Saturday, May 30, 2009

Archaeologist's Tool Box: Trowel and Shabbat Shalom

The other major, “stereotypical” archaeological instrument is the trusty mason’s trowel. Trowels are handy for scraping off surfaces (walls, dirt, etc), poking around between rocks and features, scooping up or maneuvering small piles of soil, trimming baulks, testing material and hardness of soil composition (like when looking for a floor), and various other small tasks. The trowel is perhaps a bit more refined than a patiche – which may be why I don’t like it as well. It is not particularly handy for loosening a lot of soil, and can often make soil look like a hard, packed, defined, level surface when it isn’t.
A trowel is actually the first tool I bought for archaeology, way back in 2004 before I first went to Omrit (we were all carefully instructed about the difference between a gardening trowel and a mason’s trowel). My particular trowel came from a Menards or some such place oh so long ago, and my favorite thing about it is the signature red handle. Most trowels (including Marshalltown trowels, which are the gold standard for archaeological equipment) have wooden handles, resulting in the identical appearance of numerous items and complicated systems of marking and burnishing initials. I can always spot mine from meters away.

Today is Shabbat, the Jewish and Israeli day of rest, which means we have the day off from excavating. I celebrated by sleeping in (until 9:00!!! Oh, the luxury!!), doing some light paperwork, and reading the final excavation reports for areas around where I am digging this season so as to learn what I should be looking for in terms of stratigraphy, pottery, and architecture. We have several undergraduates here working as assistants in varying capacities, many of whom were confused to see so many of us working on our day off and marginally guilty to not be doing so themselves. I explained to them that 1) we are all complete and total workaholics who don’t know what to do with ourselves when not working, 2) this is the work to which we freaks look forward the remainder of the year – I’d honestly rather be calculating elevations or recording pottery readings than reading a junky novel, and the promise of this work sustains me through the drudgeries of translating Greek in the middle of February, and 3) we know how much work there will soon be, and how it will pile up if not done now.

The last two or three days have been beautifully clear, allowing a brilliant view of the snow on Mt Hermon to our northwest and of the Lebanese villages to the northeast. The accompanying wind has also kept the gnats away. But the right side of my face is exceptionally dry and chapped, and I couldn’t figure out why it would be so much worse than the left until someone pointed out that I stand in the same position on site for several hours (while I’m sifting dirt), with the right side of my face oriented in the direction of the wind. Another team is also working in that vicinity, thereby sending gusts of fine sifted soil down in my direction. So my poor poor face is abraded from wind and dirt.

Also, did you know there are three kinds of heat rash??? At least I only have the one. Hot.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Israel at last

I've now been in Israel for about four days (wow, is that really it? huh). We've had two full days of excavation, preceded by a day and a half of clearing assorted brush, including thistles and dry hay, from around the site. Of the many years I've worked in northern Israel, this is perhaps the most quickly I have seen a site "reclaimed" by nature. We promptly took it back. Take that nature!

The thistles were frequently over 6 feet tall and covered in spikes but were not nearly as petrifying as the hay. My resulting allergy attack was truly epic. I am master of the farmer blow.

Other than that, we're still settling in and recovering from a bit of jet lag. I had a really difficult time sleeping the first few nights, with the result that our first day of excavation, I was completely dragging and unenergetic. I wondered, "what the heck happened to me? It's going to be a loooong summer if this doesn't improve." Then, lo and behold, after a two hour nap and solid 6 hours of sleep, today proved much more bearable, almost enjoyable. (I say almost because we're still making our way through topsoil, which is essentially 50 centimeters of churned up modern crap, so we are not doing or finding anything remotely interesting.)

The conservation team here has a website and blog that they update fairly regularly. If you just can't get enough Tel Kedesh (and who could), here you are.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Your hero and mine

Packing is a bit all consuming at the moment, but here's a little bit of Indy joy that passed through my email inbox this week.

The AIA made a big deal about HF coming to this huge gala in April. And apparently he didn't show up. Whoops.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Archaeologist's Tool Box: Patiche

In a blatant rip-off of my friend Casey, who has been entertaining readers with her series on "Squirrel Stuff I Own" and "Casey's Foods," I'm inaugurating a new posting theme revolving around the Archaeologist's Tool Box. As I pack to leave for Israel in a week, I'm coming upon all the random tools and equipment archaeologists use - almost never for their intended purpose.

