Summer Field Programs

So this summer I ended up traveling to Ethiopia to participate in a pilot archaeological study spearheaded by Dr. Michael Harrower, an assistant professor currently working at Johns Hopkins University.  The overall goal of the project was to begin excavating a large, very important site known as Baita Semati, situated on a hill in the Mezbir Valley (located in the northern province of Tigray) that stands about 7 km from the Yeha Temple, the largest standing structure in Africa south of Egypt (built between 8th-5th century B.C.). British, German, and American teams led archaeological expeditions in this valley during the early to mid-20th century that largely focused on the major Yeha Temple site. Preliminary surveys limited in terms of scope, data collecting were literally conducted by archaeologists on mules in the Mezbir Valley. Small sites around the Yeha Temple were indeed recorded, but the majority of archaeological work has historically been concentrated on the Yeha Temple. Baita Semati represents the largest recorded site (approximately 20 ha) in relatively close proximity to the Yeha Temple (approximately 7 km). The site contains a high concentration of diagnostic pottery sherds as well as rectangular cut-stones, of which a few had apparently been dug out and used to fashion houses in a nearby village. Of important note, it is this type of cut-stone that was used to construct the Yeha Temple  Could this site be the residential sector associated with the Yeha Temple? What is this site’s relationship to the other smaller sites recorded in the Mezbir Valley that are within line of sight? What is the chronology of the site? These are the salient questions that members of Dr. Harrower’s SRSAH (Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories) team sought to gain insight into.
We spent the majority of our time excavating a 2×6 trench on Baita Semati.  Our approach to excavation was primarily digital-with an R4 base station and a GeoXH GPS device we were able to not only map out find spots, new layers, and new features but also record the majority our observations. Paper forms were indeed used (i.e. C-14 forms, photo logs, and bag logs) but they played a refreshingly nontraditional and minimal role in recording observations. Our GPS set-up allowed us to record archaeological data to within 2 cm. New layers were photographed with a photo-chit system-we distributed photo chits (small, laminated squares containing an I.D. number) across a layer, recorded their coordinates, and georeferenced and rectified the photos within arcGIS. These images can then be laid over the layers (which we recorded as outlines but will be post-processed as 3D polygons).  We discovered large numbers of Aksumite (the prominent African empire that ruled from the 1st century A.D.-6th century A.D.) and Pre-Aksumite pottery, 5 coins that bear crosses and a sun-atop-crescent moon symbol of the southwestern Arabian god of Almaqah, glass slag, metal slag, beads, and a possible arrowhead. Since I plan to utilize arcGIS extensively in my future archaeological endeavors, I had a wonderful time learning about the integration between arcGIS/GPS tech and excavation. I particularly loved this streamlined approach to excavation as it is efficient, highly accurate, and more importantly, well-integrated within the arcGIS environment. This approach grants us with the possibility to utilize the analytical tools of arcGIS to frame our excavation in new exciting way in order to derive new insights. Overall, the excavation was incredibly productive and the site itself is quite promising!
Aside from the field experience, I had a great time learning about the Ethiopian culture. I was mistaken to be Ethiopian several times as numerous Ethiopians customarily spoke to me in their native language of Amharic (in the capital of Addis Ababa) or Tigrina (spoken in the northern province of Tigray, where we worked on our site).  I’m not a huge fan of the country’s food, but I must say that it does offer a unique taste. Their staple food is injera, a spongy bread made of a crop called tef. Ethiopians wrap literally every other food that they cook (i.e. goat meat, fried chick peas, chicken, etc.) with injera, thereby obviating the need for eating utensils. Notable events of awesomeness included crashing an Ethiopian wedding with one of my supervisors in Aksum, finding an arrowhead on-site, and witnessing a few of Ethiopia’s most fascinating archaeological sites. I visited a tripartite sanctuary in Wuqro, Ethiopia that contains a remarkably preserved sacrificial altar complete with Sabean script, a bull spout, and a drain (presumably for blood or water) that leads into a round basin. I witnessed the towering stelae and underground internment chambers of Aksum (the capital of the Aksumite empire). I stood in front of  the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the rumored location of the Ark of the Covenant. I also marveled at the aforementioned Yeha Temple, made from cut stone that is so precisely fit together that one wouldn’t even be able to slide a thin piece of paper through the construction.
The extent of the poverty in the country was shocking and humbling at the same time (I’m used to seeing poverty, but not at this scale). While working at the site, we stayed in a very modestly outfitted field house with no hot water, limited electricity (a generator was turned on for around 2 hrs a day), and no internet. A beautiful view of the Ethiopian countryside and a quaint, peaceful atmosphere propelled us through our most difficult days of lab work. The living experience was quite refreshing because it led me to better appreciate the comfortable lifestyle I live back home and not take it for granted.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience both culturally and archaeologically. I hope everyone else had a wonderful time this past summer conducting fieldwork and I wish STARC, ArcSmart, and everyone else affiliated with USC archaeology the best this year. I hope to finish my grad school apps as soon as possible so I can fully enjoy my year off. Notable plans include interning at a Roman museum in Tongeren, Belgium and spending time with my Dutch relatives in Holland, annnnd doing more traveling of course!

