Archives

Misery loves company

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I think we’ve all reached that point, one time or another

Well, not quite misery, but more like commiseration. Fieldwork in archaeology can break the best of us, but at the end of the day, it brings us all together in a way nothing else can.

A few days ago I tweeted (@Snarrkaeology) the above photo and it received more likes and retweets than anything else I’ve ever put out in the Twitterverse. It’s the top of a carbon paper catalog card from the 1966 season of Sardis for a little green schist sealstone that’s quite cute. I came across it while going over the catalog entries for a manuscript on Sardis’s Lydian phases (It’s going to be a big one! 700+ objects with full context rundown! Data will be on our website!) And I laughed. I laughed pretty hard, and I had to share it, knowing it would resonate with so many other archaeologists out there.

Green schist sealstone OR WHATEVER. If you look at the date of find, it’s August 8th. This is two months into the season, near the end. Now whether the recorder at the time intended it to read as we read it now (exhaustion, boredom), if it was an inside joke of some sort, or it was simply meant to indicate that they were unsure about it, we cannot know.

The beautiful thing in this, though, after the initial laughs, is that anyone who has worked in the field knows this feeling. We all love the work. We are happy to do it, and we know how lucky we are to do it. But after weeks of physical labor, heat, frustration, mistakes, ups, downs, tedium, abbreviated sleep schedules, etc…you hit a wall. You’re done. And the only thing you have left in you to make it possible to keep going is the commiseration of your colleagues over the absurdity of it all.

Sometimes you spend your afternoon feeling like Sisyphus, sweeping dirt off a dirt floor, straightening a baulk wall only to realize someone else has undercut it. Or you think an area is done, then come down on another feature you have to define and document. Or you’re in the lab and someone comes down with yet another box full of slag that has to be cleaned and catalogued, just when you thought you could shut down operations.

You break. Sometimes you cry. But most of the time, you and your colleagues find a way to laugh about the absurdity of it all. I don’t know how many times I just yelled at an excavator, “Why did you bring this down?! Can’t you just throw it in the woods??!!” Or I’ve made a preliminary catalog entry with “Amorphous terracotta SO WHO THE HELL CARES?” But then someone finds it and gets a good laugh.

I think every project’s documentation record has easter eggs hidden, whether notes in field books, labels in storage, or even little asides in the database. Weeks, months, years later someone comes across them, gets a good laugh, and immediately feels more connected than ever to their colleagues and all those archaeologists who came before.

I have left plenty of easter eggs of my own in 13 years at Poggio Civitate, and working with 59 years of excavation at Sardis, I’ve encountered so many more. Yes, we are all professional, precise, and committed to the proper excavation and recording of ancient sites. But we cannot forget the human aspect of the whole endeavor. We all need that good laugh after long days in the field.

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Behind the Scenes

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Sardis Archival storage, with nearly 60 years of handwritten logs and reports

Nothing makes me nerd out harder than being in the storage spaces or archives of museums. I remember reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler about the two kids secretly living at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and being downright giddy at the idea of wandering through galleries when no one else is around. Even before reading this, the Sesame Street special “Don’t Eat the Pictures” was my favorite movie as a child. Again, the entire Sesame Street gang gets locked in the Met overnight and explores the galleries on their own.

It’s the same thing with museum storage…the idea of seeing things that others don’t normally get to see, looking at objects and documents that normally do not see the light of day. I suppose it’s the same rush I get from archaeological work…bringing something to light that’s been untouched for hundreds or thousands of years.

Today is the end of #MuseumWeek on Twitter and other social media platforms, and it’s my favorite. I love posting my own Sardis content (@Snarrkaeology), but I also love pouring over what other institutions post…ESPECIALLY the #secretsMW hashtag. The behind-the-scenes looks, most notably those posted by a number of Italian museums, were simply fascinating to me. And it reminds me how fortunate I’ve been in my own career and research.

As emotionally, physically, and intellectually exhausting as the dissertation process can be, some of my happiest moments from the last…however many years it took me to finish that thing…occurred during the process. My work required collections visits to institutions throughout the US and Europe, and at the end of the day…everyone was unbelievably welcoming and helpful, willing to drop what they were doing to get me what I needed. My best moments:

  1. Having a gallery closed off for me in the Vatican so that they could open the cases for my examination of the cremation urns there, joking with the three guards assigned to me, and drinking espressos with them right in the gallery.
  2. The Museo A. Salinas in Palermo letting me come in their building, during heavy construction, to examine object cards…while the entire staff was cramped into one room to do their own work.
  3. Coming to the Louvre on a Tuesday when they were closed to the public, having the cases opened for me, chatting with the head curator of Greek and Roman like he was a peer, and being left alone in storage for AN HOUR. I lost my mind.
  4. Days and days at the historic archives of the Florence archaeological superintendency hunched over hand-drawn plans and excavation reports from the 19th and 20th centuries, then spending break time with the staff drinking coffee and talking about our cats.
  5. Having the chance to examine urns at the Altes Museum in Berlin in storage, the galleries before opening, and in the brand new study center.
  6. Being locked in the Etruscan galleries of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek all by myself to examine the urns there…and to spend a good amount of time wandering around.

The list could go on, but I’ve been lucky to fulfill all my nerdy dreams.

And I want to pay it forward.

Archaeological archives are fascinating. We have so many wonderful documents here at the Sardis Archives at the Harvard Art Museums. If you’re interested, need something for your research, or just want to see something new, please let me know. Our doors are open if you need to nerd out.