Day 13. Second workshop at the Otrar Museum

Today Natalie and I ran our second workshop with the Otrar Museum conservators, focussing on the conservation of metal objects. As before, we started the day with a huddle around my laptop for a condensed Powerpoint presentation. This was prepared the night before. Although Natalie and I have brought plenty of source materials with us (and were given some ready-made conservation Powerpoints by HwB), we felt that the presentations really needed to be tailored to the specific needs of the museum - and translated into Russian! – in order to be useful and help open up discussions around conservation practice in the UK and Kazakhstan. This has meant late nights working for the two of us, but it feels really worth it when we see the Otrar conservators taking notes, asking questions and contributing examples from their own practice as we go through the slides.

Talking metals with (l-r) Ania, Sartai, Nurlan, Urzia and Karlaghash

Talking metals with (l-r) Ania, Sartai, Nurlan, Urzia and Karlaghash

At the risk of touting my own horn, I feel that having a Russian speaker on the HwB team this year has been crucial to the project’s success so far, as communicating complex conservation concepts with just pictures and miming would’ve been of limited use at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. For me, translating has been more difficult than one might think: although Russian is my mother tongue, all my conservation education and experience has been in the UK, so learning the correct terminology in Russian has taken some background work. I was also surprised to discover that some basic distinctions we make in the classification of materials – e.g. hard-bodied vs. earthenware ceramics, wrought vs. cast iron – actually don’t exist or are different in Russian. This has added another level of complexity to our workshop prep and my communication task. However, I am very grateful for this challenge, as I feel that I can now talk about conservation in Russian without stumbling over every technical term. I have never considered applying for conservation jobs in Russian-speaking countries before, but would now feel much more confident if the right opportunity came along!

The restorers and collections care workers at the Otrar Museum haven’t had any formal training in conservation, but have had many years of experience and know the materials in their collection very well. I feel that they are not interested in general theoretical concepts or high-tech treatment methods they cannot implement. They have made it clear that they want to know about practical conservation techniques they can apply, materials they can source, and, also, real-life case studies from mine and Natalie’s work experience. So in our workshops, we’ve been trying to strike a balance between keeping things practical and accessible, and not patronising and boring our audience with really basic information. I feel that today has been particularly successful.

In the morning, we talk in detail about the preventive and interventive care of metals in the Otrar Museum collection – iron, copper, silver; archaeological, ethnographic, historical. We show pictures of relevant treatments from our portfolios, and Nurlan, Roza, Sartai, Urzia and Karlaghash ask questions and show us some metal objects in the studio, pre- and post-treatment (more on that later). Collections keeper Karlaghash is particularly interested in the storage and packaging slides, and we agree to do a packaging workshop next week.

At the request of the conservators, we have included a special section on numismatic collections, although neither of us have had much experience with the conservation of coins. But Natalie has done a bit of research, and gathered together some coin cleaning recipes from the British Museum and the like. We were interested to discover that archaeological coins are generally treated quite differently to both archaeological and historical metals. Ancient coins are mostly valued for the historical information derived from their stamping; because of this, aggressive chemical cleaning and the stripping of surface corrosion and patina can be justified if it helps reveal more of the stamped surface. From what we’ve seen of the numismatic displays in Almaty and Turkistan, coin collections in Kazakhstan are treated similarly to those in the West. However, Natalie and I have felt that in the Otrar Museum, this was taken a step further, and many of the coins were being overcleaned to the point of losing surface information in order to achieve a “bright and shiny” look. To demonstrate the effect of overly aggressive surface cleaning, we have brought an HwB microscope from the camp base for the practical session in the afternoon.

