Lauren Jonik: When people think of archaeology, often the first thing that comes to mind is a swash-buckling adventure like in Indiana Jones. What is it really like being on an archaeological dig?
Taylor Kendra: Well there are a lot less whips and Nazis, that’s for sure. And, to the best of my knowledge, Indiana Jones never had to trim a baulk or map a top-plan. It’s a lot less glamorous than Hollywood would have you believe, but that feeling of a grand adventure never quite goes away.
You get to work side by side with fascinating people, in extreme settings. The day-to-day excavating can be very tedious and physically demanding. Some days you move only a few centimeters of dirt from a few meters of your square and find nothing. Other days, you are excavating with a dental pick because every time you touch the ground you find another tiny piece of animal bone or pottery. Still other days, you use a pick-axe and a shovel to move massive amounts of dirt as you sink beneath the surface to find what was once someone’s home.
No matter what, it involves extensive notes. Most people don’t think of archaeology as a destructive science, but it is. You can only excavate something once, and when it’s done, all future researchers can only go by what you’ve written. So you have to be thorough, even documenting the things that don’t necessarily matter to your research, because it might matter to the next person.
LJ: You’ve worked in Cyprus for three summers both as a volunteer and as a supervisor. What has your time there been like? What things were you and your team searching for?
TK: Each year has been vastly different from the others. My first year (as a student-volunteer), fifty of us stayed in a middle-school gymnasium. Last summer, there were fifteen of us, and we camped in large army-tents. In all three years, I was working under Dr. Pamela Gaber, one of the foremost experts on Cypriot pottery and iconography. We excavated the site of ancient Idalion, a city-kingdom that eventually became the modern town of Dhali. Specifically, we dug in a sanctuary, dating to the Hellenistic and Roman periods (between 300 BCE and 500 CE, though some evidence indicates that the sanctuary was used as early as 1100 BCE.) The sanctuary seems to connect to the buildings surrounding it, so we were searching for the edge of the complex during our recent years. We also excavated a temple on the nearby acropolis, and we were seeking evidence that it was “Lang’s Temple”, previously looted by an antiquarian in the 1860s.
LJ: Which countries are currently most hospitable to foreign researchers doing archaeological work? Do politics play a role in the advancement of the work?
TK: There isn’t a simple answer to this question, and even within a country, the town’s feelings about your work might swing from year to year and place to place.
Generally, the world is fairly open to an archaeologist. While traveling all over Europe and Central America, people are very eager to discuss the history of their towns and cities, and more than one older gentleman has offered me antiquities found in their backyards (I declined). Europe is very open to excavations, but they are generally run by British institutions, and there are occasionally some ruffled feathers about Britain’s old habit of keeping foreign artifacts for their own museums. All the expected places can provide safe and interesting excavations. Mexico and Central America also have many excavations just beginning, and the focus has been shifting everywhere to work with local communities, instead of just around them, to excavate their heritage.
My colleagues have had very positive experiences excavating Turkey, Israel, and Crimea, even though the political climates have been rather hot in recent years. Likewise, I know some of the excavators in Guatemala and Suriname have had great experiences working closely with local communities. Cyprus, technically still under an illegal Turkish occupation according to the EU, is only 60 miles off the coast of Syria. From our site, we could hear the Royal Air Force base at Akortiri launching missiles at ISIL. Yet I never felt unsafe or at risk from larger cultural or political movements. When you’re knuckle-deep in the dirt, your world doesn’t expand too far beyond your square. Empires that rose and fell over a thousand years ago felt much more relevant to me.
This isn’t always the case, however. One of our supervisors on the Idalion expedition came over early after her dig in Israel was evacuated due to repeated nearby bombings related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the experience was very traumatic for her and others involved. Egyptian archaeology is still struggling to get back on its feet after the political conflicts of 2011. Syria and Iraq remain closed to archaeologists, and many academics have been watching the news for years, hoping and fearing any updates on their previous sites. The destruction at Palmyra, Mari, Nineveh (Mosul), and Nimrud come to mind immediately, though many other cities which housed numerous excavations have also been looted, bulldozed, or bombed.
