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Excavation Tactics and Strategy, BAR 11:01, Jan-Feb 1985.

Exacavations IsraelLooking at a dig from a director’s viewpoint

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original article.

BAR’s January/February issue traditionally contains a catalogue of exciting opportunities for inexperienced as well as experienced volunteers who want to participate in archaeological excavations. An article describing a volunteer’s experience on a dig is usually part of that annual BAR tradition.(a)

This year, however, we’re going to look at the dig from the director’s viewpoint.

While BAR volunteers will be thinking about the meaning of the past, enjoying the wonderful air and sun and sky of the land of Israel, wondering when a blister will pop, and hoping to make the find of the season with the next stroke of the pick, the dig director’s thoughts will be very much elsewhere.

Where and what will he or she dig? What will be the overall strategy? By what tactics will the aims of the excavation be accomplished?

Incidentally, it is not just a formality to say “he or she” when referring to dig directors. Women dig directors, while their numbers do not approach 50 percent, are, happily, not uncommon. The most prominent women dig directors today are probably Ruth Amiran, author of the authoritative Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land,(b) who has directed the excavations at Arad since 1962, and Trude Dothan, author of The Philistines and Their Material Culture,(c) who currently co-directs excavations at Tel Miqne (with Seymour Gitin, director of the W. F. Albright School of Archaeological Research).

Another female dig director is Israeli Rachel Hachlili, who directed the excavation of tombs in the Jericho hills.(d) Among Americans, Valerie Fargo of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute heads the excavation at Tell Hesi. Carol Meyers of Duke University has served as co-director of several excavations in the Galilee. Sharon Herbert, of the University of Michigan, is dig director at Tel Anafa in northern Galilee. In Jordan, Crystal Bennett, former director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (as was her mentor, Kathleen Kenyon), most recently directed excavations at the Amman Citadel, as well as in several Edomite cities to the south. Especially among the younger Israeli archaeologists, there are many more women.

In a recent scholarly contribution to a festschrift for archaeologist Lawrence E. Toombs,(e) Roger S. Boraas of Upsala College, who directs excavations in Jordan, shared with his colleagues some of the hard decisions he and other dig directors have to make in planning and carrying out a dig. Boraas explores the difficult trade-offs the dig director must make; often he or she must sacrifice one consideration for another.

One indication that Boraas is being completely candid is his confession that the state of the budget dictates many decisions. There is simply not enough money to do everything the dig director would like to do.

This is especially true on a major, large-scale excavation. It is less true, however, on two other kinds of excavations Boraas discusses—the small sounding and the salvage excavation.

A sounding has a deliberately limited goal—to identify preliminarily the various strata or layers at the site. When was the site occupied? What are the different phases of occupation in each period? What can we learn about the stratigraphy from a narrow trench?

In a sounding, the dig director attempts to avoid major architectural features. The exposure of a substantial building or gateway could mean complications and delays in making the sounding. In this kind of excavation, the director does not want to dismantle massive construction. Accordingly, soundings are usually made at a point that promises to contain most if not all the strata, but entails minimal disturbance of architectural features. The particular location for the sounding trench or square is chosen on the basis of clues visible on the surface. The topography may indicate areas to avoid, such as the likely location of a gateway or of a prominent building or water system. Some architectural features may even be observable showing through the ground surface.

While the director may not want to excavate those features, he or she may well wish to come very close to them because that is where the maximum stratigraphic information probably lies. So the dig director may choose some squares that intersect a foundation trench of a wall or tower while doing minimal damage to the structure itself. Sometimes, a few squares will be excavated at various points on the site.

Thus, the basic tactic in a sounding is, in Boraas’s words, “avoiding major architecture [by observing] ground-surface clue patterns and attempting to get rapid maximum stratigraphic penetration [down to bedrock] in the shortest feasible time.”

A salvage dig is just what its name implies. It attempts to explore an area that is about to be destroyed, either by human development or by natural forces. Imminent destruction makes the dig director’s decisions easy- No holds barred. Ruthlessly exploit every method available regardless of what it does to the site because it is going to be destroyed anyway.

The most difficult and most complex problems are faced in a full-scale excavation of a major site. In the so-called big dig, the options are almost unlimited, but that is not true of the money required to do everything.

As Boraas notes, “The overall issue is usually some form of the question- How can one get the most information most quickly and most cheaply?”

In the 1930s the excavators of Megiddo were going to learn everything there was to learn about the ancient city by excavating the entire tell. Even with their magnificent funding, they eventually had to modify their original plan by limiting themselves to selected sites on the mound. From a long-term perspective, this failure to achieve their goal has been fortunate. Improved archaeological methodologies and techniques, especially since World War II, have enabled us to recover so much more data from an excavation that we are fortunate to have a bit of Megiddo left to work on in the future.

There is no reason to believe the rate of improvement in data recovery is slackening. On the contrary, the pace of improvement seems to be accelerating. Boraas predicts that “even the most modern methods will soon be replaced by even better procedures for retrieval and modes for study and classification.” So it is probably good that we can’t do everything now. “The complete excavation of any major phenomenon prevents more from being learned from it by future generations working with superior retrieval and interpretive techniques.”