One of the more interesting outcomes of this project so far has been an exercise in attitude adjustment for Natalie and I. Working in the UK museums, we are rather used to having access to “basic” lab equipment and materials – microscope, lamps, magnifiers, tools, RH and light meters, deionised water, lab-grade solvents, silica gel, acid free tissue paper, Tyvek and other packaging materials, etc. etc. Budget is always an issue, but we generally know what materials we’ll need for which job, and where to get them (usually over the internet, from 3 or 4 established conservation suppliers). Here, it’s another story. Restorers and fonds workers are used to adapting materials they can get locally – from bazaars, building supply stores, pharmacies, general household shops. While conservation-specific online suppliers are beginning to crop up in Russia (and some things can be ordered from China), online ordering is not common in museums, and available conservation-grade materials are really expensive (at 500 tenge – equivalent to £1 – per sheet, acid-free tissue paper is unlikely to ever become the conservation staple it is in the UK!). So we had to adapt, ask questions, scout local shops, and generally think outside the box. So far, we’ve managed to find sheet polythene, Jiffy foam, acetone and white spirit in a local DIY store, bought isopropyl alcohol and cotton wool from a pharmacy, and got distilled water, cosmetic sponge, citric acid, acetic acid, bicarbonate soda and Tupperware from general-purpose shops in Shaulder. We have also made “home-made Biox” – a gel poultice of wheat starch and 5% citric acid.

But I digress. The afternoon session of today’s workshop was dedicated to practical cleaning and coating exercises on metal objects. For this purpose, we have brought a few samples from the base – rusted nails and tools, etc., as well as several newly excavated metal finds brought by the archaeological team. The conservators try out mechanical cleaning with scalpels, picks and glass fibre brushes under a microscope, chemical swab and poultice cleaning, and syringe consolidation with a dilute solution of Paraloid B-67.

Natalie presents our home-made citric acid poultice

Natalie presents our home-made citric acid poultice

All hands on deck: the practical session gets underway

All hands on deck: the practical session gets underway

Numismatics conservator Roza tries mechanical cleaning under a microscope

Numismatics conservator Roza tries mechanical cleaning under a microscope

Metals conservator Nurlan is particularly impressed with our citric-acid-and-wheat-starch poultice and asks us to show him how to make it. We set about weighing and measuring the ingredients, which prompts a general conversation about preparing percentage solutions. In the Otrar Museum, chemical cleaning solutions are usually mixed by eye, and adhesives are used straight from the tube; weighing scales and measuring cups are nowhere to be seen. I feel that this may be related to the fact that in Kazakhstan museums - from what we’ve observed so far - conservation and restoration tends to be carried out by people from an arts or crafts background, with no formal scientific training. We talk about the value of using consistent percentages for cleaning solutions, and being able to adapt dry powder adhesives to different materials and treatments by varying their dilution ratio. Nurlan helps us mix concentrated citric acid, wheat starch and distilled water in the correct proportion and we all leave the museum to go to an outdoor shed, which houses a DIY electric hob. The hob is normally used by Nurlan to melt large quantities of paraffin wax, which is used for hot-dipping structurally stable historical metal objects, such as 19th century farming tools and horse riding paraphernalia. As we set up the Bain Marie and wait for the wheat starch to cook, the conservators ask questions about our life in the UK, and joke around, promising to set up Natalie and I with jobs in the Otrar Museum and nice Kazakh husbands (Natalie stifles an exasperated post-feminist sigh). For the first time, it feels like we’re sharing a bit of friendly banter, rather than just talking about work.

What's cooking? Nurlan, Maria, Roza, Sartai and Urzia prepare some wheat starch on a hob in the shed

What's cooking? Nurlan, Maria, Roza, Sartai and Urzia prepare some wheat starch on a hob in the shed

As an aside – people tend to marry young in South Kazakhstan, and have large families (divorce is also pretty common and carries relatively little social stigma). Weddings are big business, and almost every night in Shaulder we can see at least one wedding party, complete with fireworks, limos, big meringue dress, loud music and 300+ guests. Family life is largely patriarchal – although most women work, they’re also expected to take care of the house and the kids, and be of service to their husbands’ families. One of the first questions you’re likely to get asked is “Which year were you born in?” (far more common than “How old are you?”), closely followed by “Are you married?”. Neither question is considered rude or too personal.

