Monday, November 3, 2008

Week 7: Four Skulls, One Pit

This week’s adventure began with the discovery of an ominous portent: a large, masticated femur was spotted alongside the road that runs past our site. After a thorough examination of the impressive, yet incongruously placed, long bone, intense gnawing along one of the condyles was noted. Though a tractor had clearly been through the marshy grassland east of the road the week before, it was unlikely that such a large artifact had been turned up merely by depositional disturbance. We surmised that some sort of scavenger had invaded our site. While later in the day we did witness a small feral cat prowling around the grassy mounds (which Andre decided to investigate), it is unlikely that an animal of such miniscule proportions could have moved the femur. Current hypotheses range from feral dogs to coyotes to wolves – in summation, we were probably raided by some sort of canid scavenger.

The isolated skeletal element lying in the road was perhaps a harbinger of things to come. We spent the entirety of the afternoon working in Grave 2, as the second team had brought out a lot of skeletal material the week previously, and had presumably found the “bottom” of the pit. Accordingly, we wanted to attempt to find the missing zebra hoof, pelvis, and some of the equid’s evasive long bones. Little did we know that our na├»ve goal of excavating the rest of the zebra was overwhelmingly unfeasible.

To start with, there were the frogs. There were at least four of them happily ensconced in our pit, and as Claudine found out the hard way, frogs go slightly beserk when you attempt to pick them up. After we spent about twenty minutes bailing stagnant water out of the grave and ridding it of amphibian invaders, we began to go about looking for the rest of the animal. This process was, however, somewhat impeded by the presence of a number of black plastic bags decorating the sides of the pit. Would that they were empty, but unfortunately they were filled with animal carcasses that had not quite undergone full decomposition. This became somewhat problematic as the day wore on, and we were forced to excavate around some of the bags so that animal juices mixed with water and adipose layer would not pour into the pit through the rents and tears in the plastic.

This is not to say that the “cream cheese” was the utmost in carnage we would be exposed to that day. Given that the animal corpses in the pit appeared to consist of 4+ carcasses (not counting the animals in the bags), in varying stages of decomposition, we found ourselves pulling strands of dark decaying hair off of some of the bones, and scraping away dirt only to be greeted by the glaring white that signifies lard. However, the assorted elements of rotting animal inside the pit were nothing compared to what was inside the bags. When Tay, Colin and I moved one, we peered inside and saw what was effectively a solid block of adipose layer – delightful. The resulting smell was an ineffable mixture of sweetly rotten fermentation with far more earthy and organic undertones (If you’re bothered by the sensory descriptions, I’d like to point out the phenomenological analysis is still quite popular in certain post-processual circles, and really I’m only playing to the crow d here).

Carnage aside, the digging environment was further exacerbated by the fact that we were below water table, which meant that every twenty minutes or so we had to halt work and bail the bottom of the pit out with plastic water bottles. Additional fun could be had at the various test pits around the site which were not overflowing with water. Those that had any space left in them got refilled with back dirt, presumably to adhere to rather basic security standards (a word of warning: in an animal cemetery, always look before you put your feet anywhere).

Finally, a word on what we found in the pit itself. The day began with us attempting to extricate the remains of the ram from the plastic bag sinuously woven through its horns and around its ribs, a process further complicated by the metatarsals we kept finding scattered around the bag itself. Tay and Anita worked along the eastern side of the pit, and spent the majority of the day slowly working through a layer of soil/decaying animal and collecting whatever bones they found. However, as the day wore on we realized that the ram and the zebra weren’t the grave’s only inhabitants. We found a skull that looks almost exactly like an alien from a Disney movie (note the perplexed look on even Andre’s face in the photos to follow) and a gigantic horn shaped element that we were hoping was an elephant tusk…until we uncovered the massive bovid skull that it was attached to. Currently the pit totals four skulls, with no complete skeletons as of yet. Guesses as to the identity of the bovid lurking in the SW corner of the pit (underneath the zebra) range from male watusi to yak (and I know what you’re thinking, not the most typical savanna species, but Neha assures me that Parc Safari included them on their website.

The skeletal elements were so tortuously intertwined that we had to make an elevation map of some of the most prominent osseous artifacts (can you figure out I’m running out of synonyms for bones? I think it’s fairly evident). Noam did most of the elevation and grid work while Carrie drew a beautifully detailed map, displayed below. However, the team next week is going to have a lot of work to do. I wish them luck.

Carrie Herzog's map of Grave 2.

Our frog pool.

Beginning to bail out.

Avoiding the back dirt piles.

Merrily bailing.


PVC pipe and mandibles... a common archaeological pairing.

The false hoof.

Horns and ribs.

More of the carnage.

Bones and water table.

Andre the overlord.

The glorious life of a PhD student.

Carrie creating her fantastic map.

The sophisticated art of mapping sans total station.

The infamous ram skull.

Awkward mapping.

Ok, if any reader of this blog has any sort of background in zooarchaeology please explain what on earth this is.

Even Andre is puzzled.

Noam, master of tags.

Pit soup.

Crouching Tay, hidden Anita.

The absolutely massive horn.

Metatarsal popcorn.

The recalcitrant plastic bag wrapped around the ram skull.

More of the ram skull.

Corey, avid amateur ram skull handler.

And the side shot.

Kind of fiendish looking, eh?

In the grass.

Andre, once again communing with skeletal elements.

The possible yak horn, somewhat to scale.

Backfilling a testpit can sometimes leave one feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Moving the plastic bag.

"Yak" Skull.

Embedded in the mud.

"Yes minions, I believe that it is indeed dead."

The water table had already begun to fill the pit. At this point it's a labour of Sisyphus to even attempt to keep the bottom visible for a few minutes..

The horn, from another angle.

"Hey Colin, we get to leave the site soon. How does that make you feel?"

"Really. You had all week to pick an outfit and you wore THAT?"