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.

Logistics

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.

MARBAL Project Featured on Hamilton College Blog

Exciting news – on June 26, the MARBAL project was featured on the Hamilton College blog. WE’RE FAMOUS!

Click this link to read MARBAL project member Lana Dorr’s description of her experience visiting the site.

Sophia Coren (left) and Lana Dorr (right) with our site manager, “dog” (center).

Transylvanian Food: From Fieldwork to Festivals

Post by Jada Langston

Being here for the last three weeks, I have tried an array of delicious food and drinks. To provide better context I split up this blog post into two separate food stories: an everyday food post where you will learn what we usually eat throughout the day, and a post about food we have eaten at festivals around Romania.

Lunch on site

Everyday Food:

For breakfast and lunch: We usually have a small meal of scrambled eggs or hard-boiled eggs with toast. Then, we pack the lunch cooler before we hurry to leave around 7 am. Around 12 pm at the site we all gather around the cooler to eat lunch. We mainly eat a variety of sandwiches, such as peanut butter and jelly, or ham and salami with mustard, with different fruits on the side. Because one of us is a “ham monster” (Sophia), and because there are so many of us, we go through our basic necessities very quickly. As a result, we have to go shopping almost daily for another kilo of ham, loaves of bread, eggs, and other foods.

Sophia “Ham Monster” Coren, delighted to find a ham vending machine at the Turda Salt Mines.

For dinner: We are much more creative at dinners, where each person has to make a meal for everyone to sit down and share. On a  Saturday or Sunday, everyone chooses a meal to make for the coming week and places the ingredients on a shopping list for Colin and Jess to buy. After we return from the site, one person is assigned to cook that night with a helper. Meals have ranged from shepard’s pie to chicken and dumplings. Once a week, usually on a weekend, we have a leftovers night where we try to finish the meals. In my opinion, and probably everyone else’s,  the best cook of us all is Tina Marcuti.

Langos made by Tina

She make delicious and authentic Romanian food, ranging from langoş, a fried bread that’s stuffed with goat cheese, to bean soup, gulas (a meat and vegetable soup), fasole batuta (a white bean dip) and Romanian meatballs. Tina enthusiastically cooks us food to bring to the site or a small meals to eat throughout the day. Just the other day,  she made deviled eggs that she decorated to look like small ducks.

Tina’s ducks

Festival Food:

So far, I have been two two festivals with food. The biggest one was the Alba Days Fest that lasted from June 8th to 10th. The festival was part of an annual celebration hosted by the city The occasion featured performances from prominent Romanian artists such a Smiley, Inna, and B.U.G Mafia, while also hosting a wide array of food stands throughout the fortress. There was such a variety of different options to partake in, from huge ham steaks the size of your head to a plate of small fried sardines. While I did not have the time (or the stomach space) to eat all of the food, I did try some delicious mici, chicken kebabs with fried potatoes, and fried sardines.

Food from Alba Days

The second festival was a Dacian festival in the town of Cetatea de Balta. Here, we watched re-enactments of the wars between the Roman Empire and the Dacians, which took place in the 1st and 2nd century AD. The Dacians were the people that lived in Romania before the Romans came and conquered the region. Here, we ate placinte, a crepe that can be filled with both savory and sweet concoctions such as the cheese placinte that Lana, Jess, and Colin had and the chocolate-filled placinte that Sophia and I had. The food stands also had boiled corn on the cob and small dessert treats as well.

Romanian sweets from the Dacian Festival

Overall, the food in Romania has been amazing! Thanks to Tina, all of the amazing shops, and festivals, the entire team has been eating fresh food almost daily. I am excited for what other foods are in store for me to eat.

Placinţe at Mama Luţa’s in Ampoiţa

 

Travelling to Romania for MARBAL 2018

The MARBAL 2018 field season has started with a bang, with most crew members arriving in Alba Iulia over the last several days. We have excavations planned for June and the first week of July, followed by several weeks of outreach, research, and analysis.

This year the project has several students from Hamilton College joining us as part of their Levitt Center Summer Research Group experience. Jada, Lana, and Sophia will be posting regularly throughout the summer.  Here, they describe their experience making their way to the city of Cluj-Napoca before heading south to Alba Iulia, our home for the next two months.

The Hamilton Crew: From left to right, Jada Langston, Lana Dorr, Sophia Coren, and project Co-Director Colin Quinn. Photo credit Sophia Coren.

