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What methods do we use to follow the pots?

We combine both traditional archaeological methods (like mapping the site of Fifa) with ethnographic interviews with people.

Archaeological Methods

In January and February 2011 two archaeologists and one archaeological surveyor mapped the site of Fifa. Today the site resembles a moonscape, with looters’ holes extending across rolling hills as far as the eyes can see, and the ground is covered with the spoil heaps of dirt, skeletal remains, and broken artifacts. Such a scale of destruction makes total documentation of all looters’ pits impossible. Therefore the team focused on recording the site in three different ways:

(1) The team produced a topographic map of the site, marking the boundaries of the cemetery as best as they can be determined by looking at materials on the surface. To produce this map, the surveyor used a Total Station, which is a computerized surveying instrument that records distances and elevations digitally, all of which can be downloaded to a mapping program on a computer.

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Figure 28: Isabelle Ruben at the total station

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Figure 29: Morag Kersel with the prism

(2) In addition to mapping the extent and topographic contours of the site, the team recorded the location of looted tombs across a portion of the cemetery. These looted tombs were marked onto the overall site map.

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Figure 30: Looted cist tomb at Fifa, 2011

(3) The vast number of looter pits and looted tombs means that it would be impossible to record all pits and tombs across the site. Therefore the team set up ten intensive study units. Each study unit was 20 x 20 m in size. Each of these units can be seen on the site map, labeled A through J. In each of these units, the team recorded the location of all looter pits, looted tombs, spoil heaps, archaeological objects and human remains located on the surface. For each of these areas, they produced maps illustrating all of these elements.

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Figure 31: Plan of Fifa, 2011

In addition to mapping all of these things, the team also took photographs and drew some of the looted tombs and materials on the surface. For the intensive survey of the ten units, we wanted to estimate the original number of tombs, the rate of “success” of looters (distinguishing between barren/empty holes and actual looted tombs), and the range and numbers of grave goods abandoned by looters because they were broken, judged unsalable, or otherwise not valuable.

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Figure 33: Isabelle Ruben and Hugh Barnes document looting at Fifa, 2011

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Figure 34: Isabelle Ruben documents looting at Fifa, 2011

Outside of these ten sample areas, the team also recorded the number of tombs in the western half of the site, noting whether the tombs seemed to be constructed from boulders, wadi cobbles, or large slabs.

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Figure 35: Isabelle Ruben and Hugh Barnes document looting at Fifa, 2011

Part of our methodology was developed by an earlier, pilot project at neighboring EBA cemetery Bab adh-Dhra` in 2004. Bab adh-Dhra`’s shaft tombs have been looted intensively for decades, and we developed a method for mapping looting tombs and discerning barren looter pits. We also discovered the need for documenting looting at different scales, since the damage to these sites is so vast.

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Figure 36: Map of Cemetery X, Bab adh-Dhra’

We are currently working to compare our results of the intensive survey with what archaeologists discovered when they excavated about 10 tombs at Fifa in 1989-90. We hope to be able to gain a sense of what looters take, what they leave, and what has been lost archaeologically by the destruction of the site. Meredith is currently analyzing the field notebooks from the excavations in order to compare what we learned in 2011 with what they learned two decades ago before the site had been extensively looted.

Ethnographic Methods

Complementing the archaeological research, Follow the Pots uses ethnographic research methods, including interviewing stakeholders, collecting oral histories, visiting museums and antiquities shops, and examining the websites of on-line auction houses who sell these pots. Morag directs this arm of FTP, spending time in Jordan, Israel, Palestine, the UK, Canada, and the US talking with archaeologists, government officials, and local residents of the southern Ghor, museum curators, collectors, looters, middlemen, and antiquities dealers.

Ethnography is the study of living peoples today, and is known by several other names: ethology, social anthropology, and cultural anthropology (depending on where one learns to be an anthropologist, the name changes). Conducting ethnographic research involves interviewing people who interact with these pots today (including looters and their family members, middlemen, archaeologists, museum workers, government officials, collectors, and dealers) as well as seeking out the pots in antiquities shops, online auction houses (like EBay, Christies, or other online dealers, museums, and archaeological storehouses.) Sometimes it is very easy to get people to talk about their relationship to these pots; other times it is very difficult.

Many people are familiar with gathering oral histories: Morag interviews people who worked with these pots, or knew people who worked with the pots, in the past in any way, including looters, collectors, middlemen, antiquities dealers, foreign and national archaeologists, local inhabitants, and government and museum officials. We learn a tremendous amount about how people used these pots in many ways in the past.

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Figure 37: Ethnography with Tom Schaub and Morag Kersel, November 2012

In talking with many different people involved with these sites and materials, she asks questions about how people think about these pots, if and how they think they are valuable in any way, and what people believe should happen with these archaeological objects.

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Figure 38: Visit to Bab adh-Dhra’ with Hugh Barnes, Isabelle Ruben, Tom Schaub, and Jamie Fraser


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Figure 39: Plan of Fifa, 2011