The Hunt for Al-Huwailah

The scene from last week really should have been filmed in grainy black and white–classic 1-2 head shot, reaction shot, static-strafed classical music in the background:

(Fade in – A tiny office, somewhere hot and dusty, the site director and the field archaeologist, talking over tea)

Site Director: “There’s an archaeological site that was excavated forty years ago, but has since been lost. We want you to find it.”

Field Archaeologist: (straightening her pith helmet) Absolutely, sir. I will find you your missing site.

(cut to the windiest, bleakest desert you’ve ever seen)

Though the desert part is accurate, the rest of the montage that follows is considerably less romantic. We found Beatrice de Cardi’s volume from her ten-week season in 1973, made a photocopy of the aerial photography of the site, Al-Huwailah, and noted the description of the location. (Marginalia – the report was actually written by Peter S. Garlake, who got fired by the Rhodesian government as the Inspector of Monuments–he wouldn’t deny the African origins of Great Zimbabwe to reaffirm crazy racist theories. I’m guessing that he hooked up with this project while hanging around UCL–anyone know for sure?) After making the photocopies and checking out possible locations for the site on Google Earth, we headed out. How hard could it be?

Several hours later, nauseous from driving fast over dunes and avoiding detention by the heavy security around a large oil refinery, we huddled together over a cracked and peeling tablecloth, sopping up steaming dal with fresh paratha. How could a site that’s 2km long with a big fort remain entirely undetectable? In previous years another team conducted a Google Earth/satellite image survey of Qatar, and placed the GPS point for Huwailah right in the middle of a trash-filled goat pen. Not so much.

This quest was becoming decidedly less romantic.

While the Google Earth map of the area showed development, I didn’t know the extent of it until I tried their “rewind” back to 2004. Mordor, aka the oil refinery that sits at the easternmost tip of this north-facing coast is visible from pretty much the entire country. The development that has been performed in conjunction with the refinery has completely altered the landscape in the area. Well, there’s that, and the giant earthen platforms that I thought were defensive emplacements, but then was told that they’re just viewing platforms for local racing.

We finished up for the day and returned to the dig compound, a bit dejected. Still, we kept at it, scouring satellite photos, playing with Google Earth, and looking up everything anyone has ever said about Huwailah. I found a reference that said that the fort was still standing to a height of 30′ in 1920. Between 1920 and 1973-1977  when it was investigated by English and French teams, it had lost 9 meters in height. Since then, it seems to have lost the rest.

It still seemed improbable that there weren’t any surface remains at all. Finally, we looked at the aerial photo taken by the French team–there was a little bit of ocean visible and a road that curved slightly to the northwest. In a modified digital extension of Prince’s principle, we overlaid the aerial photograph onto the Google Earth image…and we had a pretty good match. Sadly, I can’t show you the overlay that would disclose where we think the site is, but I will tell you…

…it’s directly in front of the food stand where we sat and argued over dal. Figures.

The site has been mostly destroyed by modern construction–indeed, the fort is undetectable and the city has been reduced to a surface scatter of pottery. Al- Huwailah, the most important pre-Zubarah and pre-Doha city in Qatar, is still by most standards, lost. Still, locating the site gives us an idea of the future of these coastal sites without protection and archaeological intervention.

Field Archaeologist: Boss, we found the lost city…but you aren’t gonna like it….

(originally written March 16th)

Archaeological Field Schools and Management Styles

One of the things that you don’t really learn much about in graduate school is how to manage the nuts and bolts of an excavation.  We pick a lot up from experiences at different sites, but there is little explicit direction regarding managing teams of specialists, students and workmen.  The structure of the site hierarchy is something that is partially extemporaneous or assumed as part of a legacy from previous excavations, much like excavation style.  While this sort of trade knowledge can be good, it also results in the perpetuation of archaic recording systems and strange on-site bureaucracies that quickly grow unmanageable and static, unable to change long after they have become obsolete or shown to be actively destructive to the archaeological process.

This lack of explicit direction is probably a result of an increased emphasis on the cultivation specialisms in graduate school, versus an excavation director-style generalist. Also, most sites that are excavated in the United States simply do not require the large scale planning and human resources that tell sites in the Middle East need for proper excavation and study. I’m not even sure that other graduate students would take a class in site management and personnel issues–Berkeley is considered fairly radical just to have a pedagogy class where we learn how to, y’know, teach!

The progress of excavation and happiness, education, and involvement of the participants of the excavation is an interesting problem in itself, and I have seen the results of this equation play out in many different scenarios.  For reasons laid out fairly ably in Berggren and Hodder’s Social Practice, Method, and Some Problems of Field Archaeology, having paid, professional excavators on sites (especially those that feature complex stratigraphy) enables the removal of many layers of bureaucracy wherein inexperienced graduate students who are training unexperienced undergraduates have to be watched by marginally more experienced field directors. This is often the justification for digging with baulks, that even if these inexperienced excavators destroy the archaeology, it can be reinterpreted by the excavation director at a later date.  This is wholly irresponsible, but can only really be alleviated by the very thing we do not have in archaeology–more money.  One could argue that these sites should not be excavated at all if there is not enough money to produce quality data, but the willingness to capture secure data for all the specialist information that we can therefore produce seems to be marginalized or misunderstood by many projects.  The craft of archaeology suffers through the deemphasizing of excavation methodology and our data suffers as well.  I cannot count how many times I’ve seen really interesting hypotheses presented in talks that were subsequently shattered when the details of their data collection were revealed, usually unwittingly by the presenter.

How does one balance correct excavation techniques, the education of undergraduates, and the demands of interested parties who are funding the project?  It’s a question that I’ve been asking for a while now, and that I will probably continue to ask throughout my career as an archaeologist.

I’ll probably attempt to pull these posts together into something a bit formalized later, but I’m happy having it in blog form at the moment. Any comments or suggestions would be welcome!

Next up: Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field