Thursday, July 23, 2009

2009 Post season wrap-up, part 3

Well, we've come a long way this season, but it's finally over. The staff have checked out, my excavation computer and tape measure have been returned, and the excavation areas are all closed up and sandbagged for winter.

But how, you might ask, did we get from what you see in that picture to the left, to the cleanly defined walls and surfaces that showed up in the last couple of entries?

Okay, I'll admit: We used a big mechanical excavator for some of it. But not all that much, really -- most of the dirt was shifted by hand, by one of the best groups of volunteers that it's been my privilege to have worked with.

Now, it's true that there were times that the supervisors did a bit of work themselves. Why, I've even got a bit of photographic evidence to support that assertion: Here's Philip Johnson, busy with brush and gufah. But honestly, we spent most of our time making sure everything was going the way it ought to be, and filling things out on our trusty computers.

Which weren't the only responsibilities the staff had. Every week, there'd be a tour of one of the areas of excavation, which meant that we had to have our squares clean enough that people could see what was going on, and we had to give a little discussion of what it was that we've been finding. This was difficult for me, as I was never sure about what I was finding, but other people did an excellent job of explaining exactly what it was they had turned up.
Here, for instance, you can see the estimable Kate Birney explaining what's going on in Grid 51. As Kate is a high level black belt, I fear admitting that I'm not sure what's going on in her grid, but I can't say that I remember much of what she had to say. Please don't kill me, Kate.

And then there were the side projects. I had this blog, which I'm almost entirely done with. Other people were working on things like ceramics typologies, geology, zooarchaeology, and so on. As far as side projects go, this was actually a pretty modest effort -- maybe an hour or so a day, more when I had time for it. Unlike trying to sort out the Persian period material from previous seasons of excavation, say, which is something that involves, y'know, real work.

Sean Burrus, for instance, was one of the excavation's photographers, in addition to being a square supervisor. Here, you can see him taking a picture of me taking a picture of him taking a picture of . . . aaah! That was on one of the days where everyone in Grid 47 worked their tails off in 47.44, cleaning up after the excavator; you can see the effects of that day's work in the less than pristine shirts displayed. And that was in something like hour two of ten.

Not all the work that the volunteers did involved heavy lifting, of course. Unfortunately, I didn't get any good pictures of pottery washing, or of people writing on their potsherds, both of which are jobs that are absolutely necessary for the excavation, and both of which require constant attention to detail.
However, I did get a shot of Heather Calhoon using a pair of tweezers to sort hundreds of tiny beads. Again, something necessary, and certainly something that requires constant and focused attention. Heather may have gotten roped into doing that particular job as a result of being the registrar's sister; there are consequences to things like that.

Which isn't to say that the dig was nothing but work; there were also field trips, and, as the season drew to a close, a couple of parties, as well. First off was the finds display and reception; here you can see the registrar, Jessica Calhoon-Long, and Sara Hoffman standing behind the table, while everyone involved in the dig stopped by to look at some of what had been found over the last two seasons.

And, all credit to Jessica, it was a heck of a display. Some of that had to do with the quality of the finds, but more had to do with the choice of which finds to display, the logic of their arrangement, and the descriptions of each piece that Jessica wrote up. I'd love to show some of that work in detail, but the finds are the sort of thing that are going to be finding their way into peer-reviewed publications before too long, and it's generally considered bad form to put that sort of thing in public view before it can be properly published. But trust me: it's great stuff.

And, in addition to looking at the finds that had been so expertly displayed, a pair of hand made and decorated plates were presented to the director emeritus of the excavation, Larry Stager, and the excavation's sponsor, Shelby White, in recognition of the fact that they'd been with the project for twenty years. Which is really a significant amount of time to spend on a project; unfortunately, there's kind of a reason why I wasn't one of the dig's photographers, which can be seen in my failing to get a picture showing the decorated side of the plates.

And, on a similar note, I didn't get any pictures of the final party, which took place last week. Which is unfortunate, as it was an excellent party. There were extremely silly presentations, and a pair of music videos, which . . . well, if you weren't on the dig, you'd probably find them puzzling. But they were hilarious, honestly.

