Android Tablets at Gabii

BY J. TROY SAMUELS, PhD student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Buon giorno from Rome! This summer, the Gabii Project, a University of Michigan archaeological excavation and field school, undertook our sixth full season of fieldwork focused on the ancient Latin city of Gabii. Directed by University of Michigan professor Nicola Terrenato, this large-scale open-area excavation aims to both increase our understanding of this city, a neighbor and rival to Rome in the first millennium BCE, and educate students in archaeological method, theory, Roman history, and myriad other topics. To that end, this season we welcomed forty-two volunteers from a variety of undergraduate and graduate colleges and universities to Rome, who, along with various staff members, spent the last five weeks significantly expanding our understanding of the city of Gabii, its people, and its history.

Gabii 2014 team
Gabii Project 2014 team.

Alongside the normal challenges and opportunities offered by such a large-scale undertaking, the 2014 edition of the project featured a massive shift in recording strategies. Instead of the paper forms used in previous seasons, this year we decided to go paperless in the field. All data was recorded exclusively on four Panasonic Toughpads and seven Android tablets. Despite early trepidations, perhaps best exemplified by the Seven Deadly Sin–themed names assigned to the seven Android tablets, this new system has proved highly successful. Paperless recording not only cut down on off-site data entry but also encouraged a degree of student autonomy in information gathering and recording. The individual nature of tablet data entry encouraged students to attempt to record and understand the archaeology on their own terms before seeking the help of their supervisors. By the end of the second week, it was commonplace to see five students on their own tablets, independently entering data pertaining to the stratigraphic unit they had excavated by themselves. The presence of excellent students helped this transition go smoothly, and paperless recording will certainly be a feature at Gabii for years to come.

Matt Naglak (University of Michigan, IPCAA) creates a photo model while Dr. Marilyn Evans (ICCS) instructs Rachel Goldstein (Yale University) in her work on “Wrath,” the Android tablet.

In terms of archaeological discovery, this season was also highly successful. The large size of the project allows for two distinct areas of excavation, Area F, focused on expanding our understanding of the monumental complex revealed last season, and Area D, focused on an occupation area from the early, formative phases of the city. While vastly different in terms of surviving architecture and excavation method, both areas continue to provide important information that will shape our understanding of the cities and people of first-millennium BCE central Italy. We are excited both about the many things we uncovered and the future seasons that will help us continue to better understand the multifaceted, fascinating material history of this important site.

For more information please visit our websites, Facebook page, or read our wonderful student blogs.

“This Quintessence of Dust”: Micro-Debris Analysis at Olynthos

BY ELINA SALMINEN, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Enthusiasm #2 Photo taken my Matt, from whom I sha
Processing of the residue from wet-sieving on site.

This summer, the University of Michigan will be starting a new archaeological project at Olynthos in northern Greece in collaboration with the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, the British School at Athens, and the University of Liverpool. The goal of the project is to excavate two 4th-century BCE houses and improve our understanding of ancient domestic spaces as well as northern Greek cities. In preparation for the summer, I traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to learn about micro-debris analysis, a technique we will be using at our excavation. It was a busy two days with Lynn Rainville, a micro-debris expert based at Sweetbriar College. We discussed the potential of the technique and devised a plan for how to apply it in the field.

In short, micro-debris consists of the small inclusions that are present in the dirt we excavate but are rarely noticed by the excavator. These inclusions can range from beads to small bones (especially from animals like rodents or fish) to very small fragments of pottery. Even though these finds seem mundane, they are worth studying for several reasons, especially in a domestic context. Imagine sweeping a compact dirt floor. What will be removed, and what will stay put? Research has shown that small fragments are more likely to remain where they fall, and can therefore give us a more accurate picture about the use of spaces when they were inhabited instead of after abandonment (which is when most of the bigger “finds” are deposited — archaeologists are often quite literally excavating through trash pits!). The technique can also allow us to see activities that might not otherwise be visible because they left little evidence, and to accurately compare the density of finds in different areas due to the careful counting and measuring involved.

The method itself can be quite tedious! After an excavator collects a soil sample for analysis of an area that seems interesting, the dirt is literally washed in a barrel to get rid of small grains of sand — in archaeological lingo this is known as flotation or wet-sieving.

View of the flotation barrel.

In the process, botanical remains like burnt seeds will float to the surface and will be collected for analysis by specialists. The rest of the sample will be carefully picked through and searched for archaeological materials. The finds will then be sorted by type, counted, and weighed.

Sorting bones from a sample.

It is only after all this that analysis can begin.

