BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Happy new year, readers. The Kelsey Museum is back in the swing of business, and we are already in the midst of the semester, working with students, classes, and upcoming exhibitions. As it is the Winter term, some people begin planning for fieldwork and being overseas. Some Kelsey staff will be leaving for the field in just a matter of days, while others will wait until May/June/July to be at their respective projects.
For those who have never been on an archaeological dig, you are missing out! There is so much to learn, to experience. Being overseas, especially, affords a person the opportunity to interact with different people, eat different foods, and lead life at a different pace. There is also the opportunity to travel, see the sites a country has to offer. And there is, of course, the actual archaeology, what there is to discover that gives us a better understanding of the past. It truly is a magical experience.
But it’s not all fun and adventures. Sometimes being overseas brings with it some hindrances and annoyances that add up to interesting stories, but not exactly a great experience. For those not used to travel, new water and new foods will have an adverse effect on digestive system. Dealing with customs and authorities might be an issue. Many people will miss their family and friends, and the comforts of home.
In other cases, the environment is pestering, quite literally. Working as an archaeologist, one will find themselves outside often. Sun, wind, occasional rain, heat and cold all contribute to grueling days. And in many areas of the world, the flora and fauna of the region pose risks to health and work. Wild animals and overgrown plants get in the way, not caring for the work one is pursuing. Some, like the mosquito, will carry diseases one has to be wary of.
This is a problem that affects the modern archaeologist, but it is not a new dilemma. The papers of Qasr al-Hayr, an excavation headed by Oleg Grabar in the 1960s and 1970s, show how the simple fly was proving to be a nuisance even back then. Professor Grabar reached out to colleagues and experts for resources or suggestions for ways to handle the fly problem. In this month’s From the Archives, we see a response from a colleague at the Freer Gallery of Art, along with a pamphlet discussing the household fly from the US Department of Agriculture. The pamphlet makes recommendations, such as traps, screens, insecticides. However, the letter expands on this, noting that the region is rife with flies, and trying to tackle the situation would demand many more resources than realistically available, and any efforts would be lost as flies from surrounding regions would just fill the vacuum created.
Qasr al Hayr was a medieval Islamic town found between the Euphrates and Damascus. By its placement at the foot of one of the few mountain passes in the central Syrian desert, it commanded a commercial and strategic position of importance between settled and nomadic groups. Those of us who have worked in that area of the world know how prevalent flies are, and any efforts to lessen their numbers seem to be fruitless. They are a constant presence.
Being out in the field is truly a great experience, one many students, staff, and professors look forward to every year. But it comes with a price. Sometimes that price is large, other times it is small, but even those small problems have ways to multiply and cause big headaches.
Letter from Qasr al Hayr archives on fly problem in Syria
Pamphlet from Qasr al Hayr archives on fly problem in Syria