Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.
The weather has turned hot and has baked out a lot of the archaeological contexts. The dust from 2000-year-old crumbling mud brick gets on our clothes and covers all the finds on the site. This week I wrote an email to our ceramic specialist and asked her how we could remove the thick white carbonate found on many of our sherds, obscuring the painted designs and slip. She says that soaking the pottery pieces in a vinegar solution will help remove the carbonate layer. I also asked her if she knew how to reconstruct some of the broken pots we have found. She asked me if I just wanted to piece together the pots so we could get a count of the number of whole vessels or if I thought the pots should be restored as art objects.
This is an important question. Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Nomads and Networks have been curated and preserved as ‘art objects.’ Most were probably found in excellent condition when removed from the soil, but others might have required careful restoration and preservation techniques. Excavated artifacts have a life of their own. They are from the same time period and cultural origins as the settlement site of Tuzusai, yet our ceramic inventory is much more variable. We have large storage vessels with splashes of red paint, cooking vessels, bowls, jars, cups and plates. There are ceramic disks with a perforated center hole used as spindle whorls and large broken pot pieces with repair holes. Obviously household artifacts can be quite different from those found in burials. Burial inventories, unless robbed or disturbed, are often sealed contexts containing whole pots, sacrificial animals, daggers, finely fashioned plaques of gold that were sewn onto material. A settlement site, or a place where people actually lived, is filled with the debris and trash that is left behind when the settlement was abandoned.
The life of an artifact, like the beautiful double ribbed ceramic kettle found on the surface of the mud brick platform is amazing. Three weeks ago we found a large double ribbed kettle on the mud brick platform. We have been debating whether or not the deeper levels below the platform were the living surfaces associated with the house. Two days ago Lyuba carefully dug around a rim sherd of the same double ribbed kettle that had fallen 40 cm below the platform. We often find little treasures in the cracks and crevasses of architectural features. This week someone found two tiny fragments of bronze in a post hole. Think about a tiny piece of jewelry or a penny that falls through the floor boards of an old house. Household archaeology is made up of the debris and the small ‘forgotten things’ of everyday life. The archaeologist who finds a tiny fragment of bronze in a post hole or a broken pot on a floor of a house, or in the associated trash on a living floor, is ever curious about the history of such objects.
The artifacts associated with elite burials of the nomadic aristocrats, such as the sacrificial horses with their leather masks and antler horns found in Tomb 13 at Berel in the Altai, or the Golden Warrior with his plaques of gold sewn on his kaftan, leggings, and tall hat, you might also consider the everyday objects found at a Tuzusai. These artifacts include broken pots, remains of past meals such as animal bones and charred seeds, and even a favorite stone polished with a hole drilled into it, worn as a pendant or used as a sharpening stone.
As the days get hotter we have found a way to use a parachute as a shade. In this photo note the contrast between our parachute used as shade and the ancient mud brick architecture at Tuzusai.