A Day in the Life of a Sardis Excavator

Experience a day in the life of a Sardis excavator through the eyes of Sarah Eisen and Rebecca Deitsch, PhD students in the Department of the Classics at Harvard University. Sarah is studying Classical Archaeology and writing her dissertation on synesthesia and religion, specifically how the manipulation of the senses (through various rituals and objects) impacted and altered the sacrificial experience in the ancient Mediterranean world, while Rebecca is studying Classical Philology and writing her dissertation on the reworking of Greek myth in Flavian (Imperial Roman) epic. Sarah and Rebecca have been part of the Sardis team since Summer 2019.


6:00 am. Alarm clocks blared and sleepy archaeologists rolled out of bed. At 6:30 am, we made our way to the main compound building (Figs. 1, 2) for a Turkish breakfast of tomatoes, cheeses, boiled eggs, local olives, honey, and bread. After eating, we excavators hurried to pack all of our supplies into the jeeps. We collected our water, sunblock, field cameras, “dumpy levels” to take elevations, and our buckets - containing our field notebooks, day plans, pencils, tape measure, north arrow, scales, bags for finds, etc. We also made sure to grab our tea and snacks, because morning in the field was long and hungry if the tea didn’t make it into the jeeps!

Excavators, architects, and the occasional conservator or intern would cram into the two jeeps - often ten people in the back! - and zoom out of the compound at 7:00 am sharp (Fig. 3). We would drop off Sarah and some others at Field 55, and then Rebecca and everyone else would head up the hill to Field 49.

Morning excavation: Field 55 (Sarah)

7:00 am. First thing in the morning (before the sun caused too many shadows), I would photograph the area. We kept detailed notes of what we excavated in fieldbooks (Fig. 4), and we took photos of significant finds. I had six local workmen who were very good-natured and patient with me as I learned Turkish words and phrases like, “Let’s dig!” One of the workmen even brought a big beach umbrella to our trench to partially shield us against the strong summer sun. The workmen helped me dig, sift, and remove soil and large stones, and we excavated a room in a late Roman house in Field 55 (Fig. 5). Over the course of the season, we uncovered a beautiful marble-paved courtyard complete with a water pool. Most of the finds from this room were architectural, and as a result, we often had architects visit our trench to draw the various rooms and walls (Fig. 6). Since some of the walls in our Roman house also had remains of painted plaster decoration, the conservators also came out to the field to treat the wall painting. These visitors often stayed for mid-morning tea and sandwiches at 10:00 am. While drinking hot tea in 100+ degree heat might seem counterintuitive, tea breaks were something everyone on site enjoyed!

A main goal for our trench was to understand when this house was built, how many times the house was occupied and renovated, and why it was abandoned. We have found evidence of a huge earthquake (or series of quakes) that destroyed the houses, leaving fault lines through the marble floor and plaster subfloor. The earthquake was so strong that it even split a thick wall right in two! (Fig. 7) Much of the season was concerned with understanding the complex architecture and different phases of the room. Although painted walls, elaborate water features, and the marble paving suggest that this room belonged to a wealthy household, there was a surprising dearth of material finds, beyond a few coins. We would have expected to find a rich material assemblage to match the grandeur of the room, especially compared to the number of finds in adjacent areas of excavation. Due to this, we tentatively suggest that this room was uninhabited when the wall-cracking earthquake hit, and was perhaps under a round of renovation.

Lunch break

12:00 pm. At midday, everyone would pile back into the jeeps and return to the compound for lunch, prepared by our local Turkish cook, Ferhat Serin. After eating, we had a short period of free time, which people usually used for a quick afternoon nap. We all headed back out to the field again by 2:00 pm.

Afternoon excavation: Field 49 (Rebecca)

2:15 pm. I arrived back at my trench to the cheerful greetings of five local workmen (Fig. 8, video 9). Since the first day, when my Turkish consisted of “merhaba” (“hello”) and numbers, our communications had become easier. My workmen patiently taught me new words, and with lots of arm waving and sound effects we soon understood each other well. Although my Turkish vocabulary was heavily weighted towards archaeological terms (the first word I learned was “taş,” meaning “stone”), we also managed to chat about our everyday lives in the US and Turkey and to learn all about one other’s families (with the occasional help of Google Translate).

In the afternoon, the workmen and I would do a bit more digging before starting on end-of-day tasks. I would get out my day plan (a hand-drawn map of my trench) and make sure that all the day’s discoveries and progress were included. Before excavating in any area, we first measured the elevations with the dumpy level (Fig. 10). Whenever the soil changed color or consistency, we measured all over again, because a soil change could mark a new stratigraphic layer - that is, a layer of soil dating to a distinct event/occupation in history. Later, we would analyze and date the finds from the different soil layers; we could then apply this dating to the soil layers themselves. Any special finds (such as coins, Fig. 11) had to be carefully recorded; we would measure the elevations of their find spots so that we could use this information to reconstruct the history of the area. In short: record keeping was crucial! By the end of the day, my plan contained drawings of rocks, notes on soil consistency, and numerous elevation measurements (Fig. 12). Last of all, before heading home, we cleaned all exposed surfaces thoroughly. Removing loose dirt is hard when excavating on the side of a windy mountain! The occasional dust storm livened things up and the workmen and I always departed covered in dirt.

