The Parthenon Marbles, Back Where They Belong

The Parthenon in 1875.

The Parthenon in 1875. Interfoto/Alamy

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era.

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era. Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive, via Alamy

The original Parthenon marbles belong back in Athens, in the museum built for them. With all due respect to my British friends, my opinion is informed partly by my mother being from Greece, but mostly by an impartial logic.

That logic is expressed in the article below, which also happens to lay out an interesting sideshow:

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Few cultural disputes inflame British passions more than the disposition of the Parthenon Marbles. Public debate about the statuary has raged since the early 1800s, when the sculptures and bas-reliefs, which date from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C., were stripped from the Parthenon and other Classical Greek temples on the Acropolis of Athens by agents of Thomas Bruce, a Scottish statesman and seventh earl of Elgin. The marbles were purchased — some say looted — by Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the occupying power; they have resided in the British Museum since 1817. Continue reading

Historians As Climate Sleuths

The Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, China, a relic of the Tang dynasty, which collapsed in 907 A.D. amid changes in the climate. ZHONG ZHENBIN / ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Jacques Leslie

Climate Clues from the Past Prompt a New Look at History

A fragment from a sculpted stele, an artifact of the Akkadian Empire, which collapsed in the 22nd century B.C. amid a severe drought. MBZT VIA WIKIPEDIA

As scientists rapidly improve their ability to decipher past climate upheaval through ice cores and other “proxies,” historians are re-examining previous political and social turmoil and linking it to volcanic eruptions, prolonged droughts, and other disturbances in the natural world.

Joseph Manning, a Yale University professor of ancient history, likes to recall the moment when he was shown an advance copy of a scholarly paper that pinpointed the timing of major volcanic eruptions over the last 2,500 years. As he read the paper, “I literally fell off my chair,” he said recently.

Roman coins dating to 82 B.C. Lead from smelting such coins has been found in faraway ice cores, offering clues about Roman history. CARLOMORINO VIA WIKIPEDIA

Relying on new geochemical techniques for analyzing ice core sediment to determine the dates of ancient volcanic activity down to the year or even season, the paper, published in Nature in 2015, showed that major eruptions worldwide caused precipitous, up-to-a-decade-long drops in global temperatures. Continue reading

Tamil Nadu, Rice, Identity

In the early days of our posting here south Indian rice was a staple in our meals, and we knew that this now global foodstuff had a long history in other cultures. But it looks like the state neighboring where we lived may have found a clue to how much longer they have had rice in their diet:

An ancient rice bowl complicates the story of civilisation in India

In Tamil Nadu, archaeology is part of a contest over history and identity

Rarely can a spoonful of rice have caused such a stir. When M.K. Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, addressed the south Indian state’s legislature on September 9th, he celebrated a musty sample of the country’s humble staple. Carbon dating by an American laboratory, he said, had just proved that the rice, found in a small clay offering bowl—itself tucked inside a burial urn outside the village of Sivakalai, near the southernmost tip of India—was some 3,200 years old. This made it the earliest evidence yet found of civilisation in Tamil Nadu. The top duty of his government, the chief minister triumphantly declared, was to establish that the history of India “begins from the landscape of the Tamils”. Continue reading

Glass Origins

This glass fish was found in a fairly modest private house in Amarna, buried under a plaster floor along with a few other objects. It may once have contained ointment. The Trustees of the British Museum

We have featured stories about artisanal glass in the previous posts but this time the story is about the origins of the substance:

A Brief Scientific History of Glass

Featuring ingots, shipwrecks and an international trade in colors, the material’s rich past is being traced using modern archaeology and materials science

Blue glass ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck. Panegyrics of Granovetter / Flickr

Today, glass is ordinary, on-the-kitchen-shelf stuff. But early in its history, glass was bling for kings.

