Day 8. Our very first dig! - on site at Kuyk-Mardan

Maria, Lisa and I rose early this Saturday morning to head out for our first dig at the Kuyk-Mardan site.  We piled into the van with the UCLQ Archaeological students, UCL Archaeological team leaders Giles and Odile and the team AE which included Gai who was planing on undertaking some aerial drone work while on site.  Our bags packed with essentials; insect spray, sunblock, gloves, scarves and water (plenty of water), the back of the van packed with dig-site essentials; shovels, trowels, picks, wheelbarrows, buckets, line markers, poly-bags for small finds, large plastic bags for large finds and paperwork for field documentation.  We are given a site debrief and warned about the locals to avoid; snakes, scorpions, spiders and are reminded to stay smothered in sunblock and to drink plenty of water.

View from the van, on the road to Kuyk-Mardan.  Its flat, appears barren and looks to be a hot day for digging! 

View from the van, on the road to Kuyk-Mardan.  Its flat, appears barren and looks to be a hot day for digging! 

I am quite excited as we head out onto the bumpy road, the UCLQ students giving us three conservators a little bit of cheek as they tease us, ‘lets see how the clean, lab-loving conservators will go in the dirt’.  We are not afraid, just excited and very curious as to how an archaeological dig site operates, what the procedures are and what new finds might be uncovered today!  We drive past the Arystan Bab Mausoleum, a double domed, mud-brick structure, I get a slight glimpse of detail, but am assured we will be visiting it later that afternoon, its already busy with pilgrims.

As we arrive at the dig site, the Kazakh Archaeological team are already on their part of the site, the main Citadel, where it is believed a front or parade entrance is present.  We drive past and arrive at our part of the site, a little to the south of the Citadel and we are told it is where an outer wall and possible ‘gate’ has been identified.  Giles and Odile are interested in this area as it is believed to be a concentration of residential dwellings with the possibility of industrial style manufacturing workshops; ceramic and metal production.

Odile explains that if you look at the way the vegetation has grown, clear lines in the land can be seen which indicate walls and structures.  This is easier to see from the imagery gained from the Drone Mapping work that Gai has been working on, but more on that later!     However once it is explained and pointed out to us on the land, we are able to identify the areas more clearly.

Trench One, showing the inner mud-brick walls, and deeper cuts to investigate the layers of soil.

Trench One, showing the inner mud-brick walls, and deeper cuts to investigate the layers of soil.

We are impressed with how much work the UCLQ students have already completed; a trench, named Trench One, has been dug and measures (L) 10metresx (W) 2metres x (D) 2metres.  This has revealed inner mud-brick walls and different coloured soil layers, which we are told are indications of different layers of occupation, each subsequent layer representing different stages in occupational history (image above).

The rest of the site has also been peg-mapped, marked out in large grid squares approximately 20 metres squared in size, with red flagged metal pegs to indicate each area that is to be investigated.

Natalie with a protected face - ready for field-surveying and digging!

Natalie with a protected face - ready for field-surveying and digging!

Maria, Lisa and I are assigned to grid T875 (Im told this is a ‘classic grid’ and I believe this is a bit of Archaeological humour).  We are tasked with field surveying or field-walking, a process by which the area of the grid is walked over and all surface finds which are considered important to the aims of the dig mission are collected.  In this case we are told that slag (a stoney waste matter and bi-product of ceramic and metal smelting), pottery sherds (greater than 3cm) and items which appear significant due to their material oddity / rarity such as glass and copper are to be collected.

The three of us head out, gloved up and with our trowels, collection buckets and sticks (used to disturb the vegetated area at our feet to avoid stepping on any ground dwelling ‘locals’) and begin our investigation of the surface.  Within the first 30 minutes we have collected large amounts of pottery sherd which seems to be concentrated in certain areas of the grid.  I get quite excited when I find a small cylindrical turquoise coloured bead.  This is taken to Odile to add to the finds register and stored separately from the bulk of the field finds.  Maria and I both find what appear to be fragments of shell located within close proximity to each other and Lisa found a small fragment of corroded copper alloy.  We add our bead, copper alloy and shell on to the finds processing sheets by marking on the drawn grid the approximate whereabouts of the finds, this can then be used as possible indication for intensity of material types in a specified area.

