Thursday, October 30, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Stephen Chrisomalis said...

I am going to exercise severe restraint in not commenting on the 'vibrating hand'. Look at how good I am being!

Seriously, though, that's quite an impressive skull!