vrijdag 9 maart 2012

donderdag 1 maart 2012

Tanah Datar 2012

We are back!

After several days of tropical acclimatisation and tedious administrative adventures into the depths of the Indonesian bureaucratic world (oft causing headaches and racking nerves...) our team of researchers has arrived in the Tanah Datar region in the heart of highland Sumatra!

This season, our team comprising local and foreign archaeologists (and the children, who according to the visas also count as researchers this year!) will continue excavating the site of Bukit Gombak at the foot of the Gunung Merapi, an active volcano and spectacular landmark looming above the open valley. In cooperation with students from the Universitas Indonesia our group from the Freie Universität Berlin will commence fieldwork in the coming days, as well as other areas of research such as pottery and small find studies and an accurate measurement of the site.

As a team, we are hoping for a successful and rewarding season in 2012 and look forward to your company over the next 6 weeks!

maandag 9 mei 2011


Archaeological excavations usual yield heaps of earthenware and ours is no exception. Besides the Chinese ceramics, which are relatively well-known, we have exhumed many sherds of local pottery, the manufacturing process and distribution network of which is still to be studied. In order to gain more insight into how people produced and used these pots, we embarked on a small ethnoarchaeological trip.
We first observed that some of the pots still used for cooking and keeping rice were very similar to the sherds we found at Bukit Gombak. After a short enquiry, we discovered that all the earthen pots used in the Tanah Datar area came from one single village: Galo Dandang, near Rambatan.
Although the industry is quickly decreasing, a few women of Galo Dandang still produce traditional ceramics and sell them to vendors who distribute ceramics in the markets of the Tanah Datar area. We have met one of these craftswomen, Ibu Juharnis, 53 years old, who had the kindness to show and explain to us how she shapes and bakes ceramics at home.
Ibu Juharnis goes once a month in the rice fields to dig the clay she needs. The clay is simply  mixed with sand (without any decantation or cleaning) and wedged. Ibu Juharnis shapes the clay lumps by hand, using a bamboo or wooden ring and a paddle. The pot is smoothened using a stone (inside) and a bamboo stick (outside), dried and baked in an open fire at the rear of Ibu Juharnis’ house.

Ibu Juharnis, holding a large stone inside the pot, shapes the clay by hitting it with a wooden paddle.

Ibu Juharnis smoothens the inside of the pot with a stone

Smoothening the outside with a bamaboo stick

After the pot has dried for one hour, Ibu Juharnis adds a rim.
Firing the pots behind the house

dinsdag 12 april 2011

The archaeologist´s blues

A week´s work in trench F
You think archaeology is about exotic places and sensational discoveries? Well, sometimes it is. But it is also about working from early morning to late at night, living with colleagues 24 hours a day, being far away from friends and family and trying to adapt to local food; all of it in the name of science. Most of the time, we do it with joy. Except when, instead of sensational discoveries, nothing is happening at all. 
Looking at an empty trench for days, the archaeologist gets the blues. And this is just what happened to us last week. Everyone has its way of dealing with it: bath for Annika, massage for Johannes, long talks for Kilian and Patrick. In these moments, anything is good to take. The discovery of a modern nail becomes a moment of intense satisfaction, something that breaks the day´s monotony.  The nail is then numbered and classified as the most precious object.
Johannes in his empty trench
In the evening, though, we have time – at last – to fill all those forms we are asked to fill by Dominik. Office work takes a more and more important place during excavation.  Besides making photos, drawings, plans and sections, we also have to fill in locus sheets (for every archaeological layer), ceramic collection labels, small find labels, lists of finds, locus lists, sample sheets, field diaries, ceramic description sheets  and, of course, to enter everything in the database. Although this might not seem exciting, documenting the excavation as precisely as we can is a necessity. As any first year archaeology student learns it: excavating is destroying; hence the importance of documentation.   Let´s just hope we´ll soon have something else to document than modern nails.

