Visual Annotation in Japanese Archaeology

Once upon a time I wanted to excavate Yayoi era sites in Japan. Strange, but true. I still check out photos from sites in Japan on occasion and I find all the multicolored flagging tape and paint on the ground completely baffling.

Are they recreating the building? Marking sections? Does anyone know?

Meditation on a Broken Horse

Sure enough, among the chalk rubble, medieval pot sherds and sheep bone, there they were–big, articulated bones. Not really something you want to find during what was supposed to be the last day of digging, but most archaeologists will tell you that is exactly when you find the most important, or in this case, the most complicated digging–the last day.

There was a lot of speculation about the position of the horse, whether it was one horse or two, but I just kept digging–the bones would reveal all. The sacrum of the horse was wedged into a tight cut and upside-down, looking all the world like the folks trying to cram it into the hole in the chalk had to actually widen the hole specially for it. Various comedy scenes fired in my head as I carefully cleaned between the caudal vertebrae, up the lumbar, revealing the ribs.

On its back, the horse’s ribs formed an arching, cavernous void. I brushed the rich, brown, midden-soil from ribs, each that mottled orange-white of freshly excavated bone. I found the teeth shortly afterwards, thinking at first that the head had been removed, but no–it was arched back sharply toward the tail, in a backwards, upside-down fetal position. The legs were covering the head, making the horse look like it was cowering, hiding its eyes. We realized that the legs had been chopped off and thrown in on top.

It was breakfast time, and the site cleared out. Though the horse had been adequately excavated (especially considering the distinct lack of time we had to remove it from the ground) I wanted to spend a little more time with it. It was sunny that day and mottled patches of sunlight shone through the old oak trees around the site. I gave the horse skeleton a gentle final clean, clipping away roots and removing stray pebbles from its eyes, shoulders.

I’m getting married this week–my fiance and I dug up the horse together, sharing tools, chatting about the likely position of the horse, the various bones, what was done and what needed to be done. We work well together and a shared excavation project was a nice change from trying to schedule buses and flowers. Though a bit macabre, the horse is beautiful in its own way, arranged in an unlikely position in a trash pit and revealed centuries later by the hands of two people who are very much in love.

Dinner with Sinan

The MUNI ride was interminable. I was late, but I knew I was going to be late, after checking out an Afro-Futurist art show in Hayes Valley and standing for too long on a windy windy hill while the sun set over Divisidero. The MUNI was behind schedule and packed. The gears and wires groaned as we inch-wormed over the hills of San Francisco.

Most of the guests were around the table already, drinking wine and eating cheese. Ruth’s dining room has been a constant during my graduate education–dinners with visiting academics, Thanksgivings where I’m one of the few Americans attending, parties for the successful passing of first year exams, always centered on her long, wooden table.

The occasion last night was a visit from playwright Sinan Ünel, who doing some background research–he’s interested in writing a play about an archaeologist at Çatalhöyük. Burcu spoke about interacting with the local community, Meg (who has never worked at Çatalhöyük, but has no end of wonderful insights about archaeology) chatted about Maria Gimbutas and feminist/masculinist archaeology, and Ruth spoke of hand ballets and the differences between being filmed by a stranger as opposed to another archaeologist.

The conversation wandered from archaeology to the news, and back to Çatalhöyük again. We started talking about excavating burials, as Sinan was particularly inspired by Ruth’s Remember Me video:

I was trying to think like a playwright–how would you stage an excavation in a way that would be interesting and meaningful to an audience? Usually plays are up on stage, with audiences looking up at the actors, whereas archaeologists are often at the bottom of a pit, the gladiators in the colosseum–or the monkeys in a zoo–with audiences towering over us. The excavation could be projected above the actors, I suppose, if the director was looking for verisimilitude. It would be difficult to show the face to face relationship that an excavator has with a burial, the intimacy of the small tools scraping out lacunae, carefully keeping everything in place.

