NYU Abu Dhabi sophomore Chaeri Lee, Class of 2017, had been digging around the internet for an internship idea when she happened upon a ground breaking opportunity: an international archaeological research collaboration in Central Asia, in an area known as one of the main crossroads of the ancient world.
It was the chance of a lifetime she couldn't pass up, especially being a fan of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Lee, along with Fiona Kidd, assistant professor of history and art and art history, and several NYU and Uzbek archaeologists, spent one month conducting fieldwork in a remote corner of the Bukhara Oasis in Uzbekistan.
During the internship, Lee collected photos and wrote personal journals about her experience.
Archaeology. This word reverberates deeply in the popular imagination, conjuring up images shared by many of us: explorer’s hats; knees covered in dirt and sand; delicately labeled and zip-locked bags of bones, beads, and needles; carefully brushed skeletons still half-unearthed; and museum displays of mummies in clear glass cases, adjacent to the intimidating gold coffins from which they were taken.
I grew up watching movies like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park, which served as my first introduction to archaeology. Although the archaeologists in these films didn’t seem to do much research and excavating — they were too busy running away from terrifying monsters and staying alive — I always associated their spirit of adventure and discovery with this discipline, intermingled with the classical rigidity of academia. When the opportunity arose for me to participate on a dig, I jumped at it.
Born in South Korea, I was raised in suburban Vancouver, Canada, and moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2013 to attend NYUAD. A couple of months ago, while looking for summer internship opportunities on the NYUAD Student Portal, one listing immediately caught my eye: “Archaeological Internship — Environment and Land-Use Dynamics in Western Sogdiana between the Early Iron and the Middle Ages.”
Today, I am thrilled to be part in this international collaborative project in Sogdiana, a historical region in modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in Central Asia. As part of the internship, I will be working in the field with a team of Uzbek archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology, Samarkand, a Russian geologist from the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, graduate students, Professor Stark from NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), and Professor Kidd from NYUAD.
Over four weeks, we will make our way from Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, to the city of Samarkand — the jewel of Central Asia, once beloved by the conqueror Tamerlane. From Samarkand, we will travel to Bukhara and shortly settle on the fringes of the Bukhara oasis to begin the field survey.
As with archaeology, my ideas about Central Asia are very preconceived. The name brings forth a multitude of romantic images of glories and splendors past of the old world: heavily laden caravans traveling the Silk Road; vast landscapes dominated by green, grassy plains; vibrantly colored tunics and beautifully embroidered headdresses; and great bazaars, buzzing with energy from the daily trades and negotiations.
With these admittedly stereotypical images of Uzbekistan in mind, I was very happy to be introduced to someone who was born in Korea, but had lived most of his life in Russia and Uzbekistan. When I told him I would be working in the Bukhara oasis as part of an archaeological research internship, this newfound friend laughed and said, “Oh man, prepare yourself for some extremely hot and dry weather!” Nervously, I thought to myself that taking a summer course in Abu Dhabi this year had definitely prepared me for hot weather, and I would always prefer dryer days to uncomfortable humidity. Nevertheless, the ensuing conversation could basically be reduced to these tidbits of information and advice: beware of non-bottled water, bulk up on supplies of bug spray and sun protection, become accustomed to drinking chai with bread, enjoy the beautiful architecture, and rely on the gracious hospitality of the Uzbek culture.
With one eye on the cracked front window of our taxicab that had definitely seen better days, I snatched a glimpse of the driver in the front mirror as he unapologetically steamrolled over the bumpy road that sent a series of small shocks through my bottom and up my spine. A huge truck whizzed by, leaving dust clouds in the midst of its hasty greeting. As the dust cleared, vast cotton fields and rows of traditional Uzbek-style houses rolled by reassuringly on the right; we were now transitioning from the urban sprawl of Tashkent, the modern capital of Uzbekistan, to geographically more central regions of the country that had better preserved the atmosphere of the “ancient world,” such as the old cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
I had come to Uzbekistan to participate in archaeological fieldwork with the Uzbek-American Archaeological Expedition to Bukhara (UzAmEB) — a collaborative team representing the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, and NYU, NYUAD. The team is interested in big-picture questions such as climate change and water management strategies, but also in ‘micro’ questions concerning the relationship between the mobile and agricultural groups inhabiting the oasis fringe, their contacts with their neighbors, and the types of things they produced and exchanged. The 2015 season was a field survey season. Formally this meant that we were engaged in intensive and extensive pedestrian survey of an area of desert-steppe far to the west of the present-day limits of the Bukhara oasis. The area for the intensive survey, measuring ca. 420 hectares, was divided in quadrants and sub-quadrants, which were systematically surveyed by walking straight lines up and down them. Within these areas, archaeological sites were documented, and archaeological finds were collected.