And that's about it, really. I'm not sure how many people have been reading this, but I do get the sense that it's more than one or two; for all of you who have been reading, thanks for your time, and I hope you've found it some combination of enjoyable, informative, or entertaining.

See you all around!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

2009 Post season wrap-up, part 2

Now, while the stuff that I was talking about in the last entry might be interesting, it wasn't really what our excavation focused on this season; the two squares with the majority of the volunteers were on the east side of the area, and while my square was on the west, most of what we dug was huddled up against the eastern edge of the square.

No, while the stuff on the west looks a bit different than it did at the beginning of the season, the stuff in the east looks a lot different than it did at the beginning of the season. And we certainly learned a great deal of what had been going on there, at least during the Byzantine period.

As with the last entry, MS Paint has been used in an attempt to clarify.

This picture more or less picks up where the picture in the previous post leaves off; the wall that I've circled in red and labeled 2 matches the wall in the previous post that I had circled in red and labeled 1; the wall that I circled in black here and labeled 1 matches up with the one that I had circled in green and labeled 2.

Sometimes I make peculiar choices.

But anyway. The wall labeled 2 is earlier than any of the other features that can be seen in this picture, and was probably the wall of the apse of a Roman basilica. The wall labeled 1, on the other hand, was built later, and does not seem to have been part of a basilica at all.

One of the things that troubled us at the end of last season was the plaster structure which I've circled in green, and labeled 3; only a bit of it was visible at the time, so interpretation of it was postponed until this year.

And we do see rather a lot more of it this year, and we've got a theory about it, now: It's part of the seating of an Odeon, an indoor theater where musicians and poets would have performed (there are remains of a full scale theater in the Ashkelon National Park, perhaps a hundred meters to the south of where we excavated this season that hasn't been excavated. It wouldn't be unusual to have an odeon and a dramatic theater close to each other; if I'm not mistaken, most of the odeons that have been excavated are found close to theaters.)

Thus, the wall I labeled 1 would have been the rear wall of the odeon's seating, and the wall that I've circled in yellow, and labeled 4 would have been part of the banking of the odeon's seating -- the seats on our side would have been over the top of that wall, and the next block of seats would have continued from that level down. Or, depending on the size of the orchestra, that might have been where the performers would have stood; it's hard to tell without excavating more of the material to the north.

How the wall that I've circled in blue and labeled 5 fits in isn't entirely clear; it might have been a rebuild of the basilica that took place before the odeon was built. Whatever it was, it's covered over by the remains of the odeon, which means that it came before it.

And that is, more or less, what we've found in Grid 47 this year. But I've got at least one more post that I'd like to make; hopefully, we'll get to that tomorrow.

Monday, July 20, 2009

2009 Post season wrap-up, part 1

Well, the digging is done, the volunteers are gone, and much of the work that we had left to do after the season ended has either been completed or is well on its way to completion.

Which isn't to say that I've got nothing left to do; I keep feeling as though I'm about done with my paperwork, but it's a goal that seems to persist in moving toward the horizon. It's possible that I'll get into exactly why it's taking so long, but before that, I'd like to go through a bit of what we've done this season.

The first picture shows the western half of our excavated area, looking northward. Much of this was excavated by Garstang in the 1920s, but there's certainly a lot here that we've done. And I think that what we've excavated this season is helping us understand what had been visible since the 20s.

And, for the sake of explanation, I'm going to recourse to MS paint.

The wall of which we've got the longest contiguous piece is outlined in red, and labeled "1". For the moment, we're interpreting that as the apse of a Roman period basilica. The scale is about right, and that rectilinear room to the west of it is the sort of thing that you expect to see in a Roman period basilica.

One of the important things about this is that the straight walls extending to the west are bonded to the big semi-circular wall; that is, they're firmly attached to the semi-circular wall, with stones sitting half in one wall and half in the other. That's going to be important to understanding the wall that I've outlined in blue, and labeled 4. But let's not talk about that yet.

The other big wall in this half of the area is circled in green, and outlined in green. There area a couple of interesting things about this wall. First off, it does seem to be later than the wall I've circled in red; there's more of it left, for one thing, and there's also a small area (unfortunately not visible in the picture) where the green outlined wall actually covers a bit of one of the straight red outlined walls.

Which means that we have at least two phases of construction here. And this is where things get complicated. That bit of wall outlined in blue and labeled 4 starts off adjacent to the one outlined in red. But it's not bonded to it, so the assumption is that it was built after the red wall, but possibly while it was still in use -- if it was built after the earlier wall had gone out of use, it wouldn't have been fitted so neatly next to it, and might well have covered it, or been cut into it. So, let's say that this isn't a different phase of construction, but, rather, a later part of the same phase.

Now, all of the walls that we have had some of their stones robbed, and used in some other construction; we don't know how high they were when the buildings they were part of were in use, but judging by what we've found, and the trenches we've dug, we're looking at the foundations of a lot of these walls, and the floor levels for some of the others. In the case of the blue outlined wall, it was robbed out below where the current ground level is. But the material that filled in the trench made in the process of getting those stones is sufficiently different than the material around it that you can see the line of where the wall was, when it's very well swept, and the lighting is right. That may not be entirely true of the picture that I've taken, but I think that you can make out a bit of it if you click through on the picture without the scribbled lines. I've drawn brown lines on the edges of where that robber trench can be seen, and labeled it five.

Then you've got the somwhat lumpier wall that I've circled in yellow, and labeled 6. That wall is also semi-circular, and it goes on top of the robber trench material. So, for the moment, we're thinking that it's part of the later phase of occupation, and would have been in use at the same time as the big wall that I outlined in green.

Complicating matters, you have the two walls that I've outlined in white, and labeled 3. We don't know much about them, but they seem to be part of whatever was here before the basilica was built -- they either go underneath, or have been cut through in the process of making all the other walls. And we have the walls that I circled in pink, and labeled 7. These are the walls that Garstang built to preserve his open air museum.

Much of what I've been doing for the last few days is going through my notes, and showing, as clearly as possible, what is on top of what. And, hopefully, as the above demonstrates, that's more complicated than you might think; in a very small area, we had a bit of 7 standing on top of 6, which is on top of 5, which is on top of 4, which is on top of 3.

I've got a bit more of that to do, so I'm going to head off and do it. Hopefully, there will be a couple of more wrap-up posts when I'm done with that, and I'll try and explain what we think that second set of semi-circular walls were part of.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

2009 season, days 28 and 29

I spent today in the pottery compound, catching up on reading, but there were certainly people out in the field today.

As can be seen by this pair of pictures. The first shows the square as we left it yesterday, and the next one as the people working there left it at the end of the day. And you can certainly see the difference -- for one thing, someone seems to have left a trowel there today.

Also, they left it clean, whereas under my direction, it was left a bit messy. Now, as there is a great deal of dirt still left in the picture I'm calling clean, you might not see what I'm talking about. But take a closer look, particularly at the area beyond the bottom step of that big byzantine wall.

You'll probably have to click through to see it, but just by sweeping away the loose dirt, they found another course of stones, almost connecting that wall to the section standing in what had been Garstang's open air museum. Which had been something that I wanted to look for, but which I hadn't had the time for on Monday -- I had to push pretty hard to get the last bits I wanted excavated finished by the end of the day, as it was our last day of excavation.

So, all in all, I'm pretty happy with what was done; there will probably have to be a final sweep before the pictures for the end of the season, but other than that, field work is more or less finished in 47.53. Which isn't to say that work is done -- we've got a few more crates of pottery to wash and read, and then there's all sorts of documentation that needs to be documented.

But not tonight!

Monday, July 13, 2009

2009 season, days 25 - 27.

Unfortunately, I missed a few days worth of blogging; the fast day took me out of the field for two days -- one for the fast itself, and the other for recovery. And, while I did get some pictures yesterday, I didn't have any time to write anything up, as we went directly from pottery washing to an Israel Antiquities Authority reception for the staff of the excavations active this season.

