Imagine…

Imagine a hazy, too warm, brooding September day in the south of Turkey. The air carries the smell of rain and a subtle threat of thunder. Outside the window the pines that were thrashing in the wind an hour ago are now only gently stirring.

In your palm rests a fragile clump of shaped earth, bearing the slightest traces of an ancient cylinder seal. Slanting the desk lamp to cast the impression into relief, trying to distinguish between the rough texture of the clay and slightly raised figures depicted there, you sigh with frustration. (Seriously: if you were about to make something that would last three thousand years wouldn’t you take the time to do it properly so that when it finally came out of the ground three millennia later someone might actually be able to appreciate your craftsmanship without squinting to the point of near blindness?) Angling the piece nearer to the light, trying not to damage the fragile, crumbly lump, your tenuous grip eases slightly and the clay falls to your angled drawing table, sliding to the floor, shattering…

NO. That didn’t happen. Imagine, I said, just imagine. 

This scenario plays and replays in my head throughout my workday as a myriad small finds pass through my hands: delicate bits of jewellery, tiny beads, intricately decorated figurines and amorphous lumps of unbaked clay printed – sometimes barely visibly so – with seal impressions. I worry about crushing or dropping or unintentionally losing something as I measure and examine and trace the contours. It hasn’t happened – yet. The fear does, however, keep me mindful and reverent of these small remnants of ancient daily life entrusted to me.

Beside my desk this afternoon rests a crate of miscellaneous objects to be drawn and –  aside from a few things that still need to be conserved or photographed – this will likely be the last of the season’s new drawings. We’re nearly at the end of digging. Tomorrow evening is our wrap-up party and many of the dig staff scatter for home on Sunday. Senior staff remain another two weeks – finalizing research, assembling data, composing reports, documenting finds – winding down. 

For now, back to the drawing board…and some quality time with this little fellow, who I am holding with a firm grip.

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A few thousand more words…

I had an internet problem tonight that I finally managed to fix – thank you, Apple forums! – so before I grab that forty (or more) winks, I leave you with these.

New season

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The days are passing as quickly as they ever do on an archaeological dig, blending one into another. The season at Tell Keisan was already half way through when I joined in, so it’s been easy to pick up the established rhythm. 

The excavation crew depart for the site in the dark of early morning well before we of the house staff arise.The dawn chorus is barely begun as we settle to our various tasks, not reaching full voice until somewhat past first breakfast. The birdsong here is varied and melodious, a change from the frenetic cooing of pigeons I’m accustomed to waking with in Turkey. The rasping buzz of cicadas climbs in volume as the heat builds, eventually masking the hum of traffic on the highway nearby. Our proximity to the seashore brings stifling humidity in addition to the Middle Eastern heat. 

We are housed in the guest facilities of a local kibbutz: small, comfortably furnished rooms – air conditioned – clustered about a shady courtyard. A few rooms have become makeshift offices, the pottery is sorted in growing stacks on tables on the lawn and multitudinous bags of soil samples are tucked into tiled alcoves outside our door. Coffee awaits in plentiful supply in the dining hall and we avail ourselves continuously of the stimulant as we work through the morning. 

The objects cluttering my desk are familiar – parallel to the small finds at Zincirli: beads, a spindle whorl, figurine fragments. I fill my new pens, peer through the magnifying lens, measure carefully and begin to pencil in the lines of worked stone, bone and clay – elements of an ancient story we are assembling.

We join the returning dig crew at the dining hall across the kibbutz for our mid-day meal. They are dust-coated, sweat-drenched and weary from the morning’s work. We glean news of recent finds and developments, and tramp back to quarters to shower or rest briefly before the afternoon work session. A lecture from one of the dig specialists rounds out most afternoons – fascinating insights to the many aspects of archaeology – offered in the hour before the evening meal.

I find myself eagerly anticipating meals. Besides the welcome break from long working hours, breakfast, lunch and dinner each present an array of tantalizing dishes: colourful salads, cheeses, yogurt, pickled and fresh vegetables, baked goods, breaded and roasted and stewed meats… and everything is delicious. I enjoy and anticipate Turkish food too – but these particular tastes are new and novel and I am definitely enjoying the discovery process while resisting seconds.

