Thoughts on Global Archaeology

On June 5, 2012, my Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project excavation team hit glorious bedrock (something just over or around 1.8 meters below ground surface). Here is what happens when you sink a hand pick into clay and hit said bedrock. Reverberations shoot up and in through the handle, up to the hand, all while simultaneously returning audible reverberations produced by said metal pick striking bedrock (also known as “that sturdy clink”). The ear drum will pick this up and trigger cognition in a certain direction. It will induce a New World northern Great Plains’ers’ eyes to widen. Note: if you are privy to Native America and its history (and you always should be), you will arguably not regard yourself as from the New World (in academia, we sometimes refer to this as post-colonialism). However, when you are in the Mediterranean, you will need to somehow communicate differences from one side of the Atlantic to another. “Damn that Columbus.” Say this while smiling. If you carry Scandinavian historical identity with you, remind Columbus fanatics about this Smithsonian web-link. We all need balance.

The wall emerges. It’s okay to vacillate between the late Lewis Binford’s processualism and Ian Hodder’s post-processualism while uncovering subsurface Hellenistic architecture at this stage in the game. Say to yourself, “What does this all mean!?”

Anyhow, and upon hearing this bedrock clink, thank the archaeological comrade to your immediate east. “Thank you for also hitting bedrock.” Then pull the pick up out of the earth, swivel the handle 180 degrees, grip it again, and bring back the right arm to its physiological apex. When at its entire apex swing downward, coordinating the arm with gravity to aim the scraper end where the pick left off. Note: you will hear a similar clink and feel the handle vibrate again. With the pick lodged in the dirt and resting on the bedrock below, extend the free left arm toward the upended pick, enclose the left hand around the topside of it, and then drag the handle toward yourself with your right while pushing down on the backside with your left. Essentially, pull the scraper in to the body. Do this repeatedly, moving across the horizontal stratigraphy, only stopping to wipe the sweat from the brow (it otherwise will get into your eyes and produce a slight sting in the corners). This, in turn, will ultimately induce northern Great Plains and Old World historic and archaeological comparative thoughts.

No matter the location on the planet, archaeological excavation units are essentially closed quarter laboratories, where theory and data are in constant exchange with one-another. There is the material culture that continuously emerges from below, inanimate objects from a bygone age (note: do not ever, ever, refer to skeletal remains as “inanimate objects.” You will deservedly be destroyed by the present). These objects carry and reflect the imprint of humanity. Know them. Respect them. They are from civilizations and cultures that pushed in certain directions for an infinite amount of reasons. While in the excavation unit, thoughts will continue, at least when bounced off the word culture (this word and idea re-popularized by Fernand Braudelin the 20th century).  This latter word, culture, is analogous with the word cult (and even agriculture, and monoculture), or the process of doing things together and in a particular direction. These are some thoughts that will rip through your brain.

Hellenistic Imagined Community (name-dropping thanks here to Benedict Anderson). Map taken from U of Texas web-link:

In addition to this, your archaeological physiology will be in constant exchange with meteorology and the weather. This may be reflected in the saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the excavation unit.” You will be uncertain how warm it has been getting at the Vigla site on Cyprus — “What does this Centigrade mean? And why can’t the world just get on board with Fahrenheit? What does it all mean?!” Never mind all of these thoughts. Keep them to yourself. If you know the sun is going to be up and about, definitely wear a brimmed hat (sombreros have been suggested), collars if you can, sunscreen for certain. If your shirt is in its second day of rotation, you may take offense at your own odor about mid-afternoon of that second day. It’s okay to announce this to your crew. Be calm in your tone, though. “I am taking offense at my own body odor. I just wanted to announce that.” In the correct context, all of this will lighten things up a bit.

But back to this exchange in the excavation unit, the one that is set down on top of a 3rd century BC Hellenistic site. As the fortification wall grows up out of the ground (you’re excavating around it), you will begin admiring the mason who some 2,300 years prior chiseled these ashlar blocks and roughed out stones here and there to assemble this wall. “Is it a partition wall? Is it one phase of an exterior wall? What’s with all the military-like artifacts we keep coming down on within these walls? MAKE SENSE OF ALL THIS, DAMMIT!!!” You’re brain will think these things, a kind of psychological inversion into itself. After climbing out of the test unit, scribble a distilled and filtered variation of these thoughts down in the subjective note section of your excavation unit forms. Use big words here and there. They tend to be more timeless than relativistic lay-terms. Also: a slight breeze may push up over the plateau and evaporate the sweat out of your drenched shirt. Be sure to say to the crew, “Don’t come out of the excavation unit: it’s cold up here, something like 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or whatever,  and you’ll catch a chill and perhaps your death. Stay down and warm in the breeze-less 90+ degree excavation unit.”

As mentioned above, excavation units can become cramped. But this doesn’t matter because you’ll have kept the bigger idea and picture in mind. The mind convinces the body that an inevitability is at stake: we will finish this excavation unit, record it properly, and be satisfied with questions we answered, and the new questions generated by the unanticipated finds — happens every time.

While in the western portion of the excavation unit and while facing north, you will have to bring the pick down close to the emerging foundation wall. This will invariably bring your knuckles into direct contact with the said foundation wall. With one repeated swing after another, your knuckles hitting the wall is ultimately a game of chance and odds. At some point they will scrape the wall. When this happens, you’ll immediately think of the epilogue Tom Isern set down in Prairie Churches. Tom was re-roofing a prairie church, and he maneuvered in a way on the ladder that was in discord with gravity, and amazingly he captured himself, but only after dragging his forearm across the said church roof. One imagines that a bit of Tom, at least the DNA from his scrape, was set into this church roof. Similar situation when your knuckles whack and scrape the side of subsurface Hellenistic architecture in the Levant. You’ll see a dash of blood and think, “Well, there it is. Better take a picture and Web 2.0/Digital Humanities this thing on the Internets…”

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