Friday, September 13, 2002

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m back. I’ve actually been back for some time, if by “back” you mean “in the United States rather than Sicily,” which of course is where I was for the first six weeks of summer and the principal reason I stopped blogging. Not that I ever intended for this to be a consistent news update. Blogs are information dumps and nothing more, and there is something distinctly ungentlemanly about expecting people to read your blog rather than talking with them. Speaking Natalie will remain an exercise in Speaking Natalie.

All that notwithstanding, I do understand that many of you are probably curious about Sicily and how it went. So here I sit with Martina McBride singing over my speakers to tell you about Sicily and how it went. For convenience’s sake I will divide this post into three main sections: where we were digging, how we were digging, and what we were digging. This will likely be a very long post, but if you don’t want to read it (or want to stop reading once you realize how long it is) don’t feel bad. I give you leave to stop. Really.

For those of you who don’t know, let me give you a little background on our site. I was digging at a hill in western Sicily called Monte Polizzo, which in the 6th century BC was home to a settlement of a people whom the Greeks called Elymians. We don’t know what they called themselves, or if they even thought that the “Elymians” were a single cultural group, so until we find out how the Elymians thought of themselves, Elymians they shall stay.

The basic picture we get here is that the Greeks and Phoenicians did their colonizing thing in the 8th century BC, which is how you get Phoenician (i.e., from Lebanon) cities like Carthage out in the middle of North Africa and Greek cities around the Black Sea. Naturally both peoples colonized Sicily (well, okay, the Phoenicians only sort of colonized it, but for purposes of our discussion let’s just say they did). For a while the natives and newcomers coexisted in relative peace. Around the 6th century, the Greek cities started wanting more land (after all, you need a hinterland if you’re going to be a proper Greek polis) and things got kind of ugly. The Greeks being a rather nasty militaristic people, the Elymians got the short end of the stick and started fleeing inward to these hilltop sites which were miserable to live on but easy to defend against the faceless bronze-clad bourgeois hordes. Monte Polizzo is one such site.

So that’s where we were digging. As far as how we were digging: The town of Salemi, which is where we were staying ‘cause it’s right near the hill, has been kind enough these past several years to provide the dig with a house at its own expense. This is essentially because we’re the biggest thing that happens to Salemi all year, excepting the Mafia – I mean, the pharmaceuticals industry. So every day, except for Sundays and every other Saturday, we’d get up about 0600 and stagger into our digging clothes and go outside. Going outside was absolutely necessary, for two reasons: 1). The dig house, like virtually all buildings in Salemi, had no air conditioning to combat the humidity; 2). The food was outside. So we stumbled outside, and those of us who drank coffee (which does not include me) drank shots (from little plastic shot glasses) of coffee from these aluminum percolators whose handles were only technically attached to their bodies, which made pouring coffee (or worse, making it) somewhat hazardous. Then we would battle the meat wasps for the materials to make our lunches and stumble into the vans and cars that would drive us most of the way up the hill. Standard load-out for a digger was four liters of water, though as it turned out we generally didn’t drink that much. We left the house by 0630 and were generally on-site by 0700.

Of course getting to the site included walking the last ten minutes or so, which wouldn’t have been bad except for the severity of the incline. But once we got to the top (and I do mean the top, as in the highest point on the hill) of Monte Polizzo we could take a breather near one of our rock piles or under a tarp. Oftentimes the hill would be shrouded in thick white mist that rolled by with a beauty that was almost eerie; half the time I expected Ringwraiths to come striding out of the mist. On mornings like that you could see your shadow projected onto the mist, and visibility was less than fifty yards. It was beautiful.

The soil at Monte Polizzo was really hard once you got through the top soil, so we dug with pick-axes. I’m told that in wetter climes, such as Britain, the soil is so soft that you can’t even use a brush on it because you’ll smear the layers too much that way. At Monte Polizzo, we literally ran into rocks that were easier to chop through than the “soil.” So we used big picks to take out large amounts of dirt (this stuff laughs at shovels unless it’s already broken up by a pick), and small picks to take out small amounts of dirt, and we only broke out the trowels when there was absolutely no other choice. You’ll probably wonder if we didn’t break stuff, blasting into the soil with big metal blades (naturally we used the blade end of the pick, rather than the pointy end) all the time. And, well, yes, we did. But if we ever broke anything truly important, which was pretty rare, the folks in the pottery lab could always put it back together. And it’s either dig with picks or don’t dig at all. Besides, pottery is surprisingly resilient. Many of the sherds we dug up could take several direct hits from a small pick and show only scratches. There’s a reason this stuff has lasted twenty-six hundred years.