After dinner we scatter to various conversations in the darkened courtyard – renewing acquaintances and cultivating new friendships, sorting out new names and faces. Israeli digs work somewhat differently than those elsewhere in that a part of our field staff is composed of volunteers as opposed to students, attracting a more varied demographic. I’m enjoying not being the only (partially) grey-haired participant.

Nearly at the end of my first week, I hope to finally visit the dig site tomorrow. In anticipation of tomorrow’s early rising, my two Israeli roommates and I tuck in at an early hour. Sleep comes easily, cosily curled beneath the comforting hum of the air conditioner. 

Off again…

Autumn became winter, then winter became spring and now we are half way through summer. I’ve shamelessly neglected this blog so rather than face the daunting task of catching you up, I’ll just launch in to my current exploits, shall I?

Here I am once again – half way around the world. New country. New dig. 

Tomorrow I begin as the illustrator at Tell Keisan, working once again with Dr. David Schloen – this time in Israel. It’s been lovely landing in a strange place to find familiar faces from past seasons at Zincirli – friendships that reach back over years and stretch across many miles. With more than fifty staff here, there are also many new faces to learn in the next two weeks! 

I’ve arrived on the weekend so it’s been an easy start: yesterday a half day to catch up on sleep and slip into a new rhythm, and today to tour a nearby dig at Tel Dor at the edge of the sea, followed by time on the beach. I have to honestly say that this has been, hands down, the best first day on a dig I have enjoyed thus far! Nonetheless, I’m still a little sleep deprived and jet lagged. So I leave you with a snapshot of the Mediterranean from the Israeli shore.

More soon…

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Season’s end

Yesterday I awoke in the Turkish city of Adana; this morning my window overlooks the Toronto airport, the city skyline in the hazy distance. Tomorrow, I’ll wake to my Kelowna valley view. The 2017 Zincirli season is not only over, but half a world away.

As ever, the final days of the dig were frantically busy. The few of us left behind to conclude the season worked intensely – but also enjoyed some cosy communal time. The smaller group fit companionably along the courtyard picnic tables, lingering over evening meals, sampling the local wines in a vain search for something palatable, dissecting world events and digesting the season’s findings. A challenging jigsaw puzzle focussed our attention the final nights but, alas, too late in the day for completion. Our numbers dwindled by twos and threes until the final departures this week. Now the offices are sealed awaiting our return.

I leave you with a few images from this year’s work and travels. Heading home…

Morning sounds…

The village minaret  – and its’ loudspeaker – are only steps from our residence and although two concrete walls separate my quarters from the earliest call to prayer, some mornings it seems as though the muezzin is sharing my room – or perhaps only occupying my dreams. The hour of the call no longer coincides with my morning alarm, yet it’s still the signal for first stirrings in the dorm. As the dig mornings count down, I’m more and more likely to doze through these sounds of preparations – a variety of digital chimes, sleepy chatter, the patter of flip flops, water splashing and toothbrushes humming, the to-and-fro of heavier footwear, keys clacking in the lock and the door slamming …and clacking and slamming and clacking…and then uncharacteristically closing quietly…and then slamming again. Off they go to the field, just when my own digital wake-up call starts chirping.

The kitchen is quiet when I arrive soon after, the remains of first breakfast awaiting the house staff, of which I am seldom the first to emerge, but rarely the last. The tea has been depleted, so I light the stove to freshen the pot then take my simple fare of tea, bread, cheese and vegetables out to the courtyard under the pines and cedars. The wind shushes through trees that are filled with chattering birds and frantically cooing pigeons (I don’t know exactly why, but the local pigeons always sound panicked to me.) A pair of stray dogs, mother and pup, romp across the lawn, while a village cat surreptitiously slinks under the tables seeking scraps from last nights’ dinner. The sky is only just warmed by the rose of approaching dawn.

Inside the workroom, the air is still and stuffy from the heat of the day before. As I pry open the windows, the metal frames grate and complain. The cool morning air quickly freshens the room. Only a few of us are here in the offices in the morning. We work in companionable silence mostly, the only noises the click, click of keyboards and an occasional foot keeping time to an audio feed. It’s quiet enough that I can hear the tapping of my technical pen contacting the paper as I fill a drawing with stipple dots of texture.

