New season


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. 

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.