Friday, September 28, 2007

Week 1: Rotting Rhino

Have you ever smelled decomposing rhinoceros? We have, and believe me, it's pretty cool... also pretty smelly. Let's start from the beginning.

Last Friday (Sept. 21st) was the rhino team's first day out to Parc Safari. It was also the first time any students had been out there to start the excavation, so it was pretty exciting. Due to an interesting turn of events, being that Parc Safari have not asked the farmer who owns the land where the elephant is buried which they sold to him a few years back if we can dig up a corner of his field, yet, we were sent to the plot where the two rhino's were buried about 2 years ago. Enter Team Rhino (cue catchy polyphonic theme tune).

Upon our arrival at the supposed "rhino graveyard" we threw down an initial 4 test pits. These were all approximately 50cm x 50cm and reached varying depths (some were more lucky than others in receiving a particularly rocky soil matrix, thus severely impeding their progress). Also the mapping of the site was started.

Test pits 1,2 & 3 showed some interesting mineral content so we took some samples, but we didn't find exactly what we were looking for in those specific holes, that being a rhinoceros carcass. It was test pit 4 which led to the jackpot, a very smelly and decomposed jackpot I might add, but nonetheless, a jackpot.

Test pit 4 was situated in the back of the "graveyard" next to what seemed to be the remnants of a miniature golf course, therefore we can infer that a past society of "mini-putt people" once inhabited the area until relatively recently...interesting, but I'm getting off topic. The area in which test pit 4 was located was a rectangular plot with little vegetation compared to it's surroundings, which means that it was filled relatively recently, leaving not much time for vegetation to regrow. The most noticeable thing about the plot of test pit 4 was that it had a large depression and a matching large, for lack of a better word, bump. Prof. Costopoulos believed that this depression and "bump" could be collapsed ribcage and skull (respectively) of one of the rhinos. cool. The pit was dug in what was believed to be the collapsed ribcage depression. Initially the soil was like that of the other test pits, quite rocky, but between 40cm and 50cm down we noticed that the soil matrix had changed to be a relatively uniform very wet, gray, clay. Enter a not so intoxicating scent we now know to be rotting rhinoceros. This is where we start to notice that this smell is coming from bits of blackish stain in the clay, which Tabitha (a graduate student working on the dig) notes looks like decomposing fat, and she was right. very cool.

At about 55cm we found a white material that was mysteriously both solid and spongy at the same time. I believe it was described in the following way: "When you poke it it pokes!". So at this point the other test pit crews abandoned their pits to come help expand test pit 4 and lay down another test pit where the skull is believed to be. Test pit 4 was expanded on two sides to form an "L" shape and the skull test pit was dug down to about initial
height of test pit 4's start point before having to pack up and head home for the day. So we need to dig the skull test pit down a bit more before we hope find anything skull related.

The bone that was found (which is believed to be the top of a vertebrae) was still quite wet, though the muscle and fat was decomposed there was still some skin, which was very elastic. A sample was taken to be analyzed in the lab. Unfortunately we did not have time to go further so all that was found was the tip of the bone, which is being left in the pit until next time when we can further excavate it.

So how do we deal with this rotting rhino you may ask? Well, there are a few things to consider before we decide. First is that if we have unearthed only the top of the find and it is this wet, that could mean that there is literally a pool of rhino goo near the bottom, which may be something we don't want to deal with. However the Parc Safari representative informed Prof. Costopoulos that when Alice (The name of the rhino we found) was buried she was rolled into the pit and landed sort of on her back/side with her legs more or less facing upwards, this means that if what we have found is in fact a vertebrae than there may not but this ominous pool of rhino goo that we are all dreading. This however seems a bit strange as well because when we expanded test pit 4 we didn't find any other bone, which may mean that we are at the top and the lovely rhino goo IS waiting for us. And if we do continue with the excavation of Alice the rhino we will have to bring in the back-hoe to take off the extremely rocky top layer of soil, as it would be hell to dig through. This would significantly alter our initial plans of observing insect/small animal activity, soil chemistry and taphonomic processes in a relatively large excavation site.