Thousands of years ago, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt surrounded themselves with the stuff, even in death, leaving stunning specimens for archaeologists to uncover. King Tutankhamen’s tomb housed a decorative writing palette and two blue-hued headrests made of solid glass that may once have supported the head of sleeping royals. His funerary mask sports blue glass inlays that alternate with gold to frame the king’s face. Continue reading

Humanity & Melting History

A mask belonging to the Yup’ik people of Alaska emerging from the permafrost. It is one of more than 100,000 artifacts retrieved from Nunalleq, the site of a village that was attacked by rivals 350 years ago. University of Aberdeen

When I posted about this book yesterday I had the long arc of history on my mind all day, and now this:

As Earth Warms, Human History Is Melting Away

Climate change is revealing long-frozen artifacts and animals to archaeologists. But the window for study is slender and shrinking.

The Langfonne ice patch in Norway. Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council

For the past few centuries, the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska have told gruesome tales of a massacre that occurred during the Bow and Arrow War Days, a series of long and often brutal battles across the Bering Sea coast and the Yukon. According to one account, the carnage started when one village sent a war party to raid another. But the residents had been tipped off and set an ambush, wiping out the marauders. The victors then attacked the undefended town, torching it and slaughtering its inhabitants. No one was spared. Continue reading

Barefoot In The Park A Long, Long Time Ago

The Economist brought this to our attention with a brief mention that An old lake bed reveals evidence of America’s first inhabitants – They walked there at least 23,000 years ago. We followed that up with a search on the topic that led to this further detail in the Cornell Chronicle:

David Bustos/Provided. Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands.

Earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas found

Provided. Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas.

Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas and offer insight into life over 23,000 years ago.

The footprints were formed in soft mud on the margins of a shallow lake that now forms part of Alkali Flat, a large playa at White Sands. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey dated these tracks using radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprint horizons. The dates range in age and confirm human presence over at least two millennia with the oldest tracks dating from around 23,000 years ago, Continue reading

From Gardens Long Gone, Now Revived

These dates sprouted from 2,000-year-old seeds retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean wilderness. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

While we are on the topic of gardens, let’s continue on a roll:

Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates

The harvest of the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates was something of a scientific miracle. The fruit sprouted from seeds 2,000 years old.

The proud father Methuselah, grown from ancient seeds, at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert, Israel. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness. Continue reading

Remains of a Feast

Food and Beverage as conservation themes have been long time interests at this site, whether it be recreating ancient ales or maintaining the artisan ethos of ancient food ways.

I have to admit that the blend of cuisine and archaeology are equally fascinating; I would have been one of the first of the “curious passersby” at the feast described here. The article is behind a paywall, but worth the read.

A taste of antiquity: what’s it like to eat 2,500-year-old food?

How Fuchsia Dunlop sampled food from the tomb of a long dead king

The four sheep turned on their spits, wafting out rich aromas over the bleached Turkish landscape. Nearby, I stirred a vast potful of lentil stew over an open fire, lashed by smoke and sunlight. A long table in the yard was already laden with dishes: handmade hummus and fava bean paste, whole honeycombs, stacks of tandoor-baked bread and piles of pomegranates. Beyond it loomed the great burial mound of a ruler of the Phrygian kingdom who had died here in the eighth century BC — thought to be a historical King Midas or his father. Aided by a team of Turkish cooks and food experts, I was doing my best to recreate his funeral feast.

This wasn’t an idle exercise. In the 1950s, archaeologists from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania had excavated the tomb, near the old Phrygian capital at Gordion. Although this King Midas was not the mythical man with the golden touch, they still found a treasure trove of bronze cauldrons, drinking bowls and clay pots in his burial chamber, including the largest Iron Age drinking set ever discovered. The vessels contained the physical remnants of a banquet the mourners had shared, but it was about 40 years before advances in science permitted chemical analysis of the residues.
This was done in the late 1990s by experts from the Penn Museum, led by Patrick McGovern, scientific director of its Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health, and author of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered & Re-created.

Using modern techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, McGovern and his team examined the vestiges of both food and drink found in the bronze vessels. The mourners, they concluded, had shared an unusual brew made from a mixture of honey, grapes and barley — a sort of cocktail of mead, wine and beer. And although the researchers couldn’t be sure, they suspected it had also contained saffron because of the intense yellow colour of the residue (and because some of the finest saffron of the ancient world was produced in what is now Turkey).

