A background in a variety of disciplines is important for the study of Classical Archaeology. For instance, you need to understand the various historical contexts surrounding the archaeological materials, have the ability to interpret the iconography, understand the archaeological excavation practices and documentation, have a background in ancient languages and several modern ones (ideally), and understand how the art/archaeology fits into the wider narrative of history.
As any self-aware student discovers, the deeper you dive into your studies, the more there is for you to learn. I will be looking towards further schooling and specialization within this field, so despite my existing credentials (B.A., B.G.S., M.Sc) there is still a way to go. I am merely a Padawan focused on the goal of becoming a Jedi of Archaeology.
What you find often depends on luck. Frequently one can dig an area which seems promising, but not fruitful. Getting down in the dirt, so close to the soil you are at times only an inch from it is – for me – one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience. You start to ‘hear’ the difference in soil types and composition, you can genuinely see when something has changed, and it is terribly exciting. Then sometimes you even find stuff, ancient stuff!
One of the added bonuses of a Fine Arts Diploma was having to take pottery courses, which have made a lot of what I am looking at comprehensible. For instance, understanding the curvature of ceramic vessels, even without a handle or lip, knowing how ceramics are made helps identifying what you see. However, I have not taken directed studies on pottery typologies formally, so that is another thing to add to the bucket list.
Sometimes the find is gorgeous examples of figurative painting, colourful striations and less refined pottery of the Early Middle Ages. Then there is coarse-ware pottery.
If you can imagine so, the rough-and-ready DIY of the pottery quality spectrum is like when you authentically make your own soaps, or boutique mason jar candles. It gets the job done, but not the most precious of discoveries.
All joking aside, you can learn a significant amount of information from the coarse-ware pottery! You can see the types of vessels were people using en masse, what types of local materials were being produced and possibly statistical information about population density and consumption patterns. Animal bone can be a significant contribution to the finds, though of course it all depends on the type of site on which you are digging. But as a rule, in any location where people lived and dumped their refuse, you will find some kind of animal remains. This is an area where my background is limited, so I have a lot to learn. Hopefully as I do, I will be able to provide some titillating tidbits!
Small finds, like glass, game pieces, bronze items and stone materials can be found as well. These are often quite exciting, as you may suddenly come upon a loom weight, fibulae, a ring, or best of all – coins! Nothing helps the understanding of a site quite like finding a coin. Happy days!
Different countries handle the discovery of human remains from antiquity in different ways. I have been lucky enough to work on two excavations which allowed me the opportunity to unearth the remains of four individuals. Handling human remains by the guidelines set by whichever country you are working in is, of course, incredibly important. It can be a sombre event, and even quite upsetting for some.
Perhaps it is through being an artist and archaeologist that the experience of excavating human remains actually excites and inspires me deeply, each and every time I have done so. I see a great deal of beauty in the lines and the shapes of the bones, and can vividly imagine the care that went into their final resting moments.
One of the more forward-thinking moments I experienced in my undergrad was taking a course in Human Osteology. Making my own study guide to quiz myself was a good investment, and genuinely very helpful when coming across human remains in the field. Humans are the subject of my art, their history the subject of my studies, and what they created with their hands is the subject of my excavations. When stripped down – even just the traces of the individuals that remain – are just as beautiful, graceful and impressive.
Coming face-to-face with a individual who lived during the Peloponnesian Wars or the Roman Empire, 2,000+ years after they have been carefully buried, is a humbling and exciting experience. Laboratory tasks tend to include: washing and sorting pottery, cataloguing, and illustrating artifacts which may have some diagnostic relevance. I took an archaeological illustration course at Edinburgh which was helpful but – as in all things – different teams/countries will tell you to do something differently.
As an artist (and huge nerd) I spend 70% of my free time drawing anyways, so this is just fun! Possibly even one of the top five things I love about this field. I will be posting further artifact illustrations, discussion, and more depth to these topics later on, but I hope this little introduction to some of what is studied on an archaeological dig!