First Day of Excavation

By Miriam Orsini

Today is our first day of excavation. At 5 am we had already been fed by Yamila and at 5.30 we were already on board of the mini-van on our way to site. When we arrived it was still dark but, as the sun rose, the silhouette of the mud brick architectural structure of the old settlement emerged and revealed itself in all its glory.

Sunrise, by Miriam Orsini

Sunrise, by Miriam Orsini

Upon arrival, Ilyar, one of the Kazakh archaeologists excavating at the Otrar site, gave us a tour of the site and told us all about the Otrar sites and about previous conservation objects.

We learned that in 2001 an agreement for the preservation and restoration of the ancient city of Otrar was signed between the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, UNESCO and UNESCO Japan Trust Fund. The Otrar Oasis at the confluence of the of the Arys and the Syr Darya rivers stands a point where several of the historical ‘’Silk Roads’’, a network of trading routes for cultural and technological exchange that traversed the region from the 3d century BC onwards, converged. The Oasis has been placed on the World Heritage Tentative List.

He also told us that the Oasis expands for about 200 square kilometres and consists of a large uninhabited landscape containing the remains of six ancient towns, or tobes, along with an extensive system of irrigation canals dating back 2000 years ago. The main town is Otrar tobe and other important towns include Kuyik Mardan, which is the one that our archaeologists team will be excavating. 

Otrar was first excavated in 1969, revealing the spectacular mud brick remains of a large, typically Central Asian settlement. These remains, for so many centuries protected by sand and silt, are now exposed to rapid erosion from wind, rainfall and visitors walking on them.

Otrar poses very specific and dramatic conservation issues. The first is the severity of the climate, with extremes of -20C in winter and +50C in the summer. The environment is quite humid, with considerable snow, rain and wind at some periods in the year. This means that erosion occurs very quickly, and that standard techniques for mud structure preservation, which are successful elsewhere, are not appropriate here.

Long term conservation of Otrar has brought together international and national teams of experts and students working on the documentation and research of the sites, preservation and conservation, and training, and we feel very proud to be among them.

Our Kazakh colleagues working a few metres away were already digging. So we slapped sun cream over every single inch of our bodies, grabbed our shovels and tools, and joined them. Under Giles and Odiles’s supervision and instruction, we all started shovelling, even us conservators, giving us the chance to experience first-hand the challenges of both excavating and attempting to preserve delicate and vulnerable structures such as mud-brick architectures. As we dug and shovelled I felt very happy about my decision to become a conservator and not to have to wake up at four in the morning everyday and be covered in dust for most of the day (sorry, fellow archaeologists!).

UCL Qatar Students (Mikel, Emilio and Nurul) digging along Odile and Giles, by John Fisher

UCL Qatar Students (Mikel, Emilio and Nurul) digging along Odile and Giles, by John Fisher

Working alongside the archaeologists and the students on site was an invaluable experience. Very rarely do conservators have the opportunity to be on site with archaeologists, even fewer are the chances for us to dig alongside them. Digging can teach conservators a lot about the challenges of safely excavating objects on site and more importantly offers them the opportunity to be realistic about the support that they can provide archaeologists.

We dug for several hours with the sun rising at our backs and slowly starting to turn our skins the colour of gold (ok... perhaps more the colour of terracotta). At around 11 both us and our Kazakh colleagues took a break and ate the delicious sausages and eggs that Yamila had cooked for us. After the break we dug for another hour until, despite our profound dedication, Ilyar and Madjer wisely suggested that, as it was the first day, we should take it easy. So we started to pack up, and left to visit the other local sites. 

We saw the bath house and other sites which are part of the Otrar Oasis, and we were able to appreciate the results of previous conservation projects. We were astonished by the richness of the archaeology of Kazakhstan, by the number of sites within short distance of each other, and by the fineness of the objects found.

In the evening we went back to the dig house and decided to go out for dinner to try one of the local restaurants. The lady at the entrance of the (probably only) restaurant in the area welcomed us and ushered us to a very, VERY, elegant room. We were told that later on the place was booked for a wedding reception and that we were welcome to stay if we wanted to. And yes, of course we stayed. While waiting for the party to start, we ate some of the most amazing Kazakh dishes, including Manty, a sort of meat dumplings, Kazakh shish kebab, salads and chicken with potatoes. We washed it all down with delicious local vodka, which is why when a few moments after dinner we were asked whether we wanted to dance, we all replied, ‘OF COURSE!’ After a short while the lights went off, the dance floor was lit up and we launched ourselves into proper wedding celebrations, dancing passionately and unashamedly as if nobody was watching us. 

But contrary to our inebriated perception, people were watching us, mostly wedding guests. We were occasionally joined by some of them and at one point some of us even shared a dance with the bride!

Eventually we decided to head back home as a long day of exploration of the nearby towns was awaiting us. While walking home we were surprised by the rain and got very wet. At the dig house, some of us went to bed, while some others continued with the sampling of local beverages. As a result, at breakfast the next morning, everybody had very interesting accounts of the night before to tell. Especially Yamila who, through her sober eyes, saw everything and had a lot to tell us!