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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Digging Up the Past --
Directors their problems and experiences.
by Harold Gough.

The Rev Bryan Faussett, in the 18th century, with his avoidance of sightseers and his recognition of the value of a judicious helping of brandy as a persuader was facing in his own way the problems of site-discipline encountered by Directors of Excavations down the years. A more recent writer/digger, none other than Sir Mortimer Wheeler, has had some thoughts on the matter, too. His book, Archaeology from the Earth is of course required reading for the long dark evenings for all potential archaeologists, but the less technical section, which is more historical, and tends to get overlooked, recounts some of these problems, and explains how they were overcome by his predecessors.

Supervision on a large site is perhaps one of the most important of these items. General Pitt Rivers, to whom Wheeler, and hence all modern archaeologists owe an enormous debt, saw straight to the heart of the problem, and trained a staff of assistants as supervisors, for he realised that single-handed control was out of the question, and that "no excavation ought to be permitted except under the eye of a responsible and trustworthy superintend ant."

Flinders Petrie, on the other hand, had rather different ideas -- he was, after all working mainly in a very different environment. "If the men are well trained, and the work simple," he wrote in 1904, "it goes on automatically and takes up the smallest amount of attention. In detailed small sites men may be left unvisited for two or three days, merely reporting each evening how they have worked." However, at the same time he had to let it be known that he was equipped with a telescope, and was able to pop up out of sunken approaches and take his workers unawares!

The French, realistic as always, adopted the view that the best way to ensure the honesty of workmen was not to leave them alone for a minute, according to a manual published in 1929, while only a few years later, an American volume on Near East excavation, advised the foreman to stand on a high observation point, and adds that it would be very unwise for a director to leave the foremen or overseers to their own devices for long.

Sometimes the director is in trouble due to the wrong choice of supervision. An archaeological expedition sent out from Pennsylvania University in 1887 to the Middle East was led by a man who was not quite with it as regards the local customs. He put his own choice of workmen under a Turk whom they hated, instead of organising his labour through the local sheikh. When the expedition was about to move on, a disaffected Arab set fire to the camp of reed-mat huts, and destroyed the whole camp in five minutes; looting followed, whereby the expedition lost a thousand dollars in gold, and other belongings.

Directors sometimes have experiences beyond the ordinary range of daily routine, even when they have good relations with their work force. Needless to say, it seems to be the colourful ones who are involved with these lively scenes.

Perhaps the oddest among the directors of the past was Giovanni Belzoni, who really brought Egypt to the notice of the outer world, by liberating many of the treasures of the tombs. Belzoni had a varied career, including that of a circus strong man before taking up the spade, so one pictures a bulky muscular man, perhaps with a twirling moustache. He tells of his efforts to reach a mummy-packed tomb at the end of a long low tunnel. As this was 1816, in the days of candles and torches, the light in this airless tomb must have been poor in the extreme. Naked dusty Arabs, holding the dim flickery torches, crouched among the coffins, when the panting and exhausting Belzoni peered around, unable to stand up in the low chamber. "At last, nearly overcome, I sought a resting place, found one and contrived to sit, but when my weight bore down on the body of an Egyptian it crushed like a band-box, so that I sank altogether among the broken mummies with a crash of bones, rags and wooden cases."

Another picture that comes to mind easily is Schliemann at Troy, paying off his men and undercutting the section. Out came a mass of gold and silver ornaments, diadems and rings, and goblets, as his wife helped him gather them up. As the picture fades, we see him placing on his wife's head a diadem made up, of more than 16,000 pieces of gold ...

Finally, Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos, excavating the House of Sacrifice, deciding it had been destroyed by an earthquake. Just as lie was clearing the final part, he and his workmen were startled by a fresh shock, strong enough to, knock one of the men over backwards. A valuable confirmation of his theory!

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