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!

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.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated, so I figured I’d post a quick look at Life After USC Archaeology.

I’m currently at the University of Sheffield, getting an MA in Aegean Archaeology. I LOVE it. I have classes in research methods, Aegean prehistory, funerary archaeology, and a theoretical class called “Reinventing Archaeology.” The professors are phenomenal, and the city of Sheffield itself is pretty adorable.

The main difference between archaeology education in the States and archaeology education here is that here, I have to be totally self-motivated. I was warned about this by other students who have come to the UK to study. Here, it’s all about the reading you do on your own and the independent paths you take while hunting down an education. The professors are there to guide, to answer questions if you need them, but there aren’t a whole lot of assignments. Reading lists will include entire books for one week, and you can choose to read some or all or none of whatever is on the syllabus. I’m used to a little more direction–specific articles for specific weeks, with assignments to guide your progress.

I mentioned this to one of my professors, and she seemed surprised that I was having a little difficulty adjusting to the new system. She said, “I’ve always thought of education as spots of really bright light, and your job as a student is to fill in the spaces in-between. The classes are the bright lights, highlighting times and places across history, but the true process of education is purely self-motivated. It’s an individual journey of discovery. When I asked for her advice regarding how best to tackle the enormous reading lists, she shrugged and said, “Read what interests you.”

This amount of personal freedom is novel, exhilarating, and a little intimidating. Left to my own devices, I have a bad tendency to read trashy novels, play on the Internet, or paint my toenails. Or to read academic literature that has absolutely nothing to do with my area of study. For instance, I’m currently splitting my time between “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Nietzsche and “Central Problems in Social Theory” by Anthony Giddens. Oh, and an anthology of famous vampire short stories. At this rate, I’ll be writing my dissertation on the social evolution of vampire lore and how that has absolutely NOTHING to do with Aegean prehistory. Unless the Minoans were vampires. Which is totally possible.

One project I am actually starting is an end-of-term paper in which I have to analyze the theory, motivations, ethos, and effectiveness of an archaeological publication. Somehow, I ended up being given “The Emergence of Civilisation: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium B.C.,” by archaeological rock star Colin Renfrew. Great! I thought. Should be interesting. And then I went to the library and checked it out.

Holy smokes. This thing is huge! About 600 pages! Nonetheless, I’m rather looking forward to writing the paper, once I manage to read the whole thing.

This week we do a field archaeology unit, where we travel around Yorkshire, learning about landscape archaeology, drawing, etc. etc. I’m pretty excited.

That’s all, really. Maybe I’ll put a picture in here.

Hiking around the Peak District, just outside Sheffield

Yup, this is where I’m studying. I’m a very lucky lady.

P.S. Here’s a quotation that seems rather relevant to this post. First of all, it’s from a tremendously trashy book (I wasn’t kidding about reading smutty stuff for fun). Second, it has to do with the quest for education.

“She had liked once to think of herself as passionate, in love with her books, drunk on history, enamored of the wide world, of all the peoples within it. To be studious was to be the opposite of boring, she had believed; it was to be so interested, so madly curious, that one simply could not wait for the answers to arrive on their own: one had to go chase them in the only manner available.”
~Meredith Duran

Marhaba! That’s ‘hello’ in Arabic, also known as مرحبا (according to Google Translate)

Ashley and I are once again in Amman, Jordan, after spending the last week in and around Ramallah in the West Bank. We were volunteering at the Birzeit University Archaeological Library organizing books and papers–it was alphabetization the likes of which this world has never seen…

Working with local students!

Apparently the theme of the day was 'pink'

Finished alphabetizing off prints

We also spent time in the area around Ramallah, including a visit to Jericho and to the Taybeh Brewing Company, the only Palestinian-brewed beer and the only Middle Eastern brewery to employ a woman. The annual Taybeh Oktoberfest provides a chance for tourists and locals to mingle and for artisans to sell handmade products, an important event and a chance to stimulate the economy in a town with an over 50% unemployment rate. We highly recommend visiting the brewery for Oktoberfest, which will be October 2-3 this year.

We also experienced a little of life in the Jalazon refugee camp, where some 15,000 people have been living in 1.5 square kilometers of space since 1948. Throughout the West Bank, the people we met were vibrant and hospitable, and Ashley and I enjoyed our stay very much.

The streets of Jalazon

After the work was done, we visited Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity.

Outside the Church of the Nativity

We crossed the wall into Jerusalem the next day. It was eerie to see the wall and the arduous process Palestinians had to go through to get through checkpoints. The colorful graffiti and protestations for peace on the Palestinian side reminded me of another famous wall… Sometimes the lessons of history are forgotten far too easily.

Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall


Once in the Old City, we stayed at the Austrian Hospice (that’s actually what it’s called) with some of the team members from Doron Ben-Ami, an excavation run by the Israeli Antiquities Authority where students from the University of Vienna travel to assist. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, al-Aqsa, the Dome of the Rock, and the Western wall, and went to a great Ramadan concert/party at the Damascus gate.

The Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall

Doron Ben-Ami

Fire-breathing party at the Damascus Gate!

Then we met up with fellow USC archaeology alum, Aaron! He showed us around his site, Ramat Rahel, which was an ancient administrative center. Aaron has been at Ramat Rahel for three summers, and this is the excavation’s last year, so it was a bittersweet site tour.

Fighting On at Ramat Rahel!

After an excruciatingly long border crossing, we ended up back in Amman, where we’re briefly resting before heading out to see the Dead Sea and, of course, Petra. Ashley and I are both sick (ick), but we’re embracing the experience anyway. Tomorrow we’re going to a hammam (Turkish bath) to be pampered and scrubbed and massaged until we are clean and glowing. This won’t last long, since we’re heading out to the Dead Sea later in the day… but those few minutes of cleanliness will be glorious.

~Sarah H and Ashley S

So I’m in a hostel in Amman, Jordan with my dear friend and fellow USC archaeology grad Ashley Sands! She just finished her Turkish excavation and I’m about to go to England for grad school, so we decided to meet in Jordan and spend a few weeks traveling around.

Our first day has been pretty eventful. Sort of. We overslept, thus missing the hostel’s free breakfast and the coolest hours of the day. Fun fact: Jordan is experiencing a heat wave right now. So around noon we took a walk around, trying to find food. Another fun fact: It’s currently Ramadan, which means all the restaurants are closed until sundown. So Ashley and I eventually settled for sharing a piece of bread.

Then we took a taxi up to the Citadel, which contained some beautiful ruins, particularly the Temple of Hercules. It was very hot up top, but luckily there was a bit of a breeze, so walking was fine. We also went through the archaeological museum, which housed artifacts from the Paleolithic to the Ottoman period. It was hotter inside the museum than outside.

Ashley at the Temple of Hercules

The whole citadel tour took less than an hour, so Ashley and I ended up back at the hostel, where we are now lying in bed with the air conditioning on and waiting for the sun to go down.

Tomorrow we head to Ramallah to work at the library at the Birzeit University Institute of Archaeology. We’ll be cataloging books, working with a database, and doing lots of alphabetizing–should be exciting!

More updates and pictures to follow!