But, back to the topic at hand. Happy with our poultice concoction, Nurlan announces that he intends to make a few litres of it and mass-clean the metals collection; Natalie is worried that he may not be entirely joking, and emphasises the value of moderation and testing. Back in the studio, we talk about microcrystalline wax coating and try out cold and hot application on an old hammer we brought from the camp. Unlike paraffin and beeswax, microcrystalline wax is not readily available in South Kazakhstan, but can be ordered online. I agree to make a “shopping list” of useful conservation materials, and write down the websites of Russian suppliers.

Before we finish, ceramics conservator Sartai shows us his method of doing plaster fills on archaeological earthenware ceramics. To make a back mould, Sartai uses a rolled sheet of plasticine in the same way we use sheet dental wax, and shapes it around an intact rim area before moving the mould over to cover the missing section. He then adds plaster to watered-down PVA to make a relatively thick mixture, which he uses to fill the missing section. As the plaster sets, Sartai quickly shapes and smoothes it down with a flat tool fashioned from an old hacksaw blade. Within 10-15 minutes, the fill is done, and it looks neat and bubble-free. This is different to how Natalie and I would’ve done it, but we’re definitely impressed with Sartai’s productivity!

Sartai working on the ceramic pot

Sartai working on the ceramic pot

We talk a bit about adhesives for earthenware ceramics, and find out that Sartai tends to use a ready-made adhesive called Moment. I remember Moment from my childhood in Russia, as a ubiquitous UHU-style instant glue which had a very strong grip and tended to discolour with time. Needless to say, I would not recommend it for ceramics conservation, and say as much. The conservators then show us a bag of white powder adhesive called BMK-K5, which their manager has recently brought back from a work trip to Moscow. I take a small sample to test in the lab. Looking it up online, it appears to be an acrylic and kaolin (mineral clay) adhesive, soluble in acetone. This seems promising, and could be a potential alternative to Paraloid, which does not seem to be available in Kazakhstan or Russia. Natalie and I also have some doubts about the practicality of using Paraloid in the Kazakh climate, with its extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Bumpy roads and current unavailability of proper packaging and transport for museum objects also bear thinking about when considering the relative strength of structural repairs.

Back in the camp, we talk about the workshop, and Natalie expresses a concern about sharing interventive techniques – like chemical poultice cleaning – with fellow conservators who haven’t been through the same ethical and scientific training as we have. She mentions Nurlan’s earlier tongue-in-cheek comment about the mass poultice cleaning of metal objects, and worries that we may inadvertently contribute to collections damage if the techniques we show are used indiscriminately and overzealously. I see her point, but argue that we’ve done all we could to share both ethical and technical aspects of current conservation practice in the UK, and if we’ve managed to show the local conservators something they actually want and are able to implement, then it can only be a good thing.  At the end of the day, it is not our place to impose ‘our’ conservation values on other people’s heritage. Natalie and I have been having a lot of interesting discussions from the start of the project – perhaps it would be good to do a joint conference presentation about this at some point.

In the evening, we get a phone call from Aisulu, the archaeologist-come-conservator we’ve met in Turkistan on Day 9. She has spoken to her colleagues in Shymkent and Turkistan museums, and apparently everyone got really excited about the possibility of having a Heritage without Borders conservation workshop! We tentatively plan a trip to Turkistan next week and another one to Shymkent the week after. I promise to send Aisulu a list of possible themes for the day sessions. How exciting!

Day 12. Professional Presentations and Practical workshops...... and kids!

My blog post this week is broken into two parts: 1. Our first presentation / practical with the local Shaulder Museum and 2. An impromptu visit to a local school.

1. First presentation and practical with the local Otrar Museum

Our first official organised day of presentations and practical workshops for the conservation staff at the museum!

