What I found in the earth

Imagine the weeks stretching behind and ahead of you: the sun on your neck, the musical scraping of soil under metal trowels, the smell of earth and damp hay, the scarf tied around nose and mouth, the stubborn rhythm of pickaxes, the jolt in the knees of stepping sideways into the trench as it deepens, time going with it.

It is often said of archaeology that it has been romanticized to an aesthetic or swashbuckling, romantic ideal, and that most people would find disappointment in its daily tedium. Perhaps there is some proud reluctance to bring that ideal back down to earth. It is true that the field remains, in many corners, rarefied and needing epistemic change (beyond the scope of this meditation, but be assured that many wiser minds than mine are working on it too). It is also true that I, entering my final year of undergraduate study, am guilty of buying a wool Indiana Jones-style hat at TJ Maxx last Tuesday.

But, at the very least, I would like to begin my service to the transformation of archaeology with an ode to that daily tedium of fieldwork, to the paperwork and clipboards and the dirt-under-the-nails absurdity of it. Let it also be my chance to enjoin the reader who takes even a passing interest in archaeology to seek out fieldwork experiences, especially if you find yourself in a collegiate environment that might fund and enable them.

For those that love and revile and chase history, the truth is that its actual fabric is not in books and maps — these are at once the selective, loudest voices of history and the frail, beautiful human handiwork that is essential to our search for knowledge and meaning. But they are not the whole story, and not remotely the whole story for the non-elite. The site in Tuscany where I was working as a student excavator this fieldwork season, on the Marzuolo Archaeological Project, was that of a rural crafting community of the sort that left no literary traces or grand marble monuments, but was undeniably a vibrant center of creative production and exchange. The people that lived there stamped their bricks with their names and logos, forged and mended tools, bought, sold, worked, lived and worshiped between their walls — the same opus reticulatum walls that I crouched and dug beside for four weeks. 

I will never feel so suddenly close to the sense of a Roman individual as I did finding — with a magpie glance — a little glass bead in the dust, rolled away from some necklace or bracelet into the shadows. I will never appreciate time’s relentless interment of human traces more than when I was brushing layer after layer of beaten or tiled floors, all stacked atop one another like one big earthen lasagna.

Eager to ask and answer questions, I was lucky that my trench was a real puzzle. Often my directors, trench supervisor and fellow workers and I would stand frowning down at the jumble — theorizing, swearing and sweating profusely, dreaming of the tinkle of ice in a glass and the gas station Coca Colas. Trowels constantly went missing; nothing emerged for hours but the delightful impish globs of iron nails; the chalkboard for labeling photographs was left in the sun and could have been used to fry eggs. 

In the afternoons, we students scrubbed bones and sherds of pottery, debating immortality and playlist choices, and then swam, slept, flocked to the bar. Stirring our drinks with pink plastic straws, we mused on how different it felt to be tired from hauling dirt, compared with that sleepless, inching fatigue of life at a desk. It was a calloused and self-conscious delight, a sense of remarkable privilege.

So this is what I found in the earth: there is no simple reason that we dig.

Of course, we bristle with questions — research questions and existential questions, questions of finding and funding, and of ourselves. There are niches of knowledge that seem, like paradoxes, to expand forever into ever-shrinking detail. There is the pride in the eyes of the people of Cinigiano, the town of seven hundred people down the road from the site, when they came one evening at sunset to see our trenches and to share their theories. There is a cold quiet that dwells in the earth when your hand is pressed to stones laid down two thousand years before, which reminds you that things represent the lives of people: not stories, not statues, but messy, unknowable, ordinary people. And yet this is in part why we reach backwards, peering into the rural ancient past as though through a keyhole — to know them better. To look them in the eyes and understand all that we share, and all that we do not, and everything in between that we cannot jargonize.

As we hollowed out the walls of ancient lives, collecting in our red buckets the material traces of individuals, we were creating them as seen through the veil of history and our present. They were shaping us in return, on the wheel of our own knowledge, by influencing our own accretive understandings and by building the walls beside which I knelt on many hot Tuscan mornings, and in whose memory I now write — a conversation across the dark shores of time.

We worked right until the end, when the trenches were reburied and all traces of our and their presence were smoothed over once more, and the groves lay quiet. The ants whose passageways we had disturbed were already rebuilding their siege walls and granaries.

Cornell Daily Sun article

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Student with pickaxe at archaeological site