We arrived in Budapest on Wednesday morning. After a long and sleepless flight, we were all happy to be back on the ground. We were all scheduled to be on the same flight from Philadelphia to Budapest. However, things didn’t go as planned…

JADA
 I left from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Philadelphia to meet the crew and my flight left around 1:45 pm. Flying from Chicago to Philadelphia was peaceful even enjoyable, but the real challenge was the flight from Philly to Budapest. The only country that I have ever been to was Canada for my archaeological field school in British Columbia, so this was a huge step for me to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  When I landed in Philly, I had to rush to my flight since it was already boarding and I was on the opposite side of the airport. Then, I get there and I find that Lana’s flight is delayed and I was little worried (but you will read more about that later). However, we got on the plane, unfortunately without Lana, and took a 9-hour flight to Budapest. When I get on the plane, I was terrified because not only is this my first time flying over the Atlantic, but the plane was one of the old planes you see in movies where it crashes. Plus, I am in a middle seat with no space, I have a lady next to me who thinks I am a footrest, and people constantly bumping into my pillow. After some time passes, we finally took off and overall it was not so bad. Although I did not sleep much (only about 4 out of the 9 hours), the people next to me would not stop talking, and there was a lot of turbulence; the food was good and the movies were not bad. Eventually, we landed in Budapest, got on an 8-hour shuttle from Budapest Airport to Cluj-Napoca in Romania (trying not to fall asleep and failing miserably), and headed over to our hotel for the night.

Budapest Airport

LANA
The quick flight from Boston to Philadelphia seems like it should be the simplest leg of the long journey to a small city in Romania, but a plane with possible lightning strike related mechanical issues, thousands of pounds of extra jet fuel that need to be unloaded, and a failed temperature regulating system kept me from the original schedule of joining the rest of the team in Philadelphia. Between the chaos of being amongst a couple hundred passengers in need of rebooking, many with international connections, and the fear of losing my luggage that was now in the belly of a flightless plane, I thought I might never make it. But, after three trips through security, two airport shuttles, and one frightening moment of being alone in a foreign airport with a dying phone, my first trip across the Atlantic ocean was finally complete. Jess Beck soon found me stumbling out of customs, travel weary and desperate. She revived me with some food and water and next thing I know I’m on a seven-hour shuttle bus with a broken AC, a Las Vegas Youtuber/Motorcyclist originally from Romania, and a teeny tiny teacup yorkie. After that a quick taxi finally got us to the rest of our team making my first international travel experience stressful and imperfect, but ultimately successful.

The shuttle dog

SOPHIA
I woke up early Tuesday morning in order to get to the Asheville Regional Airport in time for my 11:15 flight to Charlotte. My parents drove me to the airport and waved goodbye as I went through security. Being a small airport with only four gates, flights from Asheville, NC are generally short and on small planes; the flight to Charlotte is just 25 minutes. Due to the short nature of these flights, most people do not attempt to sleep. However, to my surprise, the person in front of me leaned his seat all the way back. This was definitely not the most pleasant flying experience I’ve had. Thankfully, my next flight from Charlotte to Philadelphia was uneventful. My layover in Philly was quite short, so I made my way to the gate in hopes of finding the other members of my group. I was the first to arrive in Philadelphia. I texted Lana asking if she was in Philly yet, but learned that her flight had been delayed. While this was not my first transatlantic flight, I was a little nervous– there’s nothing worse than a bad seat partner on a nine-hour flight. Fortunately, this was not the case as I was seated next to a very nice woman and her husband. The plane to Budapest was an older model so there were no seatback screens or outlets. We also had a few technical difficulties with the overhead screens and lights. Before taking off, we listened to the safety video twice because the screens didn’t turn on the first time. Despite this, the flight was quite pleasant.

Cherries in Cluj. Photo credit Sophia Coren.

 

MARBAL Outreach at Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Last week I participated in a public outreach session titled “Unravelling the Stories of the Dead: Rethinking Truth and Evidence Through an Archaeologist’s Lens“, which took place at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.


I presented with two other archaeologists, and as our flyer on the gates to the Downing Site indicated,  we all took different approaches to the themes of truth and story-telling in archaeology.

Laerke Recht, who kicked off the event, focused on vertical versus horizontal story-telling, using the biography of author Agatha Christie as a framework within which to discuss object biographies and life histories. Just as biographers find different ways to explore Christie’s life – ranging from  situating her career within  the the broad perspective of the first half of the 20th century, to narrowing their focus to her personal relationships – archaeologists can use the same kinds of multi-scalar strategies to assess our evidence. The parallel was neatly drawn, and Laerke concluded by emphasizing problems of truth and story-telling in her own research on equid domestication, where some archaeologists argue that tooth wear is incontrovertible evidence of bit-wearing, and hence domestication of horses, and others argue that those patterns can be attributed to age-associated wear.

I was up next, and talked about some of the methods I use to extract data from commingled and fragmentary human remains.


I divided my talk into three separate questions: (1) When did archaeologists begin to study human bones? (2) Why do archaeologists collect information from human remains, and (3) How do archaeologists handle skeletons that are fragmentary or commingled?


When answering the third question, I drew upon my experience working at the Muzeul Național al Unirii in Alba Iulia as part of the MARBAL project this past summer, describing the complex process of analyzing collections of human skeletal remains – as you can see below, project members Emilie Cobb and Colin Quinn were heavily  involved in this process as well!

Finally, Alexandra Ion, who organized the event, focused on osteoarchaeologists’ growing reliance on ancient DNA (aDNA), as a “smoking gun” when assessing claims about past familial relationships or population movements. Alexandra underscored that rather than being inherently more scientific or objective, aDNA is fraught with the same kinds of problems as any other line of archaeological evidence. No matter what methods we rely on to answer archaeological questions, as a discipline we must always be cautious about appropriately framing our research questions, assessing the  limitations of our evidence, and making sure that our resulting interpretations are not overstated.


