An archeologist shovels through the Boston snow and his memories while preparing for a dig in Sudan.
It’s been a snowy winter in New England and I don’t have a snow blower. As I toss shovelfuls of snow over my head, or carry them to a lower snowbank, I think about August days gone by on the Anatolian plain, and anticipate flying to the eastern Sahara desert at the end of this week.
I am an archaeologist. Archaeology is both fun and tedious. The fun involves seeing things that no other human has seen in centuries, accumulating data to make conjectures about how ancient people lived, and literally re-writing history books.
The tedium involves moving dirt.
But moving dirt doesn’t have to be tedious. That’s what I learned from T. Cuyler Young, Jr.
Cuyler Young was, in my field, a legendary figure. He directed digs in Iran, and a museum in Toronto, and he had a hand in developing archaeological recording practices that are still used today. He was larger than life, always ready with a witty or sentimental toast, and full of stories that were too ridiculously entertaining to be untrue.
In the mid-1990s, Cuyler retired from directing the Royal Ontario Museum and was looking for a dig to work on. He settled on Gordion, in Central Turkey, the home of a legendary knot and the capital of the Phrygian nation.
His trench was next to mine.
I thought I knew what I was doing by that time, managing workers, recording finds, taking photographs and making drawings.
Cuyler got on my case about moving dirt. I had never thought about moving dirt before. I would stand in my trench and ask the workmen to move the dirt out. How that happened was not my concern. That’s where my experience as a trench supervisor couldn’t compare to Cuyler’s as a dig director.
He would sit on a stool — he had a bum leg, so they carried a stool out for him — and wave his cane around.
“Listen, Jack,” he would say, “the limits of archaeology are time and money. Stop pussyfooting around and move some dirt!”
His Farsi was excellent but his Turkish was minimal so he would just point to a clod of dirt with his cane and shout, “BOOM!” and the men would hurriedly remove whatever he indicated, whether it was a lens of ash or a stone wall.
With so much dirt moving, more planning was required.
- Where are you going to put the dirt?
- How are you going to get it out?
Ramps were built, shoveling platforms, dumps.
My favorite Cuyler dirt removal system involved men shoveling dirt up eight feet in the air from the bottom of the trench onto a flat platform — a 2 x 2 meter section left purposefully unexcavated. From there Cuyler’s favorite workman, Zeki, would shovel a layup over his head — another eight feet — into rubber buckets sitting on trench edge. (At one point, I tried making a layup and missed, simply dumping a shovelful of dirt onto my own head. Zeki made the baskets every time.) The baskets would then be dumped into wheelbarrows and rolled away.
This was a wonderful system for a couple of days and then it was time to excavate the platform and find a new way to get the dirt out. Each week presented a new engineering puzzle for Cuyler to work out.
Dumping is also an issue. You don’t want to dump your dirt on an area of the site that you plan on digging later— you’d just be making trouble for yourself. Aesthetics matter, too. At El Kurru in Sudan, we are excavating a mortuary temple that is related to the pyramids and royal cemetery nearby; the dirt needs to be dumped so that photographs have clear sightlines between temple and pyramids.
Digging out a snow covered driveway is not the same as archaeology — there is no need to record the excavated baulks and there is no architecture to dig around (aside from a minivan). That said, after the big storm last week I realized that there was no way I could keep piling snow on the driveway snowbanks. Thinking of Cuyler, I made a path down the sidewalk to an area of low snow and carried shovelfuls over to my new dumpsite. I wished I had a wheelbarrow.
I spend a fair amount of time just using my shovel to push the snowbanks back, so throwing height is less of an issue. Just today, I carved out shelves in the snow bank. I’m not using them yet, but if the snow continues at they predict, they will be a great shoveling platform to fill in when I’m too tired to throw over the full snowbank.
So I shovel, and I plan, and I think about my upcoming trip to the Sahara.
When I’m at El Kurru, though, I never think about snow.
Feature Photo Credit: Getty Images