“If the context extends to China, then dig a hole to China”

The past week can be summarized by some sage words from the Apolline Project’s director, Ferdinando: “Well in archaeology, we must dig by following to the end of a context. If this context goes all the way down to China, then we must dig a hole to China.”

Remember that never-ending context I talked about last week? You know, the one with the dark brown clay silt with a lot of fragmented building materials and rocks. Well, you’ll all be pleased to know that, despite our best excavation efforts, the context has continued further down; I’m now working in a hole over a meter deep. But wait! That context has persisted uninterrupted with no clear indication of ending while halting any attempt at an aggressive digging pace (read: we can’t take turns violently swinging a pickaxe at it until we find the end). Instead, we’ve been played like fiddles by the alternation of morning dew and the sun’s scorching rays over our trench, creating a game of wet-clay, baked-clay. For those wondering how that effects us, we must constantly check to ensure that we don’t misinterpret the process of wetness (from morning condensation), compaction (from us stepping on it to dig), then baking (the sun dries it out by coffee break, changing its color and texture) as having arrived at a new context. Yes, mother nature has been fickle towards our archaeological endeavors.

Our trench as it has been excavated thus far.

How do we as archaeologists combat this? Well, we carefully dig using a rigid procedure that assists us in identifying and documenting contexts. We call this process stratigraphic excavation. Heres how it works: first, we identify an initial context by 3 primary characteristics, a.k.a. the three C’s: color, consistency, and composition. Color is exactly as it sounds: the color of the soil (something determined by the origin of the dirt and what chemicals are present). Consistency refers to the the soil’s collective properties like how compacted or loose it is, the size of the grains within it and how hard or soft the soil’s surface is. Finally, Composition refers to all of the material that fills the three dimensional space occupied by the context, also called the matrix. Each of these three aspects is interrelated and we use them to identify one layer from the next. We name our contexts using vocabulary derived from the matrix’s description using the three C’s, so we might end up with a name for one like light brown compacted silty-clay with many rocks and building materials.

Once we’ve identified and described our context, we have a few simple steps to ensure we adequately document it: 1. We give it a new Stratigraphic Unit (another name for context) number; 2. We clean the surface and take a series of photographs that clearly show this new context; 3. We make a plan drawing showing the dimensions and features visible in the drawing; and finally, 4. We record survey information using either a theodolite (a tool used for measuring elevations) or a Total Station (a computerized tool that digitally records elevation and locational information which can be imported into design programs like AutoCAD). Once these steps are complete, we are clear to begin excavating.

Students taking elevations of our current context using the theodolite.

A field participant prepped and ready to draw a plan of our current context
Making a plan drawing requires meticulous measurements to impose an imaginary grid over the context.

During excavation, our objective is to seek significant variation in one or more of the 3 C’s, and once we feel we’ve found a new context, we stop and repeat the process. As a general rule, if you haven’t found a new context, then you’re clear to keep digging. That being said, any excavator must be vigilant and constantly check for these variations as well as be aware of environmental factors, like the sun drying the soil, that will make superficial changes in the factors we seek. Hence why Ferdinando said we must follow our context to China if that is where it goes.

Pictured: Ferdinando making a typical face while on the phone.

Besides digging to China, which is something we archaeologists truly don’t aspire to doing (I said to not in), this weekend we participated in the town’s official inauguration of new archaeological activities at the site. The festivities were complete with Roman Legion reenactors, who are a ubiquitous site at every Roman cultural heritage site and commemorative festival here in Italy, samples from local vineyards, and a visit from the Archaeological superintendent.

The announcement from Saturday's event. Very official!

Roman legionairres prepare to march to their camp on the other side of the site
Ferdinando and the Regional superintendent for archaeology and cultural heritage introducing our excavation and the speakers who would comment on the implications ofbour work for the community.

Although the pageantry might have been a little political, the overall sentiment on Saturday evening was glowingly positive. The local community is excited to host the Apolline Project for the entire duration of the excavation ‘s proceedings, which Ferdinando hopes to last no less than a decade (simply because of the magnitude of the site).

The reason why the project’s presence here is such a positive moment is because we are not only adding to the local economy with students and professionals who will be living and working in the area throughout the entire time, but because we are adding to the cultural heritage that is the cornerstone of this small community in a suburban area of Avellino. This has implications for tourism, but more importantly, it is a direct effort to add a shining gem in the crown of Irpinian (the region Aeclanum is located in is named Irpinia) culture and identity. Ultimately, this is one of the reasons why we archaeologists do what we do, and we’re happy to be here Mirabella Eclano!

The mayor of Mirabella Eclano thanking the guests for coming to the event and expressing excitement on behalf of the town for the project's commencement.

2 thoughts on ““If the context extends to China, then dig a hole to China”

  1. Viva Aeclanum!! In the words of Buzz Lightyear, “To China and BEYOND!!” Great work, all of you!! And much love from home Dustin.
    Elizabeth Lindsay


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