One of the critical decisions in a major dig is whether to go broad or deep, whether to dig horizontally to expose architecture, or to dig vertically so as to concentrate on stratigraphy. Boraas clearly leans toward going deep in narrower areas, but he squarely (excuse the pun) faces some very practical considerations that point in the opposite direction-

There is merit in the longstanding cliché of going for broad lateral exposures which are easily photographed, good for publicity and make for spectacular presentations at professional society meetings. This strategy is especially helpful for reaching broad popular audiences as one interprets the work. It makes for good slide lectures both in and out of the classroom.

The usual strategic alternative is to settle for less breadth and go for more depth. Here the results are never as visually spectacular and they make less impressive publication photos with less easily discerned analyses of architectural features.

The meticulous separation of soil layers in relatively restricted space sacrifices the publishable visual perception of architectural extents for the sake of more modest stratigraphic correlations. But it is sometimes a less expensive way to get more information within an equivalent time/labor effort.

A compromise is usually worked out that involves going deep—to bedrock—in certain places and going broad in others.

The most difficult decisions arise because of a happy development- the newly available array of scientific analyses that can be profitably utilized if the money is available. Unhappily, there is never enough money to do everything.

As an example of the many possibilities of modern data retrieval, Boraas focuses on Tell Hesban in western Jordan. Tell Hesban was excavated for nine seasons between 1968 and 1978, first under the direction of Siegfried Horn and then under Lawrence Geraty (both are members of BAR’s editorial advisory board). Boraas served as a member of the senior staff. Naturally the excavators wanted to achieve the traditional archaeological goals of providing information about the site’s public buildings, its private buildings, its defenses, its water supply system, its burial practices, and its industrial areas or other economic support systems. They also wanted to conduct supplementary studies relating to the pottery, inscriptions, coins, architecture and other finds. In addition, all bone materials were saved for analysis. Special geological studies were undertaken by which all lithic (stone) materials were identified. The needs of each of these aspects of study had to be considered in developing (and modifying) the overall excavation.

But these were only the beginning of the complications. The scientific interests of the staff soon expanded as new techniques and methodologies became available. The staff decided to conduct geological mappings, meteorological observations, ethnographic studies, procedures of froth flotation and pollen sampling, ornithological observations, a site-catchment survey, and other related studies.

As Boraas notes, “The demands of these additional dimensions affected the size and composition of the staff, field procedures in both excavation and recording, auxiliary facilities needed for laboratory work in the field, and cost of shipping and processing, to say nothing of publication.”

Interestingly enough, some of these studies will deliver a payoff only in future generations when additional comparative material from other sites becomes available. In Boraas’s view, the usefulness of the Tell Hesban data for future investigators provides one of the major justifications of the strategy to go for stratigraphic depth at the price of more spectacular breadth.

The pressure to apply new scientific techniques to archaeological materials also comes from funding agencies. A grant application is much more likely to be viewed favorably if it includes plans to use these advanced techniques.

Dig directors are now adapting their recording systems to computer capabilities and are experimenting with other sophisticated machinery for data retrieval ranging from satellite photography to laser surveying to advanced trace-element analyses requiring specialized and highly trained processors.

The availability of these new techniques raises some new questions for the dig director. As Boraas puts it-

Should one restrict excavation now by a diminished emphasis on architectural remains and focus more on the detailed analyses of each locus’s soil by any and all scientific procedures ready in the wings, if not in the field itself? Is the relative value of what can be learned in the dust-free labs of major research facilities more vital than getting the full expanse of that gateway? Ideally, funding should accommodate both, but in the real world these choices impinge ever more intensely.

The decisions the dig director makes will affect everything from staff recruitment, logistical arrangements, transport and storage budgets to equipment procurement, shipping costs, post-season work-up expenses and publication costs.

Boraas concludes-

From one point of view, these decisions are nothing but the ordinary heat an excavation director has to face. From the experience of this writer, however, these decisions are becoming increasingly difficult because of both the pace of scientific developments to be considered for application in the field and the rapid rise in costs of all processing involved in even the most standard forms of data analysis. One is tempted at such times to “think small” for the sake of efficiency. That applies to research design so that modest goals might be achievable. It applies to the scope of results expected from the enterprise so that future generations will have ample data with which to cross-check and correct our fumbling 20th-century efforts from the advantageous perspectives of the 21st or even the 25th century.


(a) See the following in BAR “Thoughts in the Dirt at Dan,” BAR 10:01, sidebar, by Daniel S. Wolk; “A Volunteer on the Road,” BAR 09:01, sidebar, by Sara Aurant; “The Volunteer’s Contribution to Archaeology and Vice Versa,” BAR 08:01, by Ellsworth E. Rosen.

(b) Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Massada Press, Ltd., 1969).

(c) The Philistines and Their Material Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1982), 310 pp., $45.00.

(d) See the following articles by Rachel Hachlili in BAR: “Ancient Burial Customs Preserved in Jericho Hills,” BAR 05:04; “The Saga of the Goliath Family—As Revealed in their Newly Discovered 2,000-Year-Old Tomb,” BAR 09:01, by Rachel Hachlili and Ann Killebrew.

(e) The Answers Lie Below: Essays in Honor of Lawrence Edmund Toombs, edited by Henry O. Thompson (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1984). A festschrift is a work published in honor of a senior scholar by his or her colleagues and students.

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