Archaeology 101

I have to admit I was very excited late last year when my daughter Jess (that is Dr. Beck to you Dad) suggested I come to Romania this summer to help on the archaeological dig that she was co-leading with Colin Quinn from Hamilton College and Horia Ciugudean from the National Museum of the Union in Alba Iulia. I had recently retired after a 35 year career with the Government, primarily serving in U.S. Embassies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. My wife and I currently live in Ankara, Turkey where she works at the U.S. Embassy so the logistics of my trip would be pretty simple. I readily accepted Jess’ proposal to help with the dig, hoping to learn something about the field of study that has consumed my daughter for the past several years. And learn I did.

The Language of Archaeology

Over my career I was fortunate to study several languages, in the process gaining first-hand an appreciation of the window that language provides into the culture and lives of the people who speak it. Consequently, I was surprised but thoroughly enthralled by the myriad English terms used in archaeology that carry a very different meaning in the Byzantine world of USG bureaucracy.

For example, in the USG you screen an employee’s profile for back dirt to evaluate if the officer is suitable to backfil (replace) for one of your employees who will be out of the office for an extended period. In archaeology, you screen dirt for items of interest (pottery, pieces of bones, etc.) before it goes into the back dirt that will eventually be used to backfill the site. Profiles, in the archaeological context, refer to the exposed views of an excavation’s walls. Another example: To a U.S. diplomat, pulling back means to retreat from a position in order to protect vital U.S. interests. In Archaeology, the same term means to gently and finely scrape away excess dirt and rocks in the units to delicately reach the bedrock.

Details, Details, Details

Another aspect of the operation that fascinated me was the preponderance of data collection that took place.  From Jess scurrying around incessantly taking notes in her little orange books to the undergrads patiently measuring and recording dig/unit locational data to the extensive use of high-end digital photography( to include drone mapping) to the meticulous sifting/screening of seemingly endless buckets of dirt for the almighty pottery sherd (“No Dad, that’s a rock.”), I was amazed at the data collection and documentation side of the operation.

Muscles, Muscles, Muscles

I knew coming in that one of the reasons Jess asked me to help was that, while I’m way past the “spring chicken” phase of my life, I am still healthy enough to enjoy good, hard work, particularly in a locale as beautiful as the mountains of Transylvania.  Nevertheless, don’t let anybody ever tell you that archaeological field work is not physically demanding. It is. In particular, the infamous “backfill” day made full use of all the squats and dead lifts I’ve done over the past several years. While it was the most difficult day physically that I spent with the team, the backfill was also the most rewarding as we worked as a well-oiled team for several hours to move an awful lot of dirt.


The old saying that “an army runs on its stomach” was never more valid than during the dig in Transylvania.  Since the site was so far from any semblance of civilization, we had to take everything we needed for the day with us. This required good planning on daily food purchases, adequate drinking water, copious amounts of sugar – thank God for the 10 o’clock cookie break, and sufficient redundancy of equipment (I personally broke two of the plastic dust pans) to overcome any unexpected breakage. The logistics work continued daily as lists for lunch provisions for the following day were frequently hashed out in the van ride back to Alba Iulia. Furthermore, since we only had the one van, all of our equipment and daily eats/drinks had to be unpacked near the site in the morning and then repacked in the late afternoon for our trip back to civilization. It was an impressive logistics operation that was key to the overall success of the dig.

There’s no “I” in team

An added benefit of the experience was the opportunity to once again be part of a team working for a common goal, in this case to complete the initial phase of a likely multi-year Bronze Age archaeological dig in the mountains of Transylvania. Obviously the chance to see my daughter working in the field was special but I equally relished the opportunity to work with Colin, the three Hamilton undergraduates – Jada, Lana, and Sophia, as well as with Tina, their Romanian team member. Everybody welcomed me immediately as part of the team and patiently mentored me on the basics of archaeology and the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the discipline.

In closing, while I don’t intend to give up my retirement life to start a second career in archeology, over the past two weeks I relished the opportunity to support Colin and Jess’ work in Romania, in the process learning a bit about a fascinating world located just below the surface.


One thought on “Archaeology 101

  1. Pingback: Bone Broke Year in Review 2018 | Bone Broke

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