Graduate student Zack Chitwood, second from left, and his team discuss their latest finds.
Graduate student Zack Chitwood, second from left, and his team discuss their latest finds.
Brett Tomlinson

Mecitözü, Turkey, July 14, 2008 — Wheels roll at 6 a.m. There were several points to remember from the Avkat team’s orientation session yesterday — always wear sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat, drink plenty of water, check for ticks when you leave the field — but no piece of information seemed more important than this one: Wheels roll at 6 a.m. With only 20 days in the field, there is little time to waste. “At 5:57,” project director Hugh Elton says, “I start looking at my watch obsessively.”

On the season’s first morning, the fleet of rented cars and pickup trucks departs on schedule, eluding the parade of cows and slow-moving tractors that Avkat veterans jokingly call “rush-hour traffic.” Elton drives two geophysicists to a high point near the village — tentatively known as the “Bronze Age hill” — where they begin setting up gridlines for their ground-penetrating radar survey. Meanwhile, the field-walking teams begin a training session with assistant project director Jim Newhard, testing their compasses and calibrating their steps to see how many it will take to cover 15 meters. Newhard also advises newcomers on the right pace for walking the fields: not too fast, not too slow — sing “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder, he tells them, if you need to find the right rhythm.  

The Avkat team works early because of the heat, which can top 100 degrees F. at midday, and rousing college students at sunrise proves surprisingly easy in Mecitözü. In addition to whatever alarm clocks they set, the students hear the morning call to prayer, broadcast by speaker from the spire of a local mosque, and the crowing of roosters, beginning about 4:45 a.m. By 5:45, seats around the breakfast tables are filled with students munching on bread and jam or hard-boiled eggs.

After Newhard’s opening-day training session, the students complete their first field-walking session and return shortly after noon with a few armfuls of shards, bagged in plastic. In the field office, a graduate student from Trent begins entering the data from the field teams’ clipboards. By 12:30 p.m., the teams are back in the dorm to eat lunch. 

Afternoons are reserved for office work and other tasks that can be done indoors or in the shade, like washing the samples collected from the field that morning. Shards are placed in wooden boxes and dried in the yard in front of their dorm, at least until late afternoon, when local kids arrive to play soccer. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the whole group gathers at 6 p.m. to learn more background about the project and exchange updates. But today is Monday, so the students have extra time to read, relax, and catch up on whatever sleep they missed in the morning. 

The dorm’s covered porch has become the gathering place of choice, and today, Princeton graduate students Zack Chitwood and Mark de Groh are practicing their Turkish, swapping phrases from a couple of guidebooks. Neither book seems to fit the needs of a working archaeologist — one seems geared toward picking up women at a bar, the other places an inordinate amount of emphasis on the names of fruits and vegetables — but they’re good for a laugh on a slow afternoon. 

After dinner, there are more conversations outside and a card games indoors, but by 10:30 p.m., nearly everyone has gone to bed, preparing for an early wake-up call. They will repeat the daily schedule five more times before Sunday, the project’s first rest day.