The sun rises above the horizon, golden light streaming directly across my desk. I pull the curtains closed so that I can see my work surface. A hose hisses as the caretaker sets out the sprinkler in the yard. Women’s voices approach; greetings are called. Şukriye and Leyla have arrived to begin the day’s cooking. Soon the soundscape includes the rhythmic chopping of second breakfast preparations.

Slowly the village rouses. There’s a shuddering of trains at the nearby station and a hoot announces an imminent departure; gears grind as a transport heads up the hill; metal shutters clatter up as shops open in the square.

Good morning, Fevzipaşa.

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Mundane and magic

Just over a week into the latest dig and I’m thinking how hard it is to recapture the feeling of when everything was new and novel. How do I convey what it means to be here if I’m so settled in routine that I no longer see what is unique to this place and this undertaking?

It’s why a weekend such as this past one is so special: a trip to Antakya – a familiar destination – in the company of Evren and Sebastiano, who I have known since my first season, to meet another friend, Zeki – a past camp director also from that first season. Before starting out, it all felt a bit routine – nothing exciting, but a way to spend the day off. I’ve been to Antakya so many times. I’ve seen the mosaics at the old museum, I’ve traveled that stretch of highway… many times. I’ve known these people for years. Yet, in the midst of the familiar: surprises.

Antakya – and the countryside and, well, Turkey – are bristling with new construction. The downtown area was much transformed and the new museum is impressive and up to the moment. A new ‘museum hotel’ is underway – modular and innovative and reminding me a little of Habitat from Montreal’s Expo ’67. The mosaics and artifacts from the old museum are showcased in a way that gives them space and context, and there was an impressive display of new finds from the University of Toronto’s expedition at Tel Tayinat. Zeki had to restrain me at one point, suggesting I stop continually announcing, “ Hey, I drew one of those! and I drew one like that, too and…” (clearly, I like my job.)

Along with Evren and Seba were Tizi and Valentina, who were unfamiliar with Antakya. Zeki was keen to share the sights with us – and so I revisited the Church of St. Peter – a cave church dating back to New Testament times, visited by both apostles Peter and Paul and said to be the community where the new disciples were first called “Christians.” He drove us to a vantage point high over the city, but not so high as the remains of the walls that once completely encircled it.

Then we went to lunch, Zeki leading us down a narrow, nondescript lane and through a doorway into…magic. Once across the threshold we were all enchanted by the architecture of an earlier time. These are my favourite Turkish moments: the modern, hurried world gives way. Friends gather in the cool shade of an interior courtyard, pull up around a table, share new flavours and old stories, locking in new memories to recount down the road.

Riding home later, watching the hills shade to crimson in the light of sunset, I was reminded of the hills I see from my own front window and how I have watched them change constantly over the day and through the seasons. The familiar need not ever be mundane nor routine. There is always magic – if you keep looking for it.  Occasionally, you need a friend to remind you.

 

In memoriam

I’m bothered this morning. Saddened. At the same time, I remain uneasy at claiming or commenting on events. I’m not an archaeologist, I’m just someone who, by virtue of other unrelated gifts, has been allowed to tag along for the ride. Maybe I’m committing cultural appropriation. Even so.

There’s an assortment of objects on my desk today for drawing. A figurine, several seal impressions, a  motley collection of pottery sherds.  I plug into a podcast and plug away at my drawings, squint at the fine details, haul out the magnifying glass, muse over missing pieces – broken sometimes, or abraded or obscured under mineral deposits. The morning passes and the miscellanea is recorded. None of these items qualify as  treasure, nothing in and of itself valuable – yet each object has some contribution to deciphering the characters that can then be assembled into words and phrases, maybe enough sentence fragments to allow us to read a chapter – a small one maybe – but one that adds to the story.

Whose story? Yours. Mine. Ours. The story about who we are, the one that tells how we came here and where we might be going. The story that astonishes us with how very far we’ve come and then surprises us with recognizable behaviour that we share across millennia. It’s a story that traces the expansion of empires and the trading routes of cooking pots, the spread of ideas, the preservation of knowledge, the creation of beauty. It’s a cautionary tale about the consequences of war and our impact on the environment and the more of our collective history that we piece together, the more prepared we are to move into the future.

When a part of the that tale is lost or destroyed or buried, each of us on the planet loses something. Today, I feel that loss in the person of Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who gave forty years to studying and preserving ancient treasures and now has given his life.

Yes, it’s a lark to be here on the dig: Indiana Jones, adult summer camp, living the dream and all that. Today it also feels…important.

We are family…

A year or so after my first archaeological dig, I signed on for an illustration workshop at an historical archaeology conference in Toronto. I arrived early to the Royal York Hotel and planted myself in an overstuffed armchair on the mezzanine to wait.

It was the first morning of the conference; attendees were still arriving. I remember watching from above as people called out in delighted recognition, embraced enthusiastically, gathered in affectionate clusters; I also remember realizing that this companionable warmth was something I had until then experienced only in a Christian context – I’d never witnessed it outside of church. In that moment I understood that what I was observing was a universal human experience, not an exclusively religious one at all. We call it community.

It may start with a shared interest or common purpose, but it grows far beyond that. The discussion group continues for over twenty years and sustains you through major life changes. The workplace companions shore you up in a crisis and push you back out into the world renewed. The travel group become your confidantes and best ever girlfriends. The professional association assures you that your own particular variety of weird isn’t so weird. It’s not just individual connections you make within a group – it’s the sense of being woven into a fabric. A tribal identity is bestowed. It’s the sharing in something bigger. It’s home – home that extends beyond time or place; home that you find unexpectedly when you’ve journeyed away and home that awaits your return.

A community is definitely what we become here on the dig. At the beginning of the season we joyfully pick up the threads of past years and continue into the summer knitting in the new arrivals. Not everyone arrives at the start; not everyone stays to the end – so our family expands and contracts continuously. We work together, drink together, laugh together, complain together. We each weave a niche specific to our own gifts and interactions; we all find our way into the fabric of this particular Zincirli season.

We reached our season peak earlier this week; several of the team have departed since. As the summer winds down hello will be gradually crowded out with goodbye – but there are still a few weeks to enjoy this little community, one that has, for me, stretched to embrace half the world.

Close encounters

It’s Friday afternoon and we’ve concluded our third work week here on the dig. I’m comfortably seated with a glass of Turkish tea, enjoying a cooling breeze after a week that saw temperatures hover in the 40’s.

The work pace is picking up. Small finds are starting to flow in and find their way to my desk by way of registration and then conservation. I have to wait a few days to see notable items while they are cleaned and notated, but the most interesting come to me for drawing eventually. That is when the object and I enjoy some serious one-on-one time.

I have the work room to myself most mornings, so I plug in to iTunes or queue up a podcast and get down to work. While enjoying the tantalizing sounds and smells of meal preparation in the dining hall adjacent, I get acquainted with the item before me. It feels like quite a privilege to be trusted with finds that are nearly three thousand years old!

Earlier this week I began listening to a BBC podcast series: “The History of the World in 100 Objects”. I’m only a few episodes in, but I’m hooked. In the second of the series, the host considers a stone tool from the Olduvai gorge in Africa – the oldest object in the British Museum shaped by humans. He describes how the axe fits easily in his hand, allowing him to imagine life in that far away time and place. I know that experience: being handed a stone tool to draw, an object that looks like nothing more than a rock selected at random, then surprisingly, the heft and contour “fit” my hand – not just usefully, but pleasingly. Instantly, it becomes easier to imagine the original user of the implement being not too different from me – like a miniature time machine.

Along with the usual small finds drawings I’m expanding my skill set some this season as we’re short-handed in the ceramic drawing department. Lucky for me, some of the most beautiful pottery we’ve seen in several seasons is showing up on my watch. I’m not only reviewing how to reproduce the contours of fragmented pots, but learning also how to depict varied finishes and record complex decorations. I’m quite excited by the loveliness of some of the vessels that are accumulating and hoping I’m up for the challenge.

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Meanwhile, it’s Friday and a weekend in the village. If you’ve been following this for a while you’ll know what that means: the wedding music has begun – and all of this year’s celebrations have included fireworks. Finishing the week with a bang!