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Volume 14, Number 4April 1963

In This Issue

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They "Dig" History

It’s supervising how many pages of past ages archaeologists can read from a few fragments.

On November 4, 1922 an English archaeologist named Howard Carter paused in his work of opening the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamen. The hole he had made was big enough to see through. Lighting a candle, he held it inside and squinted into the darkness of the ancient burial chamber while other members of the expedition waited anxiously.

Lord Carnarvon, his associate, could wait no longer. "Can you see anything?"

"Yes, wonderful things!" Carter finally replied in a trembling voice.

Carter's words were a considerable understatement, for in the flickering light of his candle he could see the long-hidden treasures of an Egyptian king who had ruled over three thousand years before. The discovery was not only important; it was unique. Grave robbers had long since plundered every royal tomb they could find, Tutankhamen's escaping this fate only because its entrance was concealed under debris until Carter and Carnarvon discovered it forty years ago, with its mummified king still resting in his beautiful stone sarcophagus.

The tales of archaeology often describe the excitement of such a discovery but neglect to tell of the scientists' painstaking labor. Years ago the sun-helmeted and bearded archaeologist portrayed in movies really existed. He was actually more of an adventurer than an archaeologist, however, and he dug recklessly through ruins searching for golden cups, exotic statues and jewel-decked mummies. He gave little thought to the great bulk of material representing the common people of an ancient civilization—objects telling how they lived, what they made, how closely they might resemble modern man.

Today's archaeologist is different. Whether a "classical" expert who spends most of his time working in a museum studying and classifying artifacts, or a "digger" who is often in the field, the archaeologist has become a scientist who works with the utmost precision and modern instruments.

Archaeologists roam the world delving into man's past, but because the first civilizations were spawned in the Middle East many of their most dramatic discoveries have been made there. In the Fertile Crescent, the ancient lands watered by the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile rivers, man discovered the secret of agriculture and the domestication of animals. He laid aside his hunting bow and became a farmer and villager, and later built great cities. Throughout the Middle East the deep emotion felt by Howard Carter as he stood before Tutankhamen's tomb has been experienced by others. The famous archaeologist Botta felt it as he stood in the ruins of Assyrian Nineveh; Koldewey when he climbed the old walls of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon; and Woolley as he dug among the broken pots and royal graves of Sumerian Ur.

The care required of the modern archaeologist, and his need of a basic knowledge of languages, natural sciences and cultures of different countries, have made the "lone wolf" searcher obsolete. Now when an expedition arrives at an ancient site in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Iran, the archaeologist leading the party comes as the head of a group of experts in anthropology, geology, geography and other sciences. Some of the party must know surveying, photography, drafting and mechanical repair. And even with all the accumulated knowledge represented by the experts "at the dig," final reports on important finds must still wait until opinions have been heard from scientific specialists in museums and universities scattered around the world.

An archaeologist searches for the remains of ancient dwellings or villages with a trained eye and plain common sense. Caves can be rich in relics of pre-historic man, the banks of a river may reveal sites of old settlements, and even a broad plain might be studded with outcroppings of aged flints, pottery or bricks from buried towns. Many ancient Middle Eastern sites appear as nothing more than flat-topped hills with sloping sides, as a result of the ancient building methods that could not withstand centuries of weathering. For ages people built villages of sun-dried mud brick houses. As the years passed, rain weakened the roofs until they collapsed. Eventually the walls crumbled and windblown dust and sand swept over the abandoned houses and villages. Often new villages were built on top of ones which had been buried. The mound heaps up as the building, decaying and covering processes are repeated.

Drama still exists for the archaeologist preparing to excavate a mound site, but it is controlled by reason and scientific patience. Before an archaeologist tells his crew to begin digging he makes certain that all the broken pottery, flints and worked stones on the surface are collected and noted. Then the entire area is accurately surveyed, mapped and photographed. The hill is carefully studied by the experts in planning their excavation, for the slopes may give evidence of an ancient fortification wall, a major building or temple, or the location of a market place.

Excavation usually begins with the digging of exploratory trenches both on the top and on the sides of the mound. Holes about 12 to 15 feet square are started on the top, while step trenches, some 10 feet long on each step, are dug on the sides. These trenches allow the archaeologist to study the different layers of ruins, while the square holes on top tell him if his digging plan will bring successful results.

Digging is the job of skilled pickmen who use a short-handled, one-bladed pick in deftly cutting through the ruins. Heavy earth-moving equipment is of little value in archaeology for it would destroy more of the fragile past than it could unearth undamaged.

When pieces of pottery, flint tools or bits of bone are unearthed, they are carefully removed from the trench and placed in a basket which has been tagged for each individual pit. The finds are taken to a control area where they are washed, unless they are of unbaked clay or other material that washing would damage. The cleaned artifacts are then classified, the pit and layer from which they came are noted, reference numbers are given; finally they are catalogued in record books.

