Laws In Tell Archaeology
1. No matter where you sink the first square,* you will find a Turkish toilet.
2. If three Ph.D.s with 39 years of field experience among them lay out the grid, it will later turn out to be irretrievably in error. Corollary: The error will not be found until the final report is being written.
3. If a professional surveyor with 39 years of experience surveying in the field is hired next time, then the grid will again be irretrievably in error. First Corollary: If a second professional surveyor is hired (at great expense) to check the first surveyor’s work, THEN the grid will be found accurate within 0.005%. Second Corollary: When you write the final report, the grid will be irretrievably in error anyway.
4. No structure excavated in a grid can be interpreted if the balks are left standing, as all important walls are hidden within the balks. Corollary: When the balks are removed, the structure still won’t make any sense.
5. The least experienced Area Supervisor with the greenest crew will make the most spectacular discovery. First Corollary: He or she will not know what it is and will not have recorded it. Second Corollary: Just as the realization comes crashing home that this discovery has been neither recorded, photographed, nor drawn, an inspection team will appear from the Department of Antiquities. Third Corollary: Just as you are earnestly explaining something to the visiting Director of Antiquities, a volunteer will walk up with one half of a freshly broken Mycenaean pyxis and ask, “What is this?” Fourth Corollary: The most experienced Area Supervisor with the most experienced crew will make even dumber mistakes.
6. At the moment when the most critical floor of the excavation needs to be traced, you will find that your technical man has eloped with the registrar. First Corollary: If you then do the work yourself, since you have traced floors for years, you will do about as good a job as a rank novice. Second Corollary: The fact that you’ve ruined the job will be particularly evident because you have recently taken aside some students to instruct them in floor tracing.
7. When parceling out tools to n Area Supervisors, you will find that there are precisely n-1 tools available.
All structures disappear into the balk.
Lance’s* Corollary: … and they never emerge from the other side.
No matter where you put your dump, you will have to dig there next.
The Law of Movable Elevations
In any given excavation season, the surveyor will find that the previous season’s elevations were surveyed incorrectly by ± 50 cm.
The Shechem* Law
The very most important discovery of all time is made on the last day of the excavation season and must be covered up to await next season’s excavation.
First Corollary: Said discovery will not be there next season.
Second Corollary: If found next season, said discovery will be a modern intrusion after all.
Third Corollary: If said discovery is lost, the annals of archaeology will record that the excavators made the most important discovery of the expedition on said date, but that the idiots threw it out.
* In modern archaeological technique, a grid is laid over a plan of the site, forming squares. The dig director then decides which squares to excavate. The squares are usually five meters square and are separated by catwalks, called balks, one meter wide.
* Named for the excavations at Tell Gezer.
* Named for archaeologist Darrell Lance, a member of the senior staff at Tell Gezer.
* Named for archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who excavated at Ur from 1922 to 1934.
* Named for the excavation at Tell Balata, ancient Shechem.
Published in Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1985.
For some more on Murphy's Law in archaeology, and how to occasionally thwart it, I quote from Brian D. Dillon's The Student's Guide to Archaeological Illustrating:
No drawing in the process of completion should be left unattended for any length of time, for, as Murphy's Law dictates, something bad is certain to happen to it. Disaster occurring to 90 percent completed drawings are too numerous to mention except in passing, and the contributors to this volume have probably in aggregate experienced every possible human and natural hazard to their artwork. We have every liquid known to man spilled over our drawings, animals or insects eat, defecate on, or make nests in them, and have watched hours of work borne by the winds of fate into fires, swamps, or neighboring countries. Drawings left out have been rained on, sat upon, used to light fires by helpful students or laborers, stolen by the curious or the appreciative, become smudged, stained, or smoke-blackened, and, if left out for long enough periods of time, have hosted new life forms such as mold and fungus. In fine then, if the draftsman is not prepared to protect his or her work during the process of completion and afterwards, the drawing should not even be attempted.