My trench was located on a steep and rocky hillside, which meant that I had to channel my inner mountain goat (Fig. 13). We chose this location in hopes of finding the continuation of a nearby Lydian terrace wall, but - as happens so often at Sardis - things did not go as predicted. Instead of a Lydian terrace, a bewildering array of Byzantine and Roman walls emerged from the hillside and several of them joined together in a late Roman structure (perhaps a house?). There was even a meter-long patch of plain wall plaster which the conservators carefully covered and preserved. More excavation is needed to solve the mysteries of this trench, but it seems that there were several phases of Roman occupation.

Early evening

5:00 pm. At the end of the excavation day, we hopped into the jeeps and headed back to the compound. After a quick sink wash-up (Fig. 14), the whole team —including excavators, conservators, architects, specialists, and interns— gathered outside at a long table for another round of Turkish tea with cookies. Then came a mad rush for the showers or sometimes a seminar given by the specialists (Fig. 15).

We as excavators also spent the early evening sorting and analyzing the pottery from our trenches. Every day, countless pottery sherds were brought back from the field to the compound. Women from the neighboring town of Sart (the modern town gets its name from ancient Sardis) were hired to clean these sherds in preparation for archaeological analysis, what we call “reading” the pottery. Sorting through hundreds of sherds is a tedious but necessary task, made better by a good playlist or audiobook! (Fig. 16) This time was also useful for work on day plans, catching up on field notes, calculating elevations taken in the field, and cataloguing photos from the day (Fig. 17). Some people liked to hike up the Sardis acropolis in the evening as well (Fig. 18).


8:30 pm. The day began to wind down in the later evening with dinner. Pre-dinner snacks on the porch of the main building were such a nice way to close the day - catching up with everyone, hearing stories, and learning new Turkish phrases. Then came dinner, a large communal affair sometimes enlivened by birthday celebrations (Fig. 19). Although we were usually pretty tired after the evening meal, sometimes we had gatherings for movies, dressed up for costume parties, or did more work after dinner (Fig. 20). We even used our field director’s telescope to go stargazing near the Temple of Artemis one night! Days off included trips to nearby sites such as Aphrodisias (Fig. 21).

After dinner and evening activities, it was off to bed, to do it all again the next day!

  • Fig. 1

    The excavation compound. (Photograph by Bahadır Yıldırım)

  • Fig. 2

    The excavation compound, which is also a sort of outdoor museum. (Photograph by Sarah Montonchaikul)

  • Fig. 3

    Excavators pile into the antique 1957 Land Rover to ride to the site. "Pinky" was purchased for the inaugural field season in 1958 and is still in use today. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 4

    Sarah makes a rough field drawing of a newly discovered acanthus column capital fragment in her fieldbook. (Sarah Eisen)

  • Fig. 5

    Sarah explains the water pool and channel in her trench during a weekly trench tour. Note the flower-shaped drain in front of Sarah's feet. (Susanne Ebbinghaus)

  • Fig. 6

    Architect Ginevra D’Agostino works on a precise architectural drawing as Sarah explains the trench. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 7

    A large earthquake caused this courtyard wall and painting to split in two. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 8

    Rebecca and team - Celal Karakul, Sadettin Mercan, Durmuş Ceyhan, Hüseyin Ceylan, and Ahmet Erdoǧan - pose in their trench. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 9

    Video from the air of Rebecca and her team excavating, and adjacent trench excavated by Güzin Eren. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 10

    Rebecca records elevations as Hüseyin Ceylan and Ahmet Erdoǧan measure with the dumpy level. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 11

    Rebecca holds a newly found coin. Our numismatist, Jane DeRose Evans, later dated this coin to 408-423 AD in the time of the Roman emperor Honorius. (CAT 2019.24) (Rebecca Deitsch)

  • Fig. 12

    Rebecca's in-progress day plan (July 20, 2019) (Rebecca Deitsch)

  • Fig. 13

    The team visits Rebecca's trench during one of the weekly trench tours. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 14

    Rebecca, covered in dirt after a long day in the field, prepares to wash up before afternoon tea. (Sarah Eisen)

  • Fig. 15

    Phil Stinson and Bahadır Yıldırım teach an afternoon seminar on architectural sculpture at Sardis. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 16

    Back at the compound, Sarah reads pottery in the early evening. These are sherds from one “basket” or archaeological context, carefully collected and kept together to help reconstruct the history of the area. (Sarah Eisen)

  • Fig. 17

    Rebecca updates her fieldbook and day plans in the evening. Lots of calculations and measurements! (Rebecca Deitsch)

  • Fig. 18

    Sarah hikes up the steep Sardis Acropolis for some cardio-intense free time. (Rebecca Deitsch)

  • Fig. 19

    Birthday parties are regular events at the dinner table / library; here, for Salpi Bocchieriyan. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 20

    Sarah and Rebecca dressed as a Roman tombstone at an evening costume party with the Temple of Artemis in the background. (Sarah Eisen)

  • Fig. 21

    One Wednesday (our day off) the team visited the neighboring site of Aphrodisias. Here Sarah and Rebecca pose in the Roman stadium. (Sarah Eisen)