This week on Two Friends Talk History, I interview returning guest, Alex Slucky. Alex is an archaeologist with Atkins and archaeobotanist, whose work has taken her to Italy, Australia and most recently in Uzbekistan. Alex discusses her work in the ancient city of Bukhara which was a prominent stop on the so-called Silk Road trade route that linked East and West. We discuss vessels as material culture, and embodied archaeological processes of alcohol consumption.
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Thank you for reading. See you soon with new friends on Two Friends!
This week my colleagues, Dr Javier Martinez Jimenez and Sofia Greaves and I were thrilled to launch an exhibition we have been collaborating on for quite some time at the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology: “Illustrating Ancient History: bringing the past to life.” The exhibition is now fully online!
As a way of reconstructing the past in Vita Romana, which I’ve discussed on this blog before, I worked with the specialists on-site whose scientific background in the materials I was representing informed much of the illustration work. Intersecting with the aims of the exhibition, the work done at Roman Aeclanum exemplified the way that collaboration between artists and different archaeological specialists can be translated into artistic work that help the public understand the archaeological site and material culture more contextually. I have recorded a podcast with my co-host, Liam, for Two Friends Talk History which allowed me to discuss the public outreach programme I coordinated and created in Aeclanum.
Sofia’s work brought together ancient spaces with exploration of the layers of building over time through water-colour and mixed media. Sofia and Javier work together on the Impact of the Ancient City project at the University of Cambridge which is a project that has involved a lot of site visits to ancient cities that have inspired her work.
The opening of the exhibition was scaled-down due to Covid safety protocols, with numbers carefully regulated through registration. The exhibition will be in-place until January 30th, and with luck, as many people as possible will be able to explore the museum’s famed collection of plaster statue casts which frame our exhibition images. With these considerations in mind, the museum moved quickly to create a fully online version of the exhibition which you can see here: CHECK IT OUT!
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The close of a new decade is an inevitably reflective time. The last time the decade turned, I was in my twenties finishing my undergraduate degrees in Vancouver. It feels like a memoir’s worth of writing could barely sum up the last ten years, so I will stick to just one year. 2019 was possibly the most had some of the biggest highs and lows I have gone through in my academic and personal life. Perhaps it is fitting then that at the end of this decade, it was time to go through another life-changing gauntlet of challenges and opportunities.
Travel and Fieldwork
It was a big year for fieldwork. Luckily, that is my reason-d’être for travel. I discovered a few years ago that travelling with a question in your mind makes the whole experience richer and satisfying when you can answer those questions. When I started researching Isis and the Egyptian cults, it became quite consuming and fortunately for me, dispersed throughout most of the Roman Empire. This has been a blessing in most cases, and this year, with one of my dearest friends, we were able to combine forces and research topics to do fieldwork together across much of Greece.
Germany! Mainz and Frankfurt
In January, I popped over to Germany for a weekend to go check out the temple of Isis in Mainz. This site was excavated during the building of a shopping mall, which sits on top of it. A shared temple with Magna Mater, this city had some really great archaeological museums and things to explore. I used to travel alone a lot more, and scooting off for a few days on my own was a lot of fun.
My recent post about Padua highlighted some of the things that made it a delicious visit to one of my favourite countries, but for me, one really lovely part of the trip was getting to spend time around the kitchen table with the family of a dear friend. I miss that part of family life a lot as an ex-pat. I love spending time with the families of friends, feeling the warmth of their love and bonds of family, even doing normal things like grocery shopping and having a cup of tea.
Greece and Cyprus
Travelling together for a few weeks was a blast and we covered a lot of ground. Laying down groundwork for a future co-publication, hopefully, we learned a lot about each other’s research and where it intersects! Greece is a country that formed mythical impressions in our minds from studying these places over so many years, and getting the opportunity to drive to many sites here together was a dream come true.
With some careful planning and Jedi-level budgeting, Briana and I crushed it: Nicosia, Paphos, Palaepafos, Limassol, Mykonos, Delos, Thessalonike, Philippi, Amphipolis, Vergina, Dion, Volos, Nemea, Mycenae, Corinth, Athens, Epidaurus, Pella, Marathon, Nafplio, Sounion and Eleusis!
