“Do you actually dig and stuff?” Archaeology aside from the artifacts.

I was at a party last night—one with a very long line for the bathroom. While I was waiting, the girl in front of me struck up a conversation about my work as a graduate student in archaeology.

“Oh wow! So do you go to lots of places?” she asked.

“Yes! I’ve dug in Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, and Virginia.” I replied.

“Really? You actually dig and stuff?” she responded incredulously.

“Yep! I’ve actually dug in all those places. Although, my work is more focused on the people who are affected by archaeological projects. I do a lot of interviewing people in the communities around archaeological sites, asking them what they care about, how much they want to be involved in the excavation, how we can work to be respectful of their needs and desires. So my work is more about the people than the artifacts.”

“Wow,” she answered, and paused. “But, so… do you actually find stuff when you dig?”

This conversation was almost a direct playback of hundreds of conversations I’ve had. If you’re here, surely you agree that archaeology is really cool. Tons of people are eager to learn more about it. I can’t count the number of times a bank teller or fellow dog-owner or high-school acquaintance has told me that their childhood dream was to be an archaeologist.

Although their admission can sometimes be based on a romanticization of archaeology, I actually don’t find this to be the case most of the time. Indeed, many people have read articles in news sources like the Chicago Tribune and the National Science Foundation, or work by archaeologists including Cornelius Holtorf and Anne Pyburn, who have written about the differences between popular presentations of archaeology and the realities of excavation. These discussions are really important to have; as they point out, the swashbuckling, finders-keepers image of archaeology that we are used to from movies like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft leads to real misunderstandings of just how scientific and meticulous archaeological excavation is, and justifies the removal of artifacts from their original contexts or from the possession of the people to whom they rightfully belong.

But even these conversations do little to help non-archaeologists understand just how diverse the discipline of archaeology is. Yes, we measure the specific find-spots of artifacts instead of snatching them and running off. And yes, we record absolutely everything we can from soil color and texture to what tools we used to remove the earth. And yes, we collect, document, and conserve the artifacts that we find.

And then there are some of us, like me, who ask questions that are very indirectly related to the artifacts. For example, more and more archaeologists identify themselves as practitioners of public archaeology, a really broadly-encompassing term that refers to archaeology seeking to involve non-specialists in archaeological research. It can take the form of educating members of the public about archaeological work, or involving descendant community members in planning and executing and excavation, or training local people in analysis and conservation strategies. This blog, in fact, is an example of public archaeology!

Ironically, most non-archaeologists do not know that this sub-discipline is emerging within the larger field of archaeology. When I explain my work, the most frequent question I am asked is, “Is that really archaeology?” And I can’t very well be offended—public archaeology sits in this uncomfortable place where it is still new enough that non-practitioners don’t know about it, even though its entire goal is engaging non-practitioners!

So, in the interest of broadening ideas of what constitutes ‘archaeology,’ I will tell a little bit about my research which, yes, is really archaeology, but might look a little different from what one would expect.

For the past four years, I have been working with the local communities at Petra in Jordan and at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, asking them about their perspectives on the archaeological work that has been completed at these sites. My interest is especially in talking to the men and women who have been employed to work on these projects, to understand what only they know about the sites from both living and working there.

Allison map

You see, since archaeology began—particularly in the Middle East—excavations have relied on massive gangs of locally-hired laborers to move the soil and expose the remains (see below). In some cases, like the Quftis in Egypt, these workers were trained in specialized excavation techniques and in turn trained their sons, so on through the generations. One group of workmen in Iraq were hired consistently on projects for nearly 100 years!


Workers from Leonard Woolley's expedition at Ur. Photograph from the Penn Museum's blog: http://www.penn.museum/blog/museum/ur-digitization-project-november-2012/
Workers from Leonard Woolley’s expedition at Ur. Photograph from the Penn Museum’s blog: http://www.penn.museum/blog/museum/ur-digitization-project-november-2012/

Petra and Çatalhöyük were both excavated starting in the mid-20th century. These are sites where groups of locally-hired workers acquired unique expertise from working on project after project, season after season, as well as growing up amid these archaeological remains. They learned from their family, they learn from archaeologists, and most importantly they learned from firsthand experience. They became experts in archaeology, without any formal training.

