Excavation begins – slow going

Preparing for the day's work
Preparing for the day’s work; from left, Hugh Thomas, Paul Donnelly, Lesley Beaumont and Steve Vassilakis © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Before I worked on this project, I had no understanding of how much physical yakka (that’s Australian slang for ‘work’) there was in archaeology. First there was the site clearing so that the geophysical team could do their survey. Then there was laying out of the 217 grids with tape around each 20 metre square, then the total collection survey, then the transect survey.

We have now started excavating two trenches: test trench 1 on Thursday 15 November 2012 and test trench 2 yesterday, Friday 16 November 2012.

I was surprised to find out what the work entailed: removing stones and soil (lifting and carrying away), trowelling and brushing dirt away. We did this for hours and there is much more still to do.

Our two test trenches are quite different in nature.

Kristen Mann, Supervisor of Trench 1, preparing for the excavation
Kristen Mann, Supervisor of Trench 1, preparing for the excavation © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Test trench 1, with Kristen Mann as Supervisor, is above and to the west of a visible wall.

We believe from looking at the different layers of stones in the wall, that there is an ancient building below it. It is also possible that the lower levels of this wall are ancient – we won’t know until we excavate the layers to the bottom of the wall.

So the rocks, soil, leaf litter and extensive plant roots have to be removed, layer by layer. Each layer has then to be cleaned with trowels and brushes, and then documented with text and photography, until we remove each layer of the wall and soil down to the level of what we hope will be the ancient construction. At the end of yesterday, we had been able to remove only the top layer.

Test trench 2, with Ivana Vetta as Supervisor, has far less rock to be excavated as it is located in an open area. But there is still a great deal of soil and plant roots to be removed.

Until now, very little information has been obtained about the use of open areas during the Zagora settlement period. This is why we particularly want to investigate this area. We are hoping to discover more about how such open areas (possibly courtyards or public spaces) were used in ancient times.

We spent all day on site, from about 8am to about 3.30pm (with the walk down to, and back up from, the site, before 8am and after 3.30pm). And in that time we lifted and hauled stones and soil, and cleared rocks with trowels, hands (wearing heavy duty gardening or work gloves) and brushes.

Ivana Vetta and her team on Trench 2
Ivana Vetta and members of her team, Paul Donnelly and Hugh Thomas on Test Trench 2 © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Because we cannot be certain where the Zagora settlement layer of the excavation will begin, we have to document each level we go down as we try to get to what we hope will be an ancient building structure.

So when we clear a level of rocks and soil that brings us to a layer that appears to be different (may be different looking rocks, different soil structure, etc), we must stop excavating deeper, and clean up that level as much as we can, so that photographs can be taken of it, in case there is information to be gleaned from it.

This is hard physical work, with soil and rocks needing to be taken away by zembilis (the sturdy two-handled black baskets seen in photos above and below) or in a wheelbarrow. There are also many remaining roots of the holm oak that was removed that have to be hacked away in order to reach the rocks, soil and leaf litter that has to be removed.

Here are some more photos to show the work we did yesterday. I spent more time at test trench 1, so my captions are more detailed for the work done there. I plan to spend a bit more time with the test trench 2 team in coming days and can then tell you a bit more about the work they are doing there.

…. We’ve just found out that rain is forecast for next week. This should make life interesting….

Test trench 1

Test trench 1 team working
Test trench 1 team working; from left, Archondia Thanos, Steve Vassilakis and Rudy Alagich (Kristen Mann is obscured behind Rudy). This is early in the work when the top layer of rocks and stones were being removed, and plant roots hacked back to enable removal of earth and leaf litter. The largest rocks were put in the wheelbarrow and taken away to a ‘dump’area where we are putting all the rocks, stones, soil and plant matter we remove from the trench site. The smaller rocks, stones, soil and plant matter are put into the black zembilis (the heavy-duty black baskets with handles), and carried to the dump site. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Test trench 1 team working
Test trench 1 team working; from left, Rudy Alagich, Steve Vassilakis, Archondia Thanos and Kristen Mann. This shot too shows an early phase of work when rocks in the top layer are being removed. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
The test trench 1 team working
The test trench 1 team working; from left, Steve Vassilakis, Kristen Mann, Archondia Thanos and Rudy Alagich. This shows a later phase of the day’s work. You can see that the rocks have been cleared away from the top, and the newly visible layer swept clean with brushes to reveal the layer below. Even footprints in the earth must be swept away before this layer is photodocumented. We need to be careful removing large plant roots to be sure that deeper roots do not disturb any ancient structure below. The team is working their way back to the other side of the trench site in the same way. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Kristen Mann brushing the stones clean
Kristen Mann brushing the stones clean (I had to take this shot after Kristen commented: ‘It’s such a stereotype about how archaeologists work, with little brushes’; I now know that this kind of work is not generally how archaeologists spend most of their time) © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Steve Vassilakis removing rocks and soil in a wheelbarrow
Steve Vassilakis removing rocks and soil in a wheelbarrow and taking it to the dump site; he did this repeatedly throughout the day © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Test trench 2

Test trench 2 team working
Test trench 2 team, Paul Donnelly, Ivana Vetta and Jane McMahon (Hugh Thomas is obscured behind) clearing stones, soil and plant matter from their trench site. The red and white ranging pole, used in surveying the site (see below) is visible just behind the trench. This is one of five ranging poles around the site used by Richard Anderson and the Total Station (see below) to survey and determine exact locations on the Zagora site. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Hugh Thomas, Jane McMahon, Paul Donnelly and Ivana Vetta at test trench 2
Hugh Thomas, Jane McMahon, Paul Donnelly and Ivana Vetta at test trench 2. You can see the yellow string in the foreground that marks out the boundary of the trench, and the straight trench line that follows the string line © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Lesley Beaumont, Jane McMahon, Hugh Thomas and Paul Donnelly working on test trench 2
Lesley Beaumont, Jane McMahon, Hugh Thomas and Paul Donnelly working on test trench 2. You can more clearly see the string marking out one side of the trench in this photo. There is a red flag at each corner of the site; you can see in this photo the red flag at top right. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Hugh Thomas dumping soil, stones and plant matter in the test trench 1 dump site
Hugh Thomas dumping soil, stones and plant matter in the test trench 1 dump site © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

More from the Dig Blog

Zagora dig blog
Jodi Cameron

What is Archaeological Flotation?

Flotation is one of the archaeobotanical sampling techniques used on site to investigate ancient plant remains. Flotation captures small finds including grains and seeds that would normally be missed during archaeological excavation.

Read More »

1 thought on “Excavation begins – slow going”

  1. Go Paul and both teams! Looks fascinating and inspiring to see it all coming together.
    I can also see that it is hard work, but you are all achileving a result. Strange how simple tools such as leather gloves and hoes- familiar to all of us watching can end up being differently deployed.
    Best wishes,

    Lesley Garrett

Leave a Comment