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My series of Postcards from the past came to a sudden halt a while back, mainly because I reached a point where I had plenty of memories, but no images. I’ve decided to deal with that hiccup by means of a words-only interlude.

The story so far: in 2000 I was a paying volunteer on an archaeological dig at Pella in Jordan, with a team from Sydney University.

There were three aspects of the work I did on the dig: cleaning a variety of finds; sorting the morning’s haul; and action in the trenches. I have photos of work in the trench, but for some reason the camera didn’t accompany me when I was cleaning and sorting.

Inside work

On alternate days we worked inside, or around the dig house. My first archaeological job was at the cleaning table, toothbrushing bones in water: camel or donkey teeth; a small lower jaw; some brown marbled bone; and heaps of slivers I didn’t dare discard. In the midst of bone I came across part of a small ceramic oil lamp. I cleaned mud from its spout gently with a toothpick.

There were two unexpected jobs. One was poking holes in cheap plastic sieves. The other was the manufacture of cotton buds: we sat there, intently winding cotton wool around a matchstick. We used the buds to clean glass with ethanol. This required deep concentration: the glass was delicate and often sharp. In my pile, there were a few very fine clear fragments, some with a subdued opalescent surface, some with dirt-filled tunnels below the rim; and a few heavy green bits. One piece stood out: a beautifully shaped handle, green with long swirls of red.

More energetically, we relocated boxes dating back to 1984 from between two mud brick walls, forming a chain and working in dusty camaraderie. I absconded before we were too deep amongst spider-webs, beetles and scorpions, fearful of the legendary camel spiders that gnaw hunks out of camel humps.

Pottery sorting

After a morning in the trenches, buckets of shards were lugged across to the yard of the dig house and emptied one by one onto mats for sorting.

Steve, the dig director, circulated, keeping an eye on volunteers and offering advice: “That big heavy clumsy piece is a tile. Keep it: it’s complete” or “That green piece there with rounded ribbing stays. There’s nothing else like it in this lot.” I was anxiously meticulous, until Steve explained the process in rigorous scientific terms: “Look at it. If you think that’s one of those, chuck it on on that pile. If it looks much the same as the other stuff in the pile, that’s where it belongs.”

All painted pieces qualified for keeping, as did any piece at all distinctive or unique. At the end of the session we counted the discards and dumped them in the pile outside the compound, carefully mapped as a scrap pile. When we left the dig, we each souvenired a few shards.

This work was necessary and sometimes exciting, but the trenches were where the real action was.