Neal Spencer, British Museum
One can walk along ancient alleys, up staircases, through doorways (the wooden doors have long ago been feasted upon by termites) and into rooms used for preparing food.
The area (E13) we’ve been digging since 2009 is particularly fascinating, as it changed from an area with buildings dedicated to large-scale storage, to a neighbourhood of up to seven contemporary houses. Within each house, we can track the small changes made within each household – blocking off doorways, laying new floors, changing the arrangement of installations in a room, and even changing the function of a space.
All very fascinating, but now creating a considerable logistical headache. We do not dismantle the last architectural phase, unless safety concerns demand it, preferring to dig within the space inside rooms into earlier layers beneath. This has left some excavations in the centre of the neighbourhood rather deep, and a long way from any spoil heap – the mounds of debris, sieved of artefacts, that archaeologists create when digging.
Our desire to gain an in-depth understanding of the neighbourhood prompts us to empty all the houses and rooms of windblown sand every year. The windblown sand is both friend and foe. It is our ally as it backfills many rooms after we leave, saving us the hassle (and expense). Equally helpful is the scouring of surfaces and walls as its fills up: new walls, architectural relationships and even objects have come to light when we return each January.
But it is also our enemy: on days when it is too windy to keep features clean, or even to work at all. And this last 10 days, as we seek to empty every one of the deep rooms in the middle of our neighbourhood, I have been seeking to learn what works best.
A chain-of-bucket-throwing-men? A constant flow of bucket-carrying men? Or simply shovelling sand from one room, over the walls into the next, and so on until they reach waiting wheelbarrows?
The task is dispiriting for us and the workmen – we counted a high of 26 buckets of spoil removed every two minutes at one point; I dare say the average is considerably less.
Our next task is to clean the floors and walls in these rooms, and hopefully allow Susie Green from UCL to start photographing for our three-dimensional modelling of the ancient buildings…
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