Maria has done an amazing job so far of communicating with all the museum staff speaking very good Russian (which Im sure will continue) and I have done ok by communicating with my hand gestures and miming my thoughts and ideas, but mainly Maria has been translating for me which is great.  Due to Maria’s great language skills we have been able to get a really good insight into the way this museum works and have been able to discuss the issues that the Fonds (collections care) and Conservation team are facing.  They seem to be really warming up to us and have accepted that we are here in an advisory and supportive capacity and that we are in no way here to critisise their collection care.

Our first presentation / workshop covered; ceramic theory, ceramic types, manufacture, deterioration problems along with adhesives and fills.  This was accompanied by a practical session in the afternoon.  Here we intentionally smashed a glazed ceramic pot plant (not archaeological, but very kindly donated by our resident chef) and then demonstrated; identification and relocation of pieces, drawing components in an exploded view, initial holding together with tape and finally adhering using Paraloid B72 (a non-yellowing acrylic resin).

Maria and I agreed that this was really important to show the conservators / restorers as the current adhesives / fills that are being used for their ceramic repairs appear to be yellowing and could be considered as unsightly.  We though that this might be an appropriate alternative as an adhesive and hope that they may take something from our demonstrations of it.

2. Our visit to the school

The evening before our visit:  It was Tuesday evening and our camp manager and general all round nice guy, Gai approached Maria and I and asked if we would like to visit a local primary / high school the next afternoon.  The idea was that we would be part of the panel to give a presentation about HwB, conservation and the work we are doing in Kazakhstan.  We both jumped at the opportunity and then spent the next few hours brain-storming and problem solving how we could communicate all that is conservation in a condensed 3min / 3slide powerpoint presentation to a group of 6-16 year olds - slight panic ensued, with many ideas thrown back and forth.

Finally we agreed on the idea of burying some objects in shallow buckets of soil where the students could then do a mini excavation with archaeological tools, trowels and brushes.  We assigned each box a dig site number and the students could then bring their ‘finds’ to the microscope station to be viewed under magnification for identification and then move onto talk with the archaeologists about real objects they have been excavating.

The afternoon of our visit to the school in the Village of Kogam: We arrived in two van loads and all quite excited to see the school and chat with the students.  A few in our party were actually teachers themselves or had previous professions in public outreach programs and teaching English.  I myself have experience in these areas, so I was looking forward to using these skills in a new cultural and language situation.

Panorama view of one side of the museum, the decorations being done in part by the students

Panorama view of one side of the museum, the decorations being done in part by the students

We were initially shown the school museum - there is a museum inside the school!!!  I thought this was great and really interesting, although unfortunately I couldn't quite get it confirmed to see if the students had much involvement.  The school is named after Seitkasym Ashirov a WWII soldier from this local area.  Naturally the displays were therefore mostly military based and dedicated to Kazakh soldiers and their involvement in WWII.  Jackets were on open display, representing uniforms with original ribboned medals pinned on.  These all had protective plastic sheeting covers which is great as it shows they are caring for their displays. 

An example of some of the traditional crafts on display, as contributed by the students

An example of some of the traditional crafts on display, as contributed by the students

There were some nice colourful background paintings and a corner which appears to represent traditional crafts and paintings, this part Im told the students have contributed to.

Suit jacket used as mounting for service medals.  Although the plastic covering may seem slightly obscuring for the viewer, its does mean it can be easily removed when staff want to show the medals up close.

Suit jacket used as mounting for service medals.  Although the plastic covering may seem slightly obscuring for the viewer, its does mean it can be easily removed when staff want to show the medals up close.

Some great black and white photos from an album on display.

Some great black and white photos from an album on display.

After our museum tour we were ushered through to the assembly hall and given a performance of traditional Kazakh guitar and traditional Kazakh dance.  This was lovely and so colourful and the students seemed really happy that they could perform for us.

Four students play traditional Kazakh music on the Dombra, a two-stringed guitar

Four students play traditional Kazakh music on the Dombra, a two-stringed guitar

Students give a performance of traditional Kazakh dance with colourful traditional costumes

Students give a performance of traditional Kazakh dance with colourful traditional costumes

Our collaborative party was introduced; Kazakh Institute of archaeology, the AE team, UCLQ, UCL and HwB with our successful explanation of conservation / restoration in 3 powerpoint slides.  Then it was time for the excavations!

The excavations and finds processing was a huge hit with everyone, although I felt a little guilty that we inevitably made a bit of a mess of the school assembly hall.  The students really enjoyed themselves as did the teachers.  It was great to see their reactions when viewing materials under the 10x microscope and even though there was the expected language barrier, I really believe we managed to inspire an interest in this area of their cultural heritage and our collective professions.

Many hands on excavation! Maria and Natalie showing the students excavation and examination under the microscope.

Many hands on excavation! Maria and Natalie showing the students excavation and examination under the microscope.

Maria showing the students techniques of excavation using soft brushes and trowels.

Maria showing the students techniques of excavation using soft brushes and trowels.

The school director made some really nice comments afterwards saying that he really liked our ideas and that the children seemed really interested in what we were doing.  He was also very interested in our involvement with Otrar and commented on how with our work investigating and studying their cultural heritage, we have the potential to change history as we see how things truly were.  And one day we could teach the world about Kazakhstan and make their history known.  I thought this was rather touching.

Giles showing students one half of a Quern stone (large circular object on the left) used for grinding, and a stone Pestle which is used to crush grains and explaining their historical uses.

Giles showing students one half of a Quern stone (large circular object on the left) used for grinding, and a stone Pestle which is used to crush grains and explaining their historical uses.

After many photos and excited kids, a group of us stayed behind by request from the teachers who had travelled from local schools to see us.  We had a sort of round table discussion where the teachers also had the opportunity to practice their English with us and ask us questions.  There was general interest in what our impressions of Kazakhstan the people and culture are and there was discussion on different teaching modes from a western perspective compared to the Kazakh model, especially English.  They are aware that the current structure of one lesson of 45mins a week is not enough to teach English and were questioning us to see what we thought they could do.  I suggested some sort of internship programme or competition.  These initiatives seem to be in place, however they don't seem to be really accessible for the local, more remote schools.  I feel they want the opportunity for more interaction with English speakers and it seemed like they wanted us to do something about it.  Things got a bit tricky as we are here for the purpose of archaeological investigation and conservation, not necessarily to teach English, but I was frustrated that there was this whole group of us here, speaking English and we couldn't offer them anything.

I gave this some thought and came up with the idea thatthe teachers select five of their students to come to the camp and help us do archaeological finds processing while at the same time getting the opportunity to practice their english.  We decided it would be a good way of introducing what we do and a way of setting up potential future collaborations.  Jonathan one of the UCLQ MA students seemed really keen on this too and we decided to take a lead on this mini project.

Hopefully they will turn up on Saturday!

In closing, I find it unfortunate that it seems the students don't really have access to their own cultural heritage.  The school we visited is situated right next to the Otrar Tobe archaeological site, yet it seems they have no access to it and they are not informed of what professionals are involved with studying and making it available for public access.

I feel that as a foreigner to Kazakhstan, where I am exposed to these archaeological sites and objects, it is my duty to share the information that I have learned with those who are less able to access it themselves.  However right now I just don't know how I can achieve that, but Im working on it!

 

Day 9. A trip to Turkistan and Sauran.

Today is a Sunday, our official day off. UCL and Archaeological Expertise have organised a trip to Turkistan, a city 46 miles north of our camp in Shaulder. We set off in the morning, twenty people packed into two beat-up minivans.

We arrive in Turkistan around midday and head straight to the impressive Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi, built in the 1390s by the infamous Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane to honour the grave of Ahmad Yasavi, a 12th century Sufi poet and one of the early propagators of Islam in the region.

