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Digging Domuztepe: back in the UK

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the progress of their recent excavation season.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

I always arrive home to a weird feeling of disorientation. After being away for so long it takes a few days to adjust back to luxuries such as hot water on tap and comfy chairs to sit on. My surroundings also look shockingly green after the dry, baked fields of south eastern Turkey.

A view of the village on our last morning

A view of the village on our last morning

After the excitement of getting home has faded, it’s back to work for the Domuztepe team. Although the dig only happens for a few weeks every year, the project is running all the time with people analysing the data collected, writing up the results, updating our databases and digitising field records, plans or drawings. As soon as we arrive home we also begin our permit and funding applications for next year’s dig. The excavation is therefore a year-round activity and the site is never far from my mind.

The Domuztepe project was supported by the British Institute at Ankara, the British Museum, University of Manchester, Brennan foundation and the Gerald Averay Wainwright fund for the 2011 season.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

Digging Domuztepe: week five – clearing up, packing away

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

My last week in camp starts badly as our water supply fails. Apparently there were problems at the local pumping station. Ever adaptable, the team takes the soil sampling tins and some empty drinking water bottles to collect water from the local spring so at least we can flush our toilets.

Stuart emerges from the Neolithic well for the last time

Stuart emerges from the Neolithic well for the last time

The last week is always hectic and this year is no exception. We finish work on site on the last day before the holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. Much to everyone’s relief we manage to finish digging out the well and sort out the relationships between all the Neolithic mud walls we have found. Then, as a three day holiday starts for everyone else in Turkey, we begin the long process of packing everything ready to go into the local museum. It all needs to be cleaned and recorded before being packed away.

Time to pack things into the store at the museum

Time to pack things into the store at the museum

The work is incredibly varied. One minute you are brushing the soil from skeletons, the next labelling tiny beads and the next washing pottery. Then suddenly it’s the night before I am due to leave and I am frantically packing my own things into bags.

As my plane leaves the local airport the next day I have mixed feelings; glad to be going home but sad that the digging is over for another year.

As ever the team owes much thanks to the local residents of Kelibişler, Kadioğlu Çiftliği and Emiroğlu and all our other supporters in Kahramanmaraş and Pazarcik, especially the staff of Kahramanmaraş Museum.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

Digging Domuztepe: Weeks three and four – tantalising glimpses of the past

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

Shopping in the Gaziantep souk

Shopping in the Gaziantep souk

We all returned from a weekend break refreshed and then a couple of days later Rachel had to return to London. As she left, we were joined by Ben Gearey, an environmental archaeologist from the University of Birmingham.

Ben is here to take sediment samples from the floodplain surrounding Domuztepe, which he will examine for pollen, beetle remains and shells in order to try and reconstruct the ancient landscape.

Ben examining the floodplain sediments

Ben examining the floodplain sediments

Getting the samples out of the ground could be done by drilling out vertical cores by hand, but in the dry clay soils this proved very difficult. So we decided to dig very deep holes with a large JCB. Meanwhile, the excavation of the Neolithic well has been making steady progress.

The view down the Neolithic well

The view down the Neolithic well

Stuart Campbell, the dig director, has been working to excavate this feature. He has now removed over six metres of soil and each one has to be laboriously hauled up to the surface. He has to put on a safety harness and a helmet before climbing down a rope ladder to begin digging.

Dig director, Stuart gets his safety harness on

Dig director, Stuart gets his safety harness on

Despite being difficult to use on the floodplain , the coring equipment proved very useful in looking at the soils in the bottom of the well and finding out how much more there is to dig (about 1.5 metres). Much to Stuart’s relief we should get through that before we have to stop digging altogether.

Lowering the heavy metal coring equipment down into the well with Stuart at the bottom was difficult and had to be done very carefully indeed.

As the well walls have to be cut back and held in place with wood panels it has also allowed us to see layers of the site that it would take us years to reach with normal excavation. Tantalising bits of Neolithic pottery have been coming out with the soil and we have been able to see periods of building, abandonment and even large scale burning within the settlement.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

Digging Domuztepe: week two – sore arms and bruised palms

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.


Rachel Swift, British Museum

The trickle of small finds from site has increased as the digging has really got going and I have been cleaning lots of Neolithic beads, including a group found lying together as if they were once a necklace. I have also had the chance to do some digging on site giving me a better understanding of the context for the finds I work on.

