Excavating the Language Barrier


While having local workers help you on the site of Mieza, Greece, is extremely helpful, it is often difficult to interact with them. Each “tetragono” on site has one or two workers to help keep the excavation process moving along. A “tetragono” is the Greek name of a square unit. On the site of Mieza, each unit is 4x4-meters so there’s certainly a large amount of dirt to go through. Workers often do a lot of the heavy lifting, digging, and labor-intensive work (not to say the Afar students don’t also do these) but the workers focus less on the details.


A large part of excavating correctly is to do so in layers. This means that each level of dirt must go down evenly. Early on in the week, our unit, ZZ2, had a worker named Stavros who was a very nice, young, hardworking man. We started our excavations by pointing to a corner where he could start, which he did a little too well. As the rest of our unit members were spread out and starting to make our way down through the layer, we looked over and Stravros had gone straight down, making a square hole about eight inches on each side and about five inches deep. All of us stopped and tried to explain in English that we had to move the unit down as a whole in layers, and not just one spot. He smiled, gave a thumbs up, then turned around and went back to work in the same hole. Again, we stopped him and tried another method of communication using a series of hand motions, which led to Stavros yet again smiling and turning around to continue excavating the gaping hole that he had already over-worked. At this point, we had stopped him for a third time, and brought over another worker who translated our directions to Greek. There must have been a problem with the translation because the same response came from Stavros as it had the past two attempts. We all gave up, showed him a water bottle and pointed to him so that he understood he needed a water break. This was our only way of getting him to stop. It may have only procrastinated the problem, but at least it gave us time to catch up with the rest of the unit.


After Stavros had been transferred to another unit, another worker named Giorgos, who barely knows any English at all, was transferred into ours. The only words I have heard him say in English throughout the week are “glass” and “water,” which can make an archaeological dig pretty difficult. He is very good at what he does, which is hardcore digging with a pickaxe, hoe, or shovel, and carrying the wheelbarrow. While all of these are certainly important, it’s hard to explain that we have just found a new floor that he can’t wreck with his pickaxe. We have found that a lot of flat and wide hand motions can be helpful in trying to explain any roadblocks of the language barrier. This could involve someone holding different tools while squatting and gently patting the ground or trying to make an impression of delicately brushing as to not scratch the surface of the floor. Giorgos also had his fair share of communication motions. He seemed to be very considerate of the ZZ2 unit workers’ health. Every once in a while, Giorgos would point to someone, walk under an umbrella holding a water, and continuously do a squatting motion. At first it just seemed like he was having trouble sitting down, but we realized that he had wanted us to take water breaks in the shade. We have been working together well ever since.

While it may seem frustrating, it’s all part of the great experience. Turning your body and moving in extensive acts is actually both fun to do, and comical to watch.  

GreeceCaleb Tate