Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Week 1: Initial Survey

This year’s Parc Safari excavation got off to an exciting start, with a new group of students experiencing the hour long drive to Hemmingford in the trusty McGill Biology van, (or, if they were lucky, the vehicular masterpiece that is Andre’s car). Group 1 was a bit better informed than the pioneering team the previous year as we had both first-hand knowledge of the site (i.e. Andre’s memory) and documents to consult (like the magnetometer map) that allowed us to choose sites for test-pitting. If you've always harbored a secret desire to visit a cemetery populated largely by African fauna, and are consequently on tenterhooks concerning the location of Parc Safari, consult the handy map below for the source of all of this excitement:

View Larger Map

We started off by clearing out some of the tenacious vegetation that had already begun to overwhelm last year’s watusi and elephant pits, both of which were filled with standing water. After some preliminary botanical issues (read: Andre had a run-in with some nettles), and the consequent consultation of Jessica Dolan, the Costopoulos lab’s resident plant expert, the controlled destruction of plant life proceeded apace. Once we had cleared enough space to be able to navigate around the area of last year’s dig with relative ease, we took stock of the situation and began to decide where to place our test pits.

The magnetometer map provided us with a wealth of knowledge as it measured the strength of the area’s magnetic field and its elevation at equal intervals. Different highly magnetic and weakly magnetic zones can call attention to archaeological features like iron artefacts or walls, which will be highly magnetic.It also serves to highlight areas where soil has been disturbed, which is unsurprisingly a potential indicator of burial, as grave pits need to be dug and then backfilled. An examination of the surface of the animal cemetery also proved fruitful, as it allowed us to visually identify depressions and elevated mounds. Areas of elevation may indicate recent burials, with the carcass of the animal creating a sort of tumulus directly underneath the topsoil, while areas of depression may indicate longer-standing graves, where the earth collapses into the concavity created by the decomposing corpse of an animal.

Neha, this year’s TA, took charge of creating a profile of the area by setting up two level lines, one stretching over the most promising area’s North/South boundary and one stretching over the most promising area’s East/West boundary. By using a line level, string and a tape measure, it was possible to measure relative elevations off of the level perimeter line and to produce a basic profile of the area we believed that the most promising carcasses were concentrated in.

The test pits that we wound up digging were north-east of the Watusi and Elephant pits, and were about 50cm × 50cm (or three shovel blade-lengths by three shovel-blade lengths. Test pits require approximation). They produced some interesting finds – Tay and Anita turned up the tibia of ‘some sort of ungulate’ (according to the professorial types at the site), and found that their stratigraphy graded down from a muddier clay layer into a layer of angular pebbles. I turned up a mandible in my topsoil almost immediately, but digging was quite dull until around 40cm or so down, when I found a smooth round protuberance that appeared to be quite hollow. Was it a skull? Despite Andre’s permission to test this possibility by widening my test pit, to my dismay all we discovered was that clay can make a deceptively hollow ringing noise when struck with a trowel.

Meanwhile, Noam and Corey began to dig a test pit close to the N/S perimeter and over the course of the afternoon discovered a possibly mummified animal that was wrapped in a plastic bag, a creamy white ‘adipose layer’, a kneecap of some kind, and a lot of red string. All of these finds were quite promising as both plastic bags and string are harbingers of animal death that the team last year found to be strongly correlated with the presence of faunal burials. Carrie, on the other hand, dug a pit that shed light on the area’s more distant human past, dredging up a pink plastic brush and assorted bits of glass from her more anthropo-oriented area. Finally, Claudine was the only one on the team to discover something completely novel: a test pit totally devoid of either human detritus or animal remains. Congratulations Claudine! (Actually, the digging she did was in reality very important as her pit had a fairly clear stratigraphic profile that will help us to understand the composition of the site).

After ooohing and ahhing over Corey and Noam’s adipose layer and listening to a quick summary of the work that had been done that day, the team headed back to the cars, eager to get back to civilization, or at the very least to Montreal.

A look at some of our high tech gear.

Tay and Anita, thrilled that their hours of labour have produced...well, a pit in the mud.

Carrie, working hard at removing topsoil.

Mmmmmm water table...

We found what was clearly an anthropogenic artefact in one of the test pits. And no, there is nothing wrong with that statement.

Our fearless leader leads us fearlessly... to cookie break.

Carrie, Tay and Corey hang out and recharge.

"Why of course that's a skull and not just a hollow lump of clay Jess! Why don't you expand your test pit and see?"

The frank discussion that resulted when Andre's above statements proved to have been misleading.

1 comment:

Stephen Chrisomalis said...

In the last photo, Andre is giving his patented 'I am somewhat guilty for forcing you to do something that turned out to be pointless, but let me rationalize it at length as a teaching experience!' look. Classic. :)