Neolithic beads found at Domuztepe, undergoing conservation

Neolithic beads found at Domuztepe, undergoing conservation

I helped to excavate a large oven which I then had to draw a plan of – resurrecting archaeological skills I haven’t used in a while.

At the end of this week the whole dig team has a slightly longer break than normal – two days off instead of one. It’s great to get sleep without being bothered by mosquitoes and recharge our energy that tends to get low in the relentless heat. It gets hotter than 40˚ C on most days.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

The site is working really well and the plan of a Late Neolithic house with several rooms is gradually emerging.

Alexandra Fletcher (left) and Rachel Swift, excavating on site at Domuztepe

Alexandra Fletcher (left) and Rachel Swift, excavating on site at Domuztepe

The walls are made from mud and are surrounded by soil formed from the collapse of more mud walls. This makes them very hard to see and excavate properly. You end up scanning the soil carefully for slight signs of straight lines or different textures. Then you feel your way through the deposits using your trowel with a forward thrusting, twisting motion. This looks most odd to anyone used to working in the wet soils of Britain, where you tend to scrape the soil backwards.

Hopefully, the thump and twist motion means you spot the point where the soil breaks vertically and that’s your wall face. You really have to have the courage of your own conviction, because if you keep digging past the face – it’s gone forever.

Needless to say everyone is getting sore arms and bruised palms from chasing wall edges.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

Digging Domuztepe: a season at a Neolithic site in Turkey

The camp at Domuztepe

The camp at Domuztepe

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.

Rachel Swift

The dig’s base camp consists of old-fashioned canvas tents clustered around the buildings of a deserted school and arriving again is a strange experience. The weathered statue of Ataturk, stifling heat and friendly faces that greet me are now so familiar that the months since my last visit instantly disappear.

Rachel Swift at work in the conservation area

Rachel Swift at work in the conservation area

As usual, sleep during the first few nights is sporadic and I am woken at intervals by barking dogs, mooing cows and the 4.20am call to prayer. At 7.30am on day one I get to work preparing ‘Conservation Corner’ for action. I discover that writing an inventory of my conservation supplies last year was time well spent as I can now find just about anything in seconds. Oh the wonderful power of lists!

The archaeologists have been busy on site for a week now and a tidy pile of finds awaits my attention. I spend the next few days cleaning 7,000 year-old bone tools, tiny stone beads and fragments of wall plaster (a first for me at Domuztepe) whilst gently sweating and guzzling water to avoid dehydration.


Alexandra Fletcher

Like Rachel I have the strange sense of never really having been away and quickly settle into life in camp. I am pleased to see that the colony of owls that live in the building we use as our workroom are raising babies and that life in the rest of the village continues as normal.

A shade erected over the excavation area keeps the sun off the archaeologists at work

A shade erected over the excavation area keeps the sun off the archaeologists at work

I drive straight out to the site (very carefully as the track is rough and bumpy) and get my first look at what we will be digging this year. Several Neolithic graves have been found and over the next few days these will be photographed, drawn and lifted so excavation can continue beneath them.

A neolithic burial found on site

A neolithic burial found on site

Work has also begun to put in place all the safety equipment we need to dig out a deep well (2.5 metres and still going down).

Our team of workmen shout greetings as I join them and we catch up on a year’s worth of gossip. They come from the villages that nestle alongside other ancient tells (mounds created by hundreds of years of human occupation in one place) that dot the plain around us. This area was once marshland, although it is now drained for farming. Herds of wild pigs once lived here giving the site its name. ‘Domuztepe’ is ‘Pig Hill’ in English.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

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Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC. This is Room 50, Britain and Europe 800 BC–AD 43, the next gallery space in our ongoing #MuseumOfTheFuture series. The Iron Age was a time of dramatic change for the people of Britain and Europe. Iron replaced bronze as the material used to make tools and weapons, while religion, art, daily life, economics and politics changed dramatically. The story of these civilisations (known to the Greeks and Romans as Britons, Celts, Germans and Iberians) and their distinct material cultures, is told through decorated Iron Age artefacts known as 'Celtic art' and more everyday objects. In the foreground of this picture you can see a selection of torcs and to the right is the Battersea shield, found in the River Thames in the 1850s.
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