to the Poggio Colla field staff at the Dicomano museum last week. Those are Etruscan grave cippi (markers) in the background.
The Poggio Colla excavation is a field school that has been running for about 16 years now. The designation ‘field school’ means that undergrads come here to learn archaeological methods. They attend lectures, they have homework assignments and during the day they excavate. There are about 20 students, four trenches and a wide variety of staff.

My trench is the Trench at the End of the Universe – that is, it's Trench #42. (If you didn’t get that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference, then shame on you.)

Me and PC-42.

Normal archaeological goings-on. That guy on top is my trenchmate and fellow staff member, Mike.

The students move the tile pile (a gigantic mound of trashy tile fragments accumulated over 16 years of excavation) that partially overlaid the corner of my trench.

The students practice their troweling skills.

We live in various buildings interspersed throughout a huge former estate in the Mugello valley, just north of Florence.

My pad.

We eat dinner here, overlooking the Mugello valley.

My first trip to Italy was not notable for its food. At all. This time, however, the food situation is quite different. A lovely Italian lady named Beppina cooks for us each night and is wonderfully sensitive to the needs of newly-converted vegetarians (=me). Of course, on the weekends we must forage for ourselves:

Ariel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art enters the regionally famous Casa del Prosciutto.
The staff eats a gigantic three course lunch at the Casa del Prosciutto on Saturday (today).

Fortunately, the student house recently got the internet up and running, so I will be posting weekly. Stay tuned.