Welcome to the Trench of Wonder and Walls
By: Kellen Hope, 2016 Platt Fellowship Recipient
I would like to first and foremost thank the donors who contributed to the Platt and other ASOR fellowships allowing me, other students, and researchers alike to go out into the field this summer. These funds covered my travel expenses to Naxçıvan, Azerbaijan, and I could not be more thankful for being given this wonderful opportunity.
Last year was my first season with the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project and I fell in love with the archaeology of the area, the project’s team, the culture, and the people. That season was such a rewarding experience, and I learned so much, that I wanted to go back this year in order to learn more about the archaeological research that is being conducted, as well as get a better understanding of what I personally would want to focus on as I look to pursuing graduate school.
Every morning we walked out to the site and were greeted by the most beautiful sunrises.
Such awe-inspiring views made the early mornings worth it. Along with the sunrises, we were also able to see Mount Ararat on most days, which was a sight to behold. In the evenings we walked to the local markets to buy chocolates and snacks and to just take a break from work and get fresh air. Our daily routines were surrounded by animal life. Many stray cats hang out around the dig house, and this year, one of them had kittens! Cows, chickens and turkeys also called the grounds their home so we were constantly entertained by the antics of all the animals. We also befriended a stray puppy who lived out by the dig site. We named her Banana and she would come down and visit us in the trench before curling up and sleeping.
This was a short one-month excavation season, but I was very lucky that I got to excavate in a continuation of the trench I had worked in last year. My main duty was that of every archaeologist: ‘record, record, record!’ I worked alongside one of the Azerbaijani students on the project; he took notes in Azerbaijani and instructed the local men who worked in our trench while I took notes in English. This collaboration wound up being very rewarding for me because, day in and day out, I was surrounded by the native language, the workers played music on their phones, and I got daily lessons in Azerbaijani. Most of these related to animals around the site; my favorite was qurbağa, frogs, who called the marshland to the south of the trench their home and croaked throughout the day. Everyone worked hard and was interested and inquisitive about what was appearing in the excavation, which made the challenge of figuring out exactly what was going on in this puzzling trench that much more fun.
After the removal of modern layers, we came down on a mudbrick platform where I was able to outline some of the laid mudbricks. That was a very good day because last year I had not found any mudbricks at all! Below the platform is where things started really getting interesting. Phases upon phases of walls began to appear; by the end of the season, we could isolate at least 4 phases of wall construction. In the photo above, we were just coming down on what we believe to be a layer of stones that underlay the medieval mud-brick platform. From there on down the ceramics were uniformly Middle to Late Bronze age in date, so that we are fairly certain that the underlying walls all date to the second millennium BCE. A single radiocarbon date from the previous season had remarkably dated the big stone wall in the foreground of the photo to the Middle Bronze period, and we were all anxious to confirm that date with more samples. As we carefully removed an upper wall, we found a layer of very large sherds between it and the lower wall, as if someone had laid down a base of ceramic sherds as a wall foundation. Not the most secure foundation perhaps, but at least they had thoughtfully included some burnt plant material on the sherds providing the perfect sample for dating.
Due to the different phases and directions of the wall structures, the walls were labeled Wall E1 (E) to Wall N! Let us just say that my notes and drawings contained many arrows, and there were many long discussions about these walls.
Now, let me remind you, our season was only a month long. I know that is not really an excuse for elevated anxiety because isn’t it true that basically everything starts appearing in the trench within the last week, or even last few days of excavation for any project? But a short season means rapid excavation which seems to make the recording process hit like a storm. The first week, everything is under control and calm, and then the deeper the trench becomes, the more recording is needed. It seems like you do not have enough eyes to see what is going on around you, or your hands are not fast enough to jot down what is being revealed. Each morning started off with a quick sketch of the trench, new lots being defined, a run-down of what should be excavated for that day, and sometimes an overall interpretation of the stratigraphy of the trenches. Special shout out to coffee for being able to get me conscious enough to do this in the early morning. During the first few weeks, I needed reminders that archaeology is a destructive science and that as long as you recorded what was there, that is what is important. It is still distressing when you see something in the baulk that you had not necessarily noticed during excavation (I’m looking at you, thin dark brown line!). But as long as it is noted and recorded, it can be added into the interpretation. It was as if I internalized the wise words of Aerosmith: “I don’t wanna miss a thing!” This season taught me that continuously taking notes on six different lots, and at least four walls during one day can really wear down one’s consciousness. At times I wondered, “Why are you staring at a bunch of dirt and stone for eight hours straight, instead of training to be a doctor or a lawyer?” But then a wall would become clear, a worker would crack a joke, or a beautiful piece of pottery would appear and my reasons for being there would all come flooding back to me. By the end of the first week I also realized that archaeology is pretty stellar for falling asleep at night. After excavating all day, after all the sherds were counted, notes were typed and entered, and my head hit the pillow, not even the barking dogs or snorting hedgehogs by my tent could wake me from my deep work-induced slumber.
This combination of anxiety and excitement was all worth it in the end. During the rush of the season, I was never fully able to step back and appreciate how exciting the discoveries were that were coming from this trench due to the stress of trying to stay on top of all the documentation and notes; but the final day of excavation was when it finally hit. I remember standing above the trench and realizing how truly impressive this season was. Sure, it may have caused me a couple of headaches, but at the same time there were great finds and discoveries that will further expand our understanding of how the people used this land thousands of years ago.
Kellen is a recent graduate of Emory University where she graduated with a major in Anthropology and a minor in Mediterranean archaeology. Her interests currently lie in Near Eastern Archaeology, bioarchaeology as well as museum studies.
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