Digging up an ancient city in 16th, 17th century - methods?

Jess A

Archmage
Hello,

Anyone know much about mass excavation in, say, the 15th-17th centuries? Pre-modern archaeology methods. The novel is in a fantasy world with technology based on that era.

A King has found an enormous island full of 'treasure' (it is an enormous ancient city). There are numerous 'digs' around the island. He has hundreds of slaves and beasts of labour to do the physical work, slaves to do the other menial work to keep the place running, and lots of guards/military men. This is a long-term thing running over many years. It's an expensive affair, but he and his nobles are rich and the kingdom has some help from the neighbouring ally kingdom - who are naturally in it for their own gain but have money and some resources to offer.

Can anyone tell me what I would describe if I stumbled upon such a scene? Methods used, scaffolding, supporting infrastructure, where the dirt is typically taken (I am guessing just dumped wherever convenient). What sort of 'machines' and tools (pickaxes etc) they could use in those times. I have some magic involved but their mages are 'above' physical labour and their powers don't really work in such a convenient manner. I assume there would be makeshift quarters and stables/pens for beasts, storage, rudimentary roads etc.

If it rains, what sort of method other than slave labour could be used to drain the water out?

Assuming it is a very, very large ancient city with other dwellings on the island to be uncovered (and difficult rock/weather/obstacles/terrible winters), for how many years can I lovingly drag this out?

Treasure will be carted off by beasts and onto ships. Island has been claimed by the kingdom.

When I get back to Australia I intend on hitting my University library, but for now, any basic info or references would be appreciated. Images with labels are appreciated also. I have a basic idea, but it's not enough to write accurate scenes.

Thank you!
 

Chilari

Staff
Moderator
Basically, they'd just dig. Spades, pickaxes, mattocks most likely, rarely trowels. They'd digg until they found something, usually walls - bits of pottery or broken roof tiles would be ignored. If they'd looking for treasure they might stop if they found a whole pot (even if not intact) to try and see what's inside, if anything. But early excavations were unskilled labourers digging under the direction of basically amateurs, antiquarians, who would jump down briefly if they thought something interesting was there with a trowel in hand, if they deigned to get their hands dirty, or else would send down a young educated lackey.

There might be wide undug areas between pits for movement of dirt and people around the site, maybe, depending on whether they thought of that before they started. But most early excavations were just dig and dig until you find walls/foundations/mosaics/whatever.

Scaffolding, probably not, unless there's a particularly deep area prone to collapse, scaffolding would probably not be used purely for H&S reasons. it might be used for "making sure we get the treasure" reasons though. You might have wooden beams and planks to stop the edge of trench collapsing, and maybe, depending on whether the people in charge feel it's worthwhile to make things easier for the slave workers, planks for wheeling wheelbarrows on - you need to get those wheelbarrows of dirt out of the trench and onto the spoil heap somehow.

As far as how long they'd dig, a hundred and fifty years would not be out of the question if it's a massive site. There are massive areas of Pompeii still not even uncovered after roughly 130 years, and most of that which has been uncovered only went down to the 79CE level, ie the top level, and no further while some areas being dug now are going deeper for the first time. Troy is still being excavated after about 150 years. The amount being dug per year is dependant on number of workers, resources, how advanced the field of archaeology is - presumably, the more digging done, the more the excavation supervisors learn about how to dig right, the more stuff there is to analyse, the more stuff people realise should be kept to analyse that would have previously been discarded; and thus the more advanced the field, the smaller area excavated with the same resources because of the greater depth of analysis. Case in point, coarse and undecorated pottery. In early excavations they went on the spoil heap (which by the way would be a sensible location near the site but not over suspected archaeology). Now all pottery is kept as typology means the context it was found in can be dated from it, or at least given a chronology compared to surrounding contexts, and can tell archaeologists about trade, how far locals went to get clay because of the geology of the minerals in the clay, and so on. Stuff that once was ignored, now analysed in depth.

If it's raining heavily enough that you need a way of getting the water out of the site before digging can resume, even now, you just stop digging and wait it out. There's almost nothing you can do with a flooded trench unless you have the funds for a powerful pump (most don't). You can't see what you're digging, you might well damage what is there as a result, you'll expose stuff to water damage or risk it being washed to a different part of the trench... it's useless. Even if you don't care about that stuff, the progress you'd make would be so stupidly slow, and open your workers to the risk of colds, flu or pneumonia, it's just not worth it. When it stops raining and then you need to drain it, it'll be buckets most likely. Unless your mages are water benders, anyway.

Good luck.
 

Jess A

Archmage
Chilari - fantastic, a great start. I read about the antiquarians and I think it may be interesting to have a few floating around advising and the like.

150 years! Perfect plot-wise. Absolutely perfect. No water-bending mages - too easy. Hehe.

Thank you again - essential stuff.
 

Chilari

Staff
Moderator
Bear in mind that most archaeology is done in seasons - it's near impossible to dig if you're cold, wet and battered by wind, hail and snow. The summer season is the digging season. In winter stuff gets written up and analysed. So depending on the weather, funding, political situations, etc, you might have anything from three weeks to six months in a digging season before finishing for the year. And don't forget the political element - my personal tutor spent three years trying to get into Libya to excavate a Roman site after archaeology was allowed again, and the PhD students had gone over there, when the Arab Spring began and they had to come back and leave behind anything that didn't fit in the department's 4x4; some flew back, two drove back with the salvagable equipment through Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain and France. And when they got back Campus security had the gall to tell them they couldn't park outside the department to unload, after a 72 hour journey from Libya.

Sorry what what I talking about? Oh yes, politics. If there's upheaval at any point, or if one of the antiquarians is of a nationality which becomes unfavourable, or something, there will be changes, not only to the schedule - the length of the digging season etc - but also to the priorities of the supervisors and project director. Some might want to dig down, others out. Some might favour one area, such as a hill which might have had a palace on it, while other favour other areas, maybe one where remains of a temple or a records library were found. And speaking of records library bear in mind the possibility that some might try to dig smart, find the records and translate them to find the treasure, but if translation proves impossible his successor might decide to go back to focussing efforts on something else.
 

Ravana

Istar
I can't think of a whole lot of archaeology that was done at all prior to the 19th century (not to put too fine a point on it, none, actually)… and then the "methods" most closely resembled strip mining, in far too many cases. So you'd kind of have to project methods backward, and base them on any other form of earth-moving. Careful earth-moving, if for some reason the person ordering it sought to preserve anything in particular.

Unless your society was unusually interested in all things antique, the normal procedure would be to keep the art, spend the coin, recycle the rest of the metal, scavenge the stone for construction, and trash anything else. In which case a well-motivated crew could excavate a whole city in far less than a hundred years: all that would matter is how large the team was (and the site). Note too that "art" here allows for a lot more than was usually kept–i.e. large sculpture; if they wanted such things as mosaics, this would at least slow them down a little and make them marginally more careful. It's amazing how much we know about some cultures only from the reports of missionaries describing the local art they were marveling at right before they burned it.

Draining could be accomplished by archimedes' screw or water wheel if the site was worked constantly enough (or it rained often enough) to make it worthwhile. Or other methods associated with irrigation, though most would be no faster than buckets. If the excavation genuinely wants to uncover the entire city–rather than just "mining" for the "good" parts–then the easiest method of drainage would be to keep the excavation itself constantly going downslope and just let the water run off. In fact, this could even speed the excavation, if you knew roughly where the streets were: channel the runoff along it and let it do some of your digging for you. Or even pump or redirect water on to the excavation, if you feel like hurrying. A few dozen or hundred slaves sifting slurry at the bottom will make sure you don't miss anything important. (Told you early digs were a lot more like strip mining.… :( ) If you don't want this effect, you'll want to lay gutters for the runoff, but these can be simple enough: semicircular tile sections, each overlapping the next lower one.

A considerably more efficient way to keep water out of a smaller dig is to cover it. This can require a whole lot of canvas and timber, however, and may call for some pretty competent hydraulic engineering to keep the water from coming in around the edges, or through seams as the tenting starts to become interconnected–and ventilation holes, if the things get large enough. Imagine a complex of interconnected pavilions and circus tents.

If you're removing material evenly across the entire site, you'll have no need for scaffolding, unless you feel a desire to leave something vertical. Note that once any surface layer of grass or other vegetation is off, what's under has the potential of eroding more quickly than desirable–one reason not to work the entire site at once, unless you're only interested in getting big stuff made of stone. Conversely, if you're using deep slit trenches, it might become quite important, unless you have good reason to believe the sides of the trenches will hold up on their own–not a good bet during rainy seasons.

Your "dump" could conceivably develop a subculture all its own, as the poor pick through it in hopes of finding things the diggers overlooked. Colorful tiles, interesting pottery shards–or uninteresting ones: they make good fill for stone walls–the occasional coin, other small bits of metal local smiths can turn into nails or brackets or canvas needles, bits of glass that can be re-melted, a gem that fell from a setting, absolutely any small item caked with dirt that wasn't recognized by outline or broken apart by those whose job it was to do so. A marginally more meticulous dig could have a similar culture of "washers," whose job it is to process all the dirt from the dig to catch the same sort of thing (they still won't get all of it, due to human nature and error).
 
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Butterfly

Auror
I know that the first Pompeii dig was an early excavation -- checking this states that it was first excavated in 1748 by Johann Joachim Winckelman.

Some links as a starting point for research for you.

Pompeii - Archaeology at Pompeii

Pompeii

The History of Archaeology Part 1 - The Treasure Hunters - The History of Archaeology (First of a 5 part succession of articles... the links to the others are on the bottom of the page).

It's still a little later than you want, but is pretty much right at the beginning.
 
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Chilari

Staff
Moderator
Wow I misremembered Pompeii's first excavation date by quite a big margin there. Oops. Herculaneum began about a decade or two earlier than that too. Also Ravana has lots of very good point I utterly missed.
 

Jess A

Archmage
Thank you all for your comments!

Chilari

There will be no digging in winter. The ground freezes over and it snows and rains. Summer is not too uncomfortable an affair aside from insects. As for politics, I have to suss that out because one nation found the island and claimed the territory for its own. Its neighbouring kingdom has sent help and probably antiquarians - they are also able to provide timber, which the first nation has usually needed to import because of their climate. They need each other. The disagreements you mention will be good for conflict, and I can most certainly work with those. Ultimately, the goal is to get the riches, but there are people in high places who also care for the important stuff and will probably try to get their share.

You mentioned earlier about disease. This is another good plot factor which I will approach. I can see a lot of slaves dying from the winter, disease and work, but I can also see a lot of the overseers also dying from disease. Like a battlefield, it must spread very, very quickly, especially with such low morale and despair.

Ravana

I am glad to hear that timber could be such a necessity, as it confirms my thoughts that the other kingdom involved is needed - timber is a rarity in the first kingdom (the one overseeing the majority of the excavation). They also have good ships. I love the idea of the 'dump'. It might be fun to have a small community based on the island who are displaced by the diggers. That community would be part of the first kingdom, I would think. Either that, or non-slaves (military and guards and other servants) might be scavenging.

I can see antiquarians and other 'scholars' becoming upset by the destruction of some things. But both kingdoms are far, far more interested in gold, treasure, things they can trade, things they can adorn the rich homes with, and things that are generally valuable. And this city has treasure in troves.

20 years after digging has started, what can I expect? Several 'digs', some already abandoned? I'm not even sure the authorities would even bother refilling them. The rain would probably get there first. I think some of the pits would get fairly deep, but others would be very shallow. How wide would you expect a pit to be? Finicky questions but all relevant to the scenes. I will have a look into drainage - I found a primary source regarding early mining which talks about pumps, but I think using streets and other simpler methods is a good, simple way for this 'strip mining' society.

---

Another question:

Digging can't go on all year. Especially not in the unfavourable conditions on the island, where winters can be harsh. What is to be done with the surviving slaves, the beasts of burden, the makeshift 'town' and enclosures? I can't see them shipping all those slaves and animals back to the mainland, though it isn't very far (and the mainland is visible from the island's edge). They would be focusing their efforts on shipping back the treasure, the mined stone, the artefacts and the 'important people'. Would the slaves and their overseers be forced to remain there all year 'round, with new slaves replacing the dead ones each year? Perhaps a new shipment arrives twice a digging season (once, realistically).

Butterfly

Thank you for the links! Especially on Pompeii. This might be a little more sophisticated in method than what I want, but it is still the 18th century and there will still be good references there. It also gives me context and comparison.
 
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