Memory Palaces, Archaeological Sites, and Postex Planning

A plume of dust spread over the tanur I was drawing and my tape measure fell over and shuddered shut with a metallic clang. The wind had been steadily getting worse throughout the day, until it became an unrelenting blast furnace. I sighed and glanced up at the rest of the team. There were four of us on site, and everyone was neatly framed by the measuring tapes wound around grid pegs; five ¬†meter boxes that we were neatly drawing at 1:20 scale on permatrace. I’ve railed against Americanist thinking-in-boxes for so long that it was a bit funny–but these were invisible boundary lines, and the layers were continued on the next piece of permatrace without the messy guessing of baulks.

Regular site work has come to a close; we cleaned up for aerial photography earlier in the week and are now drawing a large multicontext plan of the site before we cover it all up with backfill. I’ve done similar things before, but never a detailed plan over this large of an area–200 square meters. A few of the areas are pock-marked nightmares of postholes and clay-lined firepits–think circles within circles surrounded by circles. Other areas have bits of architecture or large layers of sandy-shelly accumulations.

I’ve worked over roughly the same area over the last five months, following the stratigraphy back and forth across the trench. Large areas can be difficult to excavate and I’d find myself chasing stratigraphic relationships in circles sometimes–not so hard to imagine when you know that the site depositional processes included sandstorms that would periodically blow thick layers of sand across site and we’d have to dig ourselves out time and time again.

While I was drawing I would remember the walls and the layers of sand that I’d taken off, but I’d also remember what the weather was like that day, who was on site with me, whether the general mood was good or bad. I’d remember if I was chatting to my workmen or my fellow archaeologists, or listening to a podcast or music (usually on windy days when I was using my headphones as wind muffles)–I have a very singular association of a midden dump and a low wall made of orangey-crumbly-crystally anhydrite slabs with a discussion of the concept of “the tipping point” courtesy of BBC’s Thinking Allowed. My thoughts wandered farther: what was the “tipping point” of midden accumulation–when was it accepted and acceptable to dump your garbage next to a wall? What started it? One camel bone? A piece of dog shit? Is there a broken window theory of midden dumping? I should look that up.

I recalled all of this as my pencil traced the outlines of layers yet to be removed. Archaeological sites are memory palaces in every sense of the term. We are re-remembering the past shapes and modes of dwelling and adding our own on top. As the site disappears in discreet episodes, paperwork and memories pile up in place of the stones and walls and sand.

I’d like for my future work to be in this arena, with location-based digital annotation, as most instances I’ve seen so far are completely separate from the lived experience of archaeology. Sadly, most avenues for this work immediately separates me from this very thing that I am most interested in–communicating the poetics of place. We’ll see if I can work something out.

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