…and then there are the days that you spend with your head down a toilet.

Digging in the center of a “Heritage House” in Doha.

We got the call and three days later, we were on a plane back to Doha. So we’re back digging in Old Doha, finding remains of an older house beneath a “Heritage House” that has been preserved in the middle of an enormous construction site.

Every trench that we’ve opened has revealed either architecture or evidence of occupation, so we have a lot to work on in the next couple of weeks. There’s been a lot of “beasting”–moving lots of dirt in a rapid fashion. As most of it was construction infill, there weren’t a lot of photos or levels taken, just a lot of pick-axe and shovel handling. Exactly what I needed after being so well fed in England!

Yesterday I beasted out the rest of the construction fill from a small 4m x 3m room and so today I was rewarded with digging some archaeology, which meant a massive slow-down in pace and a lot of paperwork. I have to climb a ladder to get in and out of the trench, as the room I am digging in is about 2m below the threshold now. The whole room has been heavily invaded by the later structure and there is huge concrete, stone, and industrial epoxy mess on the east side of the trench that I try not to look at too often. It’s horrible and I don’t plan on chunking it out as it underpins the building. ugh.

Sorry about the terrible photo--I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.
Sorry about the terrible photo–I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

But I have a couple of walls surviving and there was cut in the western bit of the room to poke at as well. It was sealed off with concrete, so I hacked away at it and found that it was filled with rocks. Lovely. About 30 cm down (.30m for nerds) there was a layer of concrete that had been smeared on to some other rocks–you could still see the finger impressions. There was a hole in the middle and that is when I realized that yes, I was digging out a toilet.



The first 20 cm of the fill had a bunch of broken tile, probably the remains of the fitting out of the bathroom. Then…yep. Yellowish-brown silty stuff. Happily I was wearing gloves.

I got about a meter into the fill then stopped, as it was too deep to dig safely. As it was, I was balancing myself on my hands awkwardly in a small rectangular cut–good thing I’ve been practicing my handstands. I finished digging the toilet (hamam) and saved all the fill for our lovely paleobotanist, Mary Anne Murray.

So now I have to finish that pesky application to the R1 University. Happy digging, y’all!

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.
The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.

Quintessential Rescue Archaeology: The Origins of Doha Project

The construction site where we excavated as part of the Origins of Doha Project.

At some point I decided that it would be a great idea to book a flight from San Francisco to Doha, Qatar on the day after the end of the Fall 2012 semester–my deadline to file my Ph.D. A week later, I’m mostly recovered from that last, big push to finish, cleaning out my apartment for my subletter, partying beyond all reason at Cheyla and Nico’s house, and hopping a jet to fly 8,000 miles.

As is my current pattern, I got in for the last week of work at the Origins of Doha Project’s site in central Doha. We hope to work a bit more at a different site in January, but we’ll see. The site is a giant, chaotic construction zone with 5,000 construction workers going everywhere all the time and 19 tower cranes whirling overhead.

The insides of one of the heritage houses stripped out and lined with concrete.

Most of the archaeological remains are long gone, but there were a few  “heritage” houses that are being preserved, though they’ve been heavily restored twice and are pretty disturbed. These heritage houses are becoming a museum and are being cleared out to accommodate air conditioning and other modcons, so we were brought in to record what was left of earlier builds of the houses.

The exterior of one of the heritage houses, excavation director Daniel Eddisford for scale.

I helped my friend (and former Zubarah colleague) Kirk dig and record a little bit, spending an inordinate amount of time on an isometric sketch of a blocked concrete drain setting next to a well and a bath inside of a house. The team had been digging for a couple of weeks–I was surprised to find that this was the first archaeological excavation performed in Doha. Cool. We returned to site the next day to record a couple of wells in a different heritage house.

The well. A bit difficult to record, yeah? There’s dirt over the measuring tape so I don’t trip over it and fall into the well.

This is the well I recorded. The utility of drawing is probably pretty obvious in this case, as you can’t get a good photograph of the well with all the safety scaffolding in place. I pounded a nail in the eastern wall with my trowel and strung a line across the room. The houses are on a North-South orientation, so it made drawing the multicontext plan easy. There was a later soak-away coming in from the western wall that I also recorded. A soak-away is basically a drain coming from a toilet. The well was over three meters deep and didn’t smell, thankfully.

My kit in the doorway, with my unfinished multicontext plan.

It was still really awkward to move in the room and I tried to spend as little time over the well as possible and still record it. It was urban rescue archaeology all the way–dodging bulldozers and improvising the best way to record fairly trashed stratigraphy as quickly as possible while still producing the best record we could for the archive.


