Indiana Janos and The Small Shards of Pottery

July 13, 2012 · Posted in Adventure!, Science! 

This summer I’ve been more broke than in ages, thanks to the move. Ironically enough I also had the first three weeks of paid summer holiday in my life. When I was figuring out what interesting stuff there is to do, an archaeologist pal Grade mentioned that there will be a dig near Turku, where they are excavating a stone age settlement that dates to 2000-4000 BP. I volunteered to be a digger, which turned out to be a pretty awesome experience.

Still sharp enough to precision cut paper after 2000-4000 years.

I’ve been kind of a history buff for a long time, and I’m especially interested in the pre-history and ancient cultures. Us Finns are more or less taught that we are without proper history, and the pre-history of Finland was somewhat glossed over when I was at school, as was the existence of other major Finnic or Fenno-Ugric peoples apart from Hungarians and Estonians. I got interested in the subject only through studying Hungarian where we had to take a mandatory general course of Fenno-Ugric languages and history. Then it really sunk in, that there were really people living here at around 10 000 years ago.

Littorina Sea around 7000 years BP. (Source)

Being an assistant in an excavation doesn’t require that much knowledge, only the skill to recognize certain types of things on the sieve, but I really wanted to know what I was looking at and use this as a learning experience. Grade provided me with reading materials that apparently covered most of the university course of Finnish stone age, and I devoured them on my way to Turku, where the excavation site was. Of course a big part of the materials was an endless list of pottery types which I had only a very cursory knowledge beforehand, and without reference points most of that stuff was read and immediately forgotten. Nevertheless reading it gave me a wider context of what we were doing.

When the ice age was on the wane and the glaciers withdrew, the land that they uncovered was at first covered by the Yoldia sea at around 9500 BP. People kept following the shoreline, and the first settlements in Finland have been dated to 8900 BP. During its history The Baltic sea has gone from being a lake to a sea to a lake to a brackish sea again. The settlement we were excavating was from around 2000-4000 BP, and it would have been on the shorelines of Limnea Sea (a substage of Littorina Sea), or what we consider to be the modern Baltic Sea.

Finland is a tricky place to do stone age archaeology, because the ground is very acidic, so all organic matter (including unburned bones) vanish pretty damn quickly. Swamps preserve bodies, but finding them is not easy, and apparently searching for them is not financially or practically feasible. In a Finnish prehistoric gravesite you may find some tooth enamel and some stone objects, but that’s it. The good thing is that the dirt doesn’t accumulate that fast in here, so even the stone age stuff is under half a meter deep.

The site we were excavating had items from neolithic Kiukainen culture, bronze age and early iron age. There was also remains of an ancient field at the site, and the leader of the excavation was inspecting ploughing patterns left on the fields. Yeah, you read that right. You can see things like that even after thousands of years.

Into The Pit

I had the vibe that this would be fun, but the first day in the excavation site was far more interesting, fascinating and enjoyable than I had expected. In spite of the weather forecast the skies were mostly clear, so we got right down to business. The dig had two sites that were about 20 meters apart – one of them was next to a field, the other was just inside a nearby forest.

We started on the field, where people had already been working for some time. Essentially the work consisted of kneeling or crouching on a piece of tent mattress on your assigned grid square, peeling away the earth layer by layer with a trowel into a dust pan, pouring it into a bucket, and when the bucket was full, sieving it. The sieves were like small tables with a half a centimeter mesh on them, and you basically have to shake and wobble the table until you are left with rocks, twigs, little balls of dense-as-fuck clay, and artifacts. And then it gets really interesting.

The dig site in the forest.

The types of items we were most likely to find were pottery shards (from 5×5 mm to 2×2 mm), knappings (the leftover pieces from stone tool manufacture), pieces of tools, pieces of burned bone, pieces of burned clay (ie. clay that was not baked but just got in contact with fire) and so forth. Of course, there will be a lot of new (relatively) stuff, like horseshoes and parts thereof, chain links, nails, pieces of ceramics, pieces of glass, and so forth.

When I got to the swing of it, the stuff turned out to be perfect thing for me to do. Being in the outdoors, elbow deep in the muck, was very enjoyable.  First there was careful manual work of peeling away the dirt with a trowel and a dustpan, then lugging the heavy bucket full of dirt and shaking it through the sieve, followed by using the human pattern recognition machine to spot that piece of pottery amongst all the pebbles that look exactly like it, ask more information about people who are happy to tell about what they know – rinse, repeat and have fun conversations while you are doing it. The haul of the day contained many shards of pottery and knappings, which was pretty awesome. The people on the adjacent site found a large whetstone, something that looked a whole lot like an old hearth, and a piece of a broken stone chisel. Wow, just wow.

Quick, spot the artifacts amongst the debris!

The largest piece of ceramics that we found while we were on the site. There is also some patterning visible on this.

Link to the Past

I’ve been thinking about people, societies, the passage of time, the arbitrary divisions of time, and the culture and the phenomenon of being a human for quite some time from a rather holistic point of view. I’m not really sure when or where it happened that I first realized that the time periods how people conceptualize time and the passage of ages and civilizations are kind of silly, since of course everything in human societies is constantly on the flux. It contained kind of understanding how goddamn long ago 6000 BP is, followed by another jolt about humans like us existing at least for 75 000 years, maybe even 200 000 years. People who lived, thought, experimented, died, loved and made stories in a world that wasn’t geographically anything like ours. People who lived in major geographical areas that don’t even exist anymore.

