The real treasures of an archaeological excavation

“We could imagine nothing pleasanter than to spend all of our lives digging for relics of the past”
Heinrich Schliemann. Troy 

A new blog post from PhD candidate Julia Becher, who is analysing lipids on pottery sherds from the Ness of Brodgar as part of the international ChemArch project.

Since I’ve decided to study archaeology and went on my first field trips (and I bet many archaeologist can relate to this), I commonly have received the following questions:

  • “Did you find any gold yet?”
  • “What was the most valuable you found so far?”
  • “Wait, so you are really sitting outside, no matter what weather, and you play in the mud?!”

Some ask with complete disbelief, the latter, or others, with absolute curiosity, the former, however, both wondering with a pinch of passion for adventures.

The reply of the archaeologist might often be: “No, I have not found gold yet.”, “Yes, I sit on the ground, moving dirt from left to right” or “Well …, that is a bit of a tricky answer…”.

Why tricky? Let me explain!

Lord Carnarvon: “Can you see anything?”
Howard Carter: “Yes, wonderful things.”
Archaeologists on tour!
Archaeologists on tour!

For any archaeologist the definition of “valuable”, “treasure” and “highly significant” can be something completely different.

Don’t get me wrong, we all acknowledge the importance of EACH find and context, however, the personal focus can highly vary.

For me, the most treasurable artefacts I have found so far included a stunning bone tool, a beautifully worked ochre piece, many perforated cowrie shells (which would be enough to recreate a necklace), a fantastic bifacial stone tool made out of crystal quartz and a human tooth found at a site with no discovered human remains to date.

Another archaeologist would likely list other points, which is why I asked my partner Gregor Bader, who is an absolutely passionate field archaeologist, the same question.

His reply to this question was: “My most valuable discoveries included an intact and datable stratigraphy, rediscovering archaeological sites thought to be lost in the historic record, a very rare specifically shaped stone tool, finding plant and wood remains which are thousands of years old and meeting famous archaeologists of past generations to talk about the good old times!”

As you can see, this can be quite variable!

The question, whether we found any gold yet, is also highly dependent on the time period and region someone is specialised in. The earliest gold artefacts date back to the 5th millennium BC, hence, someone like Gregor working in the Stone Age periods (spanning the last 300,000 years) of southern and eastern Africa may find it a bit difficult to find the treasured metal.

“I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon”
Heinrich Schliemann – Mycene discovery

Once, I chatted to a student who just came back from one of his first fieldtrips during his Bachelor degree working in a Medieval town. After telling him I often receive “the gold question” he had to laugh quite hard.

After calming down, he explained: “Oh yes, I just found my first golden artefact! I had to excavate a medieval latrine which was still smelly. It is quite impressive what people lost while doing their business!”

“A man could dig the earth his whole life through and not find anything like I’ve discovered here”
Basil Brown – Sutton Hoo discovery
First day(s) at the Ness of Brodgar – struggle with the weather.
First day(s) at the Ness of Brodgar – struggle with the weather.

So, what makes excavating and digging so priceless for an archaeologist?

Archaeology is not just about the analysis of the artefacts. Archaeology, and especially excavating, is about getting a sense for the environment and landscape. What are the dimensions of a site?

By combining these, what could have been the function of a site? What possible difficulties might past people have faced while inhabiting a certain area? What might have moved them in their (daily) life? 

Before starting my PhD at the Ness of Brodgar, I’d never been to Orkney before and honestly, I didn’t know much about it. Nowadays, Orkney is a place for many far away, some little isles up in the north, in the cold, but was it always like that?

Going back in time, especially to the Late Neolithic, Orkney was thriving. A centre for structural monuments and trendsetters with Grooved Ware pottery spreading all over Britain created by Orcadians!

Hence, excavating and spending time in this landscape is priceless for an archaeologist to understand the past.

“One of the most interesting parts is the detective element. Archaeology is like a jigsaw puzzle, except that you can’t cheat and look at the box, and not all the pieces are there.”
Stephen Dean – British archaeologist

With great pleasure, my partner and I were allowed to join the excavation team at the Ness in 2022.

Both coming with a lot of experience in excavating rock shelters and caves, an open-air site is something very different, especially if it is as complex as the Ness of Brodgar.

Heat wave hitting Europe – a happy Julia digging at 18 degrees.
Heat wave hitting Europe – a happy Julia digging in Structure Ten at 18 degrees C.

After some initial struggles with the weather, we were able to adapt quite quickly and get to know the excavation methods.

We were assigned to help in Structure Ten – Gregor excavating a robber pit and I worked behind an orthostat, which was part of a dresser.

Here, I would like to specifically thank Sinéad, the building’s supervisor, who had much patience to explain to two Palaeolithic and African Stone Age trained archaeologists how to dig at a Neolithic, large-scale, open-air excavation.

After accepting the unpredictability of weather (and buying rain-proof clothes), we had an amazing time and can’t wait to be back this year!

The photographs will give an impression from the first weather struggles and heat wave hitting Orkney, to the daily joy while driving to the site and the awesome crew of Structure Ten.

The awesome crew of Structure Ten.
The awesome crew of Structure Ten.

One of our favourite days which we will never forget was spending a day in Westray.

After a beautiful ferry ride early in the morning, spotting seals and many birds, we arrived in the island. First stop (and most important of the entire Orkney trip), puffins!

Already during my first trip to Orkney I desperately wanted to see them but back then they had already left. After getting puffingly lost in Westray (yes, it is possible…), we finally managed to see the sign to the bird paradise! I am quite happy with the shot that I was able to take.

Guiding the puffin way - Westray.
Guiding the puffin way – Westray.
Puffin freedom.
Puffin freedom.

For the next Orkney trip, my aim is to take a photo of a landing puffin (most clumsy thing I’ve seen so far in the bird kingdom) and the famous “fish in beak’. Wish me luck!

After spending hours at the bird cliffs, we further visited the Westray Heritage Centre and the Neolithic/Bronze Age site at the Links of Noltland. Below again some impressions from our ‘away day’ which I can highly recommend to anyone!

To sum up, archaeology is not a normal job.

It is a passion, a hobby, a vocation.

As an archaeologist, you are always on duty, no matter where you go. The eyes look to the ground or to the expanse of the landscape, continuously looking for remnants of the human past. Wherever the work will take us, we must use these opportunities and discover places.

While in Orkney, Gregor and I together with my second supervisor Martine Regert and her partner, discovered places like Skara Brae, Maeshowe, Unstan stalled cairn and Wideford Hill cairn, Birsay, Stromness, Kirkwall, Barnhouse, the Stones of Stenness, Links of Noltland and obviously the Ring of Brodgar and the Ness of Brodgar.

All an unforgettable experience!

Visiting Links of Noltland – Westray. Pure beauty! Wondering where the palm trees are hiding?
Visiting Links of Noltland, Westray. Pure beauty! Wondering where the palm trees are hiding?
“In a simple direct sense, archaeology is a science that must be lived, must be “seasoned with humanity”. Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows.”
Mortimer Wheeler – British archaeologist of the 20th century

Next time you are talking to an archaeologist, you might want to consider asking “What makes being an archaeologist so special to you?” or “Which artefact or excavation shaped your personal interest to choose from the many fields, time periods and artefact categories?”.

But don’t worry. The “gold question” is still a classic and as much appreciated as the other questions.

As long as you are curious, we are happy to answer but please don’t be disappointed if the answer might sometimes be that an excavation is just about sitting on the ground, playing with dirt and making your hands dirty!

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