With so many beautiful locations, and fascinating material culture, I will definitely be posting some cool snaps and historical tidbits about these places in 2020.
Italy: Roadtripping and the Aeclanum Excavation
For the first time since I started going to Italy to try and learn new skills (excavating or public archaeology), I had the good fortune of jointly renting a car with several friends for the duration of our time there. Liberating and exhilarating would be the best summary of that experience. We were able to finally see some of the surrounding areas of Passo di Mirabella, which are incredibly beautiful. I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend with these ladies trying incredible foods, splashing around in creeks, going to ruins and museums and feeling a bit like a kid again!
Launching a graphic novella in Italy!
Vita Romana: at the baths of a Aeclanum was launched this summer in Passo di Mirabella. It was a labour of love that I am super proud of. Completing a project like this was exciting, and working with Ambra Ghiringhelli and Josef Souček- two creative and talented scholars- was so rewarding! With Vita Romana we learned a lot of things about a collaborative creative process, and it would be really cool to work on other stories about Roman daily life!
For the first year in my life, making art was a significant component of my earnings. I still make silly fun things ( #ImSorryChris ) for myself, but between small commissions, selling posters, paintings in Mariachi, and my public archaeology work this was my most successful year as an artist!
Our west coast wedding
One fateful day in the summer of 2017 I proposed to my husband, over a beer in front of the Pantheon in Rome. After a week on holiday of trying to find the perfect moment and location, everything went wrong. Comically wrong. After a cringe-worthy number of failed attempts, the end result was after a week of nearly asking Chris to marry me, I just went for it with a spontaneous and slightly rambling proposal.
Two years later we had our big day in Vancouver, surrounded by friends and family in a gorgeous location, we tied the knot. As a testament to how ridiculous I am and how accommodating my husband is, I insisted on sneaking in all sorts of archaeology and classics-themed elements into the wedding.
We were touched and grateful to have family members and friends from all over the world who joined us for the wedding. My new family, from the UK, got to explore the province I love so much.
With hot and sunny weather August weather, the guests were subjected to volcanic heat during the ceremony! It was a truly happy day, and absolutely impossible without the support of my mom, sisters (Alex and Anaise), father and my tribe of women warriors, mothers and friends. It felt like all these hearts and minds got me to where I am today, pursuing the things that I am most passionate about, married to a wonderful, brilliant man who enriches my life while I chase my dreams.
Following the wedding, there was no rest for the wicked with escape rooms to solve, babies to cuddle and some wee excursions to spend some time with my family. In a exciting opportunity to come to the Sunshine Coast by a private sea plane! We were over the moon to be invited to this beautiful area and hang with my super lovely aunts and uncles. Spending time with friends and loved ones this summer was so restorative and the best part of the whole time in Canada.
Upon our triumphant return to the United Kingdom, we had the ultimate penthouse wedding reception with our incredible community of friends, coleagues and family. It was marvellous.
Manchester & Liverpool
Drawing this year to a close, we decided that connecting with some of our friends who made their way up to celebrate at our reception would be the best way to spend some free time (lol, free time) this winter. We had a magic weekend in Manchester with some beloved friends and colleagues I met in 2013 during our Masters! Manchester is unarguably one of the coolest cities in the UK. It’s got the architectural edge and multi-culturalism that reminds me of Vancouver. With a quick afternoon trip to Liverpool to do some research, we got to cross that city off the list as well. It is always such a pleasure spending time with our pals in Manchester.
As a little treat for ourselves, Chris and I wanted to spend a week in Belgium. Having visited about two years ago to the day, we were stoked to stay with our lovely friends and colleagues in Leuven. The talented Dr Close (Hellenistic History Instagram) and her lovely partner Stijn.
New Year, Who Dis?
It’s hard to believe all of these things happened within the last 12 months alongside school, work, project work at Aeclanum and so on. Like a last grasp at the hectic-life that used to signal to me that I was working hard enough, if I was too busy to blink, surely it meant I was working as hard as possible. Working hard, but perhaps, not working smart. This year was a kind of awakening. For many years I believed I had some sort of super-human ability to multi-task and problem-solve, whatever else was going on in my life, I could get it done. Whatever ‘it’ was. I would just sleep less, or socialize less, or work during other work…the mind boggles how all this made sense. What I discovered, rather late, was that this balancing act wasn’t balanced at all. It was a very typical high-achiever’s cocktail for burnout. Even projects and activities that gave me great pleasure, if they were not my thesis, then it had to go. Coinciding with moving house, this fall was all about starting anew and positively.
