Time to do it right

Rubina Raja & Søren M Sindbæk on…

If you have followed the fieldwork scene for some time, you might have noticed that archaeologists who work in ancient cities around the world often keenly return to the same site year after year, decade after decade. Tourists and locals may take it as a testimony to the loveliness of the localities, or think of ongoing fieldwork as a kind of summer holiday for archaeologists. Administrators, funding bodies, and other gatekeepers are likely to tear their hair out after years funding expensive fieldwork campaigns. Surely, if you have already spent five or six, or even more than 20 field seasons scrutinising a site, chances must be fading that yet another season will dramatically change the outcome?

below Excavation in progress in 2022 at the ‘Lost City of the Pyramid Builders’, in Giza, Egypt. Thirty-five years after Ancient Egypt Research Associates initiated fieldwork here, an overview of the huge settlement is still coming together, and with it a much fuller understanding of the building of the pyramids.
Excavation in progress in 2022 at the ‘Lost City of the Pyramid Builders’, in Giza, Egypt. Thirty-five years after Ancient Egypt Research Associates initiated fieldwork here, an overview of the huge settlement is still coming together, and with it a much fuller understanding of the building of the pyramids. IMAGE: Ancient Egypt Research Associates

Some blame the Howard Carter syndrome: the stick-in-the-mud belief that the next season will bring about a long-sought revelation. Yet something different is at work here. When an ancient civilisation has left behind heritage on the scale of a city, comprehensive understanding does not come easy. It takes time just to get the basics right.

Someone who knows this is Mark Lehner. Admittedly, the site he works at is one that would daunt many. Since the early 1970s, he has directed excavations and surveys at the Giza pyramids. In 2017, he presented an overview of the results in the magnificent Giza and the Pyramids, co-written with long-term collaborator Zahi Hawass (CWA 86). Yet the work continues to unfold. To keep up with the latest news, you need to sign up for AERAGRAM, the biannual bulletin of the Ancient Egypt Research Associates, where Lehner treats subscribers to the most recent discoveries.

In the latest edition, volume 22, he looks back at how the project has developed. Lehner had already worked at Giza for years when, in 1988, he set his sights on a simple question that had not much concerned earlier investigators: where were the people who built and commissioned these megalithic monuments? Lehner had a hunch that a huge stone wall still visible at the southern edge of the pyramid plateau had been placed there to screen off something. When his team tested the idea, they found dense traces of settlement. During the first few seasons, the team believed that they were excavating a royal palace. But the structures told a different story. What Lehner’s team found was a far-flung complex of houses, storage galleries, kitchens, dormitories, and offices. The ‘Lost City of the Pyramid Builders’ saw light.

Over the next three decades, piece after piece of the huge and hitherto unknown complex was revealed, including harbours, quarries, housing, streets, and administrative buildings. The pyramids were the tip of an iceberg. Recently, somewhat unexpectedly, the idea of a royal palace has resurfaced, as the team is now working on a monumental building, where an unprecedented quantity of administrative sealings has turned up.

Lehner’s results are transforming our understanding of the Giza pyramids, and of Pharaonic Egypt. They reveal that what was once thought of as the labour of brute bondage is really an edifice of efficient early state administration. But after 35 years of digging, there are more questions than when the excavations begun. Lehner and his team still feel that they are only scratching the surface.

Within classical archaeology, some excavations have even been ongoing for more than a century, such as the excavations at Ephesos, under the auspices of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and for numerous years directed by Sabine Ladstätter. The site lies in ancient Asia Minor, modern Turkey – a country that is currently suffering after the recent, tragic earthquakes. Investigating Ephesos has taught us about urban development, private houses such as the famous Hanghäuser, sanctuaries including that of Artemis, the layout of public spaces, early churches, graves, libraries (like that of Celsus), and the process of the silting up of the harbour. Those who have visited Ephesos will know that the site now lies far from the sea. But, in Antiquity, the city had a harbour and therefore an entirely different landscape. It would have been a thoroughly distinct urban experience to be in the city when it was located by the sea, compared to the sense we get when visiting today.

