Get your hands on history on an archaeological dig

Indiana Jones wasn’t archaeology’s first sex-symbol, many of the earliest field archaeologists would have considered some of his dare devil antics on their expeditions to find the relics of the past. Some of these old boys were chasing artifacts and raiding tombs on quests to understand historic events, but a lot of them were chasing the money and prestige.

The point on the scale where these adventurous types meet the white haired book smart professors is around BBC TV’s Time Team and lacks none of the exuberance of discovery or required patience.

Luckily I wasn’t expecting to find myself jumping out of a plane on my first dig, but in some respects it was more exciting than I anticipated. Working out in Egypt in the 70s a lot of what we were digging into had been uncovered before, with some of it damaged in the process, so the first level of enquiry dealt with which earlier parties had dug these sites. That was how I managed to be so lucky as to meet so many of the more gung ho archaeologists of the 40s and 50s. As a woman the assumption was that my interest in archaeology sprung from an interest in anthropology, an assumption not entirely untrue, so I was the one sent to ask questions about the earlier days of archaeology. These days the processes have been infinitely refined and the old practices seem to disregard almost entirely the safety and quality of the artifacts and site, but they had some fantastic stories of adventure to tell. Those were days where travel was slower and more restricted and many sites were in uncivilised regions with hostile local populations. It was the stuff of Indiana Jones, and these are the stories you should allow to inspire you before embarking on a trip to a site or appreciating a piece in a museum.

If you’re interested in this field you must already be inspired by history and historical fact but there is a jump between seeing something in a museum and appreciating an archaeological site, and that is the jump I want you to take with me now. I begin by explaining the way a dig uncovers our past, and these days it starts with the survey. Once locals were the best source of suggestions on where to dig, but very quickly the idea of surveying the region, either on the ground or from above, and looking for markings or signs of a settlement was adopted. Just as in Time Team, once a survey has been conducted, preliminary small digs are conducted in the area to ‘test the ground’ and see if the site warrants further investigation. Machines which can see ruptures in the rhythm of the soil layers are also useful short cuts when it comes to uncovering a site. After that the digging can commence, very slowly does it to protect anything uncovered from damage. Each object uncovered is mapped on a chart to allow greater care to be taken in which directions the digging expands into and give a better understanding of how found objects may relate to each other.

After that it’s time for the analysis leg of discovery, some of which is carried out in the lab, but there is a lot of chatter about what things could potentially be or mean on the dig and these types of conversations are stimulating, insightful and challenging. Best bits often, as you gradually peel off layers hiding meaning. And they thought women weren’t suited to the lifestyle – lot of gossiping and sleuthing to my mind, and those are feminine as well as masculine traits!

Though not always worth something in monetary terms, each item uncovered on a dig is valuable, however small or simple it seems, this is especially so if you uncover it yourself. Archaeology brings us into contact with objects that form a direct link between ourselves and the past, what a valuable as well as exciting thing to be involved with wouldn’t you now agree? A much more proactive and exciting way to look at archaeological specimens than though glass on a school trip!

More Archaeological Wonders

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