Each layer of soil in a trench (we call them deposits, some site will call them contexts) is excavated separately to others. Archaeologists dig in layers, not holes. Each one of those layers (or stratas - stratigraphy is the study of the different layers) represents a different time period in the history of the site. Generally the upper deposits are more recent, and the lower deposits are the older layers, and so in an ideal world earlier pottery will be found in the lower layers, and more recent material closer to the surface of the trench. All material found in a layer is kept together, so as to not mix with other layers - the law of superimposition states that the material from a single episode (i.e. layer) will be of a contemporary or at least similar date. Finds are separated during excavation - ceramics, glass, metal, bone, stone, architectural, etc. Each needs to be treated separately. Sometimes we sieve our soil so as to retain very small and intricate artefacts. Pottery is by far the most common find at our site, so all dirty pottery finds are kept together in a bucket or series of buckets. Objects are most commonly broken into smaller sherds, but periodically intact or near intact items are found, especially in secure deposits (such drains, wells, etc). Sometimes enough sherds from a single vase survive to enable a conservator to actually restore the vase and return it to its original shape. At the end of each digging day the team brings the buckets back to the dighouse where they are cleaned by hand - all dirt is removed. We are still waiting for someone to invent a dishwashing machine for archaeology, so it involves hours of scrubbing! Once the objects have been cleaned they are then placed on sorting mats on the ground to dry out overnight or a couple of days. A preliminary sort is then conducted on the sorting mats. Firstly the pottery is divided into categories - fine wares, plain wares, coarse wares and cooking wares, architectural ceramics (roof tiles and drainage pipes for example). The way a potter makes a vase reflects what it is being used for - a highly valued cup or plate will be decorated and very finely made with top quality clay. A cooking pot will need lots of inclusions in the clay to enable the vase to be heated without shattering, and will normally be recognisable by burning marks on it. A pithos or a storage vase doesn't need to be finely decorated, it needs to be functional and robust so will be made from very coarse but sturdy clays. These are things we are looking for - the fabric, the materials in the clay, whether it is decorated, the shape of the vase (is it an open shape or a closed shaped). All of this information is important to an archaeological ceramicist. Further division is then made according to shape, and all sherds are piled according to their categories: for example at our site amphorae, glazed medieval vases, Hellenistic finewares, Roman red slips and sigillatas and so on. Most importantly while doing this preliminary sort we are looking for diagnostics - anything which may give us some indication as to what type of pottery is being used. Ideally we would work with intact pottery shapes, but this is not realistic in a public area archaeological site like a theatre where objects have been buried for centuries and were probably broken when they ended up on the ground anyway. Diagnostics can help give an indication of shape however. Diagnostic pottery features include the handles, the base or toes of vases and the rim or lips of vessels. Sometime we will need to compare our diagnostic sherds with intact vases either in publications or in museums in order to confirm that our sherds belong to the same shape and fabric, but it is the diagnostic sherds that are going to be important to the next step. Once everything is sorted in this preliminary recording phase we begin counting. It can be thousands of sherds at sometimes, both diagnostic fragments and non-diagnostic sherds from the body of the vase. These counts are an important preliminary reading of the finds from the layer - for example are we finding only medieval pottery? Are we finding lots of Roman ceramics? What shapes are present and what is missing? This will let the excavators know a basic summary of the timeframe of the layer they have just dug. Everything is then labelled (multiple times), and then bagged in their categories and boxed for storage until future research.
The more significant pottery study takes place at a later stage when pottery specialists examine the bags (particularly the diagnostics but sometimes the body sherds too). This season so far specialists have included Smadar who is looking at cooking pots, and Anthi who is studying our amphorae. These specialists will ultimately publish an interpretation of "their" material and the excavation director will attempt to link these interpretations together. Sometimes it is easy, and all specialists agree all of the material in a layer is of the same time frame and general usage so they belong together. Sometimes the interpretation is a little more difficult as specialist interpretations may be contradictory.
The specialists will keep records of material from each layer but they will pay special attention to the diagnostics - some of these will be pulled out of the bags for inventorying. These are the artefacts or sherds that will ultimately end up in the final catalogue of the excavation find - items that will tell us a story, exception shapes, nicely preserved examples of common shapes, pottery imported from a different part of the Mediterranean, pottery shapes made locally and so on. Each of the items pulled out for inventory are given a number (we are now in the 8000s at the theatre site!) - these become representative of the archaeological deposit they have come from. From the control of our registry office, the artefacts will usually be photographed according the standards of archaeological research (with a measuring scale for example, and from particular directions and on particular angles), and illustrated by an archaeological illustrator according to the usual practices of archaeological drawing (more like technical or scientific drawing than creative illustration). Bob and Chris are our photographer and illustrators this year. Once fully recorded in illustration, photography and with a detailed description by the relevant specialist all inventories items are now ready for publication in an excavation report - basically a description of all of our finds and an interpretation of what the finds tell us. The actual object or sherd is the restored in bags and in boxes and is housed in storerooms at the Paphos Museum. Potentially other archaeologists in the future may want to examine them to question or refute or support our interpretations. Its a long journey from trench to sorting mat, to sorting table, to study desk, to museum storage.
We have just finished today examining five deposits excavated in 2010 in the area of the western parodos. The material is almost exclusively Hellenistic - ranging from sherds (and one near intact) echinus bowls, Rhodian amphora sherds and other material typical of the middle-Hellenistic period. Then the only other recognisable pottery from the upper deposits is Medieval. Thus we are excited as the pottery record is seeming to reflect our interpretation of the architecture of the site, i.e. sometime in the mid-second century BC the western and eastern caveas are covered with stone seating build above the earthern embankments and thus sealing in the broken Hellenistic pottery smashed into those soil deposits. When the seats were lifted centuries later as the theatre was destroyed and being quarried, the deposits are again open and so the discovering some medieval sherds is not too surprising. The encouraging sign is that no Roman pottery was recognisable in those deposits which suggests the ceramic artefacts are reinforcing our initial interpretation of the architecture! The cavea in those areas was most likely used from the middle of the second century BC until the late fourth century AD. Its a rewarding day when our interpretations compliment!
There is still much more study to be done on the pottery - both for the rest of this season and into future years. But it is amazing how much information can be contained in a few small broken pieces of pottery!
Oh and to answer one of the most common questions we get - can you take finds home with you? The answer is NO! Definitely not. As we are working at the site under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus we are working for the greater understanding of the history of Cyprus. To remove material removes its context. Today for all archaeological excavations operating anywhere in the world any material culture recovered must remain in the country of excavation, unless there are special exceptions in which case a government permit is required to take it to another country (usually for further study or conservation). Cyprus is no different. Remember archaeologists are not digging to find artefacts, we are digging to find the information those artefacts tell us. That is why so much effort goes into archaeological recording, photography and illustrations. A few extraordinary pieces from our site will eventually end up on display in the Paphos District Archaeological Museum or maybe even the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. But it is the records of the finds which are important to us, we believe strongly in retaining the heritage of Cyprus on Cyprus. And if it means enjoying Cypriot hospitality and swimming in the Mediterranean next year then we are more than happy!