Break time in trench F

Annika at the spring

In helps Johannes to relax
Working at home in the evening

zaterdag 9 april 2011

A sherd story

Muti washing sherds
There is obviously something going on between archaeologists and sherds. To the lay eye, our profession seems obsessed with broken pots. But is it really so? And what do we do with them anyway?
The problem with traces of human activities is that they tend to decay and disappear quite quickly. Wood rots, metal corrodes, even bone can disappear under the action of acid soils. But ceramic survives quite well, even in difficult environments. Besides, as pots don´t have a very long lifetime, the usual household needs lots of them and leave a sort of ceramic print of its habits and status. Hence, pottery analysis is an essential component of any archaeological excavation.

A sherd collection
Pottery sherds are first collected layer per layer, washed, dried, sorted, counted, weighted and photographed.  After that, some of them are selected, numbered, drawn, measured and described one by one. The description focuses on shape, technique and ornamentation. This part of the work is done by the archaeologists during the excavation. The final analysis, however, will be carried out later by a ceramic expert, the ceramologist. 

Mai-lin and Patrick discussing the
orientation of a sherd
It is too early to draw final conclusions, but a quick look at the ceramics from Bukit Gombak already gives interesting results. The Chinese ceramics found on the site show that the hill was used from the 13th-14th century onward. The quantity and variety of the local ceramics confirm that the place was a settlement. The distribution of the ceramics seems also to indicate that the (wooden) buildings that made up this settlement were concentrated in the south and on the northern plateau, but not at the top of the hill (although postholes have been discovered there, the lack of pottery suggests a different type of use). Strangely enough, the eastern slope has yielded a material quite different from the other areas excavated until now, with a very large number of sherds with cord mark

The end of the excavation is approaching, but the heaps of sherds awaiting study suggest that the sherd story is just beginning.

Sekar measuring a sherd

Dayat´s drawing

maandag 4 april 2011

At the pursuit of Ādityavarman

Pariangan, the site of one inscription
Ādityavarman. This sole name led us to develop the Tanah Datar archaeological project. But who is the guy anyway? We actually know only very few things about him: he spent his early life in East Java, at the court of Majapahit, and founded a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom in the Sumatranese highlands.  Why and how this kingdom was born is still a mystery to historians, but we hope to be able soon to throw more light on it. The inscriptions he left in the Tanah Datar area constitute the earliest local testimony on the history of the region and the main source of information about this king. Hence, one of our main tasks has been to survey the area for inscriptions, so that they can be transcribed and translated in English – most of them for the first time. During two weeks, our epigraphic team (Sreymom, Sarann, Arlo and Budi) has been at the pursuit of Ādityavarman , photographing and making rubbings of the inscriptions identified during the survey. The rubbings, made on specially imported Korean paper and Chinese ink, will be kept at the office of the BP3 at Batusangkar and at the library of the EFEO in Jakarta. Together with the photos, they will allow epigraphists to have access to the inscriptions in their original scripts.
Arlo, Sreymon and Saran applying the paper on the stone
Sarann, hitting the stone and inking the paper

The final result

zondag 27 maart 2011

Lost and found

Trench B, natural soil
After two weeks of excavation, we have reached the natural soil in the three trenches. Our fears were justified and it now appears that the occupation layers have been heavily disturbed by the agricultural activities of the late 20th century.
As often in tropical climate and especially on the top of a hill, the stratigraphy is very shallow. The monsoon rains wash the soil away and the anthropomorphic layers do not go much deeper than 30-40cm below the modern ground level.
The consequence for us is that the ancient occupation layers have been completely turned upside down when the area was ploughed. The material of 5 centuries of human activities has been mixed up in one thick (modern) layer. Fortunately, the material has not been moved over long distances, since pieces from a single ceramic are often found close to each other. Some areas are clearly richer in archaeological material than others. The top of the hill, where our trench A is located, has yielded very few ceramics in comparison with the two other trenches, in trench B traces of metal working activities have been detected. Among the lost and found in this thick disturbed layer, we have orange and blue beads, Chinese ceramics (mostly fragments of bowls and dishes), earthenware sherds (of jars, cooking pots, lids, kendis etc.), obsidian, Neolithic adzes, iron slag, brick fragments etc. 

Neolithic adze
 Glass bead

Below the disturbed layer, a good surprise was awaiting us though: traces of postholes (in trench A) and even the lower part of a post (in trench B). We finally have physical proof of the existence of a building on our hill! The coming week, we will extend the trenches and open new excavation areas in the hope of finding more post(hole)s.
Base of a wooden post