These locally-hired diggers, however, never participated in the documentation, analysis, and publication of the archaeology. This means that their privileged and expert observations and perceptions of the remains have gone formally unrecorded, only handed down through oral history. This is what I aim to recover in my work. By interviewing the people whose families have worked for decades on archaeological projects at these two sites, I’m uncovering some stories and information that has never been recorded before, which can help us to learn even more about the archaeology of both of these exciting places.


The author interviewing Huseyin Veli Yasli in Küçükköy about his experiences as a site worker at Çatalhöyük. Photograph by Tunc Ilada.
The author interviewing Huseyin Veli Yasli in Küçükköy about his experiences as a site worker at Çatalhöyük. Photograph by Tunc Ilada.

So yes, I do dig for artifacts, but what I really love digging for is stories from some archaeologists who have never been recognized as the experts they are. And yes, I travel to lots of places, but when I get there I go into peoples’ homes, if they are kind enough to invite me in, and I record their memories. And yes (as I hope you agree!) what I do really is archaeology.

Allison Mickel is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University.

The first chemists of Europe: Neanderthal production of birch bark tar

For the last few years, I have been working with colleagues Peter Groom and Grethe Moéll Pedersen on the procurement of tar without using pottery. If you, like me, work with Stone age cultures, some things are more spectacular than others, and in this post I am going to introduce you to one of those – pieces of birch bark tar that may be up to 250 000 years old.

250 000 years ago, someone made and used birch bark tar in Central and Southern Europe, well before modern humans entered European history. The people who hafted their flint implements with tar, were Neanderthals: sturdy humans with stocky limbs and big brains well adapted to the cold climate of Europe. Neanderthals are technically called Homo neanderthalensis, first recovered in Neanderthal, Germany. They did, however, live as far east as Georgia and as far west as the Iberian peninsula.

Neanderthals had a complex stone technology centering around Levallois flakes: large-ish flint flakes with two sharp edges, often made into spear points or used as base for other tools.To make a Levallois flake demands a level of skill in flint knapping which is currently beyond my level. You first have to elaborately shape a piece of flint to resemble a tortoise shell, before you strike off the Levallois flake with a well-aimed blow. Around 250 000 years ago, someone made one and hafted it with birch bark tar to form an unknown implement, maybe a spear. This is the earliest find of birch bark tar that has ever been made, found at Campitello quarry, Italy. In Germany, a similar find has been made at Königsaue, but dated to c. 50 000 years ago.The site Inden-Altdorf in Germany also yielded 81 artefacts with tar specks all over, from 120 000 years ago; a number that indicates an ability to produce tar repeatedly and when needed.

But what is the big deal with this tar? Although it may not seem particularly impressive today, there are two reasons for why Neanderthal tar making is special: The only other artefacts we have recovered after this enormous amount of time are made of stone, and tar provides an interesting variation to the discussion. But more importantly, to make tar is actually a complex process that demands a carefully controlled temperature between c. 250-400°C, airtight environments, and a good plan. The fact that Neanderthals were making tar shows a skillful mastery of fire, an understanding of the concept of airtight (and therefore the concept of air), and an ability to plan and monitor a demanding process. This all credits Neanderthals with quite the intelligence!

The author monitoring a tar experiment. Note the necessary provisions.
The author monitoring a tar experiment. Note the necessary provisions.

Many researchers have tried, and most have failed, to make birch bark tar the way Neanderthals did. To achieve tar, you must force birch bark to undergo slow pyrolysis, where bark changes from mass to liquid (tar), gas (volatile, smelly fumes) and waste matter (char). From 6-7000 years ago onwards, the airtight conditions could easily be created by pottery. But before this, we have as of yet found no evidence for how the tar was made. Remains from a bonfire at Abric Romani in Spain, dated up to c. 70 000 years ago, shows evidence of a hydrocarbon spill, but that is all. Many have been puzzled by this mystery of production.

