1891 - Flinders Petrie
The Art of Excavating
Probably most people have somewhat the ideas of a worthy lady, who asked me how to begin to excavate a ruined town - should she begin to dig at the top or at the side? A cake or a raised pie was apparently in her mind, and the only question was where to best reach the inside of it. Now there are ruins and ruins: they may differ greatly in original nature, in the way they have been destroyed, and in the history of their degradation. The only rule that may be called general, is that digging must be systematic; chance trenches or holes seldom produce anything in themselves, they are but feelers. The main acquirement always needed is plenty of imagination. Imagination is the fire of discovery; the best of servants, though the worst of masters. A habit of reasoning out the most likely cause, and all other possible causes, for the condition of things as seen, is essential. If there is a slope of the ground, a ridge, a hollow - Why is it there? What can have produced it? And which cause is the most probable for it? The mere form of the ground will often show plainly what is beneath it. Is there a smooth uniform mound of large size? Then a mass of house ruins of a town may be expected. Is there a steep edge to it around? Then there was a wall, either of the town or of some one large building which forms the whole ruin. Is there a ring of mounds with a central depression? Then there was a temple or large permanent building, with house ruins around it. Is there a gentle slope up one side, and a sharp fall on the other? Then it is a rubbish mound. Is the mass high above the general soil? Then several successive layers of habitation may be expected. So, even from afar, some ideas may be gleaned before setting foot on a ruined site.
When we reach our town and walk over it, much more can be seen of what is beneath. Very likely it seems all irregular, hillocky, dusty ground, and who can say what it may cover? In one place, however, we find that there are no chips or potsherds lying about: track around, and find the space of this clearance, probably it runs along for some distance; you are on the top of a mud-brick wall, denuded down to the level of the rubbish in which it is buried. Follow the clear space, and you will outline the fortifications of the city or its temple. Or perhaps you notice a difference in the vegetation - no plants will grow on particular ground; here is probably a mass of hard mud-brick or stonework, without moisture or nutriment, and you will thus find the walls. Or there is a hollow or old pit met with; here the modern natives have been digging out stone masonry, and around it, or below, may be the rest of a building. Some symmetrical form of the mounds can be detected, and we are perhaps led at once to the temple, or to trace out the streets of the town. Or a patch of ground is reddened with fire, showing that a house has been burnt there, and probably stone and metal and pottery may remain intact in the ruins. But our special notice must be given to the potsherds lying strewn all over the surface. Pottery is the very key to digging; to know the varieties of it, and the age of each, is the alphabet of work. Not that it is more distinctive in itself than most other products of various ages; but it is so vastly commoner than anything else, that a place may be dated in a minute by its pottery on the surface, which would require a month's digging in the inside of it to discover as much from inscriptions or sculptures. A survey showing the form of the ground, and the position of every fragment or indication that can be of use, is essential to understanding it; and will often point out, by the probable symmetry of parts, what are the best spots to examine first.
Having then made out as much as possible beforehand, we begin our diggings. If there appear to be remains of a temple, or some larger building, which should be thoroughly examined, we first make pits about one edge of the site, and find how far out the ruins extend. Having settled that, a large trench is dug along the whole of one side, reaching down to the undisturbed soil beneath, and about six or eight feet wide at the bottom, all the earth being heaped on the outer edge of the trench. Then the inner side is dug away, and the stuff thrown up on the outer side by a row of men all along the trench. Thus the trench is gradually swept across the whole site, always taking from one side, and throwing back on the other. Each block of stone or piece of building found is surveyed, and covered over again if not wanted; sculptures or inscriptions are either removed or rolled up on to the surface of the stuff, or remain exposed in pits left in the rubbish. Thus the earth does not cover over and encumber the surrounding ground, which may very likely need to be excavated in its turn; the stuff is removed a minimum distance, which means occupying a minimum of time and cost; and the site is covered over again, to preserve from the weather and from plunderers any foundations or masonry that may remain. Every ounce of earth is thus examined, and all it contains is discovered. Town ruins may be treated in the same way; all the chambers along one side of the town, or along a street, may be cleared out and measured; then the next chambers inwards are cleared, and the stuff all thrown into the first row of chambers; thus gradually turning over every scrap of rubbish without destroying a single wall, and leaving the place as well protected by its coat of debris as it was before the work.