above A view of Aphrodisias city centre, looking north-west. Excavations have been under way at the site for decades.
A view of Aphrodisias city centre, looking north-west. Excavations have been under way at the site for decades. IMAGE: courtesy of Aphrodisias Excavations

The New York University Institute of Fine Arts is excavating at another marvellous site in Asia Minor: Aphrodisias. Work is directed by Bert Smith at the University of Oxford, and has also been ongoing for decades – stretching back before Smith took over the directorship in the 1990s. These large-scale targeted excavations, focusing on a variety of monuments and contexts around the city, are aimed at disentangling its development in a longue durée perspective, and keep on producing surprising insights into life in a fairly normally sized city in the Eastern Roman Empire. As archaeological methods have developed, so too they have been applied at the site. One example is the combination of the sculptural research undertaken by team members with a better grasp of the chronological development and then reuse of urban monuments. This allows the unlocking of the site’s unique history to be placed on a surer footing, and brings to the forefront a fascinating urban narrative of a site, which not only flourished in the Imperial periods, but also long into Late Antiquity and the medieval era.

Slowly, but surely

Urban archaeology is a complex animal. Take a site such as the city of Rome itself. Whereas numerous other ancient urban sites are investigated by an individual archaeological mission, or at most a small band of them, Rome never has been and never will be. The city encompasses a vast palimpsest spanning several thousands of years of human presence, as evidenced by the material culture. No single benchmark standard has been set for conducting archaeological projects in Rome, and neither can it be, since the various settings differ enormously. The now not-so-new kid on the block, the Danish-Italian excavations of Caesar’s Forum (CWA 113), under way since 2018, have aimed at setting new standards for archaeology in complex and multi-millennial urban contexts. Such projects, however, need resources that go beyond what most funders are willing to finance over numerous years, especially when they must also accept that results take time as findings require in-depth analysis before comprehensive publications can appear. There is not much of a summer holiday atmosphere at most urban excavations today.

Zoom north to the edge of the Baltic Sea in Germany, where the trading town of Hedeby once connected the maritime world of the Viking Age. For two decades, Volker Hilberg has been quietly working away at 20-odd hectares of stratigraphy now hiding under a green field, which has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Excavations had been running in Hedeby for just over a century when Hilberg appeared on the scene after the turn of the millennium. Yet our understanding of the site has changed dramatically since his arrival. After several campaigns of huge excavations, it was still believed that Hedeby had been in steep decline from around AD 990, and then virtually abandoned a few decades later. But when Hilberg initiated systematic surveys using metal-detectors, a different story emerged from the plough layer, as he details in the brand-new 700-page tome Haithabu 983-1066. Coins and artefacts from the mid-11th century AD appeared in startling numbers. The finds revealed that the town continued to flourish: the latest layers had simply been eradicated by a millennium of farming. Looking across the Schlei Fjord to where Hedeby’s successor, the medieval city of Schleswig, graces the waterfront, it became clear that Hedeby’s demise had nothing to do with a declining economy, but was the result of a deliberate relocation in the 1060s.

Claus von Carnap-Bornheim, who supervised work in Hedeby for the past few decades, has called this place a ‘monster site’. A few years ago, in a paper he wrote with Hilberg for a volume on the Status and Future Perspectives of Long-Term Excavations in Europe, he called for researchers to recognise the special obligations and responsibilities that follow when you take on the task of curating such a creature.

Ex-Beatle George Harrison put it well in ‘Got My Mind Set On You’, a song that filled the airwaves when Lehner commenced work on the pyramid city: if you’ve got your eyes set on something, you can do it – but it takes time, plenty of time, to do it right. Time, and a whole lot of spending money.

Rubina Raja is professor of classical archaeology and director of the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Aarhus University, Denmark. Together with Søren, she is founding editor of the Journal of Urban Archaeology.

Søren M Sindbæk is professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, Denmark, and co-director of the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions.