It’s been an incredible time here in Qatar, working with the QIAH (Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project) on the NE coastal pearling sites. I’ve been very involved with the Blogging Archaeology SAA session and other various side projects, so I have been distracted from my usual mode of field blogging, which is a little sad because I’ve been able to do some new and interesting things here. I have a half-dozen posts that I’ve been waiting to edit and bring out–hopefully I will be able to finish them up in this last week.

I think it sums it all up though in saying that it is a truly amazing experience to work with well-trained, professional archaeologists again. We had a fairly last-minute rescue job that I’ve been working hard at this week and I have rarely seen rescue archaeology done so efficiently and so well. Working with professionals is just so easy–you all know what needs to be done, and everyone pitches in to make it happen. The craft is respected and pleasure is taken in the little things, like exquisitely rendered sketches and less-than-mil grid accuracy. There’s a reason that academics have increasingly been hiring professional archaeologists (trained in single context) to excavate sites–it is fast, it is exacting, and once you have been on a project that employs these folks, there is no looking back. We were extremely well-managed by Tobias Richter, who took care of us, made sure that things ran smoothly, and kept a sense of humor about it all. It’s really the gold standard for how sites should be run.

The work that has been done in the name of the QIAH is absolutely top notch–performed by excellent archaeologists who have really given it their all. I’m proud to be a part of it, and actually pretty sad to be leaving Qatar!

Post redacted, March 7, 2013. There’s a first time for everything!

Health and Safety for Academics

I was excited to read what an archaeologist had to say in the New York Times as part of their science blogging special–there’s been a decent amount of buzz regarding the series on Twitter and on other blogs. I wasn’t prepared for this:

A 2×2 meter pit dug 6.5 meters deep. This is breathtakingly dangerous and her hard hat is laughable. The next blog entry mentions that the soil layers “have an almost cementlike quality” and that the pit had been consolidated with lime mortar.  Sadly, in the same blog post that protests about the safety of the excavations, we get this image:

Professors can write health and safety assessments that put themselves down at the bottom of a pit, but this guy looks like a workman standing at the bottom of a section that’s three times his height. No amount of wire fencing, lime mortar or hard hats is going to save this man’s life if the section collapses on him.

But nothing bad ever happens, right?

Just last December, Mario Bergeron, an archaeologist of 25 years, died after being buried up to his waist down a 4.5 meter hole.

The rule of thumb is for every 1 meter you go down, you should step back 1 meter. I don’t care how expensive this makes excavations, you are risking the lives of your crew.

To give you some idea, this properly stepped pit is about five meters deep from the fence line.

I’ve taken fairly breathtaking risks myself (not the least in posting this as it is potentially lethal to my career) but these kinds of practices are deeply ingrained in archaeology and someone needs to say something.

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

Where is Single Context Archaeology?

When I first walked onto site at Çatalhöyük in 2006, I felt pretty confident of my excavation abilities.  While I wasn’t an old field hand, I had more excavation experience than most grad students and had worked as a professional archaeologist as well.  To my great chagrin, I found out that I knew worse than nothing, in fact, I had to unlearn almost everything I knew about excavation and restart from scratch.

This was my first exposure to single context recording.  Most archaeologists in the Americas have never heard of such a thing, and even if they have, they have no idea what it actually means or how to do it.  Single context recording was in the 1970s in the UK, in part by Ed Harris, the man who gave us the Harris Matrix–a way to represent archaeological relationships in 2-D.  For a more detailed description of what single context recording is, there’s no better place to start than the MoLAS archaeological site manual. While there has been some discussion of its limitations in envisioning archaeology (and comparisons to a kind of mechanization/industrialist capitalization strategy), it both empowers individual archaeologists to form their own interpretations of the stratigraphy (contra the box/baulk method where a supervisor comes every once in a while to inspect the section that was excavated by the students or workmen) and provides a detailed plan view of the archaeology.

After learning single context recording, it was often difficult to see some of the architecture being excavated by Americanist archaeologists in squares or trenches.  The most heinous is generally the Mesoamerican houses and temple complexes that have been taken to pixel-bits with squares all at different phases. It is generally taboo to criticize excavation strategy, but it is sad to hear these archaeologists describe their finds and samples taken from these insecure contexts.  True, money is often an issue, but if you cannot excavate a site properly, perhaps it is better not to open the earth at all?

So, needless to say, I am a convert.  Single context recording is truly the gold standard of excavation methodology for architecture and complex stratigraphy and can be tough to learn.  A quote overheard by Dan Eddisford: “We no longer strictly promote single context recording on the site as it requires too great a level of professionalism from our staff.”  Would that a higher level of professionalism would be attainable by field hands who are chronically underpaid and underappreciated.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to the real topic at hand: what sites use single context recording?  I know that many of my friends work in far-flung places, but I’d like to keep a record to counter the many criticisms I receive from my New World colleagues who insist that using single context would hopelessly marginalize their work.

Also: I found a use for Google Wave! Finally!  I found that you can create collaboratively edited maps! So if you have excavated anywhere in the world using single context recording, please make your mark here:

Single Context Google Wave Map

If you do not feel like messing around with Google Wave, then please leave me a comment on this post or email me at clmorgan at berkeley.edu.