Thursday, October 30, 2008

Week 6: No silly, ribs can't have teeth

Grave 2, "The Glory"

Friday once again greeted us with weather warm and sunny, not unlike the feelings we diggers enjoy as we tear decomposed and disarticulated corpses from the bowels of Park Safari. Week six had a different feel to it as Professor Andre claimed to be out of the country on some sort of academic or professional commitment or something. His story however did not stand up to archaeological scrutiny, for when asked where exactly his conference or meeting (or whatever) was, his only answer was “Iceland.” This is obviously a fictional island that I assume to be located off the coast of Middle Earth. Unfortunately due to Andre’s pursuit of the One Ring, our regular caravan of transportation was reduced by fifty percent and limited our excavation crew to sixty two percent, leaving five beautiful and intelligent students, one fearless TA, Neha, and our multitalented van-pilot, Colin. The three other students would remain at the lab to process and investigate the now sizable number of artifacts from past weeks of excavation.


As upon every arrival at the site we were greeted by sunshine, the sweet smells of agriculture, and flooded test pits. After the completion of our bailing ritual and Colin’s proper and respectful burial of our friend “Floatie” the rat, we laid our eyes on the glory that is Grave 2. If Alpha Group’s last visit during week four had revealed an equid mystery, the current state of Grave 2 could only be described as (literally) wrapped in an enigma. Kim was so excited by the chance to investigate these new questions that she leapt up from her perch on the edge of Grave 2, directly into the bitter and neglected test pit number something or other, which promptly swallowed up her leg as far as her kneecap in brown, cloudy and smelly mudwater.

David. This is impolite.

The process of flooding over the seven days between visits had disturbed articles exposed by Group 1, requiring photo documentation and a furious session of bagging. The tangled mess of ram and equid discovered by Group 1 proved to be even more complicated, each article removed from the grave proved to expose others. Most confusing was my removal of an equid rib that proved to have teeth. While this discovery only strengthened my hypothesis that we are not excavating an equid but some sort of hybrid-equid-ram (a hybriquidam if you will), Allie believed that we had discovered a mandible belonging to yet another individual. Only time would prove which hypothesis more likely. After the removal of nearly two dozen ribs and a pair of scapula, it became clear that we were dealing with a far more complicated situation than we had initially suspected. In addition to the ribs and scapula that we believe to belong to the same individual as the equid skull, Grave 2 now is known to contain the partially exposed ram, two small mandibles and matching cranium, a large number of long, thin and slightly porous bones, a thick and broken plastic pipe, and another individual wrapped in a garbage bag. Movement through this entanglement of individuals was further complicated by the level of decomposition of fat layers in the grave, which had reached a consistency similar to bones. Not only did we have to determine which individual each bone belonged to, but also whether what we pulled out was a bone at all. Kim became our expert in bone/not-bone analysis after crushing a “bone” handed to her by Dave between her thumb and forefinger. This impressive display of brute strength has earned Kim the title of “Bonekrusher,” by which this blog will now refer to her as.

Like a puzzle, but with way more bones. And muck. Lots of muck.


Bonekrusher, resisting the urge to crush bone.

A hoof and longbone beside a partially exposed ram horn?

As the main objective of the excavation remains the equid, we refocused or strategy to uncover other articles relating to this individual. The excavation of mass jumble was temporarily abandoned in favour of exploratory digging on the periphery of Grave 2. Neha’s strategy proved productive as three hooves with longbones were uncovered. Their finding did not however alleviate the equid enigma, as all hooves and longbones were on different sides of the jumble. The levels at which these bones were found was also confusing because whereas the ribs were found over and almost around the garbage bag, the longbones and hooves rested under the bag.
Though more questions were on the rise, the sun was in disagreement and suggested that our day had come to an end. Our rugged crew of excavators took some final photos of our days work and loaded up our tools and finds. Colin safely piloted our van back towards the city as we discussed the day’s findings, already nostalgic for our hybriquidam, and looking forward to our next visit.

Bones for walking like zebra.
"Please Colin, teach us more!"
Dispite the keen interest of the diggers, the sun had had enough for the day.

If more photos in higher resolution from week six is your idea of a "good time," feel free to swing by:

Week 5: Neha's Recounting

So due to a prior commitment, I did not actually make it out to the field for Week 5, having instead participated two weeks in a row and joined the second team for Week 4 (they turned out to be incredibly nice people, despite the rumours). Accordingly, my information for this post is derived mainly from Neha’s riveting recounting of events, and therefore any factual inaccuracies should be blamed on her. Or Andre. That’s fine too. Actually, that’s preferable. He can be reached at

During Week 5 the team largely divided their attention between Grave 1 and Grave 2, with Carrie, Noam and Jen continuing to excavate Grave 1. They began by mapping the entire area, providing a detailed depiction of the possible architectural feature. In addition to the boundaries of the ‘inhumation’, they included all of the large rocks on the map, which helps us to visualize whatever it is the possible feature might be. In addition to the mapping, they decided to investigate one of the higher tumuli that is situated within the potential house structure. After digging a cross section, they didn’t find anything telling, but now we have a clear stratigraphic profile for the area of Grave 1, so the undertaking proved worthwhile. Finally, in an episode strongly reminiscent of Colin’s “Cutting a root, cutting a root, cutting a rib, cutting a root….crap” incident from Week 3, Noam got up after hours of digging and realized that he’d spent most his time at Grave 1 sitting on a mandible. In addition to providing yet another amusing Team 1 pratfall, this episode serves to illustrate one of the taphonomic anomalies that characterizes Grave 1. While there is an abundant amount of loose bone on the surface, there is almost nothing except dirt once exacavation down into the grave is begun. Accordingly, next week we’re planning on extending the grave in order to see where it goes and attempt to solve the mystery of differential surface/grave bone deposition.

While all of this exciting mandible discovery was going on at Grave 1, the rest of the team was busy solving yet another mystery (Digression: Parc Safari would provide an excellent setting for a Scooby Doo episode), that of the “zebra” in Grave 2. Since we had uncovered more of the skull and associated ribs during Week 4, the team began to extend the pit in the direction (NW) that they thought the hind legs would be going. Instead of hind legs, a horn began to emerge. Based on the features of the attached skull, the current hypothesis is that the new skeleton is that of a ram, and, as Neha points out “Zebras have no horns”, so it’s unlikely it’s a second equid. As if an additional animal wasn’t enough, current theories also suggest that the smaller vertebrae and associated ribs in Grave 2 do not in fact belong to the zebra. The ribs are far too small for the zebra, and they’re also a mite too small for the ram, so the suggestion has been made that they belong to a fetus, though, as certain TAs reminded me, such an identification is complete speculation at this point.

Oh, and in addition to the zebra, the ram and the possible fetus, something that appears to be a partially decomposed bird in a garbage bag was also pulled out of Grave 2. This particular mass grave is starting to remind me strongly of the whole ‘clowns in the Volkswagen’ scenario. The team realized that the carcass might be avian in nature when they found feathers mixed into the abundant amount of “cream cheese” (Andre’s ‘technical term’ for the pungent adipose layer that surrounds recent burials) that surrounded the bag. As if those weren’t enough elements of decomposition to be dealing with, the team had also begun to excavate down to the level wherein the zebra skeleton was surrounded by evidence of the final expulsions of the corpse. All I can say is that I’m sorry to have missed such an excellent opportunity to experience the thrills of archaeology first hand.

Once the team had finally finished with all the extraneous animals in the pit, the focus returned to the “zebra’. Current theories suggest that the “zebra” is in fact one compact burial, with the animal’s long bones and metatarsals enclosed in its own ribcage. In addition to the discovery of the long bones, the team was enthused to find that they excavated deep enough to begin exposing the “zebra’s” mandible. Thought I was in fact enjoying wine and cheese elsewhere, I was filled with regret that I missed the satisfying sense of accomplishment that I am certain filled the hearts of every member of Team 1. Congratulations guys.

Instead of attempting to map such a tortuous anatomical mess with a line level and string, the administrative decision was made to simply photograph each stage of the excavation, with the two measuring tapes stretched across the pit acting as a proxy for coordinates and quadrants. One of the team’s final acts before heading back to Montreal was to remove the long bones and metatarsals from the ribcage and ‘bag and tag’ them, as the rising water tables in Grave 2 would have disarticulated the elements anyways after another week of exposure to Quebec’s much appreciated seasonal rains. This was followed by the pi├Ęce de resistance: the removal of the “zebra” skull. If we don’t get all of the equid bones out of the ground before temperatures drop, I am sure it will be used as some sort of Megalith stage prop. Accordingly, I await further field developments with great anticipation.

The sight we're graced with every week upon arriving at Parc Safari.

"Ok. So. If I were you I might not eat that - I think it's been in the pit"

Jen and Noam preparing to map Grave 1.

Carrie following suite.

Tay and Corey trowelling away at Grave 2.

Andre, very pleased that all of his students are demonstrating their respect for him by bowing. Except Anita, who is reacting to the situation appropriately, I feel.

Grave 2 in all its majesty.


The glorious bird bag.

Notice how jumbled the bones are.

The long bones and metatarsals enclosed in the "zebra's" ribcage.

The unexpected horn.

Andre pointing at things.

Andre removing the skull using technologically advanced archaeological equipment.

"Hmmm, I wonder if there's any meat left on this thing."

The mandible - stained red from hematite or some such thing. Neha gave me a detailed explanation which I promptly forgot.

Even redder in a different light.

The tape measure "quadrant system".

Andre poking at mud.

I call this group portrait "Everyone with dirty pants".

