Archaeology Dig Exercise Sample: Top Layer

Note:  If you haven’t read Last Week’s Post, this one won’t make much sense.

Before I start, something I probably should have mentioned in my last post — archaeology takes many forms, and both the sorts of archaeological practices used and the types of finds one might find vary greatly around the world, and furthermore has changed greatly from the origin of the science to today. If you’re conducting an archaeological dig searching for architectural finds in Turkey in the Late 19th, early 20th Century (the Heinrich Schliemann style of dig), practices could be somewhat destructive, but you’d be finding ruins of whole stonework buildings that could be restored.  If you’re digging in North America in the 21st century, you’re likely using minimally invasive techniques, and you would (mostly) be looking for differences in soil patterns to show where wooden walls have decomposed. You can decide what type of findings you want to report, and how realistic you want the findings to be.  After all, most people doing this are writers, not archaeologists (unless you’re both, in which case… wow, cool!), so you shouldn’t be expected to know exactly what sorts of things archaeologists find.  For my sample the findings are… not necessarily realistic, but I’m trying to keep them fun.  You’ll see what I mean.

Sample I:  Top Layer


  1. Ceramics and Pottery:  Dr. Jordan Potter
  2. Architecture:   Dr. Leia Villa
  3. Osteoarchaeology: Dr. Anne Bein
  4. Battlefield Archaeology:  Dr. Yari Makura
  5. Epigraphy:  Dr. Aroon Carver
  6. Metallurgy:  Dr.  Cannon Ferreum

(These will be the archaeologists used for each layer; I am personally assigning them all by dice role, corresponding to their number above, but you can decide for yourself how you want them divided, as long as you make sure you randomize them each week)

You will also run into the Dig Team, which conducts the bulk of the excavation.  The Dig Team report will break down why each site is being surveyed, and what was found (or what was expected, but not found) to explain why they brought in the experts.

Instead of going with “Iron, Bronze, Stone, etc.” age, I’m going with Modern Era, 5th Era, 4th Era, 3rd Era, 2nd Era, and 1st Era (I have a rough idea of what date range the real world equivalent of these eras would have been, but that would be too much of a ‘spoiler’ to include).

Site I:

Assigned Archaeologists:  Dr. Anne Bein, Dr. Jordan Potter

Dig Team Report:
This site is an unusual one — a perfectly square field dead set in the middle of a forest, with the edges aligned north to south and east to west.  The treeline around the site is too uniform to be natural, but the site has not been inhabited in the modern era.  The field itself contains several rows of large mounds.  Old records suggest this was the site of a monastery, with accompanying graveyard, occupied from early in the Second Era to the end of the Fifth.
As part of the dig site is supposed to be a graveyard, we invited Dr. Anne Bein to examine any human remains we discover.
After completing the excavation of the top layer, we cannot say for certain whether we have found the actual monastery or not.  What we did find was soil patterns suggesting a charred wooden wall at the northern edge of the field.  Not far south of the wall was a void in the ground that proved to be a man-made cistern, where six extremely large clay pots were resting.  The excavation only revealed the very top of the cistern, but we sent some people down into it to make a full examination.  They concluded that cistern almost certainly pre-dated the dawn of the Fifth era, and may have been built as far back as the First Era, but only further excavation could say for certain.  Debris around the scene suggests it must have been in use into the Fifth Era, whenever it was originally built, however.  We have called in Dr. Jordan Potter for a more definitive examination of these clay pots, to perhaps discover what the purpose of this cistern might have been.

Dr. Anne Bein’s Report:
I was called in to examine several graves found in Site I.  It was difficult to get to the prize of the dig, the skeletons, as they were buried underneath domes of stone and earth, each about twenty meters apart, twenty such domes in two rows aligned east to west.  There were several grave goods included in each burial, all of the same metal.  But who cares about that?
The skeletons were fascinating.  Fiber fragments suggest each body was trussed up in hemp rope before burial, for some reason, and staked to the ground aligned in a North to South direction.  The heads of all the buried bodies were removed, so we have no dental work to examine — a shame, that, as teeth are some of my favorite indicators for diet and health — nor any hair.  The same ritual was done both for humans and their animal companions, as we found many canine skeletons buried in the same manner.
I directly examined nine skeletons.  Five were male, four female, ages ranging from twenty to fifty.  Analysis of stress patterns in the bones suggest the bodies buried here were uniformly of people who were very heavily muscled, almost to their own detriment.  No suggestion any of them were malnourished appear, but several of the skeletons showed signs of stress in the individuals’ youth.  There are no definitive signs of a cause of death on any of the bodies, which is unusual.