Finally, I was struck by a visualization of excavation that I have often felt, but have not really articulated. The excavator identifies a burial cut, clears away all of the fill, bags the finds, photographs & draws the skeleton, writes up the 3+ context sheets that accompany the burial, makes sure that everything is fully recorded, and then…relief. The time between the full exposure of a burial and lifting the skeleton is harrowing, tension-filled–will I finish recording it in time, will I be able to keep all of the bones clean and in place for the photograph, am I taking too long, am I hurrying too much? This anxiety accompanies the exposure of most complex archaeology, but is much more pronounced for burials–unless, I suppose, you are a bioarchaeologist who digs nothing but burials.

There is this moment of release after I realize that the burial has been fully accounted for and I can start lifting and wrapping the bones, and I suddenly thought of that moment as literal release, as the person, now free of the dirt, getting up and walking away. Not a collection of bones, but as they once were. A moment, while not real in the field, could be made actual on the stage. (And then the newly revealed person walks down into the bioarch lab, lays on the table, submits to an inspection, and then is rolled up into a labeled box to live on a shelf in a dusty storage facility.)

After dinner Ruth drove us to the BART and we chatted with Sinan for a while longer. He was overwhelmed by the subject, by all of us, and had to have some time to think.

Today, during my morning jog around the lake, I listened to another episode of Radio Lab. One of the commentators said something to the effect that while science tells us that we are not unique or special in this universe, art tells us that we are. I’m not sure that the archaeologist on stage will be recognizable to me, that I will identify her hand with my own as she trowels across the dirt, and if that it is even important that she is recognizable. Ultimately Sinan will decide what is important to convey about the science and art of archaeology, the deeper meaning of it all, and I am excited to find out what that is.

Time-lapse Excavation at Hammerfest, Norway

I was delighted to find this video of a time-lapse excavation performed by the Tromsø Museum of a turf and stone structure from the 1700s. What really makes this video is the graphic in the corner of where the camera is located and the overall plan of the structure, highlighting what is being excavated. It transforms what looks like a bunch of workers shuffling around rocks in the mud into something inteligible. This is the translation of the video description I got in Google Translate from the original Norwegian:

Time-lapse of the excavations on the structure of S5 in the period 9.6. -21.7.2010. The structure is constructed dwellings of turf and stone. The shape of the structure implies a dichotomy where one part may have been a timber construction and the other part a hut construction. On the inside of the thick sod walls were found neverlag in different levels (see eg.Context 102). Remains of buildings is mainly dated to the 1700s, but can extend down to 1600 – the number and up to 1800’s.  Time-lapse footage shows the last part of the excavation, where the scroll. chimney, walls, entrances and some luck are being put excavated / removed. Towards the end of the grave none appeared a rock pit in one wall of the house, where the fill, context 118 and 128, were removed.

Video from the archaeological excavations in Cut Vika and Vika Mountains, Hammerfest, performed by the Tromsø Museum, University Museum.


Excellent video and a fairly easy way to help the audience see the archaeology.

A quick, unrelated note:

Thanks again for everyone who commented on the previous entry about health and safety. I’ve long wanted to make a series of videos or comics to make boring topics such as OSHA compliance easy to understand, but when to find the time?

2010 Trench Report for BO27

Hello all! This is my trench report from Dhiban–I wrote it last July.  I found out today that the season report has gone to the Jordanian Authority, so it should be okay to publish. Now you too can enjoy boring archaeological gray literature! The photos are mostly by Evan, the site photographer in 2010.

BO27 – Introduction

In the summer of 2009 Danielle Steen and students from Knox College performed several 5m x 5m surface collections at Tall Dhiban.  These collections had concentrations of Middle Islamic, Byzantine, Roman and Iron Age pottery that seemed to correspond to different occupations of the Tall. To affirm the veracity of these surface finds to the underlying archaeological remains, two 2.5m x 2.5m test trenches were excavated late in 2009 and four additional trenches were opened up in 2010.  One of these trenches was BO27.