Bug Stories.

After all of the horrible, dense, theoretical verbiage I’ve had to toss at the screen today, I got in the mood for a little storytelling, inspired by an exchange on twitter. Every archaeologist has their own bug stories, so I’ll share a few of mine. I’ve worked in a few places in the world, and each has their own array of flora and fauna. I run a strict no-kill policy in my trenches. Spiders, snakes, lizards, worms, we get it all, and I do my best to carefully move them to another place. I’ve also had goats, puppies, cows, raccoons, cats, and mice in my trenches, but we’ll stay away from the mammals for now. (Also a rather creepy set of barefoot human footprints on a restricted site that did not appear at all outside the trench…yeah.)

I did my first field work in Texas, where there are an uncommon quantity and quality of bugs. There are the generalized menace bugs, such as horseflies, ticks, centipedes, chiggers, and fire ants and these are pretty much a fact of life. Add that to poison oak, poison ivy, heat stroke, and the fact that every single goddamn plant south of Austin is sharp, it can make survey pretty miserable. There’s a plant called crucifixion thorn that doesn’t even have leaves, only thorns…and the horse cripplers and the bull nettles. But again, I’m not here to talk about plants.

I was working with John Lowe (was it the Siren site?) when I got a mean set of chiggers. Chiggers aren’t well known to the rest of the world, but they’re mean little mites that like to burrow through your socks and give you a terribly itchy bite. They burrow into your skin, eat a little bit of you, and then fall back out again. They tend to leave horrible mountains of pus on me…not so pleasant. The next day my co-worker Tina and I stumbled into a seed tick nest, which makes you look like a poppy seed bagel, all covered in tiny little black spots that are biting you. When I got back to my hotel room I picked them off, squishing them between my thumbnails until they popped. I stopped counting at 70. Finally, I got bitten by a spider while riding in the site vehicle back to the office, which left an egg-sized welt on my inner wrist.

A few days later, big lumps started forming all along my shins and upper arms. I ignored it until my joints started seizing up and I couldn’t walk anymore.  I went to the doctor and it was one of those things where they started calling in more and more people to check me out. Turns out I got Erythema nodosum, an autoimmune response, in my case, to “excessive envenomation.”

One more story, and I’ll call it a night. I have to get back to the ol’ dissertation. There’s a lot of spiders around, including the pregnant camel spider I have pictured above (it’s actually a bit small for a camel spider), the bright green spiders that come out alongside your trench when it’s over 100F, and the baby tarantulas that are in tunnels they burrow in the ground and flop out wetly into your trench when you accidentally expose them. I was at another site in South Texas, lovely site, basically a riverbed with lovely cherty gravels and some questionable paleoindian artifacts mixed in. I’m afraid that my employer didn’t get their full day of work from me, as I spent at least a solid hour watching a tarantula fight a tarantula hawk. Tarantula hawks are large wasps that like to find tarantulas and paralyze them, drag them back into their nest, and lay their eggs in their still-living bodies. Pretty cool stuff.

This dance lasted a long time, the tarantula waving its front legs around, trying to run away, the gorgeous black and russet wasp diving in again and again. Finally, the wasp got behind it and I could see the tarantula twitching as it was stung with the long stinger. The wasp dragged the tarantula for what seemed like ages. I’d go and sort rocks and then come back and the thing was still dragging the big hairy spider around. Finally it disappeared somewhere, I’m assuming the burrow, and all was peaceful again.

A lot of people will kill bugs first thing when they see them, and I slap mosquitos and fire ants like anyone else. But checking out a preying mantis, or those ridiculous big black beetles as big as your thumb that would turn over on their backs and just helplessly twitch at Catalhoyuk, finding a ridiculous looking caterpillar, being tasted by butterflies…it’s just another reason I love archaeology. Bitey, evil bugs and all.

Archaeology & Ada Lovelace Day: Mrs. Janet Taylor and the Dividers

I always protest a little too much when I say that I’m not really all that interested in historical archaeology. It is true, the Anatolian/Aegean Neolithic still holds me firmly in thrall. It’s more that historical archaeology draws me in a little too much, I get a little too obsessive about the documentary history and the amount of crazy detail you can find about who owned the land when, what kind of forks they used, who manufactured the forks, and oh did you know that the forks were sold by a tinker in Kent at the same time? My enthusiasm for ephemera and marginalia kicks in and it all gets to be a little bit too much.

Needless to say, 100 Minories has a long historical background and I got a chance to skim the surface during my last week on the project, looking through fantastic sites like Spitalfields Life for information about the area surrounding the site. On a chance search for information about the Navigation School that was once held in the Brutalist 1960s on the site I found information about a much earlier school of navigation that was once held on the site.