As an obvious group of foreigners, we tend to attract a lot of good-natured curiosity and attention from some of the locals. As we approach the mausoleum, Julius and Alex, two UCLQ archaeology students from Tanzania, repeatedly get pulled aside by Kazakh families and groups of teenagers, who ask to take a picture with them. The attention can be a bit overwhelming (and tends to slow down our walking), but is never nasty or aggressive. Nonetheless, the photo opportunities are cut short so we can escape from the scorching sun (and frequent missiles from the birds nesting in the huge archway above the entrance) into the cool central hall of the building.

UCLQ students on their way to the Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi in Turkistan.

UCLQ students on their way to the Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi in Turkistan.

The impressive archway above the entrance to the Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi. Photography inside the building is not permitted.

The impressive archway above the entrance to the Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi. Photography inside the building is not permitted.

The Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi has many of the typical features of Islamic architecture, such as the vast domed Hypostyle hall, complete with muraqnas (‘honeycomb’ vaults). The Hypostle is surrounded by corridors and secondary halls, with narrow minaret towers on the periphery of the building complex and a mihrab (prayer niche) on the inside wall opposite the entrance, indicating the direction to Mecca. The site attracts many tourists and religious pilgrims each year, and combines the functions of a mausoleum, a mosque, a library and a museum. Nursit, the English-speaking guide from the Otrar Museum who has asked to tag along on our trip, points out that some of the most impressive Islamic objects in the building, such as the huge copper cauldron (kazan) in the Hypostle hall, had been poached to the Russian State Hermitage Museum in late 19th century, and were only recently returned to Turkistan; others are still held by the Hermitage and are the subject of a heated repatriation debate. Natalie remarks on some building maintenance issues and wonders about the absence of a donations box or any secondary means of income generation (entrance to the Mausoleum is ticketed and costs 500 KZT – just over £1 - to foreign citizens). Ilyar, one of the project co-ordinators from Archaeological Expertise, is sceptical about the idea and mentions insidious corruption, which constantly misdirects funds from much-needed building conservation.

Afterwards we head to a large covered archaeological site excavated by the Institute of Archaeology. We are greeted by Aisulu, an archaeologist working on the site, who is friends with Gai and Dima, both key people on the Otrar project. Aisulu shows us around the excavation while I translate from Russian. She explains that the excavated ancient citadel dates from 1-4 century AD and is one of several cross-shaped buildings found in Central Asia. Typically for Central Asian buildings of that era, it is made from pakhsa (clay and finely chopped straw) and compressed mud brick. This is the largest excavation of a cross-shaped citadel and its surrounding areas to date. We learn that the citadel probably had a second storey which had collapsed into the first, and was likely surrounded by a hexagonal fortified wall with a maximum thickness of 6.3 metres – the Kazakh team have uncovered one corner of it, and are now excavating another to confirm or disprove this theory. Aisulu’s excitement is infectious as she points out the network of internal rooms within the fortified wall – a unique discovery in her practice and among the excavated fortified settlements in the area. Lead archaeologist Giles and the student team have many questions for Aisulu: what is the evidence for the second storey construction (amazingly, one wall has surviving ‘nests’ for wooden joists), how does the Kazakh team know that they have reached ground level (slight curvature of the walls as they meet the floor is a good indicator), what techniques do they use to differentiate between mud brick or pakhsa and the surrounding soil of virtually the same colour and density (it is difficult, but experienced archaeologists are able to see structural divisions in the dry soil if the initial clearing of the trench is immaculate)? Natalie is concerned about the damage done to the fragile friable structures by allowing people to walk on them, and Aisulu reveals that both site security and physical support of excavated structures is a problem due to a lack of funding.

Aisulu leads the way on the covered excavation site in Turkistan.

Aisulu leads the way on the covered excavation site in Turkistan.

