Saturday, June 13, 2009

Floor CB17052

I (mentally) composed this post on Thursday, but haven't had the chance to actually write it down until now. So we'll all just pretend it's still Thursday for the sake of reading this, mk?

Today in my square was a very typical archaeological day in the sense that days like this are at the heart of fieldwork and research, but very atypical in that days of its ilk are rather few and far between. My assistant, my two Druzim workers and I had basically spent the last 4-5 days preparing for Thursday's operation, which was the removal of a hard plaster floor.

We had to do several small little operations for what basically boil down to two reasons: first, basic archaeological principle in removal of soil is last in, first out. Because we date the deposition of the soil by the types of things we find in it - mainly pottery - we take out the latest soil first in hopes of also taking out all its later material. If we leave any behind, we risk mixing that single sherd in with earlier soils, thereby throwing off the dating and phasing of the entire operation. (This actually happened to me this week, in a less important area. We had a piece of modern (as in less than a thousand years old) pottery in where it shouldn't have been. Bad supervisor Kate. I was annoyed.) Anyway, so before taking out the plaster floor, we had to be absolutely sure that any excess soil and stray pieces of pottery were totally vamoosed from the area around the floor, lest they somehow dislodge and make my life hell. This is harder than it sounds, as soil, roots and so on tend to cling stubbornly to the walls around the floor and to the sides of rocks, and to be disguised in robbing trenches from when locals came to take the nice cut blocks from the abandoned building for their own new construction, leaving behind little tiny bits of their stupid early Roman pottery which we now inconveniently find in the middle of the 2nd century BCE building.

The second reason of piddly slow preparation is to ensure we had the best possible photographic view and documentation of the floor before we took it out forever. My undergrad archaeology professor must have reminded us every week that archaeology is the only scientific research in which you destroy your evidence and, contrary to the hard sciences, the research can never be duplicated in double blind studies or other lab conditions. Our job then becomes to do as much documentation as we possibly can, so that if we fail in our interpretations (or even if we don't), others might be able to come along later and use our notes to reinterpret and understand. For the sake of removing the floor, that meant cleaning previously excavated, overgrown areas to show their relationship to our floor, excavating some rocky debris that interrupted the field of view, and carefully and cleanly cleaning out areas where the floor had eroded or otherwise disappeared in order to show where the floor was and where it wasn't.

Bored yet? So were we. But Thursday, the day finally came!! We began by removing the very thin upper laminate of plaster, and immediately had a big surprise. Although the floor itself had been clean, smooth, white plaster, the underside of the surface itself was chock full of teeny tiny shells! At least two or three other floors like this have been previously excavated, but none shared this characteristic, suggesting that something a bit different was going on with this floor. I suspect that the limestone used to make the plaster for this floor just happened to be very fossiliferous, but our faunal expert wasn't sure if the shells were fossilized or not and mused that in Egypt, shell had been occassionally put into floors and buildings as a rodent deterant, because the rats apparantly we put off by having to chew through sharp shells. Either way, the shelly floor was cool.

Underneath the hard, smooth upper surface was a flakey, crumbly plaster subsurface. Embedded in it were fragments of a little cookpot. Which is odd, if you think about it, but certainly handy for archaeologists. I mean, what happened, did it just happen to break and the contracter thought "might as well throw this in the mortar mix"? Maybe the workman were on lunch break and accidentally broke their picnic equipment that the wife sent along, and didn't feel like explaining so hid the evidence? Maybe they used the pot to mix the plaster, and just threw the whole thing in for good measure. Other ideas?

Benath that was a cobble subfloor, with 10-20 cm stones laid out and somewhat mortared in. After we had taken that out, we began to take out the thick layer of somewhat moist soil beneath (at least 40cm deep, we haven't reached the bottom yet), which yielded a crap ton of large pieces of pottery which we hope will give us a good idea of the date after which the floor must have been laid. Pottery reading tomorrow! I can't wait!


  1. other idea!: the cookpot was actually holding some kind of seafish stew in the pre-plaster floor era, and was left behind by a careless worker person who was totally heedless of the fact that his clam chowder was about to spawn a horde of tiny be-shelled creatures! which then swarmed out of the pot and covered the room, but didn't live long enough to make it to the mediterranean or the sea of galilee or what have you. and when the NEXT worker people came along with their floor-laying implements, they were all: guys, there are too many shell bits here to clear out. let's just plaster over the damn thing and call it good.

    the end.

  2. That is undoubtedly IT! Rachel, you're a genius!