A typical bone find in this area – not a whole lot left.

They weren’t the cave-men of the comics with clubs, they were more or less like you and me, living with vastly different capabilities of governing their world – yet they traded, warred, explored and built their society, had religions, observed the nature and so on. Nobody just came up with an idea of written language, or had use for it – or came up with a way of preserving it that would last to the modern day.

I don’t really believe in anything as hokey as a racial memory in the physical sense, but one of my favorite thought games is to wonder if there are stories or archetypes of stories that have lasted for 50 000 years. Are there some stories we tell now that were started by some man or a woman sitting alone next to the campfire, listening to things go bump in the night.  How was it living at the same time with the Nearthendals, with people who were distinctly “the other”, different enough to be recognized as definitely not us, but sentient? There is no way to know, or even make a serious educated guess, but it’s fun to think.

Indiana Janos and the First Archaeological Find, a piece of quartz knapping.

The excavation site gave me a mental nut-kick on these musings. When I was shaking the sieve and seeing the pieces of pottery and leftovers from making quartz tools (no flint up here) emerge from the sand, all these thought experiments became powerfully tangible. I was standing on a spot, where 2000-4000 years ago someone else sat near the shoreline of a sea, making tools on the light of the campfire, probably having essentially the same exact worries, wonders, strengths, weaknesses and all the other little idiosyncrasies that go into making a modern person.

Pissing Down

Day two started with the skies letting it rip, and me waiting for a bus in the pouring rain, since the winos in the bus stop stank so horribly of acrid piss that I preferred getting soaked. Of course, on the dig site the downpour changed things somewhat. My rain clothes were post-move lost, so I had only a biking cloak, which is not, I repeat not fit to be a work garment. Whenever I tried to do anything with my arms, I spread it out, blocking my view of anything  in front of me.

How many spoonfuls of mud do you want, one or two?

We did a couple of bucketfuls, but the rain turned the dirt into glue-like sludge, and trying to find anything in the sieve was like looking for a 1×1 Lego piece in a bucketful of diarrhea. The leader of the excavation called out for a rain break, and I found out that there was an extra rain coat in the pre-fab we were using, which made life much easier.

We moved to the second site in the forest, which turned out to be pretty interesting. It was mostly sandy, so the ground didn’t turn into a glue, and I got a grid square right next to the suspected fire site. From my first two buckets I found something like two dozen of pieces of pottery, and even some shards of burned bone. Nothing special to the pros, but for me it was pretty awesome.

Stone Age Technology – That’s Not a Knife, THIS Is a Knife!

There was a continuous chatter going on with me asking questions about the field as I thought them up, and people being happy to answer. “People would be surprised to know how the stone age was like”, said the leader of the excavation at one point. “About the technology, trade routes, the knowledge that was passed on and so forth.” When you think about stone tools, you think about something primitive. Then again, there were people who had few tens of thousands of years to perfect the idea of stone tools, and for passing down the skills and the tradition.

My haul of the first day. The experts can commence chuckling at the amount of “just rocks” in this box now.

This really sank down when I found a couple of items that were most probably discards from making tools, but maybe temporary tools someone made in a situation where we in the bright future go find the scissors. What struck me as a usability nut was that when I was just rolling the items around in my hands, suddenly my fingers just found extremely comfortable grips, which happened to coincide with the way I’d hold the item if I wanted to cut something with it. In one case two grips, which I’d use alternately to carve something carefully or whittle something with less care. It also surprised me how goddamn sharp the things were, definitely sharp enough to cut skin, and even to cut shapes out of paper. If I had  time and patience, I could’ve maybe gutted a rabbit with that piece of discard, 2000-4000 years old. I’d like to see a Swiss army knife do that…

Finishing Up

I missed one day because of traipsing around in the clover and mugwort fields while forgetting to take the allergy meds forced me to take the bazooka of allergy pills which is also prescribed as a tranquilizer, so I spent Thursday mostly napping. Friday was much like the first day on the dig – I continued on the forest site, where the others had found some suspicious hard-shelled seeds in the previous day. Nobody was a botanist enough to recognize them, so it’s hard to say if they are 20 or 2000 years old without further testing. I could think of no local plants with seeds like that, but then again, my one course of plant physiology is probably not the final word on this.

One of the bio-finds.

There was also a lot of biological action this time. I had been digging up several small maggots now and then, first of which I mistook for an ant queen of a certain subspecies. A quick check with “Lord of the Flies” Kahanpää revealed that it was the larva of a beetle from the Scarabaeoidea superfamily. I also found a large pupa from one of the holes which the bumblebees buzzing around us seemed to haunt. It was apparently the pupa of certain relatives of bumblebees, but here my taxonomy fails.

On the last sieve before I had to leave I got a nice keepsake to take home, a small but almost perfectly intact mouse or shrew skull. This was such an interesting experience that if my other plans fail, I’ll be coming back for the next week also to dig up some dirt, pottery, bones and ancient history.

(check out more photos on Flickr)

Something to take home.


1 Comment


One Response to “Indiana Janos and The Small Shards of Pottery”

  1. Chris on July 18th, 2012 05:59

    fantastic stuff … AND you got some fine days (or at least hours) in there too!

    Thanks for posting

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