The other reason is my high excitement at the newest addition to my assemblage. A patiche is unique in archaeology in so far as it is one of the few tools actually designed explicitly for archaeological use. The narrow pointy end of this handpick is useful for knocking away fine dirt from the edges of a rock or chunk of pottery (aka "articulating"), and the wide end is perfect for breaking up larger amounts of dirt and trimming balks (aka the dirt walls created by digging) to be nice and straight. The patiche has so many other uses, I can't even begin to describe or even think of them all. The trowel is often reputed to be the most indispensable tool to an archaeologist, but I find patichim more versatile and generally useful. I have a friend who claims he can perform any archaeological task with only a patiche - perhaps not optimally, or most efficiently, but certainly doable.
My particular, brand new patiche was a graduation present from Rhys that magically showed up on my doorstep this week! (Well, technically the UPS tag showed up stuck to my door, and I had to go pick up the package at the distribution center... but that doesn't sound nearly so romantic.) Apparently I had been hinting that I wanted him to get me one; I thought I was just talking. In the package was not only a patiche, but also a holster, so that I can have my patiche at the ready at all times, in the event of a dirt removal emergency. How handy!

In other news, I'm completely, officially done with all requirements for my Master's degree.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Journalism, Archaeology, and Legitimacy

Way to generate a four way voting tie, people. You're so helpful.

The Sunday New York Times ran a front page article this week titled "Parks Fortify Israel's Claim to Jerusalem." I'd learned about this issue last semester. Essentially, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem which was annexed by Israel in 1967 (Silwan) is now being transformed into an archaeological park which emphasizes the centrality of the area to Jewish history, thereby enforcing a mindset of Jewish/Israeli hegemony there. The excavation and parks construction are being conducted by a shadow group which appears to be funded by American and Russian Zionists, called Elad. Elad is fundamentally a settlers group. An Elad spokesman reputedly told a reporter in 2006 that the organizations' goal is "to get a [Jewish] foothold in East Jerusalem and to create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City." (quoted in an article in The Nation, July 2008). This is accomplished in part by forcing Palestinians living in Silwan to sell their houses cheaply and conducting archaeological excavation on the City of David (translation: Iron Age remains) to demonstrate that Jewish people were there first. These "excavations", if clearing anything less than 2500 years old with bulldozers is to be called that, are tacitly approved by the government.

If you're curious about further ethical, political, and archaeological issues involved in Elad's City of David excavations, read The Nation article linked above, or watch this video. It "stars" Rafi Greenburg, a respected Israeli archaeologist. I've met him a few times; he's a legitimate scholar.

But does the NY Times article really discuss any of this? No. The online version loads in two pages. The first page includes such gems of objective journalism as: "As part of the effort, archaeologists are finding indisputable evidence of ancient Jewish life here. Yet Palestinian officials and institutions tend to dismiss the finds as part of an effort to build a Zionist history here. In other words, while the Israeli narrative that guides the government plan focuses largely — although not exclusively — on Jewish history and links to the land, the Palestinian narrative heightens tensions, pushing the Israelis into a greater confrontational stance."

The second page acknowledges some controversy in the archaeological community about the legitimacy of the scholarship. There is a quotation from a February article by Professor Greenberg, who was clearly not interviewed for this piece. The NY Times writers then undermine all legitimacy of opposition by writing "At the same time, the Web site of Al Quds University, one of the most important Palestinian institutions, states that the Western Wall, the remnant of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, was probably built by the Romans because the temple could not have stood there. There is no scholarly dispute about whether the temple stood beneath what is today the Aksa Mosque compound." What Al Quds and the Western Wall have to do with Elad and Silwan, I have no idea, other than to show that all interested parties have "scholarship" at their disposal and are not above using it for political purposes. But Al Quds University is of course flat wrong...

This post is less about the blatant uses and abuses of archaeology at Silwan - I think it's fairly clear how I and hundreds of other archaeologists feel about this - and more about the dangers of journalism, even from such a legitimate source as the New York Times. This bias and poor journalism of this article completely angered me, and if I had more credibility (say, three letters after my name) I would write such a scathing letter to the editor.

What it really comes down to, again, is lack of scientific and academic literacy in the US. How do you distinguish good scholarship from bad? Real bias from attempted objectivity? The "theory" of evolution versus creationism?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Once we were in danger from fanatical lama priests..."

One of the small joys of my life is listening to Science Friday podcasts on the bus to and from school. All spring, Ira Flatow has been interviewing guests with ties to Charles Darwin in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of The Origin of Species. I'm heinously behind, but this evening on the way home, I learned something very very interesting and important.

Roy Chapman Andrews is the official real life Indiana Jones! And he's from Beloit, Wisconsin, which is a half hour from where I grew up and less than ten minutes from my parents' current house!!!!! Apparently his true gift was in taxidermy, but he worked his way up the ladder at the American Museum of Natural History by taking a position sweeping floors and hitting up Andrew Carnegie for money.
The only problem is RCA (as his society seems inclined to call him) isn't really an archaeologist. He's more a paleontologist/evolutionary biologist, who set out looking for hominid fossils in the Gobi desert but instead ended up finding scores of dinosaur fossils, including the first ever identified velociraptor and dinosaur eggs. When I tell people I'm an archaeologist, and they reply "Wow, dinosaurs!", I helpfully correct them by pointing out that Indiana Jones is archaeology, Jurassic Park is paleontology. Way to not understand the difference, George Lucas.

