Where data goes to live

March 27, 2009

“Do artifacts ever leave Giza?” Good question. The answer is NO! Nothing ever leaves Giza. AERA collects and analyzes everything they excavate and everything goes into SCA-sanctioned storage.

The Giza storeroom and lab are overseen by Dr. Mary Anne Murray. I have a special affection for Mary Anne. With her warm and witty personality, she was the first one to really make me feel like part of the AERA team.

After stumbling through a couple of weeks of supervised digging and a set of menial tasks designed to see if I would quit in 2004, she said one day, “You’re doing ok. We’ll have to see if the boss [Mark Lehner] will have you back.”

Dr. Mary Anne Murray in the lab she oversees near the pyramids.

Dr. Mary Anne Murray in the lab she oversees near the pyramids.

Five years later, I spent a recent morning talking to her about her work as AERA’s Director of Archaeological Science.  Her international and interdisciplinary team of specialists from 12 countries analyze the artifactual and environmental evidence from the excavations.

Mary Anne herself is a highly experienced archaeobotanist (studying ancient plants) and a field archaeologist who has worked on archaeological digs every year since the age of 16. With her knowledge of the field, she also hires most of the diggers and specialists. 

Having worked with Mark Lehner since 1997, Mary Anne was initially unenthused about taking on the task in 2006 of organizing the growing stores of cultural material from the dig. When she finally accepted the job, she decided that the storeroom would become a real working lab and not just a place “where data went to die” and a vital scientific laboratory is what we see today.

All cultural material is now stored in easy to find locations with each room, unit, and shelf labeled and mapped. Analyzed material has been moved to other storage and new equipment allows analysis onsite.

AERA storeroom near the pyramids.

AERA storeroom near the pyramids.

As Director of Archaeological Science, Mary Anne sees the goal for publications as an integration of all of the disciplines working on the AERA team: the data from the excavations together with that from pottery, mud sealings, artifacts, animal bone, archaeobotany, lithics, pigments and plaster, mud brick, wood charcoal, geology and soil analysis, and so on.

The next area of the settlement to be published, for example, is the Royal Administrative Building (RAB) and everyone is finishing their own research but it’s only by pooling everyone’s information that the complexity of the area can be really understood.

An American by birth, 20+ years living in London have sharpened what was likely a charming wit to begin with. To some of the osteo-archaeologists talking about their Late Period (747-525 BC) burials, she quipped, “Late Period?! God, most of my jokes are older than that!”

Brian Hunt

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