Specialists and special finds: collaborating to tackle a new challenge, by Nadhira Hill

Nadhira measuring and documenting special finds

Nadhira Hill, a graduate student who has previously participated in the geophysical study of the site and is now joining the excavation team, talks about yet another hat she wears: processing and studying special finds.

At the Olynthos excavation, there are plenty of opportunities to learn a variety of skills, from digging to field survey to ceramics processing to flotation and more. If you’re like me – either lucky or overly ambitious (or both!) – you can do more than one thing in a single day. For me, my day starts with excavation on the North Hill, upon which is located not only the excavation trenches we hike up to every morning in order to start work at around 7am, but also the reconstructed blocks of houses that were excavated in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Excavation is sometimes challenging, both physically and mentally: often the heat is almost unbearable, and you find dirt in places you’d never expect, but after three seasons of excavation at other sites, I’ve discovered that digging is where my heart truly lies.

Nadhira and another team member working hard in the sun to excavate the topmost layers of a trench

However, this year, upon joining the Olynthos excavation, I decided to branch out and try to learn something new: special finds processing. We finish digging around 12:30pm and, after about fifteen minutes of cleaning up the trenches and putting away the tools, we head down the hill to cool off and have lunch around 1pm. By 2pm, when everyone else has hurried off to start washing the pottery acquired in excavation and field survey that day, I pull out crates that contain my supplies – a scale, a geometry set, special finds forms, and sometimes a small basin of water and toothbrush if a find requires some cleaning – and the special finds that have accumulated up to that point.

Depending on the find, the work can go either really quickly or really slowly. Ceramics, such as pottery and tile, are the most common form of find on a site like Olynthos, while certain organic finds, like shell, bone, and environmental samples, come in close second. “Special finds,” however, are a category which includes individual objects that are somehow different from “bulk finds” like ceramics and provide us with some significant information about the contexts we are excavating or surveying. At different sites, special finds might include loomweights, metal objects made of iron, bronze, or lead, miniature vessels, or stone tools.

Once I have taken out my supplies and crates containing these so-called “special finds”, I move my table and chair into the shade and get to work. Turning to a blank form, I battle to keep my papers in order in the otherwise nice breeze as I choose a find at random, remove it from its designated plastic bag and examine it. If the find is significantly dirty, I quickly wash it with some water and a toothbrush, then lay it out for a while in the sun to dry. This process is important for two reasons: the dirt could be hiding details that might be significant to note in the description of the find, and if the find is wet, it could affect the weight of the object. On the note of dirt, on other projects, it is often super important to check out the faces of field stones before you toss them because there might be something inscribed on them! It would be a dream come true if I ever found a cool inscription!

Once the find is clean and dry, I use the tag that accompanies the object to fill in some of the fields at the top of the form – the special find number, the date of collection, the material the find is made of (ceramic, stone, metal, etc.) – and then weigh and measure the find. Sometimes the scale can be a little finicky and jumps between two and three different weights, but I choose the one it seems to like best and note the weight on the form. Then I use a small ruler to measure the length, width, and height of the object and put those on the form as well. These fields can sometimes be tricky because I have to be aware of the orientation of particular objects in order to get the measurements right. For example, if an object stands on a base, there would be a clear height and the length would instead be the diameter of the base.

Next is the trickiest part of my job – the “description” section. I also have to record photograph numbers (if the object has been photographed) and do a small sketch of the object in another box on the form, but that often seems incredibly easy to do by comparison. I think that the description of the object is so difficult for me sometimes because it requires some knowledge of the significance of certain objects or types of objects. Sometimes it can be challenging to determine what the significance of a particular “special find” is, but there are always plenty of people around to ask for their opinion. As a result, I have come to learn a lot more about things that I had never learned in the classroom. For example, if there is a fragmented piece of ceramic in one of the bags, I will usually go over and ask members of the ceramics team about the object. This is because, as I pointed out above, pottery and tile are numerous, and it is very rare for a piece of ceramic to be assigned a special finds number unless it is particularly interesting. An example of the types of ceramics which might appear in the special finds of different excavations are miniature vessels.

When I go to the ceramics team with my queries, not only do I get an answer to my questions about the form or the fabric, but I am exposed to new perspectives and opinions on the object that I had not considered before. Talking to others when you’re stuck is one particularly important part of this project, because no excavation can work properly without some level of collaboration between different people. However, collaboration occurs not only when I work with the special finds, but it happens when I’m working in the trenches, too. Whenever I am faced with a strange feature or find, it often helps for me to ask not only my supervisor, but also people in other trenches and the directors, if they happen to be around, for their opinions. We all have different types and levels of knowledge and specialties, so it’s important that we talk to each other in order to try and overcome the challenges we encounter.

Overall, despite the challenges that come with excavation and special finds processing, I am happy to be doing both and getting to learn so much!