But, he did wear a fedora and carry a pistol, which, as we all know, are really the only relevant aspects here.

When I have free days this summer at my parent's house, I'm going to go look at his birthplace and grave and maybe, finally, eventually, go to the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College as I have been intending for years. Pictures to come!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Coffee stimulates your urges, it is served in Lutheran churches

I have a problem, dear blog readers. And that problem is that I'm going to run out of coffee at home in about 3-4 days, but I promised the Gods of Moving that I would not buy any more groceries before I move in 13 days. But I also promised the Gods of Finance that I would attempt to be responsible, given all the going away-last minute-I have no food in my house meals and drinks out which will occur in the next couple weeks, thus making the $2 a day to become one of those people who buys overpriced coffee also an inadequate solution.

A sub-version of this problem is that I am going to run out of the cute little #2 coffee filters around the same time, for my scuzzy little coffee maker that I haven't cleaned in 4 years. I recently was gifted a clean, shiny, larger coffee maker courtesy of friend Rachel, courtesy of friend Rachel's future sister-in-law. In my master plan, I was going to throw away the old one when I moved and take the new one with me, thus absolving myself from all coffee maker cleaning. However, I don't want to buy new filters when I know I won't use them all, particularly if I don't have coffee to put in them.

Yes, I realize this might appear to have little to do with archaeology. But you try waking up at 4:15am, six days a week, for eight weeks, and tell me coffee is irrelevant to archaeology. (I feel a little Michael Scott-esque, claiming that signing papers for his condo doesn't count as a personal day off from work, because it pertains to his job as he needs a place to live in order to perform his job.)

So! I turn the question to you, dear readers. Vote in the poll at right anytime between now and Sunday night. I will abide by your collective wisdom.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Claire has sufficiently shamed me into a new post, even though (I promise!) I'd been meaning to get around to it since, as she pointed out, it has been a month.

I passed my written and oral defenses over a week ago. Overall, they went fairly well. I had a written slide exam, with 4 minutes each to identify and discuss 15 images and 10 minutes each for another 3. The only thing that worried me after completing it was if I had, in such a short time, provided the information my adviser would be looking for in my answers, as I generally didn't have time to write down everything I knew about any given image. We discussed my exam at a dinner party later that week, and she laughed about how she'd had fun making up the exam, including several controversial or curious images, that we'd discussed in several contexts, just to see what I'd say about them. (One of them was the Cave of Pan, which is the alternate site for the temple Herod built to Augustus προς Paneion, as opposed to Omrit. I skirted the issue by talking about the cave itself, rather than any temple that may or may not have been there...) She further observed upon looking at my exam that I had taken it a bit more seriously in the writing than she did in the grading.

My oral exam was more pleasant, mainly casual discussion about both my Herod paper and an earlier version of my beads paper, which is still very much a work in progress. My committee members asked me some questions, some of which I had never considered an answer to or was completely ignorant of, but that was ok. My advisor was glowing in praise of my work, suggesting that I consider working up a version of Herod for an article in Near Eastern Archaeology (a semi-scholarly journal), although the two others were less effervescent, I suppose. They sent me out of the room for about five minutes, brought me back in, said cursory congratulations, and left. It was rather anticlimactic, as I found myself gathering up my things in the emptied room, looking around, not sure what to do next. Didn't anyone want to take me out for a drink???

Silly me, I had expected it to be more like my Honors project defense when heaps of laud and praise would be poured over my head as a slave (in the form of Rosamund Rodman) sat behind me saying "Remember you are only a man" (and God is not gendered). Even my current advisor is usually very complementary, but no real support or encouragement from my other committee members. I suppose, in reality, the goal of my time at Minnesota was not to complete a Master's degree, although that was a necessary by-product of the actual goal, which was to get into a program like Michigan. So the real triumph of my education here occured a month ago, and my defense was of course anticlimactic.

I've had a difficult time keeping motivation and spirits up post-defense, so I have taken today off completely from work and school. Oddly, when I woke up this morning, I was possessed by a desire to catch up on the pile of journals and articles that have been sitting on my coffee table, waiting to be read, for months. On my day off, what I wanted to do more than anything, was read archaeological articles. So I did (in between making blueberry muffins and reading the New York Times). And I remembered: I really, really, really love my field, and I am proud and excited to be a part of it. One day, I'll have articles in these journals, and they'll review my books, and I'll have an array of issues lined up on the floor to ceiling bookshelves of my tenure-track office.

20 days to Israel.