Dr.  Jordan Potter’s Report:
I took a close look at the pottery that was unearthed during the dig.  Six large clay pots, too heavy to be carried, were found in some sort of odd cistern, as the dig team described.  In these pots were a number of coins, all of the same metal (possibly silver?).  I sent pictures of these coins to Dr. Cannon Ferreum for identification.  He says he wishes he could be here, as the coins we’ve found cover every era from the First to the Fifth.  Given that the coins themselves appeared in layers, it appears these coins were tossed into these pots when the site was first occupied, and people continued to feed it without touching the earlier coins until the site’s eventual abandonment at the start of the modern era.  A massive horde of coins to never be touched.
In addition to these clay pots, we found fragments of numerous heavily decorated shallow bowls, in which food substances of some sort were discovered.  I cannot read the writing on these bowls, and Dr. Carver was too busy to come and translate, but pictures of the moon were prominent on every bowl.
The study of the substances inside the bowl should be in Dr. Bein’s province, as they’re biological, but she was too busy cackling over how important the bones were to listen to me when I tried to get her attention (quite good in her field, but rather obsessed with bones only, that woman), so I sent them to the lab for analysis.  It was determined that these foods were all red meat, sometimes cooked and sometimes left raw.  There were surprisingly few grains or vegetables found in these bowls, suggesting they were used exclusively for meat.  We also found fragments of what we believe were fermentation pots, used for the brewing of (as trace analysis determined) barley-grain beer.

Site II:

Assigned Archaeologists:  Dr. Yari Makura, Dr. Leia Villa

Dig Team Report:
This site was selected because of how unusual it was.  Once a major harbor town based in a sheltered river that had been an area of continuous settlement for centuries, and one of the most important Naval anchorages in our history, an earthquake in the early Fifth Era diverted the river and the port dried up, with several warships trapped on the riverbed, and a once thriving city was abandoned.  We brought in Dr. Yari Makura in the hopes of finding these ships.
However, during the dig, we also discovered some unexpected ruins in what would have been the riverbed at the end of the fourth, start of the fifth era.  While we continue to dig up earlier layers of the port city, we contacted Dr. Leia Villa to try and decipher just what the heck stone buildings were doing on the bottom of a river.

Dr. Yari Makura’s Report:
This is not my usual type of site to explore, nor my typical specialty — I’m more used to studying battlefields on, you know, fields, not riverbeds.  Still, there were quite a few things of interest discovered.
Most of the ships themselves haven’t survived, but elements from them have.  The ships appear to have been largely scavenged, but I was surprised to see a surviving bronze pot-de-fer had been left behind — a late fourth to early 5th era weapon I was unaware had ever been used on a ship.  That appears to agree with the date that the earthquake was supposed to have destroyed this harbor, but some other things on this very same wreckage are confusing. Other ships from this era are known to have been built with iron nails or treenails, but this particular wreckage was build entirely with copper nails.  I was under the impression that such copper nails weren’t used until the end of the fifth century, to solve the problems those other two types of nails caused.
The same wreckage also uncovered things such as brass storm lanterns, some unusual dirks (very plain, no decorations, but quite functional) made out of bronze, some ceramic grenade shells, multiple brass beams, and — in the most unexpected find — several stacks of one-inch thick, six foot by eight foot sheets of a fluorescent green glass, all in perfect condition.  Dating evidence suggests the brass beams and glass sheets are much older than the rest of the cargo on the ship, and a closer examination suggests both may have been components of the same structure, but there appears to be something missing that would allow them all to be assembled together.

Dr. Leia Villa’s Report:
Well, this is just fascinating!  Apparently, there was a massive bridge built over the river that used to be on this site, which isn’t all that unusual, but there was effectively a small city built on top of that bridge, as row houses lined one side of the bridge, and shops, stores, factories, and other businesses lined the other.  The bridge was supported with massive stone pillars, held together by hydraulic concrete, with four rows of twelve massive, heavy-duty arches to span the gaps.  This is all made out of granite, which is astonishing — the nearest source of such granite would have been far away (the color and other characteristics of the stone make me think it would be from Site III, though given the city in Site III was abandoned after the second age, that would suggest this bridge survived for an astonishing length of time).  In fact, there is almost no usable stone of any kind in the local area, so finding stonework of any kind is a surprise.
The row houses weren’t especially large, but were double-storied, with the two stories sometimes connected and sometimes not.  Mostly made up of salt-glazed bricks (whose yellow color suggest were also imported, though not from Site III, as the local clay would produce red bricks.  The salt glazing suggests the brick buildings on this bridge were added long after the bridge itself, assuming the Site III source is accurate as the source of the granite).  The bricks were most often laid in a herringbone pattern.  Given the number and variety of artifacts found in the ruins, most of these houses were occupied by one to two people.
The businesses were more varied, but there were some common features to most of them.  Every building on that side of the river had a plate glass front (I will note this was a different type of glass than the fluorescent glass my colleague discovered; this was more of a silica glass, and while thicker than the standard windowpane glass in modern times, it was nowhere near as thick; a quarter to a half-inch thick, at most).  This would display every part of the business, regardless of what was going on inside — even blacksmiths would have their furnaces and forges on display as they worked.
The big question is what caused this bridge city to collapse.  Yes, an earthquake might cause this kind of damage, but the earthquake that shifted the river was too distant to take down this bridge.  The capstones on the arches were well set, the stone pillars — while they had fallen over –were unbroken, and even many of the houses and shops were completely intact.  They were just… lying on the riverbed, covered in built-up silt and new-growth grass.  Unlike the ships, which Dr. Mukara tells me were salvage after the river moved, the bridge collapse appeared sudden and unexpected.  There were bodies of people still in their beds.
Furthermore, dating evidence suggests the bridge remained occupied even AFTER the river had changed direction and the rest of the city was abandoned.  While the river was diverted early in the fifth era, and the city slowly abandoned by the middle, this bridge remained occupied to the very end.
And we have NO historic record of its existence.