This year I am trying something new and sustainable: in life, in art and school, I will pare everything down to a focused and balanced year ahead.
With the 2019 Open Day at Roman Aeclanum, this post reflects on the last three years of public outreach development I have worked on in Passo di Mirabella, southern Italy.
Frequently, I am asked what on earth I am doing in Italy. Why all the cartoons? What’s it all for?
In 2017, I was given the opportunity to work on an excavation with the Apolline Project and the University of Edinburgh in Passo di Mirabella, Roman Aeclanum, as the Public Archaeology Coordinator. This was an new direction for my work with a lot of exciting potential. The hobbies that I naturally gravitated towards ( included travel photography and illustrating, blogging and other forms of social media) coupled with the subject matter I enjoyed (archaeology and art history) formed a useful starting point for conceptualizing how to approach outreach for an archaeological site with minimal public exposure. Over the next three years, I worked towards creating interconnected projects that were designed to start a narrative of the history of the site and began the groundwork for Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum. With support from the University of Edinburgh’s History, Classics and Archaeology department and the Institute of Classical Studies, I have been fortunate to share these public archaeology activities with the wider academic community working in Classical engagement.
Public Archaeology: why does it matter?
“Public archaeology is really just public relations. It is getting the public interested enough to care and those who care interested enough to engage.”
– Dr. Jody Steele is the Heritage Programs Manager at Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.
The role of public archaeology, within the umbrella of specialisms of archaeology, is finding relevant and interesting ways of communicating the research objectives and material remains of the site. The sub-discipline is still new, and as such, still strives to justify itself and the importance of the work. Future funders, archaeologists, politicians and so on learn about the importance of heritage as children in most cases and as such, continuing to hone and develop how we deliver these messages about the importance of heritage management and research is fundamental to its continuation. With no exaggeration, if people are not engaged and well-informed about the importance of archaeology, it simply won’t happen nor will it receive funding.
Running a public archaeology programme or project requires marketing and public relations work, it also is heavily reliant upon the skills, expertise and historical knowledge of the individuals behind the work. By focusing first on the relationships within the local community then translating those interactions and efforts more broadly, we managed to do some pretty cool and unique things!
These ideas were articulated by our site supervisors this summer in a video made by one of our student volunteers, Jazz Demetrioff. The research objectives set at the onset of the excavation shape the direction the excavation and thus outreach will take. The research questions are answered over the season through the material culture and structures discovered. I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about and trying to articulate why public engagement matters, and how the projects I have had the fortune of working on in Italy are helping me plan future outreach projects.
Public Archaeology in Aeclanum: 2017-2019
First Year: 2017
The formative work with the archaeological site of Aeclanum was a mixture of reconnaissance and coming up with a cohesive set of materials we could begin presenting to the local community. When we arrived there was one pamphlet in Italian with very technical (scarce) archaeological maps, and no site signage or historical narrative for the site. The first steps, then, meant creating some basic materials for young visitors!
Second Year: 2018
We produced outreach materials that focused on the multi-phase bath complex and the role of public bathing in Roman daily life. This included posters for adult audiences and young visitors to the site which reflected the finds that were excavated in earlier campaigns and the current research. A particular favorite was the marble map game, which encouraged kids to explore where the marble in Aeclanum came from! We updated the game in 2018 to include further details like marble traders across the Mediterranean!
Neratia’s Lost Ring: at the baths of Aeclanum
Emily Johnston, an excavation supervisor, worked on a public outreach project with the Apolline Project for 2018, Neratia’s Lost Ring: at the baths of Aeclanum. This exploration of Roman baths in a short-story format, allows the reader to get to know the space and customs as experienced by Neratia (wealthy patrician’s daughter) and Caius (freedman’s son). As the narrative follows the youths trying to find Neratia’s missing ring, the mechanics of the bath complex are explained. I supplied a few illustrations for her story, which were linked into the graphic novella! We are hoping to launch this short story for winter, 2019.
