The Grammar of Excavation

Over the past few weeks I have been working to digitize a series of notebooks from the Polis excavations on Cyprus.  The notebooks document the excavation of a Late Antique (to Medieval) basilica style church, surrounding burials, and a some earlier structures.  The excavators basically dug in a stratigraphic way and recorded information for not only stratigraphic levels, but also individual passes. In many cases, the trench supervisor described the appearance of important finds – coins and fragments of architectural sculpture – as well as the excavation of burials. Top plans and profiles complemented the descriptions.  In general, the notebooks provide a serviceable account of the excavation.

So far, I have keyed excavation descriptions for almost 10 notebooks. One of the byproducts of this fairly boring work is that I’ve thought a good bit about what one could do with the keyed notebook descriptions beyond using them as a guide for reconstructing the stratigraphy of the particular trenches.  It struck me that the notebook descriptions represent an interesting opportunity for textual analysis.  (This train of thought was certainly influenced by Geoffrey Rockwell’s recent visit.)

I can offer some basic observations regarding the grammar of these notebook descriptions that I think contribute to an understanding of how the language of notebooks preserves some evidence for archaeological epistemology and attitudes toward the archaeological method.

The most striking thing about the Polis notebooks that I have keyed is that the trench supervisors wrote almost exclusively in passive voice.  Finds were discovered, cover slabs were removed, skeletons were uncovered, and levels were changed. In other cases, finds appeared in the various passes and emerged from the trenches. The trench supervisor rarely makes an appearance in the notebook to offer any interpretation of the appearing and emerging finds. The excavator is almost entirely absent; we do know that certain levels were handpicked, but we are never certain who did the handpicking.

The reasons for this choice of grammar are two-fold (in my very preliminary analysis):

1. Method. It would appear that the trench supervisors did very little excavation. This is relatively common the Mediterranean world where workmen would actually move the earth. As the notebook account, things emerge from the trench separate from the direct agency of the trench supervisor who records the proceedings in his or her notebook.  The absence of any record of the excavators is a bit troubling; it is common practice to record in excavation notebooks the individuals present in the trench that day.

2. Epistemology. The passive voice and the use of verbs like emerge and appear make clear that the archaeological material in the trench is there for the archaeologists discovery. The process of excavation is secondary to the material excavated and the language of the notebooks maintain a clear separation between the two. The trench supervisor – as researcher – and the excavators – as labor – did not position themselves as part of the objective business of science but stood to one side patiently recording the results.  The passive voice and verbs of observing reinforced the objective nature of the archaeological data recorded in the notebooks.

This analysis is pretty superficial, but the textual data that could support these arguments could be easily mined from the keyed notebook data.  I keep thinking of John Walrodt’s impressive body of text from Pompeii as well as our keyed notebook data from Pyla-Koutsopetria also in Cyprus.  Moreover, the growing body of digitized, published, archaeological reports could form another body of text that could reveal whether the language of the notebooks carries through to the epistemology and interpretations presented in the published reports.

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