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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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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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.