Stratigraphic Narrative

After some disagreement regarding exact placement and grid coordinates, BO27 was opened up on June 27, 2010 on the second terrace on the west side of the tall.  The surrounding architecture suggested that BO27 contained a structure, so the area of the trench was expanded from the normal 2.5m x 2.5m size to 2.5m x 5m, along the east – west axis.  This enlarged size ensured that a large double wall (locus 14) would be investigated during testing.  Though there were additional walls visible to the east and north of the trench, excavation was not extended to include these features.  In future years it could be well worth expanding the arbitrary trench to correspond to existing architecture in order to truly phase the building.  As the building was not fully excavated, this report can only contain partial information regarding the building’s sequence and possible purpose.


The trench was initially covered by shoq and small, shrubby, thorny bushes and ground cover.  This was removed as (locus 1).  The trench also lay in the middle of a heavily trafficked goat path and goats and their human caretakers remained an issue most of the season.  This top soil was only partially sieved and artifacts were hand-picked for the most part.  Happily, removing this top soil layer revealed an east – west wall (locus 15) abutting and returning from the large double wall visible at surface (locus 14).  This wall (locus 15) was at the southern extent of the trench and contained all subsequent building fills.  After (locus 1) was cleared, an underlying pit (locus 5) containing dark, silty dirt and large amounts of cobbles and rubble (locus 4) was perceived to cut the trench to the eastern extent.  The true extent of this pit is unknown as it ran into the limit of excavation to the northern and eastern extent of the trench, but the excavated area in plan was 1.2m x 2.5m with a depth of .28m.  Finds in the fill of the pit (locus 4) were relatively sparse and mixed with artifacts with a TPQ as late as the 1970s at depth.  This pit appears to be extremely late in date, and dug to rob out stone for use in building elsewhere.  Again, as the extent of the pit was not explored, this cannot be said with much certainty.

Excavating the pit cut (locus 5) provided an informal section of the stratigraphy of the fill of the building.  Underneath the general top soil layer (locus 1) and cut by the modern pit (locus 5) was a generalized fill (locus 3) with occasional rubble that appears to have rolled down the hill as the building filled with alluvial dirt.  Finds associated with the fill (locus 3) were mixed and did not contain an overwhelming indicator of the date of the building.  This layer of fill (locus 3) terminated with a layer of bricky, construction-like materials that were mixed with plaster (locus 6).


The construction materials in this layer of fill (locus 6) seemed to be associated with the structure contained by the N-S (locus 14) and E-W (locus 15) running walls, rather than miscellaneous fill.  This layer contained the most fill, with 154 gufaf removed before reaching the next layer.  There were also several .2m to .4m boulders that seemed to form a collapse of some kind, but not as dense as collapses in other buildings, such as those in BR44 excavated in 2009.  This construction/collapse fill (locus 6) terminated in a layer of disturbed flagstones (locus 7). The excavation of locus 6 revealed an installation (locus 8) abutting the N-S wall (locus 14) that extended into the north section.


