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A Ruinous Summer

On digging ditches.

I have held a variety of jobs, some ordinary—floor salesman at a garden center—and some unusual—personal assistant and friend surrogate for a failed filmmaker. Working in the press, which I guess is what I’m pretty much set doing now, falls somewhere in between.

The unusual end of the spectrum is delimited by a summer spent working as an archaeologist in rural Turkey. I had done clerical work in the excavation’s offices at my college since my freshman year, paid what was then a princely sum of thirteen dollars and fifteen cents per hour. (I was never sure why this very particular number was settled on, and I was afraid to ask lest it be rounded down.) Making a go in the trenches seemed like a good way to spend a summer, rounding out a C.V. that had otherwise been bookish and unappealing.

I had never taken a course on archaeology, or read any books about the practice of excavation and stratigraphy, or familiarized myself with even the broad varieties of pottery I’d be relying on to date whatever I happened to dig up. I had been under the impression—which, I note without bitterness, none of my supervisors at the offices had tried to dispel—that I would be working close by a more senior excavator, if not quite as a mere assistant, then at least under heavy supervision.

This impression persisted until quite late in the game. I was delivered to my trench at 7:00 a.m. in “Pinkie,” the excavation’s flesh-colored 1962 Land Rover; the dig director introduced me to Birol, the oldest and strongest of the twenty villagers assigned to my trench, instructed me to refer to him respectfully as Birol-Abi (“older brother”), and made to hop back into Pinkie.

“But Will is going to be close by if I have questions, right?” I asked tentatively about my “neighboring” excavator.

The director looked confused. “A half-mile up the mountain, sure,” he said. He got into Pinkie and disappeared in a cloud of road dust and exhaust unmediated by catalytic converter. Birol—Birol-Abi, that is—and the other workmen looked at me dubiously.

So the first thing we did was have a smoke break, during which I could gather my wits and pore over the list of Turkish phrases and “helpful” notes for getting your trench started. (This little vade-mecum was a photocopy of a photocopy of a mimeograph copy so old that the standard spelling of a number of Turkish words had since changed.) After much smoking, much poring, and an intervention from the director as he returned from dropping off the other excavators, the workmen were set to clearing the grass and weeds that had overgrown the trench in the intervening season. This phase of the project lasted days and, it seemed at the time, weeks, and was never really completed to the director’s satisfaction. But by the end of the season we had moved on to other and more worrying problems.

I was simply an atrocious archaeologist. As mentioned, I had no training, but I also had no knack. Archaeology seemed to combine two activities for which I have never shown much promise, accounting and digging ditches. The hundreds of fieldbooks that I had digitized back in the offices were clear, confident, chock-full of insights and daring speculation among clean drawings and maps and measurements. My own fieldbook was a mess; as often as not I got the date wrong on an entry—the date on which I had been physically present at the site, mind you, not the guess-work date of artifacts. I had no insights or speculation because I had no idea what I was looking at. An Augustan-era potsherd, painstakingly identified after recourse to many learned and tedious books, sitting under second-century material, likewise identified? I had no idea how it got there, let alone what it meant. (Eventually, one of the bored and vaguely malevolent graduate students told me that my trench was clearly the site of a dumping ground or rubbish pit and that the material in the backfill was unlikely to tell me anything.) The coins I discovered were mostly defaced or corroded, so my drawings were all tentative and vaguely amoeba-like. My measurements had the alarming tendency to add up to something more or much less than the limiting dimensions of my trench. To this day I am afraid to return to Turkey lest I be locked up for accidentally abusing some antiquity.

I was also a poor manager. My workmen were the peasant backbone of Turkey, a class of men that no longer exists in the United States—fellows who worked in the mines in the winter and the fields of the large landowners in the spring and our excavation in the summer. The much older ones were chagrined at my clear bewilderment and the occasional feats of physical peril that I asked of them in my ignorance. The younger ones were divided between those who had and had not undergone their compulsory military service; the former were friendly but condescending, the latter occasionally resentful. I was twenty, scrawny, and had no Turkish. It was a bad scene.

Yet it somehow worked out. My workmen decided I was more or less harmless, gave me an obscene nickname (“Pompacı”), and took me to the teahouse for sandwiches. There were two teahouses in town: one across from the mosque where the religious men would sit and gossip and tell beads all day, and one at a gas station. We went to the gas station teahouse, where I had the only sandwich that has ever made me cry. (After three weeks of beans and rice from the excavation kitchen, you too might cry at a salami sandwich.) I’d ride their motorcycles pillion, helmetless and clutching my tin box of archeological claptrap, screeching down gravel roads at triple the posted speed. We’d share cigarettes and the older men would complain about George W. Bush or talk about their children. (They all had children and grandchildren; a vivid memory was when Birol’s grandson, a butcher, visited the trench to show us all video of an exceptionally large bull he had slaughtered earlier that day.)

It was not an altogether happy summer. Personal and familial disaster loomed from overseas, and I’ve never enjoyed being bad at my job. But I remember the sunrises, the cigarettes in the heat of the day, the light rain beginning to fall on dusty marble, the excitement and dread of finding a single dice-like mosaic tile in a trowelful of loose dirt. (“Have I wrecked a treasure?”) And that peculiar feeling, of living and working in ruins, has in some way never left me. As Poe writes:

I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.

But now I work for the print press—nothing to do with ruins here.