Except for the first two days, when we laid into the local vegetation with picks and sickles to clear a plateau for the new Zone D and moved all the rocks dug up last year, the work was actually surprisingly light. I mean sure I moved several metric tons of dirt by hand, but over six weeks that’s not all that hard. The procedure is essentially to pick off a layer of dirt about a centimeter thick or so, then take your brush and dustpan and sweep it all up and dump it in a bucket. That stuff would eventually get sieved, so we didn’t have to be too careful, but the truth of the matter is that it was generally pretty easy to see the pottery, bones, or iron that we were digging up. And of course the wall was fairly unmistakable, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Weather on the hill was generally pretty clement, and up at the very top of the summit (Zone A, where I was working) there was a nice breeze for most of the day. But it was quickly apparent that nobody who wasn’t deathly afraid would live up here voluntarily. Every so often the nice breeze would turn into a scouring sandstorm that blasted across the hill and made life absolutely miserable. Dustpans would get blown for fifty feet or more if you put them down wrong, and every single particle of dirt you dug up got picked up by the wind and blown into somebody else’s eyes. Then there were the days when it was miserable and chill, and the fog enveloped the hill all the way through noon. And the days when the breeze didn’t come and the air was so still you wondered why it didn’t fall to the ground like a bunch of atmospheric marbles and you just baked. But most of the time it was relatively pleasant, if you brought plenty of water (the nearest spring is naturally down the hill, which would have meant a long walk for our Elymian friends).

At 1030 we’d break for about fifteen minutes, and at 1130 we’d break for lunch for half an hour. Then at 1430 we’d pack up our finds for the day and drive them back to the dig house, where we’d wash the bones and pottery and put them into these plastic trays called cassettes to be taken away into the lab and never seen again.

But what were we digging, you ask?

Finds-wise, we dug up mostly broken bits of pottery. Monte Polizzo is literally covered with pottery; the stuff littered the ground on the way up to the site. My tango-dancing friend whom I will refer to as Blue Tango worked in Zone D, half of which was literally carpeted in pottery – that’s about twenty-five square meters of the stuff. And there was lots of bone, too, both burned and unburned. We dug up a lot of that in Zone A, though hardly as much as one of the Zone B trenches (which, to be fair, was digging up a bone-working workshop). Most of our bone was pretty small – if you cook bone enough apparently it turns all white and black and blue and shiny and then it explodes, so naturally the burnt bone fragments were all very small, usually smaller than your pinky nail. But even the unburnt fragments were fairly small in our area.

We also dug up a fair amount of metal stuff. Mostly the metal finds were unexciting, just little lumps of rusted iron. But sometimes we found cool stuff: e.g., three bronze Punic (= Carthaginian) coins, two bronze pendant earrings (or possibly necklace pendants), a bronze key (we think), an iron javelin head. That stuff was all pretty cool. When we dug up something fairly rare like that we’d call over the GPS rod or the infrared range-finder team and get the 3D coordinates of the object where we found it, so somewhere there’s a three-dimensional map of our hill with individual rocks and building stones mapped in, and you can see the relationships of all of our “small finds” to that. Wherever that is, I’m sure it’s very cool.

By far the coolest stuff in Zone A, however, was the buildings. Monte Polizzo was a settlement, and two of our zones (B and C) were digging up houses. Zone D was digging up a storage courtyard (which had some man-sized storage jars, or pithoi, lying in the ground where they fell. It was way cool; those jars are totally going to get reassembled). Zone A was digging up a religious structure.