There is never a dull moment in Tayfursökmen, the Turkish village that contains our dig camp. This is my first experience with both survey and excavation, and it is fabulous so far. I have really enjoyed sorting pottery (and bone) in the pottery yard before dinner; I think I have learned a lot just by asking about the pieces I find.

Along with learning tons of new things about archeology and how it’s ‘done’, I have really enjoyed visiting some village families in the evening, once even for dinner. I have been taking some observations each time I go, and here is an excerpt from the dinner we had with an Arabic family (you think understanding Turkish is hard, but Turkish-Arabic!?):

At 7:30, we headed back to the Arabic family’s house for dinner. We met them a few hours earlier while wandering the village. As we turned left from the bakkal onto the family’s street, the children ran to greet us. The street is a dusty road that is used for cars, tractors, cows, goats, dogs, and many other things that move. They walked along with us (and behind us) to lead us toward the house. We took off our shoes, walked up the narrow steps to the second floor of the house, and were seated in a traditional Arabic living room with some of the little girls and their father. A large carpet covered the floor, and cushions lined the walls for people to sit. A calendar hung from the wall supporting the MHP, or Turkish nationalist party. The centerpiece of the room was a television on a stand, and the father of the girls switched the channels between Turkish and Arabic stations. Finally, he decided on an Arabic music station. “Probably from Egypt,” he said. A belly dancer flashed across the screen with Arabic writing scrolling across the bottom.

The physical characteristics of the family differed quite a bit from person to person. The father and mother both donned bright blue eyes and lighter skin. Some of the children had the same, with light brown hair, while others had quite dark features, including dark brown eyes.

Before dinner arrived, Michelle taught the little girls how to play some hand games that we learned when we were little. It was an immediate hit. The girls learned our games, showed us some of theirs (some that were the same). We also taught them rock, paper, scissors and tried to explain that you can use this game when making big decisions. We played for a while, and then dinner arrived.

The girls (all of them, except the mother) brought bowls of salad, fresh cut herbs, a mezze of eggplant and other vegetables, and huge black pans of chicken, fresh cooked. We drank the cola that we brought as a hospitality gift.  We also brought along some cookies and chocolates. The men (the father and Trevor) sat at the ‘head’ of the table; farther from the door than all the women. The girls also brought out huge circles of flat bread, which one girl informed me was baked by the mother only hours before. We ate until we were full, and then we ate more. The parents and girls were very eager to know how we liked the food. We confirmed that it was delicious (it was), and thanked them. They shook off the thanks; it was their pleasure. After we had convinced them that we were full, the plates cleared (again by the girls) and one girl in a headscarf (around 16-17) swept the carpet. The father asked us if we believe that President Obama was not born in the United States. When we replied ‘no’, he told us he never believed the rumor either. The TV turned on again, and we watched more Arabic music.