The graphic specialists on site, Lucia Michielin and Josef Souček, worked with me across almost every peice of art that was used for outreach. Their talents were widely appreciated, like finding a pretty rock but not realizing it was a gem till it was polished. Their skills with creating scientific panels based on the research, articulating the architectural findings and included 3D reconstructions of the significant archaeological structures reconstructions were essential to my comic renderings for Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum. Due to the topography of Aeclanum, the bath excavated bath complex straddles a sloping hill and as such has distinctive buttresses, which when digitally rendered, provided helpful insight on how to include the city scenes around it.
Third Year: 2019
With the first two phases of outreach work at Aeclanum complete (panels, the short story, scavenger hunt and educational games), the next phase I was most interested to explore was getting feedback from the community and channeling this into a project that could capitalize on the knowledge of the team of specialists on-site and include up-to-date site interpretations, woven within the comic narrative. By concluding the 2018 outreach season with a survey and vote by the children from the local community who decided which style I would be drawing the comic in, I had my marching orders to get to work on the comic!
With Vita Romana, I wanted something that might help spark imaginations about how big and interesting this city was during its heyday through a stand-alone story, but grounding it in the real-world buildings and materials of Aeclanum. Also, I had never completed a comic book before and this was a challenge I wanted to dive into!
Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum
Getting the gang together remotely meant that there was revisions and frequent dialogue. Ambra Ghiringhelli was like a fish to water getting the text written with care and historical consideration! Using an a-typical approach of having the storyboard roughed out and the text done afterwards, it was fascinating to see what joke she would come up with to match one of Neratia’s smirking faces or the right tone for a teenage daughter giving her mom some sass.
As this was my third year working with Josef, I couldn’t be more grateful for his ongoing collaboration. With his eye for details and in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, I could rely on him spotting all sorts of tiny details (and errors) that improved the whole project immensely. All of the images were sent to him to do his digital magic, fixes and formatting. You would be surprised how much work goes into making a comic look like a comic.
The breadth of things to consider when trying to create a graphic novella attempting to be rooted in archaeological and historical accuracy is astounding. This project has taken me on some really exciting turns which inevitably has meant that I am always learning, always questioning and trying to find evidence for the scenes I am creating.
The majority of influential imagery or material culture references were derived from the collections at the Museo Nazionale, Naples and the frescoes contained in the archaeological parks of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Social media outreach for these sites has been invaluable! With new discoveries coming all the time from Pompeii all the time, by following their Twitter and Instagram, I was able to integrate some of these exciting new finds into Vita Romana. Though Pompeii was covered by Vesuvius by the time our story in Aeclanum would have taken place, the tastes and styles used in decorating homes in these cities could easily be replicated by artisans in communities like Aeclanum. Indeed, the riches of Aeclanum could be much more akin to those at Pompeii due to their size and places along the road networks.
We had a great turn out this July at the comic launch, with hundreds of people visiting the archaeological park! The children’s scavenger hunt activity led them around the site using our third version (a self-directed version) of the archaeological passport as their guide. With Ferdinando crafting the texts and dealing with the translation needs, these materials will hopefully get English versions for download on Archaeokids!
They were asked to find the significant landmarks on the site with general information about their use, and fill out a letter which would lead them to the office piazza that contained the lost doll of Neratia Secunda, completing the narrative in the real world which is introduced in the passport. Once the children completed their scavenger hunt, they received a copy of Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum, whose printing was generously funded by the Institute of Classics Studies (ICS).
The Road Ahead & Archaeokids.com
Seeing this stage of the journey come to a successful conclusion was pretty amazing. I’ve worked with some amazing people and had an incredible opportunity to have so much freedom to explore the ancient world in my favourite medium. The next steps ahead will involve working with the data collected from the launch, and an article which will be interesting to write this winter.
As always, I look forward to challenges and adventures ahead! Ferdinando and I are continuing to find new avenues to create and highlight the public archaeology work that started in Aeclanum and is expanding to other sites!
Whether it is your first time on an excavation, or another chapter in your journey of archaeological field or laboratory work, fellow archaeologists, students and specialists have channelled their experience for you!