The installation (locus 8) was built out of miscellaneous limestone blocks, probably reused from other contexts.  The true extent and shape of the installation is unknown as it extends into the LOE, but the visible dimensions were rectangular, with a height of .38m and a width of .56m. Please see the isometric drawing in the BO27 archive for details regarding the stone size and shape of the installation.  There were the remains of a mudbrick/makeup surface on top, possibly sealing the installation.  Under this mudbrick/makeup were a series of flat stones, further sealing the interior of the installation.  The general morphology of the installation suggests that it is a bin, and previous excavations of similar features support this interpretation.  After the flat stones were removed, the interior of the bin was excavated as fill (locus 9).  The bin fill was loose, fine, and homogenous, much like the interior of the bin in BR44, excavated in 2009.  The interior was collected for a 100% flotation sample, but as the sample was being gathered, very few finds were identified in the fill.  At level there were several sandstone cobbles, a few of which were gathered for geomorphological investigation in bag 65.  The bin fill terminated in large stones that appeared to be flagstones.  Upon further investigation they lined a pit (locus 12), probably to level the installation (locus 8) as the primary build for the bin employed ashlars that were set into the pit (locus 12). As the stones also overlay the flagstone surface (locus 7), the flagstone surface was probably built first, then the pit for the installation (locus 12) was cut into the flagstone surface (or what remained of it), and the stones comprising the bin and the leveling stones were installed, along with fill (locus 11) surrounding the rocks.  It could be argued that the fill of the bin (locus 9) and the fill of the pit (locus 11) are the same material, but they are associated with slightly different building contexts and were collected and treated as separate fills.  The construction of this bin was different than the two other bins I have observed on site, in that the foundation for the bin was cut into the surface, rather than placed on top of the surface and leveled with chinking stones under the primary construction ashlars.  The cut also had a slightly irregular shape, not conforming to the dimensions of the bin, but the extent of both the pit and the bin are unknown, as they were not fully excavated.


The flagstone floor (locus 7) was comprised of several flat stones, from .4m to .6m, placed on a relatively level surface and intact to the western extent of the trench, but truncated to the west.  These flagstones were possibly disturbed or robbed out to the eastern extent, possibly by the previously excavated modern pit cut (locus 5).  These stones also appeared to be disturbed by a collapse, as several were turned on their sides with other stones embedded around them.  Lodged between these flagstones was a diagnostic Middle Islamic pot handle, collected as Special Find 2.  Other sherds found in the fill (locus 10) refit to this diagnostic find.  This seems to imply that the last certain phase of occupation of this structure was during the Middle Islamic period.  Beneath these flagstones was a coarse, pebble-filled fill (locus 10) that seemed to act as a leveling fill for the stone floor.

Removing the coarse, leveling fill (locus 10) revealed a bright, abrupt color change to a compact, reddish fill (locus 13) with small charcoal concentrations.  None of the charcoal was very cohesive, nor did there appear to be a pattern of burning.  This fill was initially left as the terminus for the trench, as the primary purpose for excavation was to identify the last phase of occupation, which appeared to be during the Middle Islamic period, as both the flagstone floor and the fill beneath it contained clearly diagnostic Middle Islamic artifacts.  The trench was cleaned and prepped for drawing and final photographs, and left while I went to investigate one of the cisterns on site.


We came back to the trench several days later and excavated the reddish fill layer (locus 13), but in the intervening days the dirt had dried considerably and was at times difficult to chase while excavating.  This fill contained several unique objects and the bulk of the Special Finds recorded in BO27 in 2010.  Among these finds were a worked shell (SF 5) and a .05m x .03m square copper plate (SF8) with two holes in the middle.  Also found in the sieve from the fill were a metal arrow and a metal plate.  Removing this fill revealed a grayish fill that had several possible flagstones intermixed with the fill and a tabun in the southwestern corner, close to the N-S (locus 14) and E-W (locus 15) running walls.  This is very likely the next phase of occupation, but it remains unexcavated.


While only three courses of E-W wall (locus 15) were revealed during excavation, some preliminary descriptions of the wall are possible.  This wall appears to be rubble filled, but the extent of the wall was not investigated to the south so it is difficult to be certain.  This wall was built abutting the N-S running wall (locus 14) but further stratigraphic relationships can only be revealed with further investigation.  The wall (locus 15) appears to extend to another wall to the east of the trench, but, again, it is not possible to tell without excavation.  The wall was built with shaped stones and two Nabatean ashlars, indicated in the elevation drawing by a small, interior dashed line.  It appears to be relatively well-built, yet entirely out of stones re-used from other structures.  More speculation about this wall will be discussed in the phasing.