I say “religious structure” instead of “temple” because we don’t know very much about Elymian religion. We don’t know what their temples looked like, or even if they had the concept of “temple.” We do know that there were two altars at this site, both of which had oodles of burnt bone around them (some of it worked, presumably from Joe’s Worked Bone and Antler, down in Zone B). The center of the zone was dominated by a circular structure with thick stone walls (like, two meters thick) that contained the remains of terracotta basins which still contained ashes. So obviously religion was important to these people (this “temple” is sited directly on the highest part of the hill, at the center of the settlement) and included sacrificing very select parts of animals (as it turned out). My trench in particular was chasing a low, curving enclosure wall of stones that came off of the main circular structure. We ended up finding a small … well, rectangular space right next to the enclosure wall, barely wide enough for a man to lie down in. Don’t know what it was – a closet, a strongpoint of a wall, or what. Very interesting though.

So that’s essentially the dig in a nutshell. Professor Morris will be giving a lecture sometime in the fall to update folks about what exactly they’ve concluded now they’ve had time to look at this season’s data crop, and you can go to that if you want. I’ll post an announcement about it here. Sicily was, however, interesting for other reasons.

First and foremost – indeed the primary reason I went – was the amount of spiritual growth that took place over this trip, despite the lack of fellowship and teaching. There was some very good worship out back behind the dig house with just me and God and my mp3s, and that of course was merely the beginning. But that’s all I’m going to say about that. I just didn’t want to gloss over it entirely.

It was also interesting for the people I met. The Newspaperman, the Archaeologist, Blue Tango (no conceptual relation to Blue Rose), Songstress, the Conservator, the Assassin, and of course Her Majesty Padme Amidala. If not for those people my days at Sicily would have been incredibly dull. I may even look some of them up when I get back to campus. I wouldn’t mind spending more time with the girls, anyway. The guys … well, I’m glad I met them on the dig but they aren’t precisely the kind of people I’d normally hang out with. No, I don’t have crushes on them, and yes, they almost all have boyfriends. Besides, only the Songstress is Christian.

Most interesting of all from a wisdom standpoint was watching the people in charge, however. This dig was quite the exercise in watching different styles of command. I have come out of the experience with the conviction that authority – real authority, the loyalty-inspiring kind that makes performers devoted to a director or makes soldiers follow an officer into certain death – comes from the confluence of two factors. These are competence and character. A person with much competence and no character cannot command his subordinates any farther than they will go because it benefits them. Likewise for a person with much character but no competence. A person with both, however, may wield true authority: people will follow such a person against all rules of self-preservation, sacrificing personal comfort, scheduling convenience, or indeed their lives (at the extreme) for no other reason than who that person is. (This confluence of competence and character is, by the way, the heroic talent of the epic heroine Honor Harrington, and why I hold her in such esteem). Steven Pressfield put it succinctly into the mouth of Alcibiades in Tides of War: somebody asks Alcibiades how you lead free men, and he replies quite simply, “by being better than them.” The dig provided several examples of good and bad authority.

At the low end of the spectrum was our House Manager, who was a genial guy most of the time but had a short temper and a tendency to snap at people for unjustifiable reasons because he was annoyed at little things they did earlier. It wasn’t even that the man wasn’t good at what he did; he was. But he didn’t display sufficient strength of character for that to matter. He was a man who had position but no real authority, for he commanded no respect.

This was all in marked contrast to Trinity and Professor Morris, our assistant director and project director respectively. Both of those individuals were equally good at their jobs, but they displayed real concern for the wellbeing of the members of the dig – when I got left behind one day Trinity not only exempted me from pottery washing but bought me a beer (well ok, so I don’t drink beer, but it’s the thought that counts in this case). That shows the character necessary to wield authority. And then of course there was my zone supervisor, Lady Margaret, who will be teaching me Greek in the fall and whom I shall refer to as Meg Anassa (literally, Lady Meg) as well as Lady Margaret (it’s a Zone A joke). How pleasant it was to work under a woman who spoke well of me when I did a good job, who brought pastries and frozen juice boxes up to the site for us on special occasions, and who was involved in every detail of her zone’s excavation without hovering over our shoulders all the time? I am, by the way and needless to say, quite pleased to have the opportunity to have a class with her.

Well, I expect that will do it for the moment. If you want to hear about side trips to Zingaro Nature Preserve or Palermo you can certainly ask me about those, but I think I’ve read your eyes off enough for one post.

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