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


Andre said...

"we aren't excavating the remnants of human behavior"

How did the elephant and rhino get there?

dmgroves said...

This is true. I stand corrected.

marry said...

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