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. 

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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…

Time flies!

I’ve been here on the dig for three weeks and we’re already past the half way point of the season. Spare time seems to be at a premium. I’m using my afternoons to catch a nap rather than socialize or write. The usually punishing schedule is particularly punishing this year; could it be advancing age??

If the pattern holds, we’re easing into September weather. Temperatures are in a slightly more comfortable range – in the morning and evening, certainly. Our start time has been dialled back to account for a later sunrise, and we ended our evening meal after dark tonight. I have a full crate of artifacts collecting beneath my desk, awaiting attention: an assortment of partial stone vessels, clay weights and such. Nothing that you would recognize as ‘treasure’ but it all tells a story. I’ve drawn about half of what is on my “to do” list, and more comes in from the field each day. Maybe that accounts for the lack of free time more than my age?

While I continue to play catch up here, I thought I’d hold you at bay with a few photos from a recent trip to the Gaziantep museum. The stele I’m posed with and the orthostat were two of the very first finds that I was assigned to draw in 2008. I was only here for three weeks that first season – a “try out” for the position of illustrator. I cut my teeth on some major material and passed the test, so here I am nine years later. The museum case may not seem like much to you – but it’s the first time ever that I’ve seen a collection with which I’d been up close and personal: I’d drawn (and handled) every artifact in the display!

 

 

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.

 

Once around the circle…

Hello again. Welcome back. I know. It’s been a while.

I’m sitting on my balcony as darkness falls. A chill glass of white from a neighbourhood winery sits to hand. The distant clouds are frosted in pink, the nearer hills shading to bronze; following a week under the shroud of a smokey haze, it’s lovely to breathe clear air and see down the valley again. The crickets have begun their nightly chorus – the rhythmic song of late summer that lulled me to sleep my first nights here.

It was a year ago this weekend that I left behind my home in Ontario. I’ve come round the calendar, marking the changes and learning the rhythms of this new home. I’ve seen the summer orchards shade to bronze and copper, watched as winter crept down from the peaks and watched it retreat again, drank in the scent of orchards in blossom, marvelled as clusters of fruit appeared among the rows.  It was peach season when I arrived and it’s peach season again; each day’s offering bigger and juicier than the day before. Berries, apricots and cherries have had their day, now root vegetables and field tomatoes are crowding the stalls. Cabbages and pumpkins ripen in the fields, the trees are burdened with still-green apples.

Summer is far from over here in the Okanagan – but I’ll be heading off in the morning to spend the remaining weeks of the season in Turkey.  After a year of exploring and learning a new place, it’s time to return to a familiar one. The dig at Zincirli opened at the beginning of August and I’ve had word that lovely objects have emerged from the soil and are waiting to be drawn. I’m eager to reconnect with friends – it’s been nearly two years! – and I’m wondering how the sleepy little village of Fevzipaşa has fared meanwhile. I’m awash in thoughts of steaming tea in tulip glasses, tiny cups of morning espresso, late night conversations in a windy courtyard and early mornings awakening to a somewhat-less-than-melodious call to prayer. Adventure – of a sort – awaits.

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If you’ve been following this blog previously, you have an idea of what’s to come. If you’re new here – you may want to take a look at this early post to catch up on what I’m up to. Old friend or new – I hope you’ll come along!

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.