The archaeologist in the washing room


“Look! I found a box of skulls!”
Well, that is a strong contestant for ‘wake-up text of the year’. If I studied anything else than archaeology, these words would have been alarming. However, I do do a study that often gets highly fascinated by the discovery of human remains. Even empty graves get our hopes up. So sometimes mornings start with me not being able to see anything (because of the lack of glasses) while receving photo’s of boxes full of skulls. At this particular moment, I am still unable to determine what part of the skull it is because of fuzzy sight.

The washing room is an essential part of the archaeological process, and it is the place where many students start their career by standing up to their elbows in cold water. Of course warm water could be used and would feel a lot nicer to the touch, but when cleaning bones it is not prefered as many ancient bacteria are not huge fans of warm water. Although the washing room is a very well known place to archaeologists, whether or not it is an actual room or just an area with buckets in Italy, it might be a bit uncommon to everyone else in the world. Well, imagine an area (room, wall, desks, anything really with buckets of water and drying shelves) that is filled with the sounds of chatter, music, and the scraping of toothbrushes against pottery or bone. If you thought that that whole ‘cleaning archaeological finds with toothbrushes’-thing was only done in movies, think again. Even if they invent something that cleans your teeth better than a toothbrush, the industry will always remain thanks to crazy people that dig for ancient museum-pieces.

The biggest problem when it comes to cleaning are human remains. The water is cold, the material is brittle, and the human body consists of at least 206 bones that can all be damaged and that can all be annoyingly small. After lying some 400+ years under several layers of soil, most bones result in picking shards and splinters out of your fingers. Bones might tell fascinating stories, but often they are boring to look at. “Ooh wauw! Look at this!” Another strong contestant for ‘wake-up text of the year’. This time, I’m able to see what has been send to me. At first, I’m not really sure what I am supposed to be looking at. Are those vertebrae? Stuck together? By a tree-root?! I need more coffee.

Two vertebrae with a tree-root through them.
Two vertebrae with a tree-root through them.

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