This catch phrase from the oldie-but-goodie game show kept running through my brain yesterday. You may ask, “Why, exactly would classic American tv have any relevance to an Egyptian archeological excavation?” (Very good question by the way.) The answer is connected to a basic step in the PRE-excavation process. Did you ever wonder how archeologists decide where to dig? Some lucky ducks might get the privilege of working at a famous site like the Pyramids of Giza. Those types of structures have been sticking up out of the sand for thousands of years and everyone from farmers to scientists have known of their existence.
But what about the places that time has forgotten? Where does one begin to find the buried cities and covered monuments? There are all sorts of clues that are considered when searching for a site. Sometimes old documents mention it. Perhaps local folklore provides hints. However, even with these tantalizing tidbits, there’s nothing quite as practical as exploring the lay of the land for actual traces.
So an archeological survey is heavy on footwork and use of the eyes. It relies on visual indicators. The land being considered for excavation is walked over and its surface is scanned for evidence of, well….anything. The shape of the ground could indicate types of structures underneath. Objects lying on the surface can tell an expert the time period that the area was active. Unusual color changes in the soil or high concentrations of certain stones could also suggest activities worthy of investigating. Once it has been determined that there are substantial enough signs that there could be something underneath, that is when actual dirt moving is considered.
The Easter weekend here in Egypt coincides with another big spring holiday called Shem-el-Nessim. Literally translated it means, “sniffing the breeze” but it is basically a chance to recognize a changing of seasons. In regards to the excavation it means that our local workers get a few days off. However, for us true dirt addicts it means that we can do a bit of surveying. So my colleagues and I spent yesterday scouring the desert floor, climbing stone crags and counting flint.
This was my first professional experience with the process of surveying. Modern technology (in the form of GPS) has made the documentation aspects a bit easier than it used to be but the whole experience really is all about hands-on (or more appropriately eyes-on) exploration. You gotta walk the walk. And walk we did!!! The terrain immediately near our site is reasonably flat desert surface but less than a half kilometer west are some rocky heights that tend to catch wind-blown sand and turn it into dunes. What I expected to be a leisurely stroll over a few hours ended up being a climbing expedition that zigzagged all sorts of elevations. It took us six hours to examine maybe one square kilometer!!!
It was a hot, sweaty, sandy, rocky, muscle bending, boot twisting scavenger hunt that I thoroughly enjoyed. I certainly wouldn’t choose it over actual excavation but it was great to experience another aspect of the “big picture” of archeology. The data we collected will not make a difference for our immediate project but it sets the stage for future ones. It adds a link in the chain of the analytical process.
And it gave my creaking joints a serious workout. Today is a much needed recuperation day before we return to cliff climbing and sand scanning tomorrow. This mountain goat is treating her tootsies kindly now and is gingerly looking forward to ONE more day of altitude adjustment before returning to level ground and actual digging.