Come closer, my friend.

An engraving of the 1707 disaster.

In 1707, one of the worst maritime disasters claimed famed Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who lost several ships at sea in the Isles of Scilly with over 1,400 men on board. They were lost in stormy weather, unable to calculate their position. The British parliament’s reaction to this horrible loss of life was to create a Board of Longitude in the Longitude Act of 1714. They created a prize ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds to discover a ‘practicable and useful’ way to determine longitude at sea.*

Born in Wolsingham, County Durham on May 13th, 1804, Janet’s brilliance was perceived early and she received a national scholarship to attend Queen Charlotte’s school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. She married a George Taylor Jane, had eight children and lived her life near the Thames docks. By then she was an established author of nautical treatises and textbooks, and established her own Nautical Academy not far from the Tower of London. 104 Minories, in fact.

Mrs. Janet Taylor’s Mariner’s Calculator

In 1834 Janet Taylor invented the Mariner’s Calculator, a device that enabled the finding ‘the true Time’,’the true Altitude’, ‘the true Azimuth’, ‘Latitude by double Latitudes and elapsed Time’, among many other applications. Sadly, after testing at sea, the instrument was determined to be too delicate for the ‘clumsy fingers of seamen’ noted to be like ‘sausages’ so it was not widely adopted. Still she received  gold medals of recognition for her contributions to the maritime community by the king of Prussia, the king of Holland and even by the Pope. After the death of her husband she put into dire financial straits, and was given a Civil List pension of £50 per year.

When I mentioned all of this to Guy Hunt, he was excited. It is very possible that the First Lady of Navigation had conducted her Nautical Academy on the site and it is equally possible that when we go to full excavation that we’ll find building foundations and rubbish dumps that could possibly be associated with the trade at the time. The thought is made even more tempting by a single artifact, unremarkable at the time–we found a pair of compass dividers on site.

So, on a day dedicated to women in technology, this post is devoted to the only woman in the 2,200 entries in The Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England 1714-1840, Mrs. Janet Taylor. Happy Ada Lovelace day!

*This post heavily references John S. Croucher and Rosalind F. Croucher’s Mrs Janet Taylor’s ‘Mariner’s Caluclator’: assessment and reassessment in The British Journal for the History of Science, 44:4, 493-507. I understand that there is a longer book coming out by the Crouchers regarding Mrs. Janet Taylor, which I look forward to reading!

Diggin’ Deep at 100 Minories

As I mentioned in the last post, we are digging deep at 100 Minories. We finished up last week at a depth of around 7.5 meters beneath the ground surface. Working this deep is extremely dangerous and we are given a long brief about all the equipment required, called an induction.  We are in a testing phase, basically exploring the depth of the deposits while evaluating our needs for post-excavation specialists (pottery, animal bone, etc) so that L – P Archaeology knows how how much to charge for excavating the entire area. Evaluating trenches are used sparingly as they are understood to potentially interfere with the broader archaeological sequence. Preservation by record–fully excavating and recording all of the deposits impacted by the building–is standard operation in the City of London (different from just London London). London archaeologists consider these 2x2m test trenches as inferior for interpretation and while they are recorded meticulously, they are used to evaluate the presence or absence of cultural remains and are not used as a primary excavation technique as they are in the States. Basically, yes, there were Romans here, no we cannot characterize their lifeways from digging a phone booth through their deposits.

For example, there was some debate over whether to call this feature that Neralie is cleaning brick paving or a garden path:

While the pit is roughly 2x2m Neralie is standing in a 1x1m that was excavated in the corner to determine a further sequence–we were not allowed to remove architecture in this case as the site may not go to full excavation…in theory, at least. You’ll also notice that she has 2m of concrete above her, and no shoring, as the concrete was determined to be stable. She does have a superstructure over the pit to ensure that nobody falls in:

In the 1×1 she is down about 1.20m from the bottom of the concrete, at that point shoring was installed.

Checking out these test trenches was an interesting return to squares after digging in open plan for many seasons. We do not collect all of the finds, just a sample to characterize each context, again to determine which specialists we’ll need to look at the materials from the site. The top trench has reached what passes for “natural” here, river terraced gravels, but it can still contain “monkey rocks”–the rather unique term that London archaeologists use for mesolithic artifacts. Another term that I’ve only heard here is “plus.” I’ve drawn them plenty, the little plus-sign at the top of the Harris matrix that indicates surface, or no previous deposits. Here “plus” can be material remains–all of the modern intrusions that are not recorded in detail are called plus and are dug out before the matrix begins. Sorry, contemporary archaeologists! Though with 7m of strat to record, the “messed-about” nature of the surface deposits in a place that is as heavily occupied as London, and the time/money calculation always running in the project manager’s head, I can’t find much to criticize. Criticise. Whatever.

Lest you think we are entirely crassly indifferent to more modern garbage, these were saved from the fills associated with the construction of the brutalist concrete building at 100 Minories that will be destroyed before we continue work. It’s a Coke can that you have to open with one of the old can-openers and two tags that had “1961” written on the back of them. They were near some rebar found in test pit #4, and probably were attached at some point.

The evaluation trenches are closed now–we’ll move off site today and I’ll be back in California in a little more than  week’s time. I’ve enjoyed my crash course in London archaeology, and hopefully I’ll be back for more in the Spring.


100 Minories Project

Chiz, deep in a trench.

“Hi boss, sorry I’m late!”

After a month of woeful visa problems, I finally got on site at the 100 Minories Project with L – P Archaeology. We’re working on getting the website for the project up and running, but I’ve spent about half my time on site, down a fairly deep trench. I’m digging in a 4m deep 2x2m shored trench right next to a giant underground concrete wall that is part of the tube. There are a lot of disturbed post-medieval deposits that are, as I learned today, primarily poop. Never say that London archaeology is glamorous, I guess!

I’m working with Chiz Harward who is an absolutely incredible resource for London archaeology in particular and excavation methodology in general. He endures my questions about peg tiles and “cessy” deposits vs. midden deposits, how clay pipes are made and fired, and health and safety on archaeology sites with aplomb. As far as I can figure it, he’s trained a lot of the archaeologists that I deeply respect and I’m pretty chuffed to work with him.

I have to say that working in London is pretty humbling. Like I said, I turned up on the last week on site. As anyone who has ever worked on a developer-funded project knows, the last week is CRAZY. You are pushed to dig more and faster. FASTER. So I found myself the first day on site, trying to get my eye in, under the gaze of 5 construction workers (builders), someone from the planning commission, the dig director, and the most experienced London archaeologist ever. Since I am at the bottom of a deep trench, it’s probably the most horrible panopticon kaleidoscope ever. I actually felt a little lightheaded and made the most classic mistakes–working in circles, not cleaning things properly, and just getting frustrated and losing confidence. Absolutely deadly in field archaeology.

It’s humbling to work on new continents, on new projects, on new sites. I can see why academic archaeologists stick to one era or one area–you have to relearn site assemblages, deposits, and feel like an idiot as someone describes particulars of the stratigraphy that are known to even the most junior of hands on site. The thing that holds it together is, at heart, single context archaeology. Still your fears of overdigging or underdigging, quiet your interest in getting to exactly 10cm beneath that  last “level” and trust your eyes and your hands and the change in the soil. It’s much harder to do than you think.

I have a million things to say, about how amazing it is to be on site where health and safety is first, obnoxiously first, and how great it feels when people actually understand the risks associated with our job and value me enough to insist that I know every nuance. How A-frame gantry hoists would have prevented the destruction of many large & lovely ashlars while trying to get them out of the trench in Dhiban. Dealing with deep site excavation while keeping your archaeologists safe. And as I said on Facebook, walking through an enormously rich part of one of the richest sites in the world, with people turning their noses up at you because you are essentially wearing the shit of their ancestors.

So, expect to hear more about 100 Minories. I’ve learned about peg tiles and hoggin (flinty gravels that serve as ballast) and how gas monitors work. We are digging pits that are essentially in the basement of a brutalist 1960s structure–the excavation will proceed after the building is demolished and we’ll clear away all of the archaeological deposits, down to seven meters in places. London commercial archaeology is where single context methodology began and it is fantastic to work at the source.

The Unfamiliar: Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge

Last winter I submitted an article to the Anthropology Graduate student journal at the University of Edinburgh, The Unfamiliar, to be included in their second issue. The print version is already out and I look forward to the online version. I chose to write about drawing conventions in MoLAS archaeology, particularly the uncertain edge. It caused particular problems as I submitted gifs to illustrate the process, not realizing that there would be a print version, as films were also solicited. So I had to re-send stills from the gifs for the print publication…funny stuff, digital archaeology.

Anyway, here is the article. It appeared in The Unfamiliar V2(1) 2012:


Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge

The author, drawing a multi-context plan in the field, 2012. Photograph by Ruth Hatfield.

Until this point the line had been steady, confident, true. The sandy, shelly deposit curved left, then right, was truncated by a later fire pit, and then continued west-ward and my pencil recorded all of the contours in a perfect 1:20 centimeter representation. But then the deposit lost its hard, defining edge, feathering out, getting mixed and lost in an interface with the underlying dirt. Where did the sandy shelly deposit stop? Where did the layer beneath it begin? My pencil hesitated, then drew a series of quick zig-zags, reminiscent of a line of heartbeats on a heart monitor from a dramatic TV scene, arcing around my deposit. Upon excavating the deposit, I may go back to the drawing, erase the zig-zags and replace them with a single, smooth line. But for now, the edge was ambiguous, open for interpretation, and so I used the drawing convention of a zig-zag, indicating an uncertain edge.

As Tim Ingold (2011:177) notes, archaeology is one of the few specialist disciplines where drawing is still valued as part of our daily practice, as as a way to record, understand and engage with the materials of the past. We represent skeletons, landscapes, walls, houses, pottery, rocks, and stratigraphic sections in technical, measured to scale drawings. While some of the illustrations end up in our lectures in publications, the majority of these drawings are by archaeologists, for archaeologists, and remain in our grey literature. Still, drawing is a vital part of the most important skill in archaeology—learning how to see, or what Charles Goodwin (1994) calls “professional vision.”

By drawing we intimately inspect our subject, gaining knowledge that transcends taking a photograph or even a laser scan of the same feature. Learning how to discern the stratigraphic relationships in archaeology is a difficult task and “drawing a definite line around something rests on reserves of professional confidence and interpretative skill” (Wickstead 2008:14).  To add to the complexity, there are very few universally agreed-upon drawing conventions. I was trained in both Americanist and British styles of excavation and the accompanying drawing conventions wildly differ across the Atlantic.  Americanist archaeologists draw the sections of their meter-squares with little tufts of grass on the top, English archaeologists use hachures to indicate slope across their wide-open trenches. While American-style archaeological technical drawing has few conventions, English archaeologists have standardized lines and rugged tracing paper called permatrace so that they can overlay the drawings of the deposits in stratigraphic order.  These differences aside, learning to see and draw archaeological deposits remains at the core of our profession.

This most important skill, that of learning to see and describe archaeological deposits is almost impossible to teach within the confines of a classroom. We rely on field schools to impart this information, taking students to archaeological excavations so they can interact with the archaeology. Sometimes while training students we inscribe the ground with our trowels, teaching them how to see subtle differences in color or texture. While working in red dirt with colorblind archaeologists in Texas I had to use sound to establish the difference between solid ground and a posthole, tap-tap-tapping my way across the ground with the butt of my trowel until there was a slight change in tenor. Tap-tap-tap-thud-thud-tap-tap-tap, there was the hole that the Caddo dug for the center post of their structures. Still, there are times that we are uncertain, even after many years of experience. During these times the solid line jolts back to life, a jagged heartbeat of subjectivity in a profession that still struggles for objectivity even after postmodernity.

This small selection of photographs and gifs that I have taken during my time as a field archaeologist in Qatar attempt to demonstrate the concept of the uncertain edge in archaeology. Perhaps as a parallel to teaching field archaeology in a classroom, demonstrating the uncertain edge through photography might be an impossible task; therefore I have chosen to augment a selection of the photographs, sometimes directly inscribing them with the Museum of London Archaeological Service drawing conventions. In this I hope to convey insight into the craft of archaeology and to the interpretive process during excavation.

At times we directly inscribe the dirt in order to teach students, or even to remind ourselves. This is not favored amongst many, and certainly I do not do it before I take photographs of the deposit. I scored this deposit to show my workmen where to begin digging. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

Click on the gif below to see it animated.

Some features on archaeological excavations seem obvious, even when the features are intercut. There are four fire pits here; in the single context methodology we record the cut of the fire pit and the fill of the fire pit as two separate events. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

(Click on the following gif to view a higher quality version…that is actually animated.)

Larger surfaces can be more ambiguous; the sunlight, differential drying, and relative cleanliness can all make deposits look very similar or radically different. I have indicated the uncertain edges of this deposit, though I have since excavated the area and found more certain edges. In this gif the dot-dash-dot lines indicate the limit of excavation and the double dot-dash-double dot lines indicate truncation lines. In single context drawing, each of these cuts and deposits are drawn on individual sheets of permatrace, then overlain to replicate the stratigraphy of the site. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

References cited:

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge.

Goodwin, Charles. 1994. “Professional Vision”. American Anthropologist. 96 (3).

Wickstead, Helen. 2008. “Drawing Archaeology,” In Drawing – the purpose, ed. Duff, Leo, and Phil Sawdon. Bristol: Intellect Books. 13-29.