What's the plan? Well we don't know yet, it depends on if the elephant team finds the elephant. If they do then we can move all our efforts to the elephant site and continue with our initial plans rather than actually dealing with Alice the rotting rhino, although this depends on how decomposed Magic the elephant is, he was buried about 7 years ago, but an African Bull elephant is more than double the size of a rhino, which means a lot more meat to decompose. Good luck elephant team!

That's all for now, pictures for week 1 will be posted as soon as I receive them. Until next time.

Cheers, The Rhino Team

Monday, September 24, 2007

Introduction: Archaeological Surrealism

Archaeology can be a tough gig, especially when it comes to explaining what exactly the gig is. Often things that are incredibly fascinating to an archaeologist don't quite excite the ordinary person (it takes a special kind of individual to get riled up by microliths), and the kind of archaeology that does catch the public eye has already been thoroughly and extensively studied. Anyone can go to Stonehenge and stand in awe of it: you're an archaeologist if you're more interested in digging a hole next to it. It's an archaeologist's job, then, to not only understand what's in that hole but explain to everyone else why it's so exciting, and why they should pay attention. In that sense, I suppose we're doing something right, as I've yet to meet someone who isn't interested in, or at least perplexed by, our field school's plan to excavate an adult male African elephant and an adult female rhinoceros from a site south of Montréal, Québec.

Some questions spring to mind: Why are there dead African megafauna buried in Southern Qu
ébec? Why do they need excavating? And what does the McGill Archaeology Department have to do with anything? These are all excellent questions, although it may be some time before any of them can be fully answered. A good first step would be an explanation of how exactly we got to where we are today, driving out of Montréal every Friday afternoon to excavate partially decomposed African animal skeletons and keep parts of them in our fridges.

Earlier this month, Professor Andr
é Costopoulos was contacted by Parc Safari, an amusement/safari/zoological park located south of Montréal. They were looking for someone who was willing to excavate a couple of their deceased animals for them, and for reasons I still can't understand assumed (quite accurately) that Professor Costopoulos would do it for them. To muster up enough manpower for his task, Professor Costopoulos established this field school, seeing it as a good chance to a) give undergraduate students a chance to experience fieldwork b) examine the effects of decomposition and deposition on both the animals and the soil around them and c) dig up a dead elephant. Naturally, eager students jumped at the opportunity, only to later learn that:

- The elephant, Magic, has been dead for around 7 years, while the rhinoceros, Alice, has been dead for a couple years at most. Even the most optimistic among us expect to find some sizable amount of flesh on both corpses, and the only analogous excavation we've been able to find hasn't allayed our fears.
- We don't know where exactly the elephant is. I've been told the rhinoceros group has found their corpse, but the elephant is "somewhere near the road", whatever that means.
- The elephant is buried in the same pit where Parc Safari once disposed of their dung.
- Other than dung, we don't know what else was buried along with the animals.
- The elephant is no longer on Parc Safari property, as they sold the land to a nearby farmer.
- Defleshing and cleaning bones, especially massive ones, isn't exactly a walk in the park.

Fortunately, the benefits of conducting the excavation make the whole thing worthwhile (assuming, of course, that we can find the elephant, and not just mounds and mounds of dung). While it may not seem directly archaeological in the sense that we aren't excavating the remnants of human behavior (Correction: someone put the elephant and the rhino in the pits, so they actually are remnants of human behavior. So there!), it has important consequences for our understanding of the processes that sites undergo before we can get to observing them. Decomposing bodies alter the soil around them in certain ways, and they themselves change significantly due to biological and physical factors. By carefully recording the nature of the soil around the corpses and what some time under the ground has done to them, we can get a better picture of the processes that transform archaeological remains after they've been deposited. The information we gather can then be used to better understand a site where similar things have happened. So aside from the absurdity of the whole experience, we have a chance to help improve interpretive methodology, and a valuable opportunity to get some practical experience.

As far as excavation goes, the field school has been split into a Rhinoceros Group and an Elephant Group, who travel out to the dig on alternate Fridays and spend around 6 hours working at the site. I'll be covering the results of the Elephant Group, as well as posting pictures of whatever we find, and Lars will be covering the results of the Rhinoceros Group. If you have any comments, complaints, questions, etc., feel free to contact me at or Lars at

That's all for now,
The Field School