A day in the life of an archaeologist

16 October 2018

Interview with

Natalia Hanziac, University of Toronto

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Is being an archaeologist anything like what we see in Indiana Jones? Georgia Mills joined Natalia Hanziac for a day in the life of an archaeologist. And forget a fedora and bullwhip, the tools of the trade are a little different...

Natalia - Our most important tool us our trowel. This is Slayer, you are welcome to wield her today

Georgia - So this is the trowel’s nickname; 'Slayer'?

Natalia - It is, yeah. We’ve been through some stuff together. She slayed some things for me. The second tool that we use quite a bit is a small pick, and that’s just to break up the soil, especially when we’re first starting to dig the hole. The thing that is very important to us is a brush. It’s important to be able to see what you’re digging because you’re moving dirt onto dirt, off dirt, looking at dirt. So it’s important to keep the old dirt off the new dirt and keep all your dirt separate.

We follow what’s called a probe and peel method. So what we do is we start in a small area of the square and bring it down until we find a change in the soil, some new architecture, something along those lines so we’re not digging blind across a 5 by 5-metre space, just maybe a 10 centimetre by 2-metre space. Once we find some of that information we then extend that small hole we’ve made across the whole square.

Georgia - Because soils build up over the millennia, each layer of soil represents a different point in time. So this probe and peel method excavates a bit by bit so you don’t miss anything. But it’s certainly not easy…

Oh, this hurts your legs.

Natalia - A little bit. The ankles too, and the knees, and the back.
  
Georgia - And for long periods, you don’t find anything, except for the occasional rock…

Natalia - The eternal “is it a rock? Is it an artefact?” question, it looms over us all.

Georgia - Or the odd creepy crawly. There’s a big old ant on the brick.

Walter - That’s fine.

Georgia - Do they bite?

Walter - Ah, maybe. But I’m bigger than it.

Georgia - But every now and then...

Walter - Oh wow. Look at that. Now that is a huge one! Look at that - beautiful.

Georgia - You hit the jackpot – be it tool, bone or pot, and then you extract it.

Natalia - Very carefully.

Georgia - And it’s all tagged and bagged.

Natalia - For its long trip through science

Georgia - And as well as the artefacts, in a site like this you’d also keep a lookout for big bits of charcoal.

Natalia - Yeah. So these are all some sort of carbonised wood, which is awesome because it tells us that there was definitely burning here. But it is also what we hinge our carbon dates on, which is how we put the site in an absolute time. So a lot of the artefacts, just through their characteristics will tell us that they are Neolithic based on where they're on the ground but also how they relate to other sites in the area. But a really big question with the excavation here at Gadarchilli and over at Shulaveri, is where does this actually fit on like a real timescale. How far back are we talking about when we say origins of wine? People using hides, possibly domesticated dogs like what does that actually mean?

Georgia - And the buckets and buckets of soil that are removed are sampled and sifted, to collect any small pieces that might have escaped you. All the while, as you go, you record, draw and photograph everything you can.

Natalia - Every single time we move even just like a speck of dirt we’re technically destroying something that has sat in place for anywhere from 10,000 years to a couple of months, but we are very much disturbing everything that we touch. So it’s very very important for us to make sure that we maintain meticulous notes because as soon as it’s gone it’s completely gone.

Georgia - At the end of the day they even take a photo of the whole site using a drone.  Apparently, in pre-drone days they tried everything from kites to selfie sticks to get this bit done. And after many hard hours of graft, it’s back to HQ. There the students started drawing and labelling and sorting their finds, ready to go into the lab for analysis, all under the watchful eye of project mascot, Lulu. Others go out on a survey, walking over wilderness looking for anything that might indicate an interesting place to dig in future, all the while avoiding the local snakes – which I am told are liable to coil up and spring at you, like terrifying slinkies. I don’t know whether to believe this. And once again, finding genuine artefacts is pretty rare. I uncovered some soviet metal, one livid scorpion and, you guessed it – more rocks.

Steve- What we charitably call an interesting rock.

Steve - In Turkish we say a"güzel taş": a pretty stone, but just a stone.

Georgia - Why didn’t they make their tools more obvious and write their names on them?

Then it’s back to base, time for a quick dinner, and off to bed ready for another 5am start. Trying to get a good night’s kip through the thunderstorms that are loud enough to shake your bones, and the odd earthquake.

So apart from the snakes, only a passing resemblance to Indiana Jones

Natalia - That movie really set up false expectations for me.

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