The most fatal difficulty in the way of reaching what is wanted is when an early site has been occupied in later times. A city may have been of the greatest importance, and we may be certain that beneath our feet are priceless monuments; but if there are twenty or thirty feet of later rubbish over it all, the things might almost as well be in the centre of the earth. Tanis was the Hyksos capital, but it would cost tens of thousands of pounds to lay bare the Hyksos level. The town of the twelfth dynasty at Illahun, on the contrary, yielded a harvest of small objects and papyri, revealing all the products and habits of that remote time, at a cost of two or three hundred pounds; simply because it was unencumbered. The temple of Ephesos cost sixteen thousand pounds, and almost a life's work, to discover it, owing to its depth under the surface. Naukratis and Defenneh, on the contrary, gave us the remains of the archaic Greeks, merely for the picking up and a little grubbing, both together not costing a thousand. It is plain enough that the main consideration is an accessible site.
An excellent rule in excavating is never to dig anywhere without some definite aim. Form at least some expectation of what may be found; and so soon as the general clue to the arrangement is known, have clearly in the mind what you expect to find, and what is the purpose of every separate man's work. One may be following the outside of a fortification, another trenching across it to find its thickness, another sinking a pit inside it to find the depth of the soil, another clearing a room, or trenching to find the limits of the town, or removing a rubbish deposit layer by layer. Unless just beginning work on a very featureless site, the aimless trenching or pitting is merely an excuse for a lazy mind. Far better have some theory or working hypothesis, and labour to prove it to be either right or wrong, than simply remain in expectancy. When you know what to look for, the most trivial indications, which otherwise would seem to be nothing, become of great importance and attract the eye. And the workmen should be encouraged to know what to expect beneath the surface, as it prevents their destroying the evidences. A vertical junction a few inches high, clean sand on one side and earth on the other, will lead to tracing the whole plan of a destroyed temple; a little patch of sand in the ground will produce a foundation deposit to your hands, and give the age of a building which has vanished; a slightly darker soil in a trench will show you the wall of a town which you are seeking; some bricks laid with mud instead of sand in a pyramid will point the way to the sepulchre. A beginner is vastly disappointed that some great prize does not turn up after a week or two of work; while all the time he is probably not noticing or thinking about material for historical results that is lying before him all the time. Perhaps in some place nothing whatever may be found that would be worth sixpence in the antiquity market; and yet the results from walls, and plans, and pottery, and measurements, may be what historians have been longing to know about for years before.
It need hardly be said that the greatest care is required in making certain as to exactly where things are found. Workmen should never be allowed to meddle with each other's lots of potsherds or little things; and any man mixing up things from elsewhere with his own finds should be dismissed. Men should be trained by questioning to report where they found objects, at what level and spot in their holes; and the best men may in this way be led up to astonishing intelligence, observing exactly how they find things, and replacing them as found to illustrate the matter. In order to encourage the men to preserve all they find, and to prevent their being induced to secrete things of value, they should always be paid as a present the market price of such things at that place, and a trifle for any pottery or little scraps that may be wanted. To do this properly it is needful to know the local prices pretty closely, so as to ensure getting everything, and on the other hand not to induce men to foist things into the work from other places. Wages are paid by measure wherever possible, as it avoids the need of keeping the men up to the work, and is happier for both parties. Some day-work intermixed where measurement is impossible will often suffice.