Aisulu joins us for lunch, and it turns out that in addition to working on site in Turkistan, she and her colleague Andrei also provide conservation support at the Shymkent Museum. Neither Aisulu nor Andrei have had any conservation training, but had to step into the role as there was no one else available to do the necessary work. They are keen to learn and are particularly interested in preservation of organic materials, reconstruction of archaeological ceramics, and conservation documentation practices. We have exchanged contact details, and in the next few weeks Aisulu will try to either attend some of the HwB-run conservation workshops in the Otrar Museum, or bring her colleagues to our camp for a day intensive. It may also be possible for Natalie and I to make a day trip to Shymkent Museum to provide more specific advice. We really hope that this new connection with Shymkent Museum will be made possible this year, as last year’s HwB volunteers were not able to make contact due to the language barrier.

We leave Turkistan in late afternoon and head to Sauran, a sprawling, semi-excavated ancient ruin northwest of Turkistan. In 13th-16th century AD Sauran was the biggest city in Kazakhstan and formed one of the most important political and economic centres on the Silk Road. It was amazing to see the remains of a complex system of canals which used to support this desert oasis. Unlike Otrar, which refused to open the city gates to Ghenghis Khan and was subsequently razed to the ground, Sauran had accepted the Mongol invasion and became the capital of the Mongol White Horde in the 14th century. The city’s former glory is evident everywhere, from the remains of brick and limestone walls to hundreds of intricately-patterned glazed ceramic sherds littering the ground. Now the site is abandoned and unsupervised, with only birds, snakes and cute Central Asian tortoises for company.

Bird's eye view of Sauran, taken from the Institute of Archaeology drone. 

Bird's eye view of Sauran, taken from the Institute of Archaeology drone. 

Partially reconstructed ancient walls.

Partially reconstructed ancient walls.

Glazed pottery and vitrified slag found on site.

Glazed pottery and vitrified slag found on site.

This little tortoise has fallen into a trench but was returned to a grassy area!

This little tortoise has fallen into a trench but was returned to a grassy area!

It was interesting to discuss the Sauran site with Giles, Odile and the archaeology students, and compare it to the UCL dig in Otrar. As Natalie mentions in the previous post, the UCL archaeological methodology in Otrar, common for western-led excavations, involves dividing the site into large squares and collecting and recording all surface finds as part of the field walking. Due to harsh climate and rapid soil erosion in the area, ancient sites in South Kazakhstan are densely covered with slag, brick and pottery sherds, which all get collected, tagged with their site code, brought to camp, and then weighed and counted. This information is then entered into a database, which is used to ‘map’ the excavated area. These fragments are not collected for their own sake, but as a means of extracting information about production practices and the functional layout of the site. Decorative metal, glass, shell and bead objects are far less common, and get recorded separately as registered finds. The Kazakh methodology is very different, in that only the more complete, decorative or unusual objects get collected, cleaned and conserved, and the rest are left behind and not recorded.

For Giles and his team, one of the clear outcomes of methodical and comprehensive field walking in Otrar has been the conspicuous absence of any glazed pottery, ubiquitous in Sauran and other nearby sites. Giles is inclined to see this as a strong indication that the UCL-managed site was abandoned long before the evolution of glazed ware, and was likely inactive from 7th century onwards. Institute of Archaeology researchers Gai and Ania are less certain, and feel that this is more indicative of the type of settlement in the area – simple domestic dwellings with no means to acquire expensive glazed vessels. Hypothesis and discussion seem to be an integral part of the archaeological process, and it’s been exciting to witness many spirited post-excavation debates. We are planning to start cleaning and sorting the pottery sherds from the Otrar site next week, and are hoping to find out more about the particulars of local manufacture.

On the way back, tucked into the back seat of our minivan and acutely aware of every bump and pothole on neverending Kazakh motorways, I wonder about the packaging and transportation of museum objects for national loans and exhibitions. Something to ask Karlaghash and other staff at the Otrar Museum next week…