The chemical detective work on the brown clumps of food matter showed these were the leftovers of a great stew made from lamb or goat that had first been seared over fire to produce caramelisation, then simmered with some kind of pulse (probably lentils) along with ingredients such as honey, wine, olive oil, fennel or anise and other herbs and spices. Continue reading

A Home For Potato Knowhow

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 A selection of the thousands of native potato varieties that grow in Peru. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

Thanks to Dan Collyns (last seen in our pages in 2013), writing in the Guardian, for this:

How Peru’s potato museum could stave off world food crisis

Agri-park high in the Andes preserves the expertise to breed strains fit for a changing climate

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A worker picking potatoes high in the Andes. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

With a climate changing faster than most crops can adapt and food security under threat around the world, scientists have found hope in a living museum dedicated to a staple eaten by millions daily: the humble potato.

High in the Peruvian Andes, agronomists are looking to the ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods and frosts.

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 A selection of biofortified potatoes, grown to be higher in zinc and iron. Photograph: David Dudenhoeffer/The International Potato Centre

The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has “maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,” says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park. Continue reading

The Mouth of the Well

The archaeologist Guillermo de Anda next to pre-Columbian artifacts in a cave at the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá. Credit Karla Ortega/Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology, via Associated Press

This new discovery in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula came to our attention just when we’re on an archaeological roll. It definitely gives us pause that there are still such important finds in the world.

In a cave under the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, Mexican archaeologists discovered a trove of ceramic artifacts that appear to be over 1,000 years old.

Archaeologists announced this week that they had discovered an extraordinary trove of well-preserved Maya artifacts under the ancient city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The artifacts were found in a cave called Balamkú, less than two miles from the famed pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan, or The Castle, which sits in the center of the site.

Guillermo de Anda, an investigator with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, said in a statement on Monday that the remarkable discovery could help researchers rewrite the history of Chichén Itzá, which flourished from roughly A.D. 750 to 1200.

The city was built on top of a network of waterways, including sinkholes called cenotes, which the ancient Maya believed were sacred places that provided a portal to the underworld. Its name is sometimes translated as “the mouth of the well of the Itza,” the name of the main ethnic group in the area at the time.

Continue reading

Urban Archaeology

 

We’ve had friends and family members living in Atlanta for close to 30 years, and although I knew it was the hub of important aspects of American history, it never occurred to me to think of it in archaeological terms. At first consideration, I think about archaeology as the study of ancient cultures in far away places. Yet, with family in countries like Greece, I acknowledge that awesome layers of history can be just under the surface, or deeply buried and unearthed as cities grow with constructions of buildings and transit infrastructure.

This piece in the Georgia State University Magazine made that quite clear.

Treasures of Terminus

From its days as a railroad boomtown to Sherman’s tinderbox to one of America’s great cities, Atlanta’s history runs deep. The Phoenix Project, more than 100,000 artifacts collected by a team of Georgia State archaeologist in the 1970s, tells the city’s story through unearthed historical objects.

There is buried treasure at Georgia State University. Stacked high and deep in more than 500 boxes stashed throughout the labyrinths of Kell Hall, more than 100,000 artifacts tell the story of Atlanta’s history.

These boxes contain the lost pieces of a tumultuous past that dates to the city’s earliest days — bullet casings from the Civil War, mystery tonics in antique glass bottles, creepy toys, fashion accessories, ancient grooming tools and much more. Many of them still await examination and haven’t been opened since archaeologists first packed them four decades ago.

This massive array of objects is called the Phoenix Project, and Georgia State professors and students have been methodically studying, cataloging and mapping each item since 2011.

Collected all over the city between 1976 and 1980, the objects belong to the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta. They are the fruit of one of America’s earliest urban archaeological projects — the roving excavation that followed construction crews as the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) cleared land, leveled blocks and tunneled underground to build the first iteration of its rail system.

Jeffrey Glover, associate professor of anthropology, has curated the Phoenix Project for years in hopes of providing the public with a different kind of city history, a slice of Atlanta’s past through the lens of historical objects.

Catalog No.: P1848/170 Swamp Root Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure, c. 1890, manufactured by Dr. Kilmer & Co., Binghamton, NY.

Choosing one box among hundreds, Glover removes a small amber bottle that once held Valentine’s Meat Juice, a concentrated beef tonic from the 1870s. Advertisements said it could help with gastroenteritis, dysentery and even cholera.

