Friday, November 27, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Frustrations of Archaeology

Archaeology is always seen as an exciting adventure led by Indiana Jones or Howard Carter… An archaeologist would tell you that it is not so graceful to be in a muddy hole for days and weeks. As students in archaeology involved in the Park Safari we have already a chance to skim through the joys and the frustrations of our discipline.

the joys of bailing

No one can first bypass the conditions of an archaeological site, and explore the expression “a muddy hole”. First this hole needs to be bailed after rainy days, from which comes a bacterial pool of an indescribable colour and texture. Secondly, it stinks some other times, due to the animal fat still decomposing in it. Let’s conclude this section with the formidable suction feeling of your boots, unable to leave the waterlogged ground, as you try to gracefully get out of your hole in front of your professor.

how does this thing work again?

Another element to consider is the technical difficulties and frustrations of this science. We have previously expressed the beauty and accuracy of the total station, but who ever express how difficult it is to keep the prism (reflector on which the total in pointed) levelled!? Or how to locate this bl…dy prism when you need to take topographic points as quickly as possible? Then let’s pass to a more primal tool, the trowel. Fair enough we are only digging bones, but it seems easier to damage them than to find them with your tool. So imagine it is a Viking sword your digging, can the weight of History lies on your trowel? – well in such case you use a brush...-

A happy archaeologist

To conclude, these humoristic reflections are only the tip of the archaeological iceberg. If you think they were aimed at discouraging oneself to get involved in this discipline, you are mistaken. For as anyone of the group and most archaeologists would concur to say – although some won’t admit it publicly - that all these difficulties, complications, frustrations are at the core of their love of the discipline. A love and hate relationship on certain days perhaps, which you may not appreciate at first sight, on your first day on a site… but who knows if you may not relinquish these frustrations soon yourself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Archaeological Site, Piece of Living Land

Archaeology is one of these disciplines which seem to contain a contradiction in its own essence. In spite of being destined to study the living nature of human civilisation – especially if we consider burial rituals as a living interpretation of the dead -; the site’s medium is cold and dead material. However the archaeological site itself is anything but deprived of humanity. This becomes particularly visible when it is imagined as the central point of a wide circle of human lives.

The particular case of the Park Safari animal graveyard makes us realise how an archaeological site is part of a living land. In the distance during the afternoon, we can hear the echoes of the guns fired by hunters not far away. The site become a element of the local community; people come around to see what it is all about, bringing with them their own stories concerning the site and its previous occupants. We have been witness of such phenomenon as a local stopped to tell us that he know the previous owner of the zoo, adding his own interpretation of what was dug, all that while realising he is acquainted with Liz, one of the archaeology students. We may expect that the word will spread around: “Did you know that there is archaeologists digging in farmer X field? Yes there are hoping to find…” a phenomenon which surely exist for every archaeological site in the world.

But there is also another circle of human interactions that need to be considered around the site: the group of archaeologists, students in archaeology, teacher-assistants. For them, for us should I say, the site is much more than just an assemblage of material. It is certainly a part of our life to which we refer in our conversations elsewhere. The site is also a centre where we share glimpse of our own daily life, chatting around our trowels. For us, the site is an escape from McGill benches, a cookie break and a stinky mud puddle, from which come out much more than just artifacts: a group feeling, friendships, laughter.


The McGill team

In spite of aiming at dead material, an archaeological site is a living matter. The experience lived by the local community – which needs to be enhanced through visits and promotion – and the archaeological team is the most vivid proof of this phenomenon. In fact, it is through its humanity that a site like the park safari takes its full dimension; by being incorporated in the society which produced it and kept it alive in its living memory. Not only does it enables a better knowledge of the past of the site, but also enhances its meaning, why doing archaeology if it is not for the people surrounding a site…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flatulence Conquers Evil

Right before we discovered the pelvic bone the trowel hit a soft spot in the soil and this liquid goo, the consistency of melted milky chocolate, started to ooze and bubble out from the ground giving off an odour that I can only describe as “ehhck”. What we had come upon was a pocket of methane, a flammable gas that is a by-product of carcass decomposition. Methane is produced by bacteria as they break down matter from within the animal’s intestines. It is the same bacterium that live in the intestines of living creatures and causes flatulence. Methane emissions from decaying carcasses interest professor Margaret Kalacska from the geography department. As methane is a by product of decomposition it can also be used as an indicator for mass burial sites, which could be useful in finding mass human genocide graves which can then be used as evidence to prosecute the people responsible. There are about 20 methane collars placed around the site which measure methane levels in the air and the soil. These collars will help professor Kalacska understand how carcass decay and the environment contribute to different rates of methane emissions. Who knew that flatulence could be so useful?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Remote sensing at Parc Safari

<- Parc's animal cemetery as seen from space (among clearing and trees on the left).

Over the summer, a McGill geography professor flew over Parc Safari taking photos that would hopefully be useful in her research on locating clandestine graves from afar. Parc Safari's cemetery, without complete records of where and when animals were buried, provides excellent potential for testing the accuracy of predictions based on aerial images. This is a new aspect of the Parc Safari project with archaeology students confirming or contradicting the predictions of where graves are located. In future seasons, students will be more involved in this project. Our group was only introduced to this aspect of the Parc Safari dig this season.

One day at the site, geography student Carrie and a professor took away a few mysterious bags of soil. They spoke about methane analysis and decomposition of animals (taphonomy). Around the cemetery, several methane collars collect valuable information for the remote sensing project. Combining field data and image information is not only useful for us in that we'll be able to know where animals are buried at Parc Safari but will also be useful in providing evidence of mass human rights abuses around the world.

