Monday, November 10, 2008

A Career in Ruins

Who’d be an archaeologist?

When Luke Lavan was a boy he discovered Asterix and The Lord of the Rings. Be careful what you read: a book can change your life. The fascination of a once-great civilzation so appealed to Luke that it eventually led him to a career in Archaeology. Luke is now a lecturer at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. As of September 2008 he is co-director of the Berlin-Kent team excavating part of Ostia, the port of Rome and setting of the Roman Mysteries.

I went to meet Luke and his team last week, and it was a fascinating visit. If you think you might want to be an archaeologist when you get older, make sure you read the rest of this.

Luke met me off the train at Canterbury West, and the first thing I asked him was ‘What first got you interested in Ancient History?’

‘Tolkein,’ said Luke, without hesitation. ‘When I was ten I read Lord of the Rings and loved it. The world of Late Antiquity gives the same sense of a great civilization crumbling into anarchy.’

By ‘Late Antiquity’ Luke means the fourth to seventh century AD, when the Roman empire became Christian and started to lose bits of its territory to invaders. Luke told me he went on to read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he was about 12.

With Luke is Richard Sadler, a graduate student who is one of the Ostia team. He also loves Tolkein and his current topic of research is ‘death and burial in the ancient world.’ Fun. 



We catch a taxi up the hill to the University of Kent, which Luke describes as ‘Watership Down with bunkers.’ The buildings DO look a bit like bunkers, but the campus has a nice feel. It’s up on a hill with views over Canterbury. In this picture of the two of us, you can see the famous cathedral in the background.

As we walked to the department of Archaeology, Luke told me his dad is a scientist, and his mother a creative dreamer. Both qualities are needed in a good archaeologist. Much of archaeology is data analysis, so you need an ordered mind. But you also have to be able to stand on a patch of paving stones and post-holes and envisage life there centuries before. Luke’s dad often jokes that his son ‘has a career in ruins.’

At the department, I met Ellen Swift, who is the head of the Archaeology section. Ellen is especially interested in ancient decoration. The historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe first sparked her interest in the ancient world.

We go to their site room and sit around a big table. Other members of the team come in. Joe has long hair and looks as if he, too, has been influenced by Tolkein, but he says he wasn’t. Michael’s nickname is Dionysus. He has a curly black beard and a mischievous glint in his eye. Bonnie has big blue eyes, bleached hair and trendy piercings. She confesses that she was attracted to archaeology because of Indiana Jones. ‘And is any part of your experience like Indy’s?’ I ask. Bonnie regards me sadly. I can see the answer in her eyes. 



the team from left to right: Luke, Ellen, Richard, Bonnie, Michael, Joe

At the beginning of September, Luke and his team arrived in Ostia. They met some of the other members of the team: Axel Gering, from Berlin. The dig is actually a joint project between Kent and Berlin, hence the name, the Berlin-Kent Project. Also on board was their ‘professional archaeologist’ Kelly Madigan. She is English but part Maori.

The first few days of the dig did not bode well. 
Luke and his team were digging in the Forum of the Heroic Statue, near Ostia’s famous latrines. They are interested in 4th and 5th century levels, long after Flavia’s time. But as they settled in, they found they were choked by dust and thwarted by the deep-growing roots of an umbrella pine. (Those trees that give such delicious shade are no friends of the archaeologist.) By the end of the first few days, they were hot, tired and coated with dust. Work was going slowly. The soil would not cut cleanly, but crumbled into dust. This made it hard for them to see the features they were trying to uncover.

If there was one consolation, it was that the campsite they had rented, which initially had few facilities, was finally starting to look good, after a lot of work on the team's part. It had two toilets, showers, a proper water supply for the kitchen, and even a computer room. But a visit from local officials revealed that a camping permit had not been issued for this site, and that the group would have to move. This is when the nightmare really began. They needed to move, and fast. Luke found a registered campsite near Castel Fusano. It sounded nice, but it was expensive, and several miles from Ostia.

Luke and his team spent hours packing up tents and equipment, putting them into cars and moving them a few miles south. As they were settling in to the new campsite, the heavens opened, drenching people and equipment. The campsite was soon a sea of mud. 
It was awful.

‘But in another way,’ says Luke, ‘the rain was a godsend. It stopped our dig being a cloud of dust.’


Now that they had done the preliminary work, and now that the ground wasn’t so dusty, they began to find some fun objects: lots of broken glassware, some coins, precious blue tesserae of lapis lazuli and a single tiny dice (pictured), about the size of the fingernail on your pinky. They also found a very fragile inscription moulded into the mortar of a reused block, a sundial scratched into stone, a slate with Greek writing all over it, and a board game incised in marble. Luke imagines ancient Ostians hanging around the forum, tossing dice and watching life go by. You can see more about the finds HERE.

The team was up and working now, but their troubles weren’t over. Several members of the team became were injured or began suffering from exhaustion. So Luke sent out an appeal to students in Rome. Some enthusiastic Americans, along with a German and an Italian guy, came to the rescue and helped enormously. Luke was extremely pleased with them. (Yay, Americans!)

The team had settled in at the now dry campsite, but it was expensive, and soon they were running out of money. Luke had to dip into his personal savings. And his wife’s. Luckily, a few sympathetic Ostia-lovers sent money, and then the University of Kent came through with a generous donation: enough to tide them over. ‘But for a while there,’ said Luke, ‘we were living on eggs and cake.’ 



Still think you’d like to be an archaeologist?

I discussed it with members of the team and most agreed that you would make a good archaeologist if you:

• Like digging in dirt in wind, rain and baking heat.

• Can survive on little and monotonous food.

• Like camping.
• Don’t mind communal loos and showers.

• Don't value your privacy.

• Like dust in your mouth and bugs in your food.



And that’s just the fieldwork!

The surprising statistic is that 90% of an archaeologist’s life is spent processing data and cataloguing finds in rooms with little or no natural light, often fluorescent lit basements.

If you STILL think you would like to be an archaeologist, Luke’s advice is ‘get yourself to an ancient city as soon as you can and just spend lots of time exploring and imagining.’

To my mind there is no better place to start than Ostia, the port of Rome and home – once upon a time – of Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus. If you succeed, you, too can have a career in ruins.


For information about the Berlin-Kent Ostia Project, go HERE.

P.S. Archaeology isn't for me; I tried it once. But I'm hugely grateful to all those people, like Luke and his colleagues, who get out in the field and then publish their results so I can study them in the comfort of library or home! 

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