In 2015, we had a group of teenagers who would throw firecrackers into the gymnasium where we were all sleeping, and who would yell at us from their cars. The police had to get involved when they began harassing us verbally and physically from their motorcycles in the evening. That did not make me feel safe or welcome, but my run-ins with warm, loving people far outweighed the bad.
LJ: What is the process for when you strike proverbial gold and find something?
TK: Digging in an established site, we carefully remove the object with its locus (the layer of dirt that it is in, however deep the object is). So if we find a piece of pot sticking up from the ground, we have to work around it until the entire area is excavated down to its lowest point before we can remove it. Pulling it out any sooner would mean we would lose the historical context. This can be incredibly frustrating though, as it can take weeks to fully excavate to remove an object of a significant size, and they always seem to start to appear during the last days before we have to close down the site for the season. It becomes a careful race.
Once the thing is removed, it goes in the pottery bucket for that day and locus. Then it gets washed and sorted by type. If it is a piece of pottery, it gets examined by Dr. Gaber and assigned the earliest possible date it could have been made. If it is a piece of bone, or statue or, you know, literal gold, then it gets put in a box and labeled and sent to the Registrar. He or she carefully cleans it and enters all of its measurements in our database. If it’s broken, they may try to restore it.
All interesting pottery and objects get sent to the Cypriot Museum at the end of the season. Some end up displayed or sent out to specialists for further study. Others sit in storage, carefully labeled and waiting for the day some archaeologist needs to study them further.
LJ: What has been the most interesting or historically significant discovery in the field in the past five years?
TK: The body of King Richard III turning up beneath a London car park comes to mind.
Also a few years before that in Mexico, a tunnel was discovered beneath the Temple to Quetzlcoatl. It is coated with a glittery substance that might represent the stars.
We don’t have many Phoenician sites in their “homeland”, so the excavations at Beirut have been very important to Mediterranean archeologists. But, like I said, the wheel turns slowly. It was excavated in the 1990s, published in 2010, and they are still slowly updating the information, though digging there has ceased.
The archaeological publishing wheel turns very slowly. It may take five, ten, or fifteen years before something that was discovered gets published. This is partly to prevent looters from digging up areas in the night as soon as a wealthy tomb is found. Also, many archaeologists are hesitant to publish until they have the most information on their site possible, which may span multiple dig-seasons and years.
LJ: If you could locate any object or place lost to history, what would it be?
TK: The House of Wisdom from the Islamic Golden Age, or the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Both were destroyed, and most of the information was lost. The Epic of Gilgamesh is missing its ending because the tablets ancient stories have been written on tend to wear off on the bottom and top. If not those, then my grandmother’s wedding ring!
LJ: What inspired you to become an archaeologist? What is your educational background like?
TK: It was not a career I really thought of for myself until high school, when I was trying to pick what I wanted to study in college. I knew I loved history, and I wanted a chance to travel to new places. I loved working outside and using my hands. Some of my favorite books as a child were books on Egypt and Mesopotamia from my history-buff grandmother. Archaeology just floated to the surface as exactly the right fit for me.
I was particularly interested in writing, so I wanted to find a school that had good programs in both archaeology and creative writing. Lycoming College, a liberal arts college in Williamsport, PA provided excellent Bachelor’s programs in both my fields and also introduced me to a hidden interest in teaching. I added certificates in primary education and special education, took a pile of extra courses during my breaks, and came out in four and a half years with a small pile of majors.
Part of the archaeology major was a mandatory field-work requirement, and they generally recommended that you try to get it done early (just in case you realize you hate the dirty-work). Students went anywhere from Sweden to Cyprus to Israel to Peru. Many opted to try more local archaeology, excavating Native American sites nearby. One of my friends worked in Jamestown, excavating a colonial well!
LJ: What is the most memorable thing that has happened to you on an excavation?