Most of what has been described has been the fills to the east of the N-S running wall (locus 14) as the remains are associated with a structure.  The test trench also contained a portion of another N-S running wall, built abutting (locus 14) and cleaned off (locus 2) to reveal the extent of the wall and its relationships to surrounding architecture.  This part of the trench was deemphasized this season, so the investigation of it remains rudimentary.  The double walls were both rubble filled, but appear to have been robbed out extensively, and cut by military trenches both to the north and to the south.  While the N-S running wall (locus 14) associated with the finds described above remains relatively intact, the wall abutting its western is heavily disturbed and was under a large amount of collapse, much of it rapid collapse, with large air pockets and underneath the stones.  At midpoint in the trench the wall seems to disappear entirely into a cobble collapse.

Preliminary Phasing

While phasing a building that has only been partially excavated is impossible, some preliminary speculation regarding the episodes of occupation and collapse can be discussed for the building partially contained in BO27.

I.      Modern use – The modern pit (locus 5) and the goat path (locus 1) shows that this part of the tall is still very much traversed and used for construction resources.  During the course of excavation the rebar used to delineate the extent of the trench was pulled by one of the shepherds who expressed his worry that the goats would cut their legs.  While the structure is no longer permanently occupied it is still used for the resources that it contains, primarily fodder and stones.

II.    Building collapse/removal – The rocky mixed fill (locus 3) seems to contain rocks that either collapsed or were washed in by alluvial action.  This fill does not contain nearly the amount of rocks that would have indicated a complete building collapse.  I speculate that this fill represent a period after possible removal of standing remains by the Department of Antiquities in the 1950s.  I believe this is supported by the rapid collapse to the western extent of the building, possibly showing that the building was pulled over, downslope.  Then I believe that the visible architecture was removed to a single level, explaining the even coursing of the E-W running wall (locus 15) and relatively shallow stratigraphy of the building partially contained in BO27.  Confirmation of this speculation may be revealed in early aerial photos of the tall, but it remains speculation until that time.

III.  Disuse/interior collapse – The mixed construction fill (locus 6) overlying both the flagstone surface (locus 7) and the installation (locus 8) contains plaster and bricky remains, possibly the interior finishing applied to the building that collapsed over time.

IV. Reuse – The bin (locus 8) installed in the interior of the structure has been interpreted in other structures as containing fodder for domesticated animals, probably goats.  This would indicate that the building at this time was still at least partially standing in order to contain the livestock.  It is difficult to say how intact the flagstone floor (locus 7) was at this time, but the use by animals could explain some of the general wear to the surface.

V.   Rebuild/occupation – The flagstone surface (locus 7) was in place before it was cut by the bin, perhaps indicating the building’s use as a domestic structure, but there are no other features associated with this phase and to affirm this speculation further excavation is required.  The gravely, leveling surface (locus 10) seems to have been laid in order to establish a firm construction foundation.

VI. Conflagration – The reddish-brown burnt surface (locus 13) beneath the leveling surface (locus 10) seems to indicate an incident of burning and while there were a few, scattered burnt rocks, no other indications in the stone in the walls could be seen.  The finds within this layer were relatively rich, perhaps indicating an accidental burning.

VII.        Occupation – the flagstone surface beneath the burned layer (locus 13) and associated tabun indicate a domestic occupation of the building, but it remains to be verified in future seasons.

Relationship of BO27 to the broader context of Tall Dhiban

This building appears to be Middle Islamic, at least in the last phases of occupation.  The trench is positioned on an outcropping overlooking the wadi and area thoroughfares.  Early speculation regarding the trench included its possible use as a tower, as it was abutting a possible fortifying double wall that extends along the contours of the tall.  This would seem to be supported by finds associated with phase VI, including the arrowhead and bits of copper plating.  Yet the previous occupation contained a tabun, suggesting a domestic structure, and later use included a pen for housing animals.  The building partially contained within BO27 seems to reflect the reuse extant throughout the site, of occupation and reoccupation, reconfiguration and reuse of the tall’s materials for changing needs throughout time.