In general, I think that not having enough time to write things up is going to be the theme for the next week or so -- there's a great deal that has to be wrapped up, and I'm a bit behind on a lot of it. So, there's a picture, but not much explanation. I will say that the stone feature was taken out during the time I wasn't around, as was much of the dirt under it, and a decent chunk of the material to the south of the large wall. Today was the last day of real excavation; hopefully, I'll be able to document what's been happening over the next few days, but I'm afraid that'll have to take a back seat to getting all my work done on time. Still, since the site shouldn't be changing much from now until the end of the season, things I don't talk about should be around until I have a bit more time to post here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

2009 season, day 24

Today was a slightly shortened day, as everyone went off to see what was going on in another part of the tel, ending the day about an hour earlier than usual.

But, all the same, we got a lot done. The stone feature, for instance, is a lot smaller than it was before; the bits that remain do so because there's dirt behind them, and they are useful as a retaining wall, keeping that dirt in place until it can be excavated. Which should happen in the next few days.

In addition to finishing up our work on the stone feature, we also took out a chunk of dirt, leaving that curiously circular divot in the plaster that you can see in the middle of the picture, and we cleaned up the loosely plastered material that had been on the edge of the large plaster feature. What we didn't do was get everyone over to help with taking out the loose stones that seem to be related to Garstang's wall. That's now supposed to happen tomorrow; when that's done, we'll be more or less done excavating in the northern half of the square -- there's the dirt below the stone feature to dig, and the material left that relates to the large wall, and a bit of what lies to the south of it, but the northern half is more or less done.

Unfortunately, while there will be excavating done tomorrow, I'm not going to be supervising it -- tomorrow, by the Jewish calendar, is the seventeenth of Tammuz, which is a fast day that I'll be observing. And while work isn't prohibited, drinking water is, which makes excavating an extraordinarily bad idea. I do hope to be back on the site on Friday, when we're either going to be digging or working in the compound; hopefully, those rocks will be gone before I'm back in my square.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

2009 season, day 23

Excavation continued today around that stone feature; we've brought the level of the material around it to that of the bottom of the feature, and cleaned off the face of the plaster that had been the outer face of the big wall.

Hopefully, there'll be one more picture taken early tomorrow morning, and then we can start taking the stone feature down.

The possibility exists that tomorrow we're going to get the volunteers from the square to the east to come and go through the loose rocks that we have at the edge of where Garstang's wall was. If that happens, I'm going to have to run around like a lunatic keeping an eye on everything. Which should be fun.

Monday, July 6, 2009

2009 season, day 22

Today was, I hope, the last day we spent most of our time on the stone feature. We've dropped a bit of the material to the side of it down, so as to show the section, as well as cleared most of the material to the left (west) of it.

I had been thinking of trying to get a picture in tomorrow morning, but it might be wise to hold off on that, and spend tomorrow bringing the rest of the area down, rather than going after the feature; it's the latest material we have, so it should come out first, but I'm starting to think that the most orderly thing to do would be to fully excavate the material around it, and then go after it.

Did I say that I was getting ready to take it out? If so, that is because I am. As you can see from the second picture, we seem to have gotten to the bottom of the feature. Or not; it's a little hard to see. But the ashy gray fill that we've been following throughout the excavation of the feature is gone, and we're coming down on the sort of pottery we're finding to the east of the thing, and there's a line where digging doesn't seem to find any stones, more or less where that fill ended.

Assuming that this is the bottom, and not a trick the feature is playing on me, it might be worth going into a bit more detail as to what it might be, and why we think that.

The first question that has to be answered is, when the thing was in use, was it above ground or below ground? And I think that there's evidence both ways. One thing that points to it being underground is that the outer surface is lumpy, with rocks sticking out every which way. If you were digging a pit, and lining it with rocks, that's the sort of thing that would happen -- you'd want the inner surface to be relatively smooth, whatever it is you were doing with it, but the outer surface wouldn't be visible at all. Another point in favor of the lined pit theory is that the material between the rocks seems very similar to that ashy gray material we were finding as we went down. Again, this makes sense if it was a lined pit; the rocks would have been stuck into the walls of the pit, and the material from the pit would have filled the spaces between them. Finally, it's a pretty thin walled structure for something as tall as it is; I'm not sure something like that would have survived as a surface installation.

All of which seems pretty convincing. But there are reasons to think that it wasn't a surface installation. For one thing, the feature is slightly bell shaped, in its upper layers. And that's not how you dig a pit; if you dig a bell-shaped pit, it falls in. If anything, you'd expect the opposite -- wider on top, narrowing as it goes down. And then there was the dirt that filled the feature. In the areas where we didn't get the ashy gray fill, we got material that was similar to the stuff from the outside of the feature. Which isn't what you'd expect in an abandoned pit -- if it was left partially empty, you'd expect things to fall from above. If they were falling from the side, you'd expect to see disruption relating to that spill. Which we were looking for, but didn't find. And then there's the question of where the missing rocks went. It's possible that they were robbed for later use, but that seems unlikely to me, given that the rocks are pretty small, and small rocks are something that Ashkelon has in abundance. If it were exposed, the rocks might have fallen and then rolled away, but that can't happen to a feature in the ground.

On the balance, I think that the evidence does seem to favor it having been a lined pit, but there are still problems with that theory. As far as function goes, honestly, I'm not sure we're going to know that; there are a few bags of that ashy gray fill that's going in for additional analysis, but if those don't give us something definitive, it's going to be a matter of guesswork, rather than hard data.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

2009 season, day 21

Last week, it was asserted with some confidence that Sunday would be a day for catching up with work in the pottery compound -- washing, sorting, and reading the material we've fallen a bit behind on.

And so it was, at least for the first four hours. But not for me! Instead, I supervised the hired workers in their demolition of much of what remained of Garstang's wall, and in cleaning up the mess that said demolition made.

Let the record show that I'm fine with changes of that sort.

As has been the case recently, the picture is one taken in the afternoon, late enough that shadows are actually reaching where we were digging, which doesn't happen during the time we're excavating. And it's an interesting picture, or at least, it shows some of the interesting things that have been coming up in the square recently. Behind where the wall was, we're getting a layer of rubble. That might be related to the construction of the wall, or it might be related to the plaster structure that we've got on the other side. This is something that can be determined by digging, and assuming all goes well, it will be.

The plan for tomorrow is to spend a little more time futzing around with the stone structure -- it's looking as though we're close to the bottom of the ashy fill, and I hope that means that we're at the bottom of the stones; hopefully, that'll be clarified early on in the day. Then, a bit of clearing of the sides of the structure, and getting ready for pictures tomorrow morning, and the rest of the time digging in what little we have left of the northern half of the square.

Unless circumstances intervene, like they seem to do every day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

2009 season, day 20

Looking at the first picture, you might think that we didn't get that much done today. There are other things that you might think as well -- "I thought he was going to take that stone structure out today," or "why can I see more of what's left of the open air museum in this shot than usual?" or "where did I put my car keys?"

Fortunately, I have answers for some of those questions.

The initial plan was to take out the feature, assuming that cleaning the inner surface undermined it sufficiently for it to be unsafe to keep up. But that didn't happen. We did spend the first hour cleaning it up for a photograph, which may eventually find its way here, and then scraping away at its inner surface. But instead of something that looked as unstable as the outer surface, we found an inner surface that looks quite solid and convincing.

Unlike the outside, where stones protrude at varying angles and distances, the inner surface is relatively smooth and regular. And there isn't a foundation where I expected to see a foundation. This is making me doubt my belief that it was built as a freestanding structure -- it's getting pretty tall and narrow for something not supported by the dirt around it. The aesthetics of having a rubbly looking outer surface strike me as being somewhat less significant.

So, what we're going to do with this is to continue to dig through the ashy material that's along that inside wall, and see what turns up as we go down. My suspicion is that there are two phases -- an aboverground phase and a pit, but I'll wait and see what the feature has to say before making a final interpretation.

The stone feature wasn't the only thing that we excavated today; we actually went down a fair amount in the northern corner of the square. And then, the plan was to take down a couple of courses of stone from Garstang's wall.

That's not exactly what happened.

Honestly, that collapse isn't bad news; we were planning on taking it down eventually, and once we get this cleaned up, we'll be able to get a good look at what's coming, once we clear away the debris, and I'm much happier about a wall falling apart when we were trying to take it apart than I would be if it fell apart underneath someone who wasn't expecting it.

All the same, we're going to have some cleaning up to do; I didn't get pictures of what we excavated in that northern part of the square because it's currently covered in dirt and rocks from the wall.

So, in addition to my complaints about Garstang's archaeological technique, I'm no longer very pleased about the masonry work that he supervised.

As the camera I've been borrowing doesn't have a video mode, this is probably going to be the week in review as well, so here's a look at what's been going on in the neighboring squares. To the north, they've dug a narrow trench across the length of their area of excavation. As I understand it, they've found the bottom of the cut that Garstang made in the 1920s, as well as what looks to be a part of a marble pedestal. I'm not certain if they're planning on going deeper, or widening their trench, or something else entirely. I do know that if they decide to remove that pedestal, it's going to be a bit tricky.

There's all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the square to the east of mine; for one thing, they've been coming up with a lot of ostraka, all of which seem to be written in greek, on a very similar sort of potsherd -- it's possible that there's something that'll be found when they put that puzzle together. And they've mostly cleared the dirt off some of the larger features, which was one of the major goals for the season.

But, what I chose to take a picture of is a little lump of stone in the corner of their square. It's a bit difficult to make out, but it seems that they've just barely clipped the edge of the outer wall of the basilica. Which, to be honest, isn't a wall that I've ever mentioned before, and probably not something of surpassing interest to most of the people who might be reading this.

Sometimes I make poor photographic decisions.

Oh, and as far as the car keys go, I'm really not sure. Maybe check the pockets of your raincoat?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 season, day 19

Looking at this picture, you might think that there wasn't as much done today as there had been on previous days; comparing this picture to that of the previous day, it would seem that we haven't excavated very much.

But you'd be wrong! We did a great deal, just not in terms of pounds of dirt moved. The times is coming to fully excavate and remove the stone feature, and I'd like to get a picture of it before we do that.

"Hold on a second," you might say. "You have pictures of that stone feature. I am looking at a picture of that stone feature this very second. What do you mean that you want to get a picture of the feature? Is this blog some sort of record of your descent into madness?"

Okay, I suppose it's possible that you wouldn't say that. But if you did, I'd explain thusly: When I'm taking pictures for my own record keeping, or for the amusement of others, there's not that much pressure to get everything right. The lighting can be off, there can be random detritus of the excavation around, you can see my shadow looming over whatever I'm trying to take a picture of, and so on.

But when you're taking an official picture, it's going to be something that goes into the records of the excavation, and which might wind up published. Certainly, if someone comes across a similar installation somewhere else in Ashkelon, they're going to want to look at the one I excavated. So the goal is to get a picture that shows the feature as clearly as possible, and with as few extraneous factors as possible.

So, basically, we spent the day trying to clean the feature up for the shot.

As you might be able to see, that meant cutting the edges of the dirt near the feature as sharply as we could manage, and clearing as much dirt from the stones as we could manage. There's going to be another pass with trowel and brush on the dirt on the inside of the feature, to bring out distinctions in the soil as best as possible, and I'll take some more dirt off some of those stones.

And then the stones are going to come out. I'm still not sure what this thing is -- it's got a very thin wall, with large gaps between the stones, but it very clearly does have at least one wall, and it's got a layer of fill inside it that follows that line of stones from the top to the bottom. But I've excavated it . . . well, I've told other people to excavate it as well as I could manage, I've documented what I've found as well as I could manage, and now it's got to go, so we can see what's going on underneath.

But, once it's out, I anticipate a rapid descent. The layer of fill that we've come across is a genuine pleasure to go through; it's soft enough that we can move through rapidly, it's got a decent amount of pottery in it, so it should be easy to find a date for it, and it seems to be deep and undifferentiated, which means that we can move.

Obviously, going in with that attitude means that we'll come up on some horribly complicated bit of archaeology inches below our current surface. Which would be fine too, really.