Site III:

Assigned Archaeologists:  Dr. Aroon Carver, Dr. Cannon Ferreum

Dig Team Report:
This site on a massive hilltop is supposed to be the location of a major city from the First and Second Era, when the city was abandoned for unexplained reasons.  We were not expecting to find anything later than that, however, as the land has not been occupied since, as far as we know.
However, long before we were expecting to hit city, we started uncovering some strange elements.  Findings in the soil suggested someone was digging robber trenches, which normally would have been dug by looters.  Whatever these robber trenches were stealing, they did not go far enough down to reach the city we were hoping to find… and they may well have left behind more than they took.  Placed in particular spots in these trenches, we’ve found strange metal slabs, just small enough for one person to carry in one hand, all with indecipherable writing covering one face on them.  We called in Dr. Cannon Ferreum and Dr. Aroon Carver to examine them.

Dr. Cannon Ferreum’s Report:
I was brought in to examine some metal tablets.  These slabs of metal, seven discovered so far, measure approximately six inches by nine inches by one inch.  While they all were fashioned to appear as if they are gold slabs, analysis determines that six of them were actually formed out of an alloy composed of roughly ninety percent copper and nine percent zinc.  That remaining one percent was originally believed to be basic impurities, but we then determined it was all biological material.  Lab work has come back suggesting this material was blood, though whatever process was used to form the alloy destroyed most of the identifying markers in that blood.  What little can be determined from that blood suggests each slab was made with the blood from a different type of animal — four mammals, one bird, and one lizard.  The seventh slab was made of gold, but again it was mixed with blood — human blood.  While I’ve heard theatrical old wives tales of people who tempered the steel of a sword in blood during the smithing process, I’ve never heard of it used as an actual, measurable component in an alloy, before.

Dr. Aroon Carver’s Report:
Interesting.  Very interesting.  The runes on these metal slabs look carved in, not merely etched — just like you would use on a stone tablet or something.  The tool markings suggest only one of them was actually carved, however — the one Dr. Ferreum identified as the one made out of real gold.  The others were merely cast to look carved, but were not carved themselves.
There are some identifiable runes mixed in with characters from syllabaries and alphabets either foreign or entirely unfamiliar to me.  The writing on all seven slabs is identical, save for a single section (or paragraph?) at the very bottom of each of them.  Much of what I can identify is gibberish, but always in these varied paragraphs there is a single word I can read that differs from slab to slab.  These words may correspond with the type of blood used in the alloys that Dr. Ferreum described — four of them mention mammals (bear, wolf, warthog, and mountain lion), one mentions a bird (hawk), one mentions a lizard (snake), and the pure gold one mentions “you,” which… well, I would assume the reader was human.  What else would they be?
I want to look into these slabs some more.  I think I’ll take them with me as I go from dig to dig, and try to interpret them further.

Wrap Up

Well, there’s the sample.  This was a bit more work than I originally intended, but only because I was deliberately using a different method for deciding what I would include on each “site.”

The first site, I had a long list of things I’d been thinking of including (a list with things like “coin horde,” “shrine,” “dagger,” “mysterious field,” “brickwork,” etc.), and used dice to determine what would be found, and finally came up with a bit of a story that might allow me to connect those things together.

The second site, I started with a particular story I wanted to tell, and came up with hints of what that story might be.  I didn’t get to everything I wanted to include, but those other things can show up in the next few layers.

The third site, I allowed which archaeologists I had assigned to it to determine just what it was they found.  And since I connected the second and third sites, I also added a few hints of that connection as well, but that was almost incidental to what I had my fictional archaeologists describe.

A little housekeeping:  I’ve moved my old links page from the old Fennec Fox Press website to here, and fixed a couple outdated or broken links from it.   The old links page is still working, it just isn’t being maintained (a lot of that site is now broken, and that’s due to hosting limitations, so — as I said a few weeks ago — I’ll slowly be moving it over here).

Also, like I said, this took a bit longer than I was expecting, so I may take my time and give myself an extra week before I give you the second layer… but if I do, I’ll still have a post next weekend.  I salvaged a couple of my favorite posts from the old blog, digging through the Wayback Machine, so I’ll be reposting them at various points, filling out those weeks I can’t get a fresh post ready in time.  So next week, I will guarantee a post… though whether that’s ‘new’ or ‘classic,’ well… we’ll see.  Until then!

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