It would be thought at first that nothing could be easier than to know a wall when you see it. Yet both in Egypt and Palestine the discrimination of mud-brick walls from the surrounding soil and rubbish in which they are buried, is one of the most tedious and perplexing tasks. To settle what is a wall and what is washed mud, and to find the limits and clear the face of the wall, is often a matter of half-an-hour's examination. The two opposite ways of working are by trenching sections through the wall, or by clearing the faces of it. The first is clumsy, but is needful sometimes, especially if the wall is much like the soil, and the workman cannot be trusted; as, if the face is cleared, the whole outside may be cut away without leaving any trace. The light on the surface is all-important, as any shadows or oblique lights mask the differences of the bricks; either all in sunshine, or better, all in shade, is needful to see the bricks. A distant general view will often show differences of tint in the courses, yellow, red, brown, grey, or black, which prove the mass to have been brickwork. The most decisive test is the difference at a vertical joint between bricks, as that cannot be simulated by natural beds of washed earth, as courses sometimes are. The lines of mud mortar are also different in colour to the bricks, and show out the courses. But yet all the question of joints is deceptive sometimes, owing to fallen bricks lying flat, and even fallen lumps of wall. In order to see the surface it must be fresh cut, or better, fresh broken by flaking it with picking at the face; by chopping successively back and back, each cut flakes away the mark of the previous blow, and so leaves a clean fractured surface all over. It must be remembered that bricks are often bent out of form by solid flow of the wall under great pressure, so that they may be distorted almost like a glacial deposit. In cleaning down the face of a wall it may often be traced by its hardness, but this is not a test to be left to workmen, or they may cut away at random; a very good plan is to let the man trench along a few inches outside of the face of the wall, and then cut down the remaining coat of rubbish oneself, to bare the face. Though pottery, stones, &c., often serve to show what is accumulated soil, yet they are found in brick sometimes, and must not be relied on entirely. The texture of the soil is important, as in accumulations all long bodies, bits of straw, &c., lie flat; whereas in brick they are mixed in all directions. Also washed-down earth almost always shows worm casts in it. Often a wall, if in low wet soil, will show out distinctly when the cut surface has dried, as cracks will form more readily along the joints. In many cases, however, all of these tests hardly serve to unravel the puzzle; especially where there are successive walls superposed, and only a small height of any one to examine. To trace out the position of ancient walls is, however, one of the first requisites in such work; not only do we recover the plan of the town and its buildings, but we are led thus to recognize what may be the most important sites for special excavation. One of the most difficult questions always is to know what may be safely thrown away. Most trivial things may be of value, as giving a clue to something else. Generally it is better to keep some examples of everything. No matter how broken the potsherds may be, keep one of each kind and form, replacing it by more complete examples as the work goes on. Thus the collection that is kept is always in process of weeding. It need hardly be said that every subject should be attended to; the excavator's business is not to study his own speciality only, but to collect as much material as possible for the use of other students. To neglect the subjects that interest him less is not only a waste of his opportunities, but a waste of such archaeological material as may never be equalled again. History, inscriptions, tools, ornaments, pottery, technical works, weights, sources of imported stones, ethnology, botany; colours, and any other unexpected subject that may turn up, must all have a due share of attention. And keeping up the record of where everything has been found, and all the Information that will afterwards be needed, about the objects and the discoveries, the measurements and details for publication, is a serious part of the work.
However much it may be desired to preserve some things, they almost defy the excavator's care. It is a simple affair to get an antiquity safe out of the ground, but then begin its perils of destruction, and unless carefully attended to, it may slowly perish in a few days or weeks. The first great trouble is salt; it scales the face of stones, or makes them drop off in powder; it destroys the surface of pottery; it eats away metal. In all cases where salt exists it is imperative to soak the objects in two or three changes of water, for hours or days, according to the thickness. I have done this even with rotten wood, and with paper squeezes. Another source of trouble is the rotting of organic materials, wood, string, leather, cloth, &c. For all such things the best treatment is a bath of melted wax. But innumerable questions arise as work goes on, which can only be settled according to their circumstances: still, the soaking bath and the wax pot are the main preservatives.
The excavator should always be ready to take squeezes or photographs at once when required, and it is the best rule always to copy every inscription as soon as it is seen. If only an hour had been spent on the stele of Mesha, how much less should we have to regret! There is always the chance of accidents, and no risks should be run with inscribed materials. Even when the owner will not allow a copy to be made, the most needful points may be committed to memory, and written down as soon as possible, even under guise of making notes on other subjects. Another matter in which it is essential that an excavator should be proficient, is surveying and levelling: in order to understand a place and direct the work, in order to preserve a record of what is done and make it intelligible to others, a survey is always needed, and generally levelling as well.
Lastly, what most persons never think of, a great deal of time and attention is required for safely packing a collection. This part of the business generally takes about a fifth of the time of the excavations; and much care and arrangement has to be bestowed on the security of heavy stones, or pottery, or fragile stucco, or glass, for a long journey of railways and shipping. Packing with pads, with clothes, with chopped straw, or with reeds, hay, or straw, is more or less suitable in different instances. Finding things is but sorry work if you cannot preserve them and transport them safely. Most people think of excavating as a pleasing sort of holiday amusement; just walking about a place and seeing things found: but it takes about as much care and management as any other business, and needs perhaps more miscellaneous information than most other affairs.
Petrie, William Matthew Flinders
Ten Years Digging in Egypt