Lessons Learned

So another week has passed here in Frejus, France and I must admit I’ve found some frustration at the summit of Sainte-Candie.

You're starting to look less majestic each day, buddy…

The week started with doing something that every archaeologist should find at least a little heartbreaking: we closed and backfilled the trench we were excavating. Our team’s work week started by recording postholes we’d found and continuing excavation.

Careful excavation around our newfoind features.

But after a more aggressive visit from our project leader, Jean-Antoine, we determined that the area was anthrapogenically sterile (or not significantly manipulated by human habitation or activity).

Pictured: Jean-Antoine's more aggressive visit.

So, we were given instructions to backfill our trench and prepare to hike up to the mountain’s summit to open a new trench there.

Backfilling. Always a hasty and sad goodbye.

The end result of throwing our spoil heaps into the trench.

And like that, it was done. A week’s worth of work undone in about an hour. Nevertheless, this is reality in archaeology. We often dig to explore an area where we have no idea what lies beneath the surface. In this case, very little. Not even a single sherd of pottery to be exact.

So the next day, we hiked up to the summit with all of our gear and scouted out a new trench.

If you look hard enough, you can see some of my blood, sweat, and tears staining the sheer rock path to the top.

Jean-Antoine chose a spot for us that was cozily located between what appeared to be the remains of two structures. One of these was a large, “rampart” or wall sticking out of the mountain’s incline, while the other was a smaller wall of a building potentially built alongside or against the rampart.

You can barely see some of the rampart's blocks towards the left middleground.

So, we got to work. Opening new trenches isn’t exactly the funnest part of archaeology, but it’s necessary all the same. As you can tell, we had a lot of brush to clear and trees to cut diwn before we could even remove the humified soil of roots and rotting leaves serving as topsoil in this forest.

In a day's work, our trench looked something like this.

To our jubilant relief, we found some pottery! Its not the most glamorous or best preserved stuff I’ve seen come from an archaeological context, but hey, it’s an indication we might be digging in the right place this time.

The following days were hard. There was a breakdown in communication between Jean-Antoine, the French speaking participants, and myself regarding instructions and expectations. This led to some serious frustration on the part of myself and the English speakers in my trench as we ran into problems.

In my last post, I talked about not challenging the process, and I’ve worked hard to accept the modus operandi here. Nevertheless, I found myself questioning some of the situations we’ve had friction in dealing with. Now that the week is over, I’ve come to a realization: I have some specific lessons to learn and things to adapt to as I experience my first dig outside of Italy in a few years:

I have a lot of time to reflect between the mountain climbing and endlessly scratching at the dirt.

1.Archaeology isn’t always done in easily accessible, romantic little villages in Europe. Sometimes, you have to bring a machete with you to tame the jungle on the way to your site. Sometimes, you have to climb a mountain to get to your trench. The latter is my current experience. Mix in the lack of finds and significant architectural ruins and you might find yourself having an existential crisis as you climb each morning.

2. Sometimes, the best thing we can find in our trenches is the next layer. I’m often asked by friends, family, and even random people, “what’s are you finding?” or “what is the most interesting thing you’ve found?” The answer after digging at Sainte-Candie is the next layer. Finding and interpreting a layer that can be associated to an event or period you’re researching can be more valuable than the sexiest treasures left in the ground.

3. The features we find and consider important can be considered ephemeral at other sites. I’ve been grappling with Jean-Antoine about postholes for the past two weeks. Postholes are the remnants of holes dug into the ground in order to secure usually wooden structural supports. These structures don’t survive in the same way that the sexy brick and mortar architecture of the Roman world does; however, these wooden, clay, mud, etc. structures are probably more common in history simply because the materials are more accessible and easier to build. The tough part is that tree roots also leave similar impressions in the soil. Refer back to the picture of our trench before we cleared the vegetation and you can see how that might be frustrating to deal with.

Postholes must be meticulously recorded when found. There's currently 12 of such suspected features open in my trench…

4. Research projects aren’t field schools. This one is for all those out there shopping for their next field experience. Jean-Antoine’s work at Sainte-Candie is funded by a small grant from the French government to gather data for his doctoral dissertation. The perks of this arrangement is free participation, including food and sleeping accommodation. The con is that “food” might be rice and beans and “accommodation” is a sleeping bag and tent. A field school typically comes with a fee or tuition, but that buys you more established accommodation and sometimes better food. I’ve been privileged to participate in field schools for the past few years. Even the Apolline Project straddles the line between research project and field school. The primary difference is the amount of funding each project receives. Let’s just say my creature comforts were better attended in Italy.

5. Often on field projects, participants discover what is or isn’t for them…or at least they should. I’ve met this archetypal student many times before. Fieldwork isn’t for them. For others, it’s the focus of the research. I think I might fall in this second category. The ephemeral archaeological features and lack of artifacts is a little nerve-racking for me given the hard work we have to do to find them. I still have plenty of time here in Sainte-Candie, and thus plenty of time to change my time, but those are my thoughts so far.

I could go on and on, but I think it’s safe to say, I have some learning to do, and it’s all because of that pedagogical tradition we have in aechaeology.

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