Each week, many of us ride to the Parc in a van lent by the Geography department. Both departments are working closely on the project that could go in so many different directions. Options for future work are many and mutli-disciplinary. Keep the wheels rolling.

Strings, Total Stations and things

Let me just start off this post by saying it loud, clear and proud: I LOVE THE TOTAL STATION.

Once we finally started to use that piece of machinery, mapping and taking of coordinates went a lot quicker and smoother; but don't most things when you have a computer do them for you? Please don't interject here with protests of computers taking over the world.

The first couple of weeks that we were at Parc Safari, we were relegated to using a tape measure, a miniature leveling device courtesy of Colin, string and a fixed point, which was a stick at one corner of our pit. What ensued was three people trying to take the x, y and z coordinates of our first few finds. These finds consisted of bone fragments, a cigarette butt, small pieces of plastic, etc. One person would hold one end of the tape measure and the string, keeping them parallel, another would hold the other end of the tape measure, and the last person would make sure that the string was level as well as taking notes. This was cumbersome to say the least as three people would get in the way of the other people who were still uncovering artifacts and digging.

This all changed when the Total Station started to be used. Instead of three people hampering others' progress, only one would be in the pit with the prism on a large metal rod. The other two dealt with the machine itself: one person aligning the laser with the prism, and the third taking down notes. What is particularly great about the Staion is that the datum collected can then be collaborated with GIS. I think that most of us, if not all, in the class are excited for this next step.

We had to stop digging… when we hit a wall of dirt-flesh

When we stood over our excavation pit for the first time, we were greeted by skull of an enormous male watusi. The cranium of the animal was lying alone at the bottom of the pit, its body rather elusive. Professor Costopoulos suspected the body was waiting to be discovered in a particular adjacent wall – it was our task to find out.

With that we began to enlarge our pit with a two metre squared grid unit. We slowly peeled away the living later of the ground. It was much like the reversal of lying down sod – but with an added battle against stubborn plant roots. Once we, the inexperienced excavators, had removed the stubborn stuff, we began chipping away with trowels. It was a slow process as we became acquainted with the dirt, with its texture, with the sound of rock, and of bone. As we slowly revealed the mysteries of the ground below we discovered the very distinct ‘park safari stench’.

It is a smell we will not easily forget – a smell that is not for those with a weak stomach. We would later come to equate the odour with valuable finds – with bones and materials for us to rise from the ground. This time though, it was still a mystery. As we chipped away strategically, the ground began to peel. We were no longer clearing loose dirt, but a foul smelling blackened stringy substance. As we moved along it became yet more substantial and hard to penetrate. When tapped with a trowel it revealed itself as unmistakably solid and somewhat spongy. It also proved to have distinct contours, a very real surface that resembled a massive animal backside (an animal far bigger than our watusi). We had been peeing away decomposing skin and had run straight into a partially mummified animal – and an enormous one at that. We were forced to take another route – the animal was not yet ‘ready’ to leave the ground. Digging would have been a dissection, not an excavation!


Watusi Removal 101

It was unknown to us on this day whether it would be the last day of the dig or not. We had exposed a large amount of bone but with the weather getting colder and the lack of a mostly complete skeleton there was a measure of uncertainty as to whether this day would be our most productive.

The moment Andre loaded the watusi skull into his trunk we knew this was the day.


An 80% complete watusi skeleton was removed from the ground in about 90 minutes of arduous muddy work, fighting the elements, a rising water table and our sense of smell.

We were separated into groups, tagging and bagging the various bones was Delphine, Emma and Ross, who worked out a very quick system keeping up with those working in the pit.

In the first pit there was Colin and Josephene, who were rummaging around what was under the skull; brain matter, ribs and small bones. In the second pit there was Sean frantically exposing the long bones that we were only beginning to see the week prior.

Amidst this chaos in the pit, Brittni and Elizabeth were gathering points on the total station while Chris was directing traffic and recording speedily in the logbook, making sure the points were properly labelled and relaying the information back to the tagging team for proper identification and eventually mapping.


It was likely the first day that the entire group was working in tandem, using all the skills we were taught in the weeks prior to culminate into one mass removal in a very short period of time. At the end we were happy that the skeleton was removed, but upset that we wouldn’t be back.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mysteries of Mass Grave Stratigraphy

This past semester at the Park Safari dig we uncovered some more the complexities surrounding the burial composition of the cemetery. This semesters' pit continued off of the pit dug from the previous year. It was during last year's dig that the students and the administrators of the course became well aware of the mass grave dynamic found in the burial composition of this particular grave and potentially of others in the cemetery. Remains of bovids, equids and other creatures alike shared a final resting place in this grave.

This semester’s pit extension led to the recovery of skeletal remains in the topsoil. This could possibly suggest that an initial burial of individuals was followed by a second at some later date, since the bones that were found were from small ungulates and were not articulated with one another. As this year’s team continued to excavate the extension we came across a clay ridge that was initial suspected to mark the edge of the grave, but further excavation showed this not be the case as skeletal remains continued into the clay. This shows that the clay was deposited on top of the carcasses during the burial process.

The mysteries surrounding Park Safari’s burial strategies are beginning to come to the surface as each semester out at the site the students of this class unearth the partial or complete skeletons of former attractions from the park. If its one burial or two the faunal analysis of this years finds will possibly shed a light on the stratigraphic relationship between this years finds and that of last year’s. 

A Look at the Clay Ridge

  The mysterious clay ridge behind the pelvis