Since beginning my journey in 2008 with field schools, excavating and studying abroad, I have progressed along in my journey from dig student to project manager. There are always so many more skills to learn and wonderful experiences to share. As the following list items will show, there are some handy things to bring on a dig, while others you can pick up wherever you are doing field work and save yourself the bag space!
10. Start with a good rucksack. Your journey begins by investing in something that is comfortable and that you can move with minimal effort. Big wheelie bags can seem easier, but if you have any major walking to do, or plan to travel afterwards, aim to have something you can easily move and ALWAYS be able to lift it yourself. I have helped many a random traveler over the years because they couldn’t manage their own luggage.
The weekender (1) is good to bring along with you as a personal item so
you can spend a night or two sightseeing while you are on an excavation
season. The fortnight (2) can cover a two week dig, but if that is all
you are packing, pick up towels/toiletries in the location you are
ending up. The month-long (3) should be spacious enough for all your
necessities and still leave you enough space for souvenirs.
9. Doing your research pays off. Buying your gear off-season is always significantly cheaper. If you cross-check prices on a few different sites once you find a bag that catches your eye, you can often get it for a fraction of the cost. The three rucksacks pictured above were each 50-70% off, totaling £110.00 for all three!
8. Pack for the job you have and the experience you want. My packing list might look a little different than yours might this season, as a big part of my work tends to be organizational (project management) and art /writing (public archaeology) . However, there are some basics for organizing your belongings that are handy no matter what your role on a dig. Organizing by theme, by grouping what those needs are into little related clusters/packing cubes can help you avoid losing things or over-packing. Prioritizing what is a must to bring, and what you can probably just pick up at a shop when you arrive, will keep you on track. Pro-tip: bringing a small bundle of elastic bands and some Ziploc bags helps to compress your belongings in for space (or keep gross things away from nice things) by doing that Marie Kondo style roll, held with a rubber band will do the trick. Packing cubes are quite helpful, as once there you won’t have dressers to put your things away in, and some semblance of organization may spark joy.
Field Gear: Rules and regulations vary by country and sometimes site, but these are some general principles from my experience in Italy. Full-length trousers and steel toe boots are required for excavating. No exceptions. Trench supervisors will check this type of thing, since foot protection is a site safety issue. What styles of boots and trousers is entirely up to you. Long sleeve shirts are going to keep you from becoming a lobster, and a good option for layering between chillier mornings to hot afternoons.
From Primark to Jack Woolfskin, it’s up to you and your budget. There are frequently low-cost options highlighted on online shops, but comfort/breathability are pretty important. Quick dry (wicking) options make laundry less of a chore, especially in Mediterranean heat you can dry your washed clothes in 20 minutes. Pro-tip: break in new boots before arrival to avoid blisters and Merino wool socks help protect your feet from over-heating, wicking away moisture and avoiding odor.
Optional items: Fancy kit and tools is unnecessary for first-time excavations, as the programmes will provide the tools you need, mostly centrally-held by a trench supervisor. You can buy little handy tools and so on, but it is likely to go unused and just adds weight to your luggage.
Not all trowels are made equally. My favourite is the WHS trowel. It is a British design that feels good in your hand and has a lot of durability. I prefer the soft-handle WHS trowel, but many others like the wooden handle. You can check out dig tools on the Past Horizons website: here or Strati-Concept: here. Order your kit several weeks before you expect to head off to dig, because having mail sent to you.
7. Working in the sun safely. Suncare products should be rigorously applied and re-applied throughout the day, especially after sifting for an hour and pushing up your 20th wheelbarrow to the spoil heap. Hats are a must, and shirts with built-in sun protection or that are at least long enough to cover your skin are essential. Staying hydrated is going to be paramount if you plan to get the most out of your field work experience and avoid overexerting yourself. Safety is always the most important thing.
6. Tech: should it stay or should it go? Working on my thesis and part-time job while on excavation means that a lightweight tablet-laptop hybrid is essential so I can take my work with me. The DSLR is also part of my art and field work kit for my thesis and public archaeology. I still optimistically bring dig boots and a trowel every year but my path has diverged slightly from within the trench to working on public engagement. It is worth considering leaving your expensive tech at home if you don’t really need it. I.e, if you aren’t writing a PhD or Masters, you actually may have the summer off, so why not enjoy it? Kick back with a kindle or a real paperback and soak in the sun or debate the classics over wine with fieldwork colleagues!
5. Entertainment itemsare important additions to your time away on excavation. If you enjoy photography, bring your camera. There will be amazing moments that you will capture through the camera lens that you will enjoy reflecting on. If you are an artist, bring a travel sketch and paint kit! Bringing something small for your downtime, that is still social, is a great way to meet new people. This is a great opportunity to try travel blogging or leveling-up your Instagram game. #DigSeason #ArchaeologyLife #QueensOfTheLab. If after a full day of working with others you would prefer some quiet time, ebooks and headphones are a good (lightweight) idea, as there will be plenty of time to rest and relax. Tech-tip extra: multi-plug usb and universal adapters will save your life. Most dig houses have limited plugs, and 50 people needing to charge their phones can be hard to accommodate.
4. Working with injuries and staying healthy. Many of us have bad knees, sore backs and a host of other potential aches and pains. Knee pads are a must if you have any knee problems, but even if you are blessed with injury-free knees, they are a huge help for long periods of kneeling on hard surfaces. Necessary medications should be brought with you, you might find it hard to find an Italian equivalent. Things like painkillers and hydration aids are commonly available and not challenging to get a hold of. Keeping healthy extras: bug spray, flip flops (for showers), bandaids (plasters) and hand sanitizer/hand wipes are cheap as chips and good to have in your pack.
Hydration in high temperatures is tackled by investing in good insulated water bottles. Gulping down a mouthful of hot water is not the most refreshing while working, so insulated water bottles can keep your drinking water chilled for several hours. I typically have two with me and there are all sorts available on Amazon.
3. Mental health and wellness while working abroad. Excavation situations abroad can be full of life-changing experiences and new friends. They can also be very stressful, living with 50 strangers doing manual labour in a foreign country where you may not speak the language. This might be the first time experiencing a shared eating, washing and sleeping space. Even for those who are not shy or prone to a bit of social anxiety, this can seem like a pretty intense prospect. However, it is incredibly common to feel this way, and there are some great relaxation and mindfulness approaches to help and get the most out of your time abroad!
This might require you to actively seek some time alone on a walk, write in a travel journal to reflect on some of your experiences and don’t be afraid to carve out the time for you that you need to feel rested. If you are lucky enough to be working in or near a town, grabbing some colleagues and having a cheeky dinner out together is a nice break from the larger group.
2. Be open minded to new cultures. If this is your first time abroad or just in the location you will be digging, it goes without saying that you will encounter customs that are unfamiliar to you. Much of what you read online can be quite negative. If you read about places like Naples, there are a variety of opinions that are often quite apprehensive. Treat everything you read with a grain of salt. Some people have had bad experiences, but like all travel a trip is as good as you make it. If you pack smart, don’t flash your valuables around and keep important items secured, you should have no problems. Just as traveling anywhere, train and bus stations are not safe places to hang around full stop and often give a slightly grim impression. Take a breath, chill out and be smart.
Things [in Italy] run a little differently and certainly much slower than many of you will be used to (which you may not like at first), but if you are patient and keep an open mind you will find the beauty within the relaxed style of living, vibrant and passionate people, delicious food, and charming architecture.
Rather than looking for what is familiar, you are perfectly poised to learn new things about yourself and the world around you. Breaking out of your comfort zone by trying new foods, talking to locals and getting to know the culture and history of the place you are going to spend a few weeks or a full season excavating in is incredibly rewarding.
An Archaeological mindset, positive attitude and a trowel. Really there isn’t much else you need.
You have an incredible opportunity ahead of you. Everyone will have different backgrounds and varying amounts of experience, so use that to your advantage! Ask questions on and off site. You can learn so much from everyone around you. Many people will be coming to your dig without knowing anyone. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with someone, they are likely in the same boat as you! If you are coming with friends, branch out and include others!
Many thanks to the feedback from students: Alex Slucky, Caity Concannon, Chanchal Rm, Erik Niskanen, Jazz Demetrioff, Jessica Staples, Kathleen Emily Ann O’Donnell, Max Ratcliffe, Mickey Ferguson, Emma Watts. With special thanks to Briana King for modeling gear!
Thank you for checking out my blog and have a great field school and excavation season!
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