Despite the slow and often boring sorting that is involved, it will hopefully be worthwhile in the end. We have come a long way from removing dirt by the cartful to expose monumental buildings with little regard to their contents and the people who used them. Using micro-debris analysis alongside multiple other methods, the project at Olynthos aims to study how different spaces were used in ancient houses, and even how these uses changed depending on the time of day or the season. Even though it might not look like much at first glance, micro-debris can help us get at the hustle and bustle of ancient houses behind the stone wall foundations that are visible to the visitor now.

Burning Questions about Greek Sacrifice

BY DAN DIFFENDALE, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan


Archaeologists study the (often-broken) material remains of human behavior in hopes of answering questions about human life in the past. We cannot directly access the past; we are constrained to form hypotheses and narratives on the basis of materials that exist in the present and are observable through excavation or surface survey. One category of hypothesis creation and testing is that of experimental archaeology (sometimes included among “actualistic” approaches). Archaeologists attempt to replicate past human behaviors in order to observe the resulting material signature, which can be compared with the archaeological record.

As a member of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project in Greece, I helped to excavate an ancient Greek mountaintop altar. This “ash altar” was built up over centuries by the accumulation of many thousands of animal bones burned by Greek worshipers in honor of the god Zeus. Although specialist studies of the bones and of the altar sediments have told us a great deal about the sacrificial practice at Mt. Lykaion in antiquity, many questions remain open.

Since 2012 I have collaborated with Jacob Morton of the University of Pennsylvania to create an experimental ash altar in Athens, Greece, built up out of the remains of dozens of sheep thighbones and tails, burned according to current hypotheses about Greek sacrifice. In mid-May we will carefully excavate the accumulation of one and a half years of experimental burning, in order to compare the material record of these processes with the observed archaeological record at Mt. Lykaion. In addition to this goal, the “Burning Questions” project, as we call it, includes observation of the sensory experience of the burnt offering part of Greek sacrificial ritual as well as the behavior of burning tails, which the Greeks observed as omens.

We Call It the Silo Building Complex

BY RICHARD REDDING, Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum, blogging from Giza, Egypt

We discovered an Old Kingdom mud-brick building two years ago while clearing sand. It is located just south of the Khafre Valley Temple and separated from the tombs and pyramids by a large stone wall. As we cleared away the sand from the tops of the walls, one of the first things we found was a series of five silos — hence, the Silo Building Complex (SBC). Due to lack of time in 2012 we did not get to really excavate into the building except in two rooms on the eastern edge. We filled the area with clean sand and left it for the future.

This season (2014) we decided to explore this building. We had several questions:

  1. How old was it? Did it go back to the reign of Khafre? We did have one seal impression from Niuserre, a 5th Dynasty pharaoh.
  2. What was the building used for, and who occupied it?
  3. Is the depression to the west really a harbor?
  4. Could the SBC access the area to the north?

To answer these questions we excavated in four areas of the SBC. The first was two of the silos, which we knew would contain information on diet.

The SBC on Saturday, 19 April. The large silos are very visible, and two have been excavated. To the right (east) are two rooms excavated in 2011. To the left (west) is a room excavated this season (photo R. Redding).
Two photos of the silos. Note how high the walls still stand. The small semicircular cut in one is the remnant of the access door (photos R. Redding).

We also excavated a room on the western edge of the building. We wanted good floor deposits and to check on a blocked doorway that led to the west from the SBC.

Excavated room. Note the Meidum bowl set in the floor (photo R. Redding).

The third excavation was a trench from the western room down into the depression we thought might be a harbor. The excavation revealed three terraces that stepped down to an elevation of about 14.5 meters above sea level (m asl). Coring in the west of the water-filled trench revealed a layer of black clayey silt at about 13 m asl. In the Old Kingdom the Nile flood plain at Giza was about 12 m asl, and the flood would have reached about 14 m asl. We have a harbor.

Excavation into harbor from western room. Terraces marked (photo R. Redding).

The last area we have excavated is around the stone wall forming a border between the SBC and the area to the north. We found a doorway that was plastered that led through the wall from the SBC.

Finally, we excavated an area of the stone wall to establish the relationship between the SBC and the northern boundary wall. Which was built first?

The stone boundary wall. Note doorway in lower left that allowed access from the SBC to the area to the north. The doorway is nicely plastered, and you can see the plaster line (photo R. Redding).

We are finishing the excavations, and we will begin the laboratory analyses soon. A team of ceramicists, a faunal analyst, a lithics analyst, botanist, and objects team will soon start work. In a few weeks I will send out another blog describing what they found.



From the Field: How Tall Was This Pyramid?

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum, blogging from his fieldwork site at El Kurru, Sudan

Due to overwhelming demand, I am giving my answer to the question of how tall our pyramid would have been when first built. The angle of the facing stones is about 73 degrees, and if you just do a calculation on that basis (yes, it’s trigonometry), you get a height of about 43 meters.

If you do a more detailed (and accurate) calculation based on the size of the blocks and the setback of each course, you find that the pyramid had about 72 courses of stone and that it was about 34.5 meters high.