Peter, Grethe and I did 16 experiments with various pit structures in 2009, scratching our heads when structure after structure failed us. Peter and I went on to do a set of experiments with standing structures in 2013. And finally, we made it! We were beyond excited to see tar trickle out of the structures (even though it trickled down a precious piece of equipment..).

The resulting tar after a successful experiment. While not plentiful, it is most definitely viscous.
The resulting tar after a successful experiment. While not plentiful, it is most definitely viscous.

Basically, we had made tar in small heaps of sand, and all that remained was a spill of hydrocarbons in bonfire remains. But it did take us 5 years to get there! Boy, are we impressed with Neanderthals: We barely made it to their everyday level of thought, and I have, for sure, learnt to never call them primitive again.

Tine Schenck is an experimental archaeologist with a special interest in Boreal, seasonal exploitation of resources, and one of the founders of ArchaeologistsEngage. You can read more about the first experiments here.

Tracking hunter-gatherers in Scotland, using experimental archaeology. 

I am an experimental archaeologist, as such I use primitive technologies and ancient skills to understand how our ancestors used to live. Some of my projects have included; stone bead making in Romania, tree bast experiments in Denmark, and Neanderthal birch bark tar production. In short, a range of exciting and fascinating projects. A major recent project for me has been to work on the west coast of Scotland trying to figure out how Mesolithic (11,500–6000 cal BP) hunter-gatherers were living. Archaeologists have evidence for the importance of fish and shellfish to their diet, but virtually nothing is known as to how these were caught or collected.

My research attempted to change this by using a combination of bushcraft/primitive skills and experimental archaeology. Initially, my work focussed on the prehistoric environments of Scottish west coast Mesolithic coastal sites. I then looked at a range of archaeological/traditional fishing gear and food collection strategies to see what might have been used in the Mesolithic. These perspectives, together with the prehistoric environmental data, guided my construction and use of fishing gear, working with the resources and technologies available to Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Using my bushcraft/primitive skills I was able to make fishing lines from a range of materials; this included nettles as well as the bark from various trees. I also made basketry fish and crab pots that varied in size and shape depending on the type of natural vegetation that I had used. It was vital that I only used natural un-managed vegetation typical of the habitats of the Scottish Mesolithic and that I only used tools of stone, bone or shell. Only by restricting myself to the resources and tool kit of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer could I go through similar thought processes and experiences.

The author extracting bramble fibres using a mussel shell.
The author extracting bramble fibres using a mussel shell.

I ended up spending much of my time grubbing around on remote Scottish islands, testing whatever I could find to see if I could make fishing lines, hooks or basket traps. This involved travelling to some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland and sitting on the coast fishing with my hand made gear.

I made and tested a wide range of fishing gear and travelled thousands of miles over 4 years and started to feel like a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer; lugging fishing gear to remote sites, planning to maximise the use of tides, experiencing lousy weather. These experiences provided me with an insight into the world of the Mesolithic coastal hunter-gatherer, revealing the extent of organisation and knowledge that they must have had in order to fully utilise their environment. The planning needed to maximise returns, whether foraging, hunting or collecting resources. The knowledge required of the environment; the places to find the best materials for a particular task, knowledge of seasons and the seasonal movement of species, when and where to be at a particular place at a particular time. This is how experimental archaeology can fill in some of the gaps in the archaeologicalrecord, the human facets that are missing.

Walking in Torridon, Scotland.
Walking in Torridon, Scotland.

It is of course very difficult to understand the mind-set of someone who lived 8000 years ago, but by using those ancient hunter-gatherer skills together with experimental archaeology, we can move some way toward them.

Dr Peter Groom is Course Manager of the Environmental Archaeology and Primitive Skills Programme at Reaseheath College, Nantwich, Cheshire, and a Director of the Mesolithic Resource Group mesolithic.org.uk.