“It was supposed to bring vitality,” Glover says, “like an early energy drink.”

From another box, he takes out the misshapen head of a porcelain doll. Featuring dark, empty eye sockets and covered in burn marks, the scary toy looks hungry for souls. While Glover affectionately calls it the “creepy doll head,” its official artifact ID is “a3161,” written in impeccable script with archival ink across its neck.

That’s because the archaeologists who bagged all this stuff in the 1970s methodically described and organized each item using a numbering system adapted from the Georgia Department of Transportation. For example, the “a” in “a3161” stands for “general artifact” while the number indicates the item was the 3,161st general artifact to be cataloged from that accession. (And there are about 100 accessions.) Containers, such as glass and pottery, begin with “p,” and building materials with “m.” Plant remains use “eb” for “ethnobotanical” while animal bones start with “ez” for “ethnozoological.”

Just one of the standard cardboard bankers boxes can contain dozens, if not hundreds, of artifacts, each wrapped in brown paper and labeled with a unique artifact ID. Though they’ve all been recorded in a logbook alongside a one-line description, unwrapping each one is like opening a birthday present because you don’t know exactly what you’ll get.

“It’s an excavation of boxes,” says Lori Thompson (M.A. ’16), assistant laboratory director at New South Associates.

Continue reading

Maritime History Just Got Richer

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The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project says the intact shipwreck was discovered at a depth of more than 1 mile, where the scarcity of oxygen helped preserve the ancient vessel. Black Sea MAP/EEF Expeditions

Who knew there were still such discoveries to be made? Obviously, someone did. And Homer’s epic tale of Odysseus and his journeys plays a part in this story:

‘Oldest Intact Shipwreck Known To Mankind’ Found In Depths Of Black Sea

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The recently discovered shipwreck reveals details that are similar to the ship on this famed ancient Greek vase, which dates to the fifth century B.C. and depicts Odysseus tied to the mast to brave the sirens.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

More than a mile beneath the surface of the Black Sea, shrouded in darkness, an ancient Greek ship sat for millennia unseen by human eyes — until the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project happened upon its watery grave last year.

The team announced the find Tuesday, saying its discovery has been “confirmed as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind.” Radiocarbon-dated to roughly 400 B.C., the trading vessel plied the waves in the days of Plato and Sophocles, when the city-states of ancient Greece had scattered colonies all around the Black Sea.

Since then, it has sat at a depth that more than doubles the height of the tallest skyscraper in the world. In water that deep, oxygen is hard to come by, and because of that, so too are the organic processes that help drive decomposition. That left the ship all but undisturbed until the research team discovered it — along with dozens of other shipwrecks — during an 800-square-mile survey of the seabed. Continue reading

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading

Valorizing Places And Things We Love

One decade ago I made the journey to Rapa Nui while on an extended project in southern Chile. It was another bit of fortune that came with the occupation I accidentally found myself in. The video above, excerpted by the Atlantic from Max Lowe’s film, hints at the value tourism can infuse, as well as the perils it can represent, with regard to cultural heritage. We have long used the archaic word “valorization” to explain what we do as a company and the Celine Cousteau Film Fellowship seems to believe the same, in supporting Max’s film:

Tourism to a Dying Ancient Culture

“The modern world has come for our little island,” says Heu Rapu Haoa in Max Lowe’s short documentary, Amo. Heu is one of the 800 remaining speakers of his native tongue. His home, Rapa Nui, known widely as Easter Island, is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. Continue reading

Early Classic Period Puzzles

Early Classic Period Polychrome Vessels

Almost from its inception there have been archaeological studies of the Maya sites at Chan Chich by nature of the lodge’s stated purpose to protect the area from further lootering. Professor Thomas Guderjan lead some of the early field seasons (1988 and 1990) studying the Maya Settlements in Northern Belize. At that time, the two Dos-Arroyos Polychrome Vessels illustrated above were some of the only artifacts found on site, but the subsequent seasons, spanning close to 20 years at this point, have yielded extensive data and additional artifacts.

These two vessels remain on display in the restaurant area at Chan Chich Lodge. Although both had been repaired by Guderjan’s team, the one on the left had broken over the years. Just before this season’s team fully dispersed, I took the opportunity to request some puzzle practice.  Continue reading

The Technological Wow Factor of Archaeology

Crist’s post about this fascinating National Geographic article last week touched on its excellent graphics but barely began to scratch the surface of the amazing technology that would certainly have left the readers of the early issues of the magazine speechless.

In addition to the world-class photography, the interactive 3-D graphic of the frieze above uses SketchFab technology to allow viewers to not only zoom in and out, but to turn the object around in all directions, as if handling it in person. Do take the time to play with it! Continue reading

Snake Kings And Other Discoveries

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CALAKMUL In the seventh century A.D. the Snake rulers presided over this capital city—in what today is southern Mexico—and its largest structure, a pyramid 180 feet tall. From Calakmul they managed an intricate web of alliances. CONSEJO NACIONAL PARA LA CULTURA Y LAS ARTES (CONACULTA), INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGÍA E HISTORIA (INAH), MEXICO

Discoveries in the lands once populated by the Maya continue apace. As Chan Chich Lodge completes three decades of archeological exploration, the wonders of three millennia are uncovered. The stories that capture my interest the most, related to the Maya, are about the man-nature relationship.

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JEROME COOKSON, NG STAFF
SOURCE: DAVID FREIDEL, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS

For example, Erik Vance’s story from last year. I remember thinking that it was the best article I had ever read in National Geographic. Partly, the graphics are better, if that is possible, than the typically excellent quality the magazine is known for. Also, the topic is more topical for me now. Chan Chich Lodge is situated exactly where the o in Holmul is on the map to the left. The lodge’s Maya foundations are situated at the periphery of where the snake kings once ruled.

And we now have an ethnobotanical initiative linking Maya foodways to our surrounding nature conservation. That initiative is linked to the lodge’s food program, with some high expectations related to our abundant forests. But mainly, with regard to this article, the writing illuminating the topic is excellent:

…Two warring city-states were locked in perennial conflict, grappling for supremacy. For a brief period one of those city-states prevailed and became the closest thing to an empire in Maya history. It was ruled by the Snake kings of the Kaanul dynasty, which until just a few decades ago no one even knew existed. Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings…

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Masks from the tombs at Calakmul were meant to ease the passage of the Snake elite into the next world. Royal visages made of green jade, more valuable than gold to the ancient Maya, evoked the annual agricultural cycle and regeneration. CONACULTA, INAH, MEXICO (BOTH) PHOTOGRAPHED AT (LEFT TO RIGHT): NATIONAL PALACE, MEXICO CITY; MUSEO DE SITIO DE COMALCALCO, MEXICO

Archaeology in Miniature

After spending a few days participating in the 2017 CCAP dig I went to visit the lab where the artifacts are cleaned, sorted and tagged. While Phil and I were doing the most basic work, Tomás and Mnemo were carefully cleaning out a burial pot that had been found in the chamber next to our new unit.

Using dental implements and small wooden sculpture tools, they were essentially repeating the process that we’d begun in our unit a few days earlier – carefully excavating the packed earth layer by layer – albeit in miniature. Continue reading

Archaeology Lab 101

Much of the scientific rigor involved in archaeology is related to the careful documentation of what often appears to be a proverbial needle in a haystack: tiny flakes of chert stone, potsherds, or obsidian can be found in the layers (or lots) of a dig unit.

In this tropical environment we’re dealing with wet, loamy earth, so those stone or pottery fragments are frequently covered in mud, and who better to clean much of these items than interested novices. Continue reading

Getting Your Archaeological Feet Wet

Day #2 at CCAP began with the same sense of camaraderie as Day #1 as we continued the process of clearing out topsoil, clipping roots, hauling soil and stone, and yes, working on walls. Each conversation with the team was informative, as we discussed the upcoming step of closing out the “lot” we’d started and opening the next one of the unit – basically as we approached the change-over of levels for the precise documentation required at an archaeological dig.

We were quite close to that point when we stopped work for lunch, returning with high energy to move on to the next stage. But it’s green season in Belize, and Mother Nature had other plans for the day. Continue reading