“Another day, another context”

The past week has been a bit long. We’ve continued digging our trench and gone more than a meter below the surface. We’ve been moving through a new context every day, each one approximately 20cm thick. In terms of moving soil, that is kind of slow. In terms of doing paperwork and making drawings of new contexts, that’s pretty quick. The total number of contexts we’ve excavated in our trench over five weeks at Aeclanum to 8. Holy stratigraphy, Batman! (One can never tell if Archaeologist Batman is ever impressed).

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With the help of our saucy ceramicist, Enzo, we determined the rubble layer(s) we’ve been excavating were deposoted sometime in late antiquity or the very early medieval period. How do I know when the dumping occurred? Well it’s actually quite simple and the method doesn’t require complex nuclear physics for establishing carbon- or uranium-series dates (although those are useful in other archaeological analyses). Enzo helped us establish a Terminus Post Quem, or TPQ, meaning a temporal point after which a layer could have been deposited. In short, we lay out all of our finds and research the dates when they were manufactured. We look for the latest of the earliest dates of manufacture for our objects. We know that in order for an object to be present in our context, it must have been deposited there after the known earliest dates of manufacture. Just like stratigraphy, in which a layer above 99.9% of the time cannot be deposited before a layer below, artifacts cannot be deposited within a context before they were made. The other, earlier objects could be deposited simultaneously, as they could have been kept in use, recycled, passed down, etc. So, looking at the assemblage of finds (of which the most well known and abundant was ceramic pottery), we know that the latest beginning date of manufacture present in the recovered materials was no earlier than 5th or 6th century AD. Cool, right?

Today we finally reached a context that marks the conclusion of the big rubble-deposit. It can be characterized as a messily made concrete that could have been used as a preparatory layer for a more polished surface like a floor. To reinforce the theory, Ferdinando had us measure the elevations of the floor level within the nearby structure and guessed it would be approximately 20cm apart (or the expected elevation of a prepared surface laid on top of a preparatory layer). When I called over the walkie-talkie to read him the results of the calculations, he replied with “Please repeat that. You know I love to hear the moment I am right.” I guess that’s why he’s the boss.

The conclusion of last week’s session brought my total time here in Italy to just over 6 weeks. This is around the average length any past season I have excavated, and it’s typically about the perfect timing for them to end. At 6 weeks, the fun of communal living, vacation eating, and long hard day’s sweating in the sun starts to get a little exhausting. I find even the people I’ve become friends with occassionally make their way onto the roster of individuals I may or may not daydream about “adding to the context.” For me, this year’s field season will extend to over 4 months (if my visa situation in France works out favorably). That’s more than double what I am used to, and for a short moment, the cracks were starting to show.

I did some reflecting and realized I needed to take account of why I’m here, why I love archaeology, and why I believe what I’m doing is important. First, let’s start with the obstacles: at my current stage in my career, between my Master’s and before my PhD (and both come before a sexy tenure track position at a college or university. *coughLycomingcough*), I am pretty incapable of creating a stable lifestyle. I need to be constantly flexible and available for the next field or research opportunity or for a degree program that could be in another state or country. That makes holding a full-time salaried job, or a long-term relationship or even an apartment lease challenging. I know this firsthand, as I had to unwillingly give up all three to make this season happen. Also at this stage, I’m in the awkward position of needing to produce research that is reflective of my professional qualifications (I.e. my Master’s degree) while not being currently affiliated with a degree awarding institution. This is hard because having a job and life that doesn’t give you research assignments and deadlines and not having unfettered access to archival and research resources makes reading the necessary scholarship, much less writing your own, burdensome. The same sentiment applies with searching for endless ways to enhance your CV to become more competitive for PhD programs.

So with all of that in mind, why do I still continue to pursue archaeology? Well, to me, the answer is simple: I believe archaeology is the quintessential discipline in the humanities and liberal arts with theoretical and methodic frameworks that enable research which can be relevant to any discussion about who we are as a species and society. It combines topics and perspectives in history, art history, linguistics, numismatics, zoology, botany, human biology, architecture, economics, sociology, anthropology, ecology, religion and theology, and so many more. Not only do we as archaeologists consider these different angles, but our research can be brought into any of these same disciplines and enhance the scholarship of any of them. The kind of archaeologist I want to be is someone who produces research that makes me hireable as a faculty member in a department specializing in any of those fields, broadening the horizons of students and colleagues to consider the ways in which their specific methods and theories can enhance the understanding of ourselves. What is special about archaeology is that it is a pedagogical tradition that extends arguably three centuries (back then, it was more like treasure hunting but antiquarianism was still a sought after literature and learning topic). Literally, archaeology is a culture of teaching culture. There’s some addage about life imitating art for this…

Beyond academia, I think that archaeology has the potential to be presented to modern society in a broad variety of modern ways of conveying information and involving the public in the discourse of understanding what we as archaeologists find and study. I want to shape my career around making my work visible and digestible for the curious non-academic. The pursuit of understanding our humanness through material culture shouldn’t be limited to audiences who read academic journals. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’m writing for you.

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2 thoughts on ““Another day, another context”

  1. I am so grateful for your words in thisblog. I truly believe that I understand the heart of the archaeologists. I have always know the true value of the work that you do. Please keep it up. Work hard. Be great.

    Like

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