Trench II at Priniatikos Pyrgos is near the apex of a promontory that juts out into the Aegean, much higher in ancient times, but still visible from the local beaches that surround the site.  At the northern tip of the small peninsula is a ragged edge of gray bedrock, haloed by ocean spray on windy days.  It’s good to look out there while digging, sometimes to relieve the tedium of removing more layers of 10YR 5/4 yellowish brown sandy silt with sub-angular cobbles, but also to remember what lies directly below the earth, erupting out of the surrounding matrix to provide a hard chronological edge.

It’s bedrock. You are finished here.

I’ve never dug a site down to bedrock before, and there’s something about the finality of it that is both confusing and satisfying.  One of the areas I was working on was interpreted as exterior to all visible architecture and I removed dirt from the area until it was about 60% bedrock, then that part of the trench was shut down.  Another part of the trench just to my west was riddled with finds, all tucked into pockets in the bedrock, mortars and pots, sitting in a dark reddish dirt that I previously thought was decaying limestone, fallow and unoccupied. Now I know that it’s probably just iron-rich deposits accumulating just above the hard edge of bedrock.

So the early Minoans were living in and around these bedrock spurs, using them to support walls, smoothing out the surface for floors, stashing away household items in convenient pockets that have since filled with dirt.  It makes the stratigraphy difficult to interpret at times, as you end up with lots of these little pockets that are islands in the Harris matrix, disconnected from each other by unyielding physical fact: bedrock.

It was satisfying to see it emerge from beneath the pickaxe and the way that the dirt would come off of it was dissimilar enough to other stones that by the end of the excavation it was so immediately apparent that it hardly merited discussion.

I wasn’t able to bottom out my trench for various reasons–it was a large space and had two rooms that had to be dealt with in a sensible, strategraphic fashion and the rep was particularly sensitive to the use of pickaxes, even to rubble-filled topsoil. Still, it was interesting to see the use of bedrock as cornerstones, as containers, as the raw materials that people were modifying over the ages to incorporate into their daily lives.

During the last day on site I sat doing some paperwork on a particularly comfortable outcropping just outside what I thought was the front door in the north room. It was pretty much at the level the surfaces were at when the building was constructed and I wondered how many other folks sat on the stone over these thousands of years.

Dhiban: Institutionalized

(written on 29 June)

“Sometimes I try to do things and it just doesn’t work out the way I want it to
and I get real frustrated” – Institutionalized, Suicidal Tendencies

I woke up this morning with Institutionalized in my head and I just should have known. Nobody else in the girls’ house knew the song and, once again, I felt old and weird.  “You know, like in Repo Man!” Nobody had seen it. Conversations at 4:45AM usually don’t work out anyway, I guess.

So I get to site, still humming “Just one Pepsi!” and I noticed several things at once: my grid points were missing, my sieve was gone and the goats had rampaged through my trench. Again.  The missing points were the real problem–archaeologists need to align themselves on a spatial grid to dig accurately and we usually use permanent or semi-permanent markers to use continually season after season.  The problem is that the locals here really like to yank out the pieces of rebar that we pound into the ground.  We hide them but they often find them anyway.  I like to think that they steal them because they need the money, but I’m fairly certain this instance was just a certain shepherd being ornery.  This time we established the grid around my trench and had them yanked out that very day, under the guard’s nose. And the surveyor was sick.  My sieve had been taken by another archaeologist on the project and the replacement that I tried to use was broken. Four different people tried to set it up before they believed me that it was unusable.

I start the process of reestablishing my grid, leave my trench for a couple of minutes, and come back to find that my workman, who is usually very competent, has dug a bunch of craters right in the middle of the next new context.  I audibly gasp and he’s immediately sorry, but the damage has been done.

I was out a datum, a sieve, and the next thing I was working on was compromised.  I had been becoming increasingly stressed, but then I just laughed.  Too bad the day just got worse as it went on.  Malesh.

Doesn’t matter, I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway.