Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Find Us the Lion"

"Find us the lion." At the unset of this year’s Field Course, this (half-joke?) request seemed simple enough to the innocent and ignorant students that we were. After field walking and a first round of test pitting, the cruel reality came crashing down on us: knowing it’s there and actually finding it are two, very distinct things, at the heart of the archaeological problem. Whether relying on the vague memories of senior Park employees or on trade records millenniums old, archaeologists are constantly faced with the problem of finding ― in a more or less vast landscape ― the remains of things past.

Through survey, general areas can be delimited, but there again, vegetation, terrain or simply the cruel yet unstoppable passage of time can hinder our best efforts. The thriving vegetation and uneven terrain of the old Park Safari cemetery offer a concrete example, in which the field walking techniques we implemented may not have been the most appropriate. In any which case, surveying is often the first step taken in an archaeological project, for it may reveal the presence of sites or simply delineate areas of interest. What scanty results we did came up with, coupled with accumulated knowledge about the site and a desire to answer some questions concerning specific areas gave us a general portion in which to conduct test pitting.

Despite some promising results composed of “Park Safari garbage”, the remains of the lion, or any other animal for that matter, were still eluding us. Since the aim of this project is the study of mass graves, and not of the disposal patterns of Park Safari garbage, all those ropes, twines and plastic labels were of little interest for the opening of a proper trench if they didn’t came with the bones we’re ultimately after (Glassow 2005:137). In that regard, some more test pits had to be dug, which is what we devoted ourselves to on September 24th.

Armed with our pointed shovels, which seemed very appropriate given the thickness of the organic layer and the general nature of the soil (Glassow 2005:140), we conducted a “targeted search” in the north-western portion of the site. Through this small-unit testing, defined as the excavation of an area too small to actually enter (Glassow 2005:144), we intended to establish the nature of the deposits below our feet, in addition to finding the lion. Despite our failure to uncover any bones, which is in itself somewhat informative, we did obtain some valuable information linking the terrain variations we observed during our field walking to varying thickness and richness in deposits, which can further direct our search for the elusive feline.

However laborious and potentially frustrating test-pitting might be, it can also offer some useful information on the stratigraphy and general layout of a site, and section drawing is a good way to record this information (Roskams 2001:144). However, since by nature the deposits we are after are the result of disturbance taking place over a relatively short period of time, section drawings are unlikely to give us any valuable information on chronology. Even if there were several levels at the site, the mere action of digging a grave is likely to crosscut them and thus make a straightforward interpretation of stratigraphy unreliable. Nevertheless, the sections exposed and subsequently drawn did display a superposition of layers, the analysis of which can lead to some interesting conclusions. For instance, it would appear that “Park Safari garbage”, to which previously excavated burials were associated, is to be found at least 20cm below the surface and sometimes at over twice that depth; a disturbed clay layer is a promising clue, whereas an undisturbed one means that interesting material is unlikely to be found below. Since all measurements were made from the surface instead of from a common datum level, direct depth comparisons between different test pits could be misleading; however, once recorded on a section drawing, these information can be connected and can help create a more accurate picture of the underground reality of the site. Moreover, since the spirit of test excavations often dictates that the objects collected be reburied during backfilling (Glassow 2005:145), our section drawings are a good way to record their disposition and depth relation one to another.

All in all, this frustrating absence of bones made us realise the importance of survey and test excavations, for it is now clear that opening a full-scale excavation trench in an area that simply looks good, without prior knowledge, or at least an idea, of what’s below, would defy all logic.


Glassow, M.A. 2005. Excavation. In: Maschner, H.D.G., Chippindale, C. (Eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Methods. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, pp. 133-75

Roskams, S. 2001. Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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