TK: There was a little piece of pottery that had a fingerprint pressed into the glaze. I found it while walking around the Acropolis during my first season. I’ve found a couple more over the years while excavating, but they never cease to thrill me. It’s like sharing a secret with someone from two thousand years ago, and I treasure those secondhand fingerprints more than any single object I’ve found.
This summer, I was using a pickaxe on top of a to-be-removed baulk (Baulks are the one-meter strips of earth left to separate the squares in which we excavate). Swinging it like you would if you were putting in golf, I was making progress when suddenly the ground started to shift under me and my left foot broke through the surface and I fell into a hole beneath me! It was only knee-deep, but my first thought was that I had just crushed precious artifacts that had lasted for two thousand years only to get squished by a rogue sneaker. Luckily for the artifacts, and unluckily for me, the hole instead only contained several large spiders.
LJ: I know that some sites rely on volunteers and are very much in need of them. Can you tell us a bit about how it works to combine a vacation with volunteering on an excavation? How would people who are interested go about learning more?
TK: Excavations can be a great way to have a unique and interesting vacation experience! Generally, you have to commit to working for at least two weeks, and there is an upfront cost that covers your living and food expenses. Often, this fee includes planned trips to museums or neighboring cities, and numerous lectures on all parts of archaeology from visiting scholars or experienced team members. Your new team can give you great insights to day trips elsewhere that you should try, and you are immediately immersed in the culture in which you are visiting. Not to mention the hands-on work that fills you with a sense of discovery and purpose.
It’s hard work and not for everyone, but I recommend anyone who wants to learn more check out the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin and reach out to the site director of any that catch your interest!
You don’t need any background in history to volunteer. You also don’t have to be a twenty-something in amazing physical shape. There are many niches to be filled, and the experiences are very accessible. Pick your excavation knowing your own comfort level. Do you hate scorching heat? Maybe don’t pick Cyprus. Is humidity your personal hell? You might want to think twice about an excavation in Mexico.
LJ: Archaeology is a way of learning about the past and about better understanding humanity’s collective history. What do you think will be the most significant, lasting structures or things our generation may leave behind for someone to discover in a thousand years? In your observation, what can the past teach about living better in the present?
TK: What an interesting question! We live in an age of the impermanent, with so many of our structures not built to last, and our personal artifacts destined to be discarded. Yet we use materials that last far longer than anything used before. Our plastics, glasses, and aluminums will take longer to decompose that any monument before us. I’m afraid landfills, while not what we hope to leave as our legacy, are going to be the subjects of lots of future archaeological studies.
I always go back to the ending of the poem “Ozymandias” by Shelley.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Archaeology reminds us that our personhood, our power, and our problems are all very short moments in a vast stretch of history. It’s very humbling. I also think it’s very inspiring, because we have built so much from each other, scaffolding century after century, so even though the individual may be forgotten by time, their contributions are still with us, embedded in our own culture and history.
Side note, but planning our own ridiculous tombs and funeral monuments seems to be nearly a universal joke of archaeologists. We specifically want to mess with future archaeologists, giving them as many mysteries as we can fit within a single space. (I’m partial to an octagonal chamber with concentric circles of bird skeletons, all with one wing outstretched, pointing toward the unlit pyre of floppy disks. Another wants a pyramid with a turtle head. Another, hieroglyphs and emojis on a marble obelisk.) While admittedly macabre, it’s a fun pastime. It helps remind us that the ancient peoples might not have been taking themselves seriously all the time. Or perhaps it just distracts us from the existential crisis that looms if we think too much about the scale of our own lives.
Taylor Kendra is an archeological research assistant, teacher, writer, and special educator. You can follow along with her excavations on checkoutmydigs.wordpress.com.
Interested in art-history and traveling? Check out her youtube channel, KnowBeforeYouGo.
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, Amendo, The Establishment, Bustle, Calliope and Ravishly.
When she is not co-editing TheRefresh.co, she is working towards her Master’s degree in Media Management at The New School. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik.