Puzzling pieces

It’s Friday afternoon. I’m sitting out under the pines on a perfect Fevzi Paşa summer afternoon, enjoying a pleasant breeze. The morning started with our weekly tel tour: our chance to get caught up on the week’s developments on the site. Each Friday this season we’ve also been treated to a lecture by a member of the staff. My personal archaeological education is gradually advancing; I’m putting the pieces together bit by bit.

It seems to me that pretty well sums up our days here: assembling the pieces. Our lecture today reiterated just that. As each square is excavated, centimetre by centimetre, the descending levels reveal a chronology. Layers and levels alone don’t tell the story though, because later activity can intrude on earlier – pits, ploughs, looting –  and confuse the narrative. Pottery finds, small objects, biological remains, textual fragments – all these tell their own tales and can be compared from square to square or to similar sites to confirm the dating sequence. Each adds a piece to the picture of ancient Sam’al – not only the physical layout of the city, but as well how the people of that time and place may have gone about their lives.

Perhaps in your travels you’ve visited a historical or archaeological site – somewhere the work had been relatively complete. You’ve strolled among the reconstructed walls, admired the neatly displayed artifacts and found it easy to imagine an ancient existence.

It’s not like that here.

For the newcomer, a newly excavated square may seem to be a meaningless jumble of stones. If you stopped by, you’d find yourself asking why you’d turned off the road to take a look. After five seasons, I am finding it easier to make sense of, but that is also a function of the depth of the existing excavation. When a square supervisor says that a line of tumbled stones is a wall…I can see it now and can anticipate that in the following week it will be further defined. More often though, the supervisor may point to a feature that they think may be a wall and will turn out not to go anywhere, or to veer off in an unexpected direction or not belong to that building – or time period – at all. Just the same, day after day and year by year, ancient Sam’al emerges ,answering some questions and raising more.

My first season here at Zincirli in 2008 was a heady time. Two significant artifacts – a funerary stele and a pictorial orthostat – were discovered within a few days of each other. Nothing so spectacular has emerged since, but I’ve learned that it isn’t just the splashy discoveries that advance understanding of the site – it’s the thousands of seemingly insignificant pieces gradually accumulating. Each afternoon in the workroom with my nose to my art board, I’m privy to lively discussions amongst the staff as they puzzle out just what the day’s finds may mean. It’s frustrating and confusing – and for me, a little exhilarating – as they exchange theories, compare findings, discuss academic articles and argue conclusions. I don’t always get it – but it never fails to be interesting.

But right now? It’s Friday afternoon and the weekend. Turkish coffee and friends are waiting in the shade of the plane tree in the square on a perfect Fevzi Paşa afternoon.

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