As the pickmen work deeper, the archaeologists may decide to abandon all but two or three of the exploratory pits to concentrate on the most promising. The entire staff is kept busy cleaning, brushing and sorting the objects as they are discovered. Some items are photographed or drawn with painstaking care, and pieces of broken pottery are reassembled into a complete jar, dish or pot. At the mound, the pickmen begin encountering house walls, rooms and even some furnishings. The experts work long hours guiding the diggers, photographing the cleared rooms and any important objects just as they were left thousands of years before.

As more and more relics are dug from the earth, the mound begins to tell about the people who lived in the ruined villages. It is here that the archaeologist feels the antiquity of man as he focuses his knowledge and experience on the different finds. Flint sickle blades and kernels of domestic wheat and barley tell him that the people of the hill grew and harvested grain. Broken grinding stones speak silently of baking bread in ancient ovens. Bones show the kinds of animals the villagers raised and the meat they ate, while pottery adorned with intricate designs testifies to a love for beauty and a sense of form. Bone needles, graceful spoons, imprints of woven fabrics on clay and statuettes of animals and people all enable the archaeologist to recreate an accurate picture of what the villages must have been like when they were communities of working, talking, laughing people.

Objects found in ruins are sent to experts all over the world for further study and evaluation. In 1950-51, an expedition directed by Dr. Robert J. Braidwood of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute worked at Jarmo in the Kurdish highlands of northeastern Iraq. At this now-famous site archaeologists uncovered proof that Jarmo was one of the places where man first gave up the life of a wandering hunter and settled down to farming and village life about 8,500 years ago. After the artifacts used by the Jarmo people had been studied by the expedition, many were sent on to other scientific men. Bones were sent to anthropologists in Illinois, pottery to an expert in Oregon, stone bowls to a petrologist. Charcoal dug from aged fire beds was examined by a Danish botanist for evidence of ancient plants, then by a wood expert at Harvard University for identification of the trees from which it came, and finally it was given radioactive carbon-14 dating tests by Dr. W. F. Libby at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the University of Chicago. It is only after careful analysis of the excavation site, the surrounding countryside, and artifacts has been completed that the archaeologists who did the digging and their fellow scientists in allied fields attempt to give their new information about man its proper place in history.

Like Botta, Carter and Woolley in the past, archaeologists today continue to explore the long reaches of the Middle East hoping to find more evidence of early man and the rise of the first civilizations. While some continue to die and analyze the pre-historic villages and caves near Jarmo, Iraq, or copy and study the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls of Egyptian tombs, others explore new sites. Archaeologists are busy at the ruins of the Biblical city of Shechem in western Jordan where the shrine at which Abraham may have worshipped was discovered in 1962. Iranian experts are digging at Marlik Tepe near the Caspian Sea in the royal graves of a previously unknown people. Scientists from the Universities of Cincinnati and Stockholm are studying the ancient wild animal life at the ruins of Troy, and others are inspecting the recently unearthed painted murals at Cetal Huyuk in central Turkey.

Archaeologists and other learned men from all over the world have joined in searching and studying our early ancestors so that modern man will know more of his history and be better able to understand himself.

IN SAUDI ARABIA ... An archaeological survey team last summer completed a three-week expedition to ancient sites in northwest Saudi Arabia with the assistance of the Arabian American Oil Company and Tapline. The expedition covered almost 2,000 miles of trackless desert from Turaif south to al-'Ula and then followed a circuitous route back north to Turaif. Headed by archaeologists from the University of Ontario,Toronto and the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, Jordan, the expedition was accompanied by Aramco and Tapline personnel.

Of special interest to the team was the period from about 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., during which two peoples, the Nabateans and Thamudenes, occupied the area. To date, very little is known about their cultures.

At Taima the team found ruins spectacular in size and extremely promising from an archaeological point of view. The site at Taima is so large that it will require many more expeditions and a number of years of laboratory, museum and library work to tell its full story. Some of Taima's ancient history is known. The Neo-Babylonian kin a Nabonidus conquered the city in 550 B.C. and during the eight years of his rule, the city developed into an important commercial center.

South of Taima, at Mada'in Salih and al-'Ula, the team investigated a series of rock-cut tombs and two ancient city sites. Evidence gathered there indicates that the structures were built by the same people who built the famous city of Petra, far to the north in what is today the Kingdom of Jordan. Traveling north, the expedition found several Thamudic inscriptions, as well as the ruins of a structure very similar to ancient temples in Jordan. Nabatean inscriptions were also recorded in the area.

The archaeological expeditions in Saudi Arabia will continue during the summer, 1963.

This article appeared on pages 8-10 of the April 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for April 1963 images.