From Dust to Data

A Journey of Archaeological Investigation

Sunset at the archaeological site of Tel Azekah in Israel. Courtesy Alexandra Wrathall.

Archaeologists have long captured the public imagination, as adventurers of the ancient past who discover the hidden treasures left behind by our ancestors. Within this imagined reality lies the juxtaposition between perceptions of the archaeologist i.e., as an explorer, treasure hunter, scientist, and educator. Admittedly, depending on the perspective, an archaeologist is all those things. As people “who destroy what is” so that they may “consider what was” the profession is inherently destructive, and as such the regular publication of excavated material is essential. What is “excavated” can never be “re-excavated” but instead only re-analyzed or re-contextualized. Within this scholarly landscape, the modern field of archaeology seeks to transform dust into data and democratize communal access to ancient history.

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The Transformation of Archaeology

Archaeology has undergone several transformations in its lifetime as a discipline, as a field tailored to specific regions but united under a global protocol. While some archaeological communities may pioneer specific approaches based on their specific contexts (i.e., plaster casting in Pompeii, LiDar identification of structures in the Amazon), all methodologically relate as part of a global disciplinary framework. The interconnectedness of archaeologists supports the exploration of frameworks and concepts that move beyond specific regions. This approach supports a complex assessment of the past, which transcends modern borders and cultural perspectives. It is this community of shared knowledge that characterizes the field now, through modern methods of excavation, attention to student training and education, scientific inter-disciplinary research, collaborative scholarship, and regular publication.

The author in the field at Tel Hadid, Israel, where she is an area supervisor. Photo by Noam Kodesh, courtesy Alexandra Wrathall.

Excavations are essential, as the setting for the education of students and the exploration of methodologies. The romance of an archaeological excavation evokes imagery of special finds gently uncovered with small brushes and tools. Yet in actuality, excavations involve a myriad of approaches, in the scale of the work, the tool, and the context. Much of the process requires patience and flexibility, as the act of “digging” familiarizes students with numerous excavation styles and context types. Moving from large tools to small, or thinking about architecture versus changes in sediment, presents students with the wider picture of the practice and allows them to see their role (and those of others) within it.


The Process of Archaeology

The author as area supervisor at Tel Azekah in 2022. Courtesy Alexandra Wrathall.

Advancements in scientific approaches and the increase in interdisciplinary studies have fostered a new era of archaeological investigation. The 20th century was largely characterized by “macro” archaeology (i.e., the study of architecture, special finds, and site layouts). Such an approach required “big digging” as entire sites were wholly excavated to reveal the “entire picture.” Yet the 21st century CE represented a shift from the macro to the micro, as sciences such as petrography, residue analysis, and radiocarbon dating, allowed archaeology to go beyond the human eye and to see the ancient world from a new perspective. In the current era macro and micro archaeology work in tandem. Excavators no longer entirely excavate sites for their own interest and instead intentionally leave large segments unexcavated so they may be “dug differently” sometime in the future. Rather the focus is on maximizing the material that is excavated as archaeologists work with macro and micro specialists throughout the excavation to ensure all avenues of sampling and documentation are explored.

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The balance between macro and micro is expressed in “registration” practices. Registration is the first step in the publication process. Although several features cannot be removed from the field without destruction (e.g., architecture or sedimentary sequences) the process of registration supports the accurate documentation of finds (of all sizes) from the moment they are found. This process includes the use of computerized systems (accessible in the field through iPads and laptops), survey equipment (to plot the X and Y of an object’s location), photography and 3D modeling, appropriate storage (boxes, soft tissue, plastics), and transportation to base camp. At camp, all finds are turned over to the project registrar, who in turn further assesses, documents, cleans, re-packages, and stores the finds. Throughout the year these finds are stored, further documented, and mostly integrated into research projects.

The facilities of an archaeological institute are essential to the holistic preservation and publication of the material. Institutes often have several laboratories related to the publication process such as 1) ceramic restoration for the repair of broken vessels, 2) conservation of objects related to metals, 3) illustration and digital modeling, 4) photography, and 5) an editorial department. Yet within this linear publication protocol lie additional laboratories dedicated to the development of specific data sets such as archaeometallurgy, archaeobotany, petrography, archaeozoology, etc. The coordination of several research vectors alongside thorough documentation protocols creates a research landscape that is rich in data, perspectives, and possibilities.

The author alongside her research assemblage from Tel Beth Shemesh (East, Section A). Photo by Sasha Flit, courtesy Alexandra Wrathall.

Modern approaches to archaeological data have developed new approaches to the study of material. Several iterations of archaeological schools of theory have developed to spotlight the ways the internal biases of the archaeologist (and of their societies) can skew analyses and reconstructed realities. Thus, modern archaeology demands the coordination of several aspects that are in a constant state of development (i.e., excavation, documentation, conservation, and interpretation). Although this coordination can at times be challenging, it has ultimately shown its ability to produce a higher resolution of the past. The Achilles heel of archaeology is the understanding that all efforts and practice are meaningless–unless brought to the public arena through publication. There is a range of publication formats, with material published in the form of final scientific reports, academic journals, compilation research books, subjects of masters or doctoral research, and museum catalogues. Peer review creates the chance to moderate the publishing landscape and hold problematic research and statements accountable to the “scholarly state of the field.”


The Duty of the Archaeologist

As an inherently selfish science, archaeology is laden with joys, dangers, and responsibilities. Active archaeologists must acknowledge that in their joy of excavating, they deny the same opportunity to others who will follow. The danger of this is the potential for a single individual’s curiosity to limit the communities’ access to information. As such the transformation of dust into data is the responsibility of the science, and the bare minimum that we can provide in a landscape of unrepeatable exploration.

Archaeology and the insights that it can provide are defined by cultural values. It is a requirement of practice that scholars and practitioners work with their communities and share their stories of the past. Further to this, the study and teaching of history are inherently political. As the discipline moves forward it must be further democratized through the advancement of minorities in its study and teaching. Post-colonial perspectives have already emphasized how decentring transforms shared narratives. It is only through the inclusion of a range of voices and perspectives that we can truly capture an accurate perspective of the past.


About the Author

Alexandra Wrathall is a senior Ph.D. candidate at Tel Aviv University, with over 10 years of field experience at Tel Azekah, Tel Hadid, Tel Beth Shemesh, Masada, and the Jerusalem surroundings. Alex is a graduate of Macquarie University (Sydney) and Tel Aviv University (Tel Aviv), with specializations in ancient narratology, ceramic typologies of the Iron II, and post-colonial approaches to the study of empire in the southern Levant.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Publish or Perish

Finding an Archaeological Dig

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Who First Excavated Stratigraphically?

Silent Labor: Dig Workers in the Middle East

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