Archive | July, 2012

Not Panning for Gold

30 Jul

A’ndrea wet screening dirt for iron.
Credit: Jill Bierly

I was wet screening some dirt from the probable metals working area the other day, sitting under a shade near the path that winds up and around Napoleon Hill (Tel Akko) when two small boys, 8 or 9 I’d guess, walked by.  They asked me in Hebrew if I was looking for gold.  I said no, iron.  They gave me the strangest look, stopped for a second, and then began walking on. As they got about 6 feet in front of me they turned and said, you are looking for gold.  And they walked off.

Gold and silver, those are the precious metals that everyone thinks of when they think of prospecting or looking for ores and such.  But, for archaeologists in most places, the use of copper and then iron ores for metalworking is far more important.  Copper is the only metal beside gold and silver that occurs in its native form on Earth.  Just as one can find gold nuggets, copper nuggets – not as shiny bright and not as valuable – are also found.  Native copper is the only indication of metal working of any kind in North America in pre-contact times.  The nuggets were hammered into tiny bells or other ornaments, but Native Americans never smelted copper or any other metal.

In the Middle East, however, copper, bronze and eventually iron were smelted and worked.  Last year at Tel Akko, during the excavation by the Penn State and University of Haifa, Tel Akko project, excavations revealed a potential metal working area.  This year, a new area, next to the original was excavated and examined by students and a researcher from the Weizmann Institute.

Remember Wooly Willie or other metal filings games where you move the iron with a magnet to create hair, beards, etc.?  Run a magnet through the dirt in these two areas and the magnet looks like Wooly Willie with a full beard.  The number of hammerscales – tiny pieces of iron that fall off when hammering iron into shape – is truly amazing.  The area also yielded pounds of iron slag.  In other areas of the Tel copper slag appeared as well.

The first or second day of the dig, I found, in situ – in the ground in the original location – part of an iron blade.  Yes, I was digging in the same location with all the hammerscales.  Today, one of the last days of digging, someone found an iron arrowhead that is probably late Iron Age early Persian.

Some say that Akko was famous for metalworking.  Certainly indications from this year’s excavations suggest that some ironworking went on in the Persian period, if not earlier.

Mole in the Hole

23 Jul

We have a mole in our unit.  Well, we think it’s a mole.  It could be any other type of burrowing rodent, but it’s probably a mole.  We’ve known our unit was inhabited since the day after we began it; because we arrived to a neat little hill of dirt on the floor and we know that we swept everything clean the day before.

I can’t imagine what he, or she, thinks is going on.  Each day we dig a little deeper and expose one or more of the mole holes.  Most are found when we remove a rock and there is suddenly a hole in the ground.

One day last week, we dug into the mole’s nest.  Well, we didn’t dig into it initially, someone walked across it and the area collapsed about an inch and there was all this stuff — straw, plastic, seed, weird insects and grass.  Not much of a home to me, but I’m sure to the mole it was everything necessary.  So of course we dug it out and removed it.  Frankly, it was nasty.

We didn’t see any indication of the critter for a number of days and then a few days ago we left the unit in pristine shape and went to breakfast.  We eat breakfast on the tel, so we weren’t really that far away.  About a half hour later, we came back to a real skunkworks.  There were four little mounds of dirt in various parts of the unit.  As we watched, we saw little paws and perhaps a nose pushing dirt out of a hole in the middle of the unit onto a pile of dirt.  We just stood there.  It seemed a shame to disturb such industry, but we needed to get back in and dig some more.  So we cleaned up the mess and dug on.

We have not been back to the site since this happened on Friday.   Monday we will return and I have a feeling, we will see little piles of dirt in the unit.  This mole is persistent if nothing else.

mole hill

Screening, Sifting .. A Rose by any other…

23 Jul

One job that needs to be done on any dig site is screening dirt.  Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists don’t sit around with tiny brushes and tools slowly and carefully digging all the time.  Sometimes we use hand picks and trowels or even pick axes and hoes.  It depends on the job that needs to be done.

