Covid 19 and Archaeology: A Lesson in Making Things Work

When her fieldwork plans were thrown into chaos by the global pandemic, Emma Jones, an undergraduate student studying archaeology at the University of Sydney, found digital volunteering as a means to stay engaged and learn new skills.

Like so many archaeologists, the early months of this year were spent optimistically organising Visas, booking flights and for those of us still studying, trying to find a way to get end-of-semester assessments out of the way as early as possible so as to not be finishing them off in the field. I had planned to work as a student volunteer at the Iron Age site of Kerkenes, located in central Anatolia, as well as at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Bodrum, working with material excavated from the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck.

We sat tight, most of us expecting the worst, but hoping that somehow the tides of the pandemic would change and that this season could be spent in the field. By early April it had become clear that both ethically and practically, fieldwork interstate, let alone abroad, was not possible. For some, this meant complications completing post-graduate studies, for others, it meant the cancellation of projects and seasons that were months, if not years, in planning. For myself, an undergraduate student, it meant mild frustration at the situation and a two-and-a-half-month-long break in Sydney. It hasn’t been bad, really. I’ve just made it work.

So, when I received an email a few weeks ago asking if I would like to write a piece for the AAIA blog, I jumped at the opportunity to stay involved in archaeology outside of class and outside of the fieldwork I had planned.

Between working in a supermarket and tutoring school kids, some of my free time these holidays keeping a foot in the world of archaeology by working as a volunteer on the AAIA’s Zagora 3 project. The work involves digitising and publishing the records of material excavated from the Geometric (circa 900 BCE- 700 BCE) site of Zagora on Andros in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Outside of my limited field experience, working on this project has allowed me to see how excavations are recorded, how plans and sections are drawn and the way digs are photographed.  I’m learning, first-hand, the necessity of keeping accurate digital records. Currently, my work involves ensuring that the photos in the database match those in the hard-copy, original records.   Where necessary, I write brief captions where there are none and interpret what I see in the photos in relation to the accompanying excavator’s notes. This way, any future research carried out using the Heurist database can be informed by both the written and photographic records of the dig.

An example of the digital resources Zagora volunteers are working with.

Seeing photos of the dig as it progressed as well as photos of those working on the site is fascinating. In a slightly strange way, I feel like I’m there by going through the archives. Even though the photographs of the excavations I’m looking at are completely removed from my own experiences, they are, in a way, familiar. They invoke feelings and memories of scenes that are reminiscent of my own experience in the field. I came across one such photo when I was working the other day of one of the archaeologists laying down in the trench and taking a break from work on Zagora and it reminded me of the straha breaks we took on top of Tell Husn so that the local Jordanian workers could pause work in order to pray. We’d find ourselves sprawled around the trenches, snacking on biscuits, tea and coffee and finding a moment’s rest in a day’s work.

Pouring over the pottery sherds in the field. On the left, Zagora circa 1968. On the right, Pella, 2019. Image credits: Zagora archives (left) and Peter Campbell (right).

Of course, there have been some challenges to overcome when learning and working on this project remotely. I’m using an archaeological database for the first time, and had just begun to find my feet working with Heurist when the pandemic hit. By the time I had returned to the project, I was starting from (almost) scratch and spent a decent amount of time trying to remember my way around Heurist. Normally, resolving such an issue would be as simple as asking whoever happens to be sitting next to me which button to click on or where to find a particular record, but these days, we’re all working remotely. So we’ve found ways around this; I’m immensely grateful to everyone who’s answered my messages and emails and talked over Zoom to help me find my way through the work.

This year I’ve managed to see a side of archaeology that I was yet to discover; I’m learning about the way a dig unfolds onsite and the mechanics of archaeology out of the field. It’s not the experience that I anticipated at the start of this year, but it’s been enjoyable, it will be helpful for future fieldwork and above all, its been a way to keep on doing archaeology in the midst of a pandemic.

Emma Jones is an undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in archaeology at the University of Sydney

Related posts:

Thomas Romanis, Digital Volunteering in 2020

Thomas Romanis, AAIA Volunteer Manager, had to pivot to digital volunteering in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He tells us how it was done.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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