Afterwards we had a question and answer session with our audience of about 35-40 people,* who asked us about the impact of new technologies, Ötzi (as always), and the ethical considerations involved in studying human skeletal remains. For me, the most informative component of this session was the fact my posture is TERRIBLE. Below, I have included the only photo where I appear relatively normal. Despite discovering my tendency to slouch, it was gratifying to see that the audience was clearly engaged with the material and interested in archaeology, so we will chalk up this particular event as a win for outreach.

*Only two of whom fell asleep


All of us are on twitter and have our own blogs, so if you’d like to hear more about any of these lines of research please follow us!

Image Credits: Duck with bad posture found on deviantart, here. Breakfast Club fist punch gif found here. Most images of the presenters are from our unofficial event photographer Vanessa Forte.

A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project

Disclaimer: This post is a time-stamped “day in the life” of MARBAL co-director Jess Beck, and is brought to you by approximately 17 cups of coffee. It was written as part of the “Day of Archaeology” project on July 28, and was originally posted here.

The Day of Archaeology project “aims to provide a window into the daily lives of archaeologists from all over the world.  The project asks people working, studying or volunteering in the archaeological world to participate with us in a “Day of Archaeology” each year in the summer by recording their day and sharing it through text, images or video on their website.” You can learn more about the project here.

6:40 am: Consume first two cups of coffee. Begin analyzing bones in home lab.

8:53 am: Two cups of coffee later, head out the door for the museum. Demolish  breakfast of Cascaval, bread, and delicious Romanian red peppers that project member Emilie Cobb thoughtfully prepared for me.


9:24 am: Arrive at our collaborator Horia Ciugudean’s lab at the National Museum of the Union. Emilie begins size-sorting fragments, while I finish entering  data on an adolescent pair of scapulae, clavicles, and innominates.


10:53 am: I continue my analysis, moving on to the fragmentary adolescent cranium. Please notice the binder clip I have fetchingly clipped to my shirt so that I do not lose track of it.

12:25 pm: The most important meal of the day! Cookie break as we pack up for the field.
The MOST important meal of the day
12:46 pm: Make a brief detour to the train station to procure tickets for our trip back to Budapest on Monday.

1:13 pm: Stock up on field snacks at local supermarket.

Important healthy snacks
1:33 pm: En route from the train station in Alba Iulia to our field site in the mountains. I nurse my current thermos of coffee on the ride.

Alba --> Teius

2:17 pm: Arrive at field site to find it only SLIGHTLY more glorious than morning lab setting.

2:47 pm: Project co-director Colin Quinn begins putting in shovel test pits.

4:06 pm: Colin bemoans not taking a charcoal sample two years ago after we hit multiple sterile test pits.

4:11 pm: After being (foolishly) entrusted with making a sketch map of our STPs, it becomes clear that I do not in fact know where North is.

5:01 pm: After a rough half-hour of realizing our own limitations, we switch locations, and begin putting in a 1mx1m to examine the profile of an area in which a modern road cuts through an Early Bronze Age tomb.

The 1x1
5:07 pm: Colin teaches Emilie how to package a charcoal sample.


6:15 pm: After taking some closing photos, we stock up on glamour selfies and pack out.


6:30 pm: Important car snacks are consumed in celebration of a stratigraphically informative 1×1.


7:30 pm: Return to the house to shower, eat, and load and label photos from the day. Next up: publishing this post, and then immediately copying this Romanian buddy I spotted yesterday:

MARBAL Season 1: July 2017

FullSizeRender 2

The MARBAL team has just arrived in Alba Iulia to spend three weeks conduct ing preliminary collections research at the Muzeul Național al Unirii din Alba Iulia.  So far project activities have included: recovering from jet lag,


eating the finest spicy pizza Alba Iulia has to offer,


admiring the skeletally-themed local street art,

and gawking out of the window to our museum lab.

However, we’re here to do more than just sightsee and eat pizza. Emilie Cobb and I are conducting a bioarchaeological analysis of Early Bronze Age human remains from three local Bronze Age sites.

Dr. Ciugudean is spending most of his time in the field, taking part in several archaeological excavations along the Mures valley. The site inBărăbanț, near Alba, has just delivered some well-preserved Early Bronze Age skeletons, which have just been transported to our lab for analysis.

Copyright MARBAL Project 2017.

Project member Colin Quinn is busy finishing up some ceramic analysis from his Bronze Age Transylvania Survey project, and is also helping to unpack the mortuary archaeology of the Meteș and Hapria sites by analyzing maps and site reports.

Our days so far have been spent in Dr. Ciugudean’s lab at the museum, inventorying skeletal remains, sorting out the pesky non-humans, and realizing how much equipment we forgot to buy the previous day. In the center photo below, I’m also sketching in the different shapes of upper and lower molars for Emilie, in case the shoddy geometry was confusing to any readers.

Which reminds me – I need to go buy my Nescafe, lest I collapse, decaffeinated, over a tray of bones tomorrow. Look for our next update from Emilie Cobb, coming soon!