What 5 Days at an Archaeological Dig Taught Me About My Lifetime of Stuff Leave a comment

5 days at an archaeological dig and a lifetime of stuff at aslobcomesclean.com

In June of ’17, my family of five had the unique opportunity to travel across the world and participate in a real-live, full-fledged archaeological dig. My parents arranged the trip as their 50th anniversary celebration, and it was an amazing experience.

I thought I’d share the things that went through my head as I scraped dirt into dustpans all day every day for five straight days. I’d just finished (just = days before we left) writing Decluttering at the Speed of Life. That book is about decluttering, so naturally my thoughts went there.

A few things before I share my decluttering analogies:

  • We were grunt workers for the fifth week of a five-week dig that was the beginning of this “tel” which will likely take years and years to excavate. That means what we saw and experienced was a tiny blip of what will go down at this particular site.
  • All we did was dig. And carry dirt. And move rocks. And ask lots and lots of questions to the people who were the actual archaeologists and did all the intense tracking and marking and analyzing.
  • Any archaeological terms I use may or may not be correct. Sometimes I hear things in a way that’s very different than what the speaker said. Conversing with archaeologists sometimes feels like conversing in a language you don’t speak.
  • I started writing this post in ’17, but it was overwhelming because there was SO MUCH I’d learned and I couldn’t figure out how to boil it down to one blog post. I happened upon the draft last week (in 2020) and realized it was pretty much complete. Time and distance helped me see what was important.

Here are the clutter applications that ran through my brain as I worked in our square (one small area where we worked under the direction of people who actually knew what they were doing).

Clarifying the Wall

The square my husband, daughter and I worked in was a storeroom. There were stone walls that were discovered in the previous weeks, and our job was to continue digging and clarifying these walls.

Clarifying means revealing. The wall is what’s important, and the wall is what needs to be seen. But a whole lot of dirt and rocks had packed their way around that wall and no one had been able to see it in a really long time (like, at least a thousand years).

As I declutter in my home, I’m clarifying my home. I’m revealing the parts of it that I like, the parts I want to see. The parts that make it obvious it’s a HOME. Dirt and rocks/paper/clothes/whatever piled and packed around the walls, tables, chairs, fireplaces, etc. keep me from seeing what’s really there. That stuff has to be removed to see what actually matters.  Once that stuff is gone, I see my home. Just like once the dirt and rocks were gone, we saw the wall.


Oh, tumble. Tumble is exactly what it sounds like. It’s stuff that didn’t belong in this space (the storeroom we were digging) but has fallen into it over the years. Dirt and rocks and such that has to be removed because it was never supposed to be there.

Tumble in my home is the first thing to remove in my steps to working through an overwhelming mess. It’s the trash. When trash/tumble is there, the space looks like there’s nothing of value in it at all. It’s just one big mess. But as the tumble/trash gets removed, the room is revealed.

archaeological dig lifetime of stuff sifting dirt at aslobcomesclean.com

Drain the Bathtub

As we worked, we were told (and reminded) to “drain the bathtub.” When you get going with a trowel and dustpan, there is a huge temptation to dig down. To hyper-focus on one spot and dig. it. out.  And if we weren’t paying attention, that’s what we’d naturally start doing.

But our square’s archaeologist taught us (and reminded us) to drain the bathtub. Dig evenly, so the whole level goes down evenly like a bathtub drains water. Don’t make holes.

This isn’t an exact parallel, but it reminds me of my Visibility Rule. My rationale for making up that rule for myself was to keep me from spending all day on a space no guests would ever see, while my front door would open to an embarrassing mess if someone rang the doorbell.

I like the idea of draining the bathtub, of not digging a hole. Not getting so hyperfocused on one space while the house as a whole stays a huge mess. And the Visibility Rule is the key to gaining real Decluttering Momentum.

Most Things that Seem Valuable at First are Actually Rocks.

archaeology digging for pottery learning lesson lifetime of stuff at aslobcomesclean.com

My daughter actually found an intact pot. That’s a big deal. There was great excitement through the whole dig that day, and the picture of her beaming face is one of my favorite photos ever. Sorry this isn’t that photo, but I’d have to get permission to show the actual item, and that would mean putting off getting this published, and I need to not do that again . . .

We also found a lot of pottery pieces and some bones. We put those in special bags and buckets to be logged and analyzed by the loggers and analyzers.

It was always exciting to find pottery. Especially diagnostic pieces that had a handle or even the curve of the pot.  Those pieces told a story about what the pot once looked like.

But, honestly, most things were rocks. Even though they kind of looked like bones or pottery or something potentially exciting at first, they usually ended up being rocks.

It became a joke. “Wait a minute . . . what’s this??? . . . y’all . . . come here . . . . oh never mind. It’s a rock.”

This reminds me of my “Look. ALWAYS look” strategy. I can imagine or assume that something is really, really ever-so-important. But when I look closely and take the time to think about it for an actual moment, it’s not.

Also, when I say bones, I’m talking about animal bones cast aside from eating. Not human bones, thankfully.

archaeological dig wall lessons about lifetime of stuff

Enough is enough.

One of our walls was covered in plaster at one point in history. This was exciting to the archaeologists. Unusual. Cool and interesting. So while our goal was to leave as much plaster attached to the wall as we could, we were also given a bucket for any loose plaster we found while digging. We filled up that bucket. And another. And when we asked for another, we were told they had plenty of plaster. The rest could go away with the dirt.

No matter how cool or unusual something is, I don’t need to/can’t possibly keep it all. Whatever they were going to analyze about the plaster? They could do that with one bucket-full. There was no need to keep every single bit of plaster that existed. So the pieces that didn’t fit in the bucket (the contain-er) were trash, no matter how exciting and valuable those first pieces were.

This “enough is enough” concept has oh-so-many parallels to my clutter shenanigans. I used to look at the value of each item on its own, and ignored the realistic limitations of how many of those items I could keep in my home without my home being bananas. I call it The Container Concept.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that digging out from my own clutter has a lot of similarities to digging at an archaeological dig. Sorry I didn’t share this sooner!

A few extra notes: My kids don’t want to be archaeologists. For sure. But we all consider this trip to have been an experience-of-a-lifetime.

If you’ve always wanted to be an archaeologist, you can see if there are any digs where you could volunteer. You won’t get to be the Indiana Jones without the degrees, but there might be a way you can help with the grunt work like we did.

Sorry that I’m just now posting this in the year when we can’t travel like we could in 2017. I’m not great with timing. Obviously. I just “dug up” this draft, thinking it was barely started, only to realize it was mostly done! TPAD for sure. I did do a podcast talking about all of this. You can listen to that here.

5 days at archaeological dig taught me about my lifetime of stuff at aslobcomesclean.com


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