Precious Pot Sherds at Tell-el-Hesy July 23, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Modern , trackback
Beach has failed to find the original for this as it appeared unreferenced: a crime he is going to compound by unreferencing that one late inadequate reference. However, the passage almost certainly relates to the work of Flinders Petrie at Tell-el-Hesy in 1890, sometimes said to mark the birth of modern archaeology. FP, among his many talents, understood clearly the importance of stratification and added to this a careful examination of the cast-offs of the ancients. He wasn’t just interested in silver and gold, something that was more typical of those living in those phases between treasure-hunting and contemporary archaeology. Crucially he established a dating sequence based on ceramic pieces.
‘In a description of the excavations carried on in the mound of Tell-el-Hesy, supposed to be the site of the ancient city of Lackish [wrongly as it happens!!], the explorer recounts how he was waited upon by a deputation from the workmen, consisting of Arabs and Fellaheen, and begged not to any further bewitch the ‘tell’ or hill. ‘You come to a ‘tell’ that is full of gold and treasure, and bewitch them into the form of potsherds. Then you dig out the potsherds, take them to your own country, undo the spell, and they turn back to gold and treasure.’
It’s a beautiful passage. ‘The explorer’ had the modern archaeologist’s habit of caring about even the small bits of broken pottery. It is this, as well as the date, that suggests we are talking about Petrie here: for Petrie was a keen pottery man. The local treasure-hunting Arabs and Fellaheen though – and we must remember just how enthusiastic the Arabs particularly were in terms of treasure spells, Jinns and associated magic – couldn’t believe that the white man would be so foolish. From this came the idea that ‘the explorer’ was working his magic and changing coins and leaves of gold into little broken bits of ceramic! It is, in some senses the opposite of the fairy treasure: where the beautiful prizes given by Oberon became blades of dried grass and flakes of mud by the morning.
In short we have an epic clash between the ‘primitive’ in search of glittering prizes and the late-nineteenth century scholar in search of the past. Perhaps sadly we must report that the modern scholar won. Beach was wondering about other cases where there was this clash between modern and not so modern sensibilities. The closest he could get was Brunelleschi’s visit to Rome when the Renaissance architect spent a good deal of time in and among the ruins. Brunelleschi was copying Roman techniques in the surviving buildings, the late medieval Romans were convinced that he was looking for treasure among the plinths…
Any other misunderstandings in archaeology: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30/July/2012: Judith from Zenobia writes: Every archaeologist working in the Middle East or Egypt has stories of suspicious or resentful locals certain that we were there to dig for treasure or, at the very least, were spies. One classic story centres on the Treasury (Khasneh) at Petra. The decorated urns above the round temple-tent near the top of the building are pockmarked by bullet holes; although made solid stone, for years locals took pots-shots at it, believing the vases were hollow and filled with treasure.’ Then Invisible with a superb screw up. The bold-faced bit is my favorite archaeological misunderstanding. As you can see, there were precedents for mistaking bog bodies for recent victims of crime or accident. “When the teeth of the digger bucket bit into the ditch vegetation at the edge of Croghan bog in County Offaly, Larry Corley noticed something solid sticking out of the cleaned drain. Jumping out of his cab, and bending down, he was shocked to find it was a human arm, ending in a huge thumb (Grice 2006: 19). He reported it immediately to the local Gardaí, and Det. Sgt. Eadaoín Campbell was sent out to photograph the remains and launch a forensic investigation, in the company of Marie Cassidy, the Irish state pathologist. To the modern eye, bogs can be desolate places: bleak landscapes, with dark pools of water, fringed with cotton grass. Both Campbell and Cassidy were aware of the disappearance of several local women from the area, over the last few years (ibid). Bogs were also a favoured place to dispose of bodies during the 1970s and 1980s period of the Troubles (Farrell 2001). Both the atmosphere of the place, and these historical disappearances, gave them to fear they were dealing with a modern murder. What they found, however, when they pulled back the black plastic over the crime scene, was the leather-coloured corpse of a much older victim, who has since become known as ‘Oldcroghan man’ (Grice 2006: 20). “The circumstances of this discovery were not unique. In 1983, Andy Mould, working on the processing line at Lindow Moss, in Cheshire, identified the partial remains of a human skull amongst the milled peat. Again, the police were called in, since they were concerned about the disappearance of a local woman from the area – Malika Reyn-Bardt – nearly twenty years earlier (Turner 1995b: 13). They had long suspected the husband, and when they confronted him with the remains, he confessed immediately to her murder and burial in the bog at the back of their bungalow: Lindow Moss. It was only after this interview that radiocarbon analysis was conducted on the remains, which dated them to the first or second century AD: Mr Reyn-Bardt had confessed to a murder he couldn’t have possibly committed. “Human remains from bogs across northern Europe have been dated to periods from later prehistory up to the nineteenth century. For example, when Graubelle Man was found in Denmark, there was debate over whether the remains were those of a local peat-cutter, Red Christian, who had disappeared in the region around 1887. Apparently found of his drink, it had long been assumed he had fallen into the bog, and drowned (Glob 1969: 60).” Source: BOG BODIES: REPRESENTING THE DEAD’ Thanks Judith and Invisible!