Finally, we played more hand games. The girls started to ask me about my family. “Do you have a father?” they asked, “what is his name?” The girls ran out of the room at one point and returned with some jewelry, with which they proceeded to adorn my ears and hands. One bracelet had a ring attachment and chains crossed along, sort of like a henna design. I tried to give the bracelets back to the girls when we left, but they sincerely refused and told me to keep them.

USC Professor Lynn Dodd has taken several students to the Hatay province of Turkey. AVRP Survey 2011 is about wrapping up and the students are now preparing for Alalakh Excavations:

2011 AVRP Survey Team

In the meantime, a handful of USC undergraduates are just beginning their archaeological excavation in Rome. The students join USC Professor John Pollini to excavate Ostia Antica. Grant Dixon will be blogging daily about the experience, so check out his blog here:

2011 USC Undergrads Fight On during a break from excavation in Rome

Tonight as the 2011 AVRP survey team prepares for our first day in the field, the ezan echoes through the village and into our compound from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque — a call to prayer in digital distortion. This happens five times a day, including every morning at around 4 AM which turns out to be very a convenient thing since we begin our day at 5. Tonight the Turkish skies also play host to ay tutulması, or lunar eclipse (peep the commemorative Google logo, exclusive to this side of the world), a good omen I’m sure as we set to make our way through the rich landscape of the northern Amuq valley. Over the next two months, I will be participating in my very first archaeological survey and excavation season. I could not be more thrilled to be here and to be working with the incredible Alalakh team, whose knowledge and enthusiasm inspire me daily. I am also thrilled to receive the support of AIA Los Angeles summer fieldwork scholarship (awarded to USC archaeology students for three years running) and hope that this summer is only the beginning of a long (unpredictable, strange) foray into our past (present, future).

In case you forgot – !

-Michelle L.

Hi all,

I just wanted to take a moment here and brag about the amazing students in the ARC Lab. I know they won’t write their own praise here, so I will go ahead and take a moment to do so for them:

*Sarah Butler is currently studying abroad in Australia and received the Weibel-Orlando Undergraduate Research Fund awarded by Dr. Weibel-Orlando herself from the Anthropology department. Sarah will be traveling this summer to Turkey in order to participate in survey and excavation under the supervision of our own Professor Lynn Swartz Dodd.

*Michelle Lim received a USC Summer Undergraduate Research Fund award. She will also be joining Professor Dodd for survey and excavation in Turkey.

*Jacob Bongers is a Senior and was awarded a $10,000 prize from the USC Global Scholars program to be used for graduate school. Jacob is also one of only two 2011 USC Phi Beta Kappa Undergraduate Award Winner. Jacob focuses his research in Andean Archaeology and has been an important part of the ARC Lab since he was a freshman. Congrats to Jacob and Good luck!

Jacob works on survey during summer 2010

We have had previous posts regarding our great success in the Humanities category at the USC Undergraduate Research Symposium, Danika Jensen receiving an undergraduate scholarship fund to excavate in Rome through AIA, as well as AIA recognizing our ARCSmart program with a Society Outreach Grant. And these all happened this Spring! Hopefully we will have even more honors and awards to share with you soon 🙂


The depot was locked today, and I am mostly packed. We’re now having our last BBQ and I will be taking the 15:30 train out of Antakya tomorrow. Over the years, I have spent about 6 months living here at Atchana, so it is bitter-sweet to be leaving. In the very least, I’m going to miss the dumb “guard” dogs 🙂

I have been out in Turkey for a while now, but will be finished here in less than two weeks. woot.

In the meantime, I have done a ton of work here, including rearranging the depot organization and of course registering tons and tons of small finds. I have organized the drawing of materials, and now Im assisting with the photography. Data entry and then we are set for the season!

Question: What do you do when a local villager’s cow dies?
Answer: Naturally, you would bury it on the compound, and then a couple of seasons later dig it up once the flesh is gone. The bones have defleshed, so give them a good washing and then you a have a perfect cow study collection for your zoo-archaeology team!

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