Training Day for the UCL Qatar Students

Written by Miriam Orsini

The UCL Qatar Archaeology students have been very busy digging at Kuyk Mardan and recording sites around Otrar Oasis for the entire duration of our stay. As if that wasn’t enough, some of them had essays to submit at the end of the month. Today, however, they have been granted a day off from site to join me and Ciarán at the dig house to learn about processing archaeological finds and first aid conservation techniques. Some students showed interest in conservation since the beginning of the project. However we really got them interested when we told them that we would start class at around 8.30, meaning that they could have a lie in for once!

Earlier in the month, as a result of finding a copper alloy coin while walking around Sauran’s site, an archaeological site near Turkestan, we had a training afternoon on the conservation of metals, during which each student had a go at visually analysing and cleaning the coin.

This time, we decided to focus on ceramics, since most of the finds uncovered were ceramic vessels. I started with a presentation on ceramic technology. Next, using some of the ceramics from the excavation as examples, we learned how to identify manufacturing techniques from the diagnostic marks visible on a ceramic vessel. Although it was rather early in the morning and some of the students had been up all night writing essays, they successfully managed to stay awake during the whole lecture and came up with interesting questions.

Although it is always good to have a conservator on site, alongside archaeologists, to care about the finds, this rarely happens. Since one of HwB’s objectives for this project is that to provide conservation assistance for archaeologists and training on first aid, we thought it would be a good idea to include a short practical session on how to safely excavate and lift objects, so to ensure their best preservation until they are in the care of a conservator. While explaining how to use plaster bandages to lift ceramic vessels, the majority of the UCLQ students told us that they had never had the opportunity to use plaster bandages. So, since we had brought plenty of gauzes and gypsum with us, we showed them. Not having much available, we used water bottles and one of Yamila’s cups as props. Yamila was not impressed with this decision. Each one of the students had a go at mixing Plaster of Paris with water and making their very own plaster bandages. It resulted in a mess, with white powder scattered everywhere and with student’s faces painted in gypsum stripes. Nonetheless, they did a good job bandaging their props!

After a break, in which I quickly cleaned Yamila’s cup to show her no cups were harmed during the workshop, we moved outside, at the back of the researcher’s room, where the ceramic finds coming from excavation are washed and laid to dry. The second part of the workshop focused on washing and sorting assemblages of ceramic fragments, and learning to separate shards according to type, and eventually find joining fragments in order to reconstruct the profile of a number of vessels, which would then be given to Assem to draw.

The day before four huge ceramic vessels were excavated on site and brought to the dig house. The students, brushes in hand, cleaned all the fragments from each of the vessel and then started sorting them. Each one of them proved to be rather skilful in this task, particularly John, who we thought to be ‘a natural’. He and Nurul got so into it that they spent the next day reconstructing two of the massive ceramic vessels and skipped going to work on site. We are confident that this is purely due to a love of conservation and not because they got to wake up later in the morning.

As a result of their hard work, Assem was able to draw a number of ceramic profiles. Unfortunately, due to a lack of time, we were unable to reconstruct entirely the four storage ceramic vessels, despite spending the last two days and part of the evenings, madly searching for joints. 

Another student, Mikel, was interested in archaeological textiles. As on the first day of excavation I was lucky enough to come across what we believed to be an ancient piece of textile in the spoil heap, we used it to learn how to clean textiles with heavy soil encrustation. Mikel spent several hours at the microscope slowly removing the soil from the textile and eventually managing to completely detach it from the block of sand in which it was embedded. Although we cannot be sure this piece of textile is actually ancient, it was definitely a good example of the challenges presented by cleaning and unfolding fragile, heavily deteriorated, textiles. 

In the afternoon we met Max at the dig house. Max is an English teacher at one of Shaulder’s boarding schools who, during our stay, has helped us with translation and has joined us in several of our trips and nights out. He asked us to meet his student that afternoon as it was their last day of school before the holidays and, because he had been talking about us with them, they were excited at the thought of meeting other English speakers and asking us questions in English. 

We arrived at the school and, as we walked to the classroom, we spotted lots of sets of curious eyes staring at us from the windows. What we thought was going to be an informal chat with a few of Max’s students, tuned out to be a gathering of over 30 students of different ages, and their teachers, welcoming us with hand shakes and applauses. We were totally overwhelmed by such hospitality and slightly terrified by the number of phones and video cameras pointed at us. As we were made to sit at desks lined up for us, and joked about the fact that it looked as if we were in an episode of X-factor, I thought that another VIP moment of this proportion would never happen again to me.

First, the director and the teachers introduced themselves. There was a maths teacher, a physics teacher, a Russian teacher and, given that this is a boarding school where pupils stay in dormitories, we were introduced to a professional figure we never heard before, the ‘discipline’ teacher!

Then, after the teachers introduced the different classes of students present, the director asked us to introduce ourselves and tell where we are from and say a few things about our countries. As I was first in line, all my fellow archaeologists and conservators turned to me with smiley faces, suggesting I start (thanks everyone!). I was completely unprepared on the matter, and under pressure to say something original not to disappoint pupils and teachers, awaiting my answer with big, expectant eyes. I ended up doing exactly the opposite and babbling some very stereotyped things about Italy, the food and the wine. Having had more time to prepare, the others performed much better on this first question. 

As the students started feeling more confident asking questions in English and translating what we were saying to the audience, questions started raining down on us. Many of them were football related, as you would expect since many of the pupils wore football shirts, and were directed to our Spanish speaker, Mikel who, unfortunately, is not a massive football fan and does not support Barcelona. Other questions were about our families, our hobbies and favourite music, to which each one of us tried to give more or less interesting answers, even to those that we did not see coming, such as ‘Do you brush your hair?’. 

When the pupils’ questions ran out, it was our turn to ask a few. As they told us that students also learn to play traditional instruments, we asked them to play us something with the dombra, a two strings mandolin. One of the older students stood up and walked toward us with her dombra, sat in the middle of the room and delighted us with a beautiful performance.

We were astonished by the beauty of the music! Next, Nurul asked whether they had a school anthem that they could sing us. They replied that they didn’t, but that they had prepared a song especially for us and were going to sing it. The music started playing from one of the teachers’ computers and the entire audience started singing. As we were all expecting to hear some traditional song, it took us a while to recognise the song, Rhianna’s ‘Diamonds’, of which sadly none of us knew the lyrics and had to resort to rather unconvincing miming. 

On our way out we took endless selfies and pictures with pupils and teachers, and teachers and pupils, and again pupils and teachers. Nurul and Mikel were in high demand during this long photo session.

As we passed through at the school’s gate we waved the pupils and teachers goodbye; we had an absolutely fantastic time there!