Consequently, in order not to lose valuable information and artifacts, every bucket taken out of a site must be screened or as they say in Israel, sifted.  So what does that entail?  There are different types of screens, some are on tripods and can be used by one person.  Or others are rectangular screens with legs for one person, but at our dig at Tel Akko, we have the two-person kind that is used over a wheelbarrow.  So, dump the bucket in the screen, remove any big stones, shake the screen back and forth to remove the silt, dust and dirt, and paw through the remains.  In the process, dust covers every part of you.  Some people wear sunglasses to protect their eyes, gloves to protect their hands and a bandana over their mouth.  I don’t use any of those and screening doesn’t really bother me except when we find little yellow orange centipedes in the screen.  They are poisonous.  Not cool.

A’ndrea Messer and Jessica Wells, both of Penn State, screening dirt.

Because I did my first field school in Israel, I was used to calling this process sifting.  When I began to work in Colorado, I got teased a lot.  Flour is sifted. Dirt is screened.  Now I’m back in Israel and I’m sifting.  “a rose by any other name…”

One never knows what is going to pop up in the screens.  Tiny little scallop-like shells with pierced holes, tons of pottery, ancient glass, pieces of flint.  All get collected and popped into the proper bucket for the assigned locus number and turned into the registrar who numbers, codes and orders everything we find and bring out of the field.

After screening a number of buckets, the screened dirt must be placed into plastic sandbags, which are earmarked for propping up walls and other areas for the close of the dig.

But here’s my secret.  I really like screening.  That way I get to see all the artifacts, pull them out of the screen, decide if they stay or go.  Know if they need a special finds bag or if perhaps they will win the “find of the day.”  It is hot dirty work.  In the sun rather than under the shades, but, the reward might just be worth it. A shell bead here, a beautiful rim, baby scorpion, centipede or grub.  Nearly anything can appear in the sift.

Holes, Holes and More Holes

22 Jul

I did almost 10 weeks of full coverage survey as fieldwork for my dissertation.  Walking three abreast over the landscape looking for surface artifacts.  Calling out when someone saw one — pottery, projectile point, worked stone.  It was hot.  Sometimes difficult terrain slowed things down, but all in all, those were fairly pleasant days.

At Tel Akko, as part of the Total Archaeology project, some of the students did shovel survey.  Not something I would have even considered.  Every 5 meters on a grid, two students dug a 40-centimeter by 40-centimeter hole, 40 centimeters deep.  They collected the artifacts for later investigation and moved on to the next grid point.  It was hot, it was dirty and it was hard work.  The field, when they were done, looked like a giant game of Whack-a-Mole or an invasion by some small, burrowing extraterrestrials.  All the pits were eventually recorded and filled in, and the survey team joined the rest of us in excavation.  They mostly thought excavation was a breeze, out of the direct sun and in one place.  I’m not sure they were totally right about excavation being easier, but it certainly is different.

One of the things that made the survey interesting was Jamie Quartermaine, an archeologist from Britain who was in charge.  He probably has more energy than any two teenagers and a tendency to veer off on tangents.  Much of the time he has tongue firmly planted in cheek and he is utterly delightful.

Through a Rabbit Hole

22 Jul

The first time I saw the balloon used for taking images it was teetering on the edge of a table unused.  The reason being that the helium filled balloon with a digital camera attached just barely sits above the ground or a table if there is no wind.

On Tel Akko, there is no wind until about 9 or 9:30 in the morning, and so, until then, the balloon cannot be flown.

Another thing about the balloon that I found out, is that the images, which are taken automatically at intervals of 10s of seconds, become useless if there is anything moving below the camera.  I got caught on the south side of the tel with the balloon high overhead and had to stand stock still for at least 10 minutes while the balloon moved out of range.

Even so, the images that the balloon can create are truly amazing.  An Adobe Acrobat pdf of one of the images can be manipulated using a mouse to see bird’s eye views, slanting views and even a look at the sides of walls and pits.

Click on the photo to download the pdf.

The 3-D imaging is not just being used for the site mapping, but also for individual unit mapping, helping with the usually tedious drawing of unit or top plans.  Because individual rocks, pottery and features can be seen in the 3-D images, the units come alive with a clarity that is never seen in a flat photo or a scale drawing.  By tying the 3-D images to actual points on the ground, they can become accurate site plans and unit maps.

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