Andre's take on "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Collecting the "Little Bones". Bonus points if you get the Canadian music reference.

Anita was very excited about the skull.

If Anita got this excited about anything that could actually be marketed, she could have an excellent career as a salesperson.

A final view of the waterlogged pit - Grave 2.

While his students are mesmerized by the animal remains, Andre attempts to clandestinely practice his famous 'vibrating hand' trick.

Which the girls on the other side of the pit were secretly watching.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Week 4: Not a Giraffe and MORE intrigue!

It’s not a Giraffe. Of course you already know this because of the spoiler at the end of last week’s post, but I felt it necessary to mention this at the beginning of this post. This was determined not through further excavations of the skull, but rather by using the miracle of Google. A Google Image search led to several interesting photographs of Giraffe skulls and comparing these photos to those photos already taken of the skull found in Grave 2 it became clear that the morphology of Grave 2’s skull is significantly different than that of a Giraffe. Further Google Image searches seemed to indicate that the skull found in Grave 2 was most likely that of an equine.
So this week Alpha Group (which as you all know is Group 2) headed down in the hopes of uncovering more remains within Grave 2, hopefully leading to a full skeleton, and identifying the species of the skull and any associated remains (the two most likely choices; Zebra or Onager). Upon arriving it was fairly certain that the majority of our work would be in Grave 2. However it wouldn’t be too productive to just throw everyone into Grave 2, so Jess and Claudine (who had traded places with Alpha Group regulars Amelia and Lisa) continued to excavate Grave 1 in hopes of gaining more insight into what exactly was buried in what was becoming more and more clearly a complex burial.
The day of excavation in Grave 2 began with everyone’s favorite activity, bailing, the ever present water table once again forcing us to empty out Grave 2 which was filled to the brim with water. Grave 1, owing to the fact that it is not very deep, did not require the ritualistic bailing operation, and thus excavation there began quickly. Grave 1 at first produced some finds, mainly small loose bones, around the topsoil. And then… well after that there was what Andre described as “surprisingly nothing”. So Grave 1 is quickly turning out to be a bust.
Grave 2 was of course the center of attention this week. The discovery of the skull led to a whole bunch of questions, mainly, was there a full skeleton down there? If there was the orientation was of course still a mystery. The previous week’s excavation also uncovered some ribs and this was a possible indication of the way the remains were orientated. The main task thus was to expand the area of Grave 2. We expanded it both to the west and east. The eastern expansion failed to lead us to any other equine remains. What we did find was a garbage bag that seems to be filled with the remains of a deceased animal. The animal contained within said garbage bag was not determined. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure any of us wanted to find out what was in the bag, especially when you consider the fact that emanating from the bag was a smell that would make dung farmers wince (I do not know if dung farming is a real profession, please do not e-mail me with facts about dung farming, and if any dung farmers are reading this I apologize, I truly meant no harm). The western expansion was much more productive and did in fact expose remains which we believe belong to the equid. (Sidenote: As we expanded Grave 2 Kim was talking about dismemberment, she claimed that she had recently been watching horror movies, the rest of us on the other hand were becoming slightly concerned. This will become relevant a bit later in this post). As I said the western expansion uncovered more of the equid remains, mainly the ribcage of which a couple of ribs had already been found. With the eastern expansion a bust the excavators working there moved to the center of the pit in order to clear more area around the skull and hopefully fully expose the neck of the equid. This is where things got intriguing. Located by the skull was the neck, which was fully articulated. The neck led to the scapula, however it led to the wrong end. Instead of leading to the top of the scapula, as is anatomically correct, the neck led to the bottom of the scapula. The neck seems to have been removed from the rest of the body (Kim was right) and even more intriguing was that the cut seems to have been relatively clean. So the big question is… what happened to this equid before burial? It’s, as of right now, an unsolved mystery. Huzzah!
So in the end week 4’s excavations led us to more questions, so it looks like that we have a lot more work to do.
I want to apologize for the tardiness of this post, which has been caused by illness. I also want to thank Graham who will be covering for me on week 6’s post.


The skull after we bailed most of the water out of the pit.
It sure does look like it's trying to eat that bag.

You can totally tell that Kim is thinking of nothing but dismemberment.

The skull and neck. Notice how the neck leads to the wrong end of the scapula.

The ribcage

Andre "teaching".

Jess and Claudine in the semi-isolation of Grave 1

Close-up of the ribcage as its being excavated.

The ribcage as we began to excavate it.

So, yeah we threw nearly everyone we had at Grave 2.

Andre showing Julien how to remove topsoil.

Grave 2 right after expanding the pit. Notice the ribs poking up towards the western expansion.

Uncovering the bag in the eastern expansion.

I believe that Graham is attempting to recover the bag in this picture.

How our wonderful equid looked at the end of the day. Notice how water is already starting to seep in to the pit.