A Day in the Life of an Archeologist at Omrit
By: Kathryn McBride, 2016 Platt Fellowship Recipient
This summer, thanks to ASOR and a generous Platt Fellowship, I was again able to participate in ongoing fieldwork at the Omrit Settlement Excavation Project in the northern Galilee of Israel. After wrapping up work on several other projects, I was on the lookout for a new and different kind of challenge. I was drawn to the Omrit project for several different reasons. First is that I had not previously worked at a large field school and hadn’t had the opportunity to excavate with and train groups of students in the field. Second was the date of the site (established late Roman but with earlier levels likely) and the location in the foothills of the Golan.
Much of our daily routine is shaped by the weather, wildlife, and landscape of this site, located as it is in the upper Hula Valley. The square supervisors start our day at 4am with a cup of boiling hot instant coffee and a Clif bar, hastily consumed as we scramble to collect our gear in the dark. We begin this early so as to escape the oppressive heat that tends to blanket the region by midday. After shaking out our work boots in order to avoid any critters that might have tried to make a home in them overnight, we make our way to the lab to load up the equipment necessary for that day’s work. The drive to the site is rough, especially in a nine-passenger van, and dusty, as the road winds through fields of apricot and plum trees. Once we’re through the fields we climb into the hills, passing families of wild boar, foxes, sleepy cows, and the occasional (and pretty adorable) rock hyrax.
Everyone arrives at the site by 5 am, usually only a little groggy, and ready to take on the day. I start the morning with a quick group meeting with my team, in which we outline the day’s goals, pass along any important information received from the directors, portion out initial tasks, and briefly touch on hypotheses about what we might encounter in the next few hours. Work progresses quickly in the morning, with the team energized by the cool weather, fresh air, and quiet atmosphere of our rural landscape. By about 6 am the sun breaks over the hills and every morning, I unconsciously hum a few bars of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which I’m sure drives everyone crazy, though even after 5 weeks, no one says much about it. My team this year is particularly cohesive and includes a series of bright, dedicated students from all across the country. We spend the weeks getting to know each other, asking the usual questions about siblings, favorite movies, and what foods we’re starting to miss. One morning a few weeks into the season (and therefore entering a new level of getting to know you questions that included our respective Hogwarts houses) we discover that three of the students working in my square are Slytherins, far outnumbering me as the lone Hufflepuff. I jokingly ask my assistant if I have anything to fear if they’re planning some kind of coup. She calmly replies that she would have nothing to gain from that, only the burden of more paperwork. Fair enough.
By our breakfast break at 8:30 am we’ve picked, cleared, and sifted through a huge amount of soil. The earth here is largely comprised of stones of various sizes, or rather our square includes very large fill events that necessitates us coming up with creative ways of moving large stones up and out of an increasingly deep excavation unit. Safety is always our main priority, but a few weeks of excavating has still given all of us a nice collection of bruises, scrapes, and sore muscles.
After battling the bees for our breakfast food, refilling our bottles with gatorade of varying taste and quality, we move into the second half of the day’s work. I tend to push the group to do heavier work in the early morning, and then use the rest of the workday to finish up tasks, clean surfaces, cut and define scarps, sort artifacts, and begin paperwork. On alternating days I like for one of the students to take over the duties of writing our daily narrative, one of the most important parts of our record keeping. This includes their taking detailed notes during the day, including keeping track of our finds, when we’ve switched loci, what our current hypothesis about an area is, and if we come across anything particularly surprising, which this year happened a fair amount, including layers and layers of walls. Writing the daily narrative accomplishes two goals: one is that it gives every member of the team a sense of ownership over our work. Archaeology is naturally hierarchical, but that doesn’t mean that workers at all levels can’t contribute in real and meaningful ways to the overall narrative. Secondly and similar to the first point, it lends a multivocality nature to the excavation. The notebook of a trench is usually in the hands of one person, but it should also be a reflection of the entire group’s input and insights.
By 11:30 am we’re ready to pack up and head to camp. After a quick lunch and a rest, we move onto the second phase of the day, which includes various assorted tasks such as washing pottery, cleaning faunal material, packing up dry artifacts, reconstructing vessels, and of course, more paperwork. I find that this part of the day really separates people who enjoy archaeology from people who want to be archaeologists. If you can get through a physically demanding work day and then complete hours of pottery scrubbing, artifact counting, data entry, and writing, then maybe this is the career for you.
Our trench’s finds this year are impressive, though a blog post isn’t the place to comment on them. However, it is exciting for me to excavate contexts and objects I’ve never come across before, and to analyze very complicated stratigraphic levels. As a square supervisor, this season has provided tremendous challenges and equally impressive rewards. My team seems genuinely awed by some of the things we do during our long days, both in the field–the physical demands of fieldwork combined with the exhilaration of discovery–and afterward in the lab when we are able to touch and hold a cleaned coin or a reconstructed vessel.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity that the Platt fellowship and ASOR have given me this summer. The excavation season is one of the best parts of my year, and I know that without the generosity of others, it wouldn’t always be possible to attend programs such as this.
Kathryn McBride is a 6th year Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology at Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. Her research includes an analysis of cultural interaction in borderlands and frontiers, and particularly focuses on the monetary and non-monetary uses of coinage in and beyond the edges of the Roman Empire.
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