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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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.

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!

Happy.Go.Lucky.

Yes, it’s appalling how long I’ve neglected this blog but my adventures are about to resume – and so the inspiration for blogging in the first place will, happily, be renewed. Tomorrow evening I’ll be winging my way to Turkey once again. I’ve done a provisional packing. Everything fits, which I’m sure means that I’ve forgotten something major but I don’t know what it is yet. Over the years I’ve stashed an awful lot of stuff at our quarters in the village – art supplies and books, bedding, clothes and sundries – so each year I take less and less with me.

Meanwhile I’ve concluded that no amount of cramming Rosetta Stone exercises will have me speaking Turkish fluently before I fly out. In spite of regular study, the language still baffles me. I’ve added considerable vocabulary, but I still have little clue how to string the words together to compose a sentence. I’m hoping that I have enough stuffed into my brain to keep Sila, my little village friend, from laughing at me. Again. I am haunted by her exasperated sighs at my past feeble attempts. Perhaps I will be speaking more at the end of the summer than now. That’s not really saying much…pun intended.

As I’ve been preparing this past week, I’ve been reflecting on a service that I attended last weekend, a memorial for the mother of a good friend here in town. Kay was a vibrant presence and the service was a celebration of a life joyously well lived. I am very mindful of two oft repeated phrases of Kay’s that her grandsons quoted: “Aren’t we the happy people?” and “Aren’t we lucky?” She seemed constantly mindful of the wonder of life, the good fortune of being surrounded by friends and family and never ceased to remind others of that.

Now, here am I about to take a plane half-way around the world. I know there will be friends waiting in the Istanbul airport, that we’ll greet each other warmly and continue our journey together. I know that at the end of a familiar road there will be yet more friends to greet and a foreign village that has become a kind of home. Yes, there will be grumbling over too early mornings and seemingly endless hot, long days of work but there will also be stories and laughter and yet more friendships shared over the summer.

Ah, my archaeological friends! Aren’t we the happy people? Aren’t we lucky?

Will you come along and share the summer with us?