My first exciting find field walking in the grid! A turquoise coloured cylindrical bead!

My first exciting find field walking in the grid! A turquoise coloured cylindrical bead!

Odile showing Maria how to fill out the Registered Finds log on site.

Odile showing Maria how to fill out the Registered Finds log on site.

After we finish our grid and a short break from the increasing intensity of the sun and annoyance of the insects, Lisa continues with more field-walking (a smart move) whereas Maria and I are put to work digging a new trench.  I mentioned this area before, the place where it is thought an outer wall and possible gate may be buried.  This is further explained by Odile and she points out the slight dip in the landscape, suggestive of possible collapsing of a higher structure (gate / entrance towers which collapsed and dipped lower due to the weight).  This second trench, Trench Two, is outlined with pegs and string to indicate the area which will be excavated.  This string boundary line acts as the cut section which needs to be maintained in order to complete a clean straight cut, we are told several times to try and keep the cut line straight - no wonky lines in Archaeology.  We dig and pick the soil back for about an hour, maintaining a level surface and removing and initial layer of approximately 10cm.  We continue with leveling the surface out by troweling.  The work is tough, hot and tiring, but with a total of 6 of us working the trench we are told that we have made great progress.  When we are finished for the day I can see slight colour variations in the soil which may be an indication of the beginning of a wall, but Im just not sure yet, we will have to see how this trench progresses.

Panorama shot with Trench One on the left.  Note the fresh spoil heap (dug out dirt) which can be seen in the foreground.

Panorama shot with Trench One on the left.  Note the fresh spoil heap (dug out dirt) which can be seen in the foreground.

Line ‘em up! Wheelbarrow and bags full of finds, ready for end of day processing!

Line ‘em up! Wheelbarrow and bags full of finds, ready for end of day processing!

Back at camp the UCLQ students who still have enough energy are put to task at doing ‘finds processing’.  The first stage is to weigh and count all the slag to give an indication of intensity of the use of this material in this area. The pottery sherds are processed the same way and categorised into; fine-ware, coarse-ware, ceramic building material (bricks) and unknown.  All this data is entered manually onto the finds sheets.

End of day finds processing - weighing and counting.  From left to right; Natalie, Odile, Jon, Karina, Katya, Jonathan and Maria.

End of day finds processing - weighing and counting.  From left to right; Natalie, Odile, Jon, Karina, Katya, Jonathan and Maria.

Maria and I were in our element here, organising the finds sheets alphabetically and numerically and prompting the group for their information when we could see they had completed their count / weighing.  We believe this greatly speeded up the process and managed to get through almost all of that days worth of finds - about 6 wheelbarrows full!

End of day finds processing 2, from left to right; Fairouz, Natalie, Odile, Jon, Karina, Katya and Jonathan.

End of day finds processing 2, from left to right; Fairouz, Natalie, Odile, Jon, Karina, Katya and Jonathan.

When we were on site earlier on in the week I was concerned with the way items were so accessible and readily collected and picked up off the ground.  However after working on the dig and seeing how the artefacts are collected for quantitive analysis, I understand now that the value gained from items on the surface give more overall site specific information, rather than having individual artefact value.  In the case of this site, large quantities of unglazed pottery sherd have been collected and it was interesting to note the amount of fine and coarse ware that was gathered.  It is true that it would be impossible to correctly identify the relationship between every piece of pottery and relocate each piece in order to reconstruct.

We are exhausted at the end of the day, but looked forward to that evenings social event, a meal and some drinks out and we were excited for the following days planed excursion, which Maria will report back on in the following blog.... stay tuned!