In actuality, we were engaging in serious time travel in a region that could only be experienced in dual modes of reality. On that first day, as we sped towards Samarkand en route to Bukhara, my mind lay in a space that was not actually in Uzbekistan or in Central Asia, but my sore bottom certainly provided physical assurance enough of my geographical location. The next day, climbing the steep, tapering stairs of the minaret that stands at the corner of one of three old madrassas of the magnificent Registan Square in Samarkand, my out-of-shape body groaned once more under the demanding physicality of the ascent. The daylight from the makeshift balcony on top of the minaret glowed enticingly, however, promising the visitor clear, blue skies and unknown wonders beyond this hidden portal through time. With a sudden spurt of energy, I poked my head above the opening and greedily drank in the awe-inspiring assemblage of Islamic architectural monuments that framed the square. As I looked around from this bird’s-eye view, it was easy to imagine the cacophony of the great wall-to-wall bazaar that once populated the space below. Crawling back down, the lingering whispers of previous visitors filled my ears. Voices of centuries past and present fused into one simple message scrawled repeatedly on the enclosing brick walls: I was here. Silently, I left mine, too, along with the others.
In the city of Samarkand, the present reflects the past, which in turn reflects the present in an infinite loop of continuity. As a key city on the great “Silk Road,” Samarkand was a gloriously affluent and culturally rich center, the physical traces of which can still be found today. Fantastically preserved wall paintings of the 7th century were discovered in the ancient palace at Afrasiab — the name given to the ruins of the pre-13th century city of Samarkand. Specially displayed in the Afrasiab museum, the painting depicts the reception of foreign emissaries from regions near and far. I was surprised to learn from this painting that there had also been diplomatic relations between Samarkand and Goguryuh dynasty of Korea. I felt as if I were in direct dialogue with these ancient Korean diplomats, whose facial features mirrored my own, paying homage to the history of this great city.
The following day we left Samarkand behind for Bukhara, where I observed a noticeably different atmosphere. Present-day Bukhara is determinedly less “glitzy,” but what made it so endearing was the people who appeared to seamlessly inhabit this cross-temporal space, integrating the old and transforming it in their daily lives. The old men of the town, sitting around attending to a leisurely game of chess under the shade of a centuries-old mulberry tree; traditional craftspeople selling beautifully worked metal and woven textile pieces in the covered bazaar that dates back to medieval times; and children still running free from one beautifully carved wooden door to the next, dancing in and around historic sites with endless mirth and ease.
These vibrant and romantic images were unceremoniously knocked from my mind, however, when we finally arrived at the project dig house on the western fringes of the Bukhara oasis, in the midst of a little cluster of houses called “70 years” (apparently once named in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution): the reality of life on the dig was about to begin.
There are many modern-day comforts one must be prepared to renounce in the name of archaeological exploration in Central Asia: running water, flush toilets, and hot showers; peace from mosquitoes and flies; and smooth asphalt roads. There are, however, fleeting luxuries to make up for these absences: the sensation of the warm, morning sun as one awakes outside; tearing into freshly baked bread in the mid-afternoon; and biting into a juicy slice of dynya (a honeydew melon) over dinner-time pleasantries and jokes. Despite some missing elements in my usual lifestyle (which I appreciate far more after this summer experience) it was truly liberating to sleep outside, to embrace my dirt-matted hair, and to wear the same outfit everyday to work, purely out of dedication and commitment to the project.
Although I knew in principle what our daily routine was, I had little idea of the physical reality of life on a dig, or the sheer amount of work involved. Here is a typical day:
4am: Wake to the beeping sounds of my alarm with our cook Dilya preparing biscuits, sweet bread, tea, and a much needed cup of instant coffee to fortify our stomachs for the work ahead.
4:30am: Gather all the necessary items for the day: hat, sunscreen, water bottle, Sharpies for writing labels, the labels themselves, small and large ziplock bags for finds, and the hand-held GPS device — the most important piece of equipment next to the water bottle.
5am: Pile into the trusty Damas minivan, and drive to the project survey area, located around an hour’s drive away. Bumps along the unpaved road, and getting stuck in the sand added to the fun. I witnessed the sunrise only on the first and last days of the season because this hour of travel was also a prime opportunity to catch up on some extra sleep. The orange orb rising in the sweeping sky above the dusty steppe was a truly impressive sight.
6am: Arrive at the survey quadrant of the day, and fire up the GPS. My GPS ensured that I walked in straight lines as I worked my assigned sub-quadrants, systematically collecting surface finds — ceramics, worked stones, or any other special finds. Although at first glance the steppe landscape looked barren and empty, upon a closer examination it was possible to see that the desert was not dry, but full of life, from the slithering lizards, scuttling foxes, and empty tortoise shells, to the ever present flies. Sometimes we would find a small or relatively large tepa — an archaeological mound — in the quadrant; this invariably meant interesting ceramics and other finds in large quantities — which translated into a long afternoon of washing and labelling. Over the four weeks of the survey, a steady and surprisingly large number of sherds flowed through my hands — the total number collected, washed and labeled was well over 4,000.
9am: Meet back at the van for an hour’s break and a welcome second breakfast of bread, tomatoes, salami, boiled eggs, and cheese, as well as fresh fruit and biscuits. Sometimes, the wind was so strong that one ended up with more than the suggested mineral intake of the day (think dusty eggs and gritty tomatoes!). After breakfast, and a healthy helping of devilishly addicting chocolate-swirled cookies to boost our sugar levels, we returned to work for another two hours. By 11am the heat was vicious, and work usually slowed down in this last hour before we finished at noon. I would often listen to either very loud and heavy synthetic music, or supportive and emotional ballads on full volume to help me finish my sub-quadrant.
12pm: Meet back at the van to drive back to the dig house where we rested until lunchtime — my favorite part of the day. To be quite honest, however, all the meal times were my most anticipated moments of the season; I never had such a healthy and ravenous appetite as I did during this summer internship in Uzbekistan.
1:30pm: Lunchtime: boiled potatoes and chalob (a cold yoghurt-based vegetable soup), tomato and cucumber salad, and fresh fruit — grapes picked from the vine, which also provided us with much needed shade, or the local Uzbek specialities: watermelon, or dynya. On special occasions or when we had guests, we would have plov, the national rice dish that differs in its preparation from region to region — and in fact from cook to cook. One day, Dilya made a Korean dish called guk-su, which was an extremely welcome taste of home. She also made excellent pizza — all in the tandyr (a beehive shaped earthen oven where she also cooked our delicious bread — see my next blog post)!
2:30pm: A short siesta before getting back to work in the late afternoon, by which time the heat had abated a little. If I could muster the energy, I would take advantage of the empty bathroom — recalling a traditional Russian banya or bath — to wash off some of the dirt of the past couple days, or to wash my clothes and socks. I eventually gave up on trying to wash these items to their original color, deciding instead that brown complemented my complexion and hair colour quite well in the end.
3:30pm: The team worked like a well-oiled clock, and each one had tasks to complete before the end of the day. In order for Fiona to process the pottery, and for Piet to complete his drawings of the sherds and special finds, the sherds had to be washed and labeled. This was my primary task. Shujing — a second year graduate student from NYU’s ISAW — and I also made an inventory of the day’s finds; the record number of sherds collected from one sub-quadrant is 157. Lorenzo, also a graduate student from ISAW, worked with the site registration sheets and input the data into the database; Sören worked on photogrqphic documentation and the satellite imagery, and prepared the maps for the next day.
8pm: Dinnertime! A good strategy for beating the heat was a steaming bowl of hearty soup and a cup of tea, which made us sweat, thereby helping us to cool off. More watermelon and dynya were ushered onto the table, over a never-ending exchange of both good and bad jokes — and increasingly bad as the season wore on — and puns and stories.
9pm: Finish up any tasks of the day, and prepare for bed. Everyone slept outside, but as females, we had the advantage of sleeping on actual bedframes on which we placed our mattresses and bedding every night. The electricity would go off at intervals throughout the day, so especially at this hour, when the sun went down, a flashlight was necessary to complete this nightly ritual.
10pm: Bedtime! It is amazing to nestle into bed in the open, under a vast, clear sky full of stars. The backdrop noise of the buzzing mosquitoes melted away in mere minutes after a good, long day of work.
Swiftly, and with firm resolve to not give in to the sticky, yielding dough, our cook Dilya would repeatedly bring down the chekich — the traditional Uzbek bread stamp — on the still unbaked rounds of non (the Uzbek word for bread), creating a beautiful pattern of criss-crossing lines and circles on the surface. Dressed in a men’s blazer and hair tucked safely underneath her scarf to fend against the blazing, orange heat of the tandyr — a traditional bee-shaped earthen oven — Dilya would load up the rapida — a circular cushion-like pad on which the prepared dough is set to facilitate placement on the oven walls — and roll up her sleeves in anticipation of a hot, 10-minute journey to delicious, fresh bread.
One of the best midday treats in the field (second only to a steaming cup of instant coffee) would be the fresh non that Dilya baked every two to three days at the dig house. Straight out of the traditional tandyr oven tucked away in a small shed next to the house, the slightly salty, soft bread had a magnetic, almost magical power that I could never resist. Whispers would spread at the speed of light from one team member to another — ‘there’s fresh bread on the table’ — and soon enough, a small group would gather around the dinner table for a couple minutes in a welcome break. It was always a wonderful sensation to tear apart pieces of the still warm bread, and doubly to fortify our hungry bellies to hold on until dinner-time.
Non is a type of flat, circular bread that is an indispensable food item not only at meal times, but also for everyday life in Uzbekistan. The way in which non is prepared varies from region to region, but two things remain constant throughout the country. First, non is always broken into pieces by hand for all to share; and second, leftover bread is never thrown out. Non was one of the most constant and reassuring elements in my time on the field, whether it was accompanied by a table full of tired, but happy team members or by an incredible bird’s-eye view of the steppe from a small tepe in our quadrant of the day. In the morning, non was dunked in condensed milk or blanketed lovingly with home-made jam and followed closely by sips of hot green tea; at lunchtime, pieces were soaked in delicious soup and tomato juice from the fresh salad; in the evening, it was used as a vehicle to clean up the last morsels of dinner. Passing pieces of the non around reaffirmed and strengthened our teamwork, and was a way to show mutual respect and consideration of others all around.
The photo gallery above shows the process of breadmaking at our project dig house, accompanied by short descriptions of this delicious procedure.