My name is Beau Spry. I work full time as an archaeologist in Australia and while Ive worked on overseas digs before, this is my first time at Paphos.
Im also meant to be on holidays.
Im lucky enough to have two sets of duties while Im here this season: firstly Im helping out with the digging in the field in trench 10B under Kerrie Grant, which is attempting to rationalise some of the questions about the Hellenistic occupation of the Paphos theatre.
My other duty is to assist with the running of the pottery mats. What are the pottery mats? Archaeology is all rolling boulders, tombs of gold and the afternoons off swimming with the beautiful natives. Throughout the days digging various artefacts will be unearthed, with by FAR the majority being broken pottery. At the end of the day, and after we’ve eaten lunch, all of the pottery pieces are scrubbed clean by hand using nail brushes and water, and laid out on mats to dry in the sun (hence the term ‘running the mats’). Once dry the usually hundreds or thousands of pieces are sorted into piles according to the date that we think they were made (i.e. Hellenistic, Roman, Medieval, modern etc.).
Why do we spend so much time sorting hundreds of little pieces of broken pottery into dates potentially thousands of years old? One of the purposes of archaeology is to understand the chronology of a site, and to understand what parts of a site were built or impacted on at what time in history. One of the main ways to build this chronology is by dating pottery. Just as the design, style, and technique of manufacture of cars, mobile phones, or even hairstyles change over time (you’ve all seen the terrible pictures of the 1980s!), so did the design, style and technique of manufacture of pottery in the ancient world. So Hellenistic pottery looks completely different to, say, Medieval pottery.
Once the pottery has been sorted into the appropriate piles, it’s then given to an ‘expert’ (usually someone who has spent many years looking at the same types of pottery) who will provide deeper details on its shape and use (bowl? plate? cup? something else?) which can give us an idea of what activities took place on the site. The ‘expert’ will also attempt to give a more refined date for the pottery (in good cases, down to a couple of years), and also potentially tell us precisely where it was made and where it came from. All of this based on design, style and technique of manufacture!
Unfortunately, every bucketload of pottery that’s unearthed in the field creates about two or more hours of work back at the dighouse (not including the expert!) as everything gets cleaned, sorted, double checked, labeled, boxed, and sent to an overflowing storeroom with an accompanying mountain of paperwork. And if that sounds like a lot of work, consider that everyday from this dig about 10 buckets come back from site! No wonder we need such a big team to help us out!
Hopefully this has given you some insight into one of the less advertised parts of archaeology; its not all about digging in the field, and for every hour digging in the field creates about two hours work back at the dighouse.
Stop digging! Im meant to be on holidays!