These calculations are remarkable partly because the pyramid has a much lower angle now, and it’s only a bit over 9 meters high. So a very rough reconstruction shows what the profile of the pyramid would have looked like originally:


Is that even remotely plausible? Where did all that stone go??
We looked at some nearby sites, and it seems that it is plausible — there are some pyramids at the site of Nuri from about the same period of time that were built of solid stone and have survived better, and they could have been close to 34 meters high. They also have a profile like the one I’ve reconstructed here.


We don’t know where all the stone went … but some of it seems to have been used in the village over the past century or two.

3D Gabii: (Re)excavating the Past

BY MATT NAGLAK, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

3D image of an excavated wall at Gabii.

One of the major problems of excavation is its innately destructive nature. Once a layer of dirt is excavated or a stone is removed, it cannot be put back. It is therefore vitally important to obtain all the information possible not only about the layer itself but also its relationship to all the layers around it. Unfortunately, it is not always possible for an archaeologist to know in advance what information is going to be needed to understand the site as a whole. Often no one realizes that significant information has been lost until the excavation is finished and analysis has begun.

In the past, the only way to combat this problem was to take photographs and detailed notes. The Kelsey and IPCAA projects at Gabii and Sant’Omobono, Italy, however, are using new technology to create 3D photomodels of layers that will in a sense let us “reexcavate” the site after the actual digging is finished, recovering valuable data and relationships otherwise lost. One of my jobs on the site of Gabii is to take pictures and then create the 3D models for each of the trenches. Then we are able to look again at the surface of a layer in all its detail, almost as if it had never been removed in the first place. With the click of a mouse we can excavate a trench again or reinsert earlier layers, moving in either direction through time in a way never before possible. This ability has proven invaluable to how we understand the results of excavation and is sure to be a staple of future archaeological work. I am very excited to return to Gabii this summer to continue this innovative work!

From El Kurru to Ann Arbor: Q&A from the Field

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum

I received a nice note from Julie Donnelly, who teaches at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her 6th-grade students had a bunch of really good questions about the dig and about living in a village in Sudan. It turns out that 6th graders are pretty smart! I’m going to try to answer their questions in several posts over the next week or two.

One group of questions was about life in the village.

Is El Kurru considered to be *modern*? For instance, do people have cell phones, furniture, and computers?
Do they have grocery stores?
Is there a citywide call to prayer, and, if so, how does it affect your team and their work schedule?


There are maybe 1,000 people living in El Kurru village (nobody seems to know for sure). The village is modern in some ways. There are four shops on the main street, including Waleed’s grocery store (above), the barber shop where I got my haircut, and a coffee shop that would amaze you — a woman making the delicious local coffee called jebena on coals that rest on the floor, which is sand. So, not a lot of businesses, but there are a few. People drop by the grocery store all day long . . . women sometimes feel more comfortable shopping through a window on the side of the store rather than going inside.

Nearly everyone here has a cell phone . . . one feature they enjoy is an ability to play the radio out loud on their phone while we are all working in the excavation. In fact, Sudanese went from having a pretty minimal wired phone network to a complete mobile phone network in a very short period of time in the last ten years or so, and it is changing everything about working and living in Sudan.

And yes, there are mosques in the village, and we hear calls to prayer throughout the day (with loud calls to prayer starting at 5:45 a.m.!). The person who gives the call to prayer is called a muezzin, and we all have our favorite ones. This is one of the more observant Muslim places I’ve worked, and many people in the village go to the mosque to pray five times a day.

What is a typical work day for your team?
Do you ever take a day off to rest?


We live in a house in the village — here’s a photo of the outer courtyard, which is really a nice place to have a cup of tea in the afternoon, and we do a lot of work here too as you can see.

It gets light here around 7 a.m. We get ready, have our tea and coffee, and start work at 8 a.m. We have hired around 70 local men to help with the excavation, and most of them prefer to work from 8 to 2 even though it gets hot here in the afternoon (it’s recently been between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoons).

We eat according to a Sudanese schedule: “breakfast” is a big meal at 11 a.m., and we have “lunch” a bit late for Sudan, at about 6 p.m. They would normally have dinner at 9:30 or so, but we are all too tired, so we have just two main meals. We eat a local, organic, and mostly vegetarian diet — lots of fava beans (called fuul), eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers, sometimes pancakes with savory sauces, and bread with everything. And we eat Sudanese style, with our right hand, mostly using little pieces of bread to scoop up the food. My personal favorite is the sweet spaghetti they serve with every meal — hard to eat with your hand!

We work six days per week, with Fridays off. We are a pretty active group, though, so we sometimes catch up on work on Fridays, and sometimes drive off to visit other sites in the area, which is important for us.