Trash Deposit

During our first season at John the Little (June 2006), one small archaeological mound was selected for excavation. Located 305 meters south of the mound of the central church, this location was selected on the basis of the significant sherd scatter on the surface and some sub-surface features indicated by the geophysical survey.

The excavations were conducted in two 10 x 10 meter squares laid out adjacent to each other and then divided along the north-south axis at the 5 meter line to create four 10 x 5 meter excavation units. Excavation began with surface pickup of all pottery, glass, bone, plaster, architectural features, and metal. A few fragments of plaster with a white skim bore fragments of inscriptions in red paint, most likely of Coptic letters. After surface clearing, ashy depressions appeared across all the units. These deposits initially appeared to be surface fires, yet further investigation proved that these were more substantial and ubiquitous throughout the eastern-most squares. The exposure of these distinctive ash layers was our first indication that we were excavating a trash dump, or midden. More ashy lenses appeared after surface deposits were documented and removed. These were probably the result of hearth clearings or domestic refuse deposits. After plotting the presence of these deposits throughout the excavated areas, we were able to determine that that there were three major areas to the midden.

Continued excavation of the four squares provided indisputable evidence that we were excavating a series of dump deposits. The midden included discarded wall and floor plaster, pottery, glass, metal, food (nuts and seeds), bones (from fish and domestic animals, rodents, etc.). Further exposure of the midden clarified its shape and indicates the pattern of deposition across the area with more recent deposits in the south of the units with earlier and deeper deposits in the northern quadrants of the squares. The excavation of the midden produced well-defined strata: glass and plaster were found at all layers, including moderate amounts of glass on the surface. Charcoal, ash, and bone were also found in all loci, but especially in the upper layers. Based upon the ceramic corpus found within these deposits, our ceramicist Gillian Pyke has proposed the ninth century as a preliminary date for the midden. Thus, the excavated strata reflect disposal activities of the community during the Fatimid period.

The composition of the deposits can be broadly divided into three categories: discarded pottery, architectural debris (both destruction and construction) and hearth clearings of ash and bones. The construction middens consisted of two kinds of materials: wall plaster and coarse flooring. The wall plaster is almost exclusively a white skim with a few examples of painted fragments showing signs of red, yellow and brown paint. The major deposits of this wall plaster were found in the south. A few fragments of red lined inscriptions provided evidence of inscribed walls. The deposition of the plaster appears to have been at the hand of humans, due to the fact that the pieces were closely associated, deliberately collected and then deposited as a group, rather than in a scatter one might expect if the plaster had fallen from a nearby wall.

Glass fragments were mostly flat and found in the upper levels of the deposit, but in the earlier strata we recovered a footed base, six etched pieces (with a possible cross), and one small piece banded in gold. Bones were found primarily in or adjacent to ash deposits and included several examples of fish and rodents. Three highly corroded coins were collected and could not be identified at the time of excavation. In contrast to the high yield of plaster, pottery, glass and bones, copper and iron finds were not found in any significant number. Likewise, only trace indications of eggshell, nuts and resin were collected in the excavation of the midden. The most significant object outside of the daily recovery of plaster, pottery and glass was a ceramic stamp cross. Such stamps were frequently used for making impressions upon the holy bread distributed in the monastery and churches.