Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mosquito galore

The trip started interestingly enough with random talks and comments on pop culture in the van such as Will Smith and his songs and the fact that Sting hates his song ‘We’ll be together’ because it was originally written for a Japanese beer commercial. Because it was group A’s second trip, we confidently assumed it would follow the last experience with a few differences such as digging new test pits. However, upon arriving, we learned what all archaeologists have; to assume that the land would not have changed in 2 weeks is to make an ass out of you. Two weeks, with a few rainy days here and there, was enough time for the road to become spread with grass, the earth to become more swamp like and for the birth of a host of mosquitoes, to whom we were the ideal banquet. I say this because not only were we there for at least three hours, but we all took turns holding the prism for the Total Station which as you all know, means that we cannot move until the Total Station is centered on the prism. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before leaving McGill, MacLean presented Colin with a map of our site displaying various amounts of methane all over the area. Curiosity got to us and we decided, with Colin’s approval of course, to dig test pits around the upper North-West area (behind a row of trees) because it seemed like a large animal (or so it seemed according to the large amount of methane exposure on the map) was buried there. After digging 6 test pits we unfortunately found nothing though it was well worth the effort seeing as we got to view Colin, in his archaeology outfit, take the machete to the trees that were obtruding the Total Station’s view of the prism. We realised at one point that the trees were just too dense and seeing as we couldn’t chop down trees, we did what any archaeologist do in that situation, we use the GPS.

After that little experiment, which showed us how unpredictable test pits and finding objects can be, Colin decided that it was time we found the limits of Magic’s range and excitedly, we started to dig 4 test pits. One to the right (North) of Magic’s old test pit from 2007, one just to its lower left corner and two to Magic’s left (South). Anna and I worked on the test pit situated on the right which eventually became Trench # 3. About 10 cm deep we found a small tibia and a fibula. Seeing as it was close to the surface, the bones probably do not belong to a set but rather, were deposited there when the earth was turned by the framer’s tractor. Other than that, we were unable to get to the bottom swap layer because of all the huge (and I do mean huge) rocks in our way. Jason’s and MacLean’s test pit as well as Alice’s and Manu’s went much smoother and they both reached the water/swamp level. After a few jokes on the interesting smells coming from them, it was Alison’s pit from which the jack pot was found. They discovered what we think may have been an epiphysis but it was small and fractured so we weren’t sure. They also found a huge bone with the same kind of formations. Next to it sticking out of the side wall in the pit, was a ball-and-socket joint. Jason’s test pit at first revealed nothing but, upon checking the earth dump, they found a couple of bones: two un-fused epiphysis from an animal smaller than that an elephant. Both pits provided us with bones that were smaller than an adult elephant but bigger than any other animal at the park. Could it be Magic wasn’t an adult? Or was another animal placed at this exact spot and got mixed up with Magic’s bones? All this means, is that we need to dig deeper. Overall, we learned how to use the Total Station properly with the prism, that Magic’s bones continue more towards the south, that a mask and water proof gloves might be for the best next time, and that bring a whole bottle of off would be a great idea.

Ps: Group B, remind Colin that you’ll need smaller buckets to be able to get in the pits and bail out swamp water. We improvised and cut a plastic water bottle in half.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A hole lot of NOTHING

Friday, at noon, a small group of students gathered in the Basement of Peterson Hall, ready for an afternoon of driving, traipsing through forests of high grass, and digging through mud, all in pursuit of an elusive goal. We were traveling to Parc Safari, to hack our way through the grass, dig our way through endless mud and clay, all to find the skeletons of dead animals. Each of us likely had our own personal goals in mind, be it emulating Indiana Jones, or just basking in the spirit of scientific discovery, But mine, I knew, was the most noble! I was going to find a LION! (Of course, I have no idea whether a Lion had actually been buried there.)

My contacts from Group A had dropped a few hints as to what we were to expect, and most specifically bragged about the fact that, while we were going to have to use a sketchy Geo Van, they had lucked out and got to drive to the site in a swanky, new, rented minivan. And, so, I was shocked, when we walked out of Peterson hall clutching various necessary implements (Namely, shovels, Boxes, and, most interesting, a machete, clutched possessively by Tom) to find a huge Black SUV, which, while not the most ecological, would not have been out of place in a Spy movie, in the possession of the Omnipresent Government Agency.

Pulling onto Peel, we headed through the traffic of Downtown Montreal, Tom’s Selection of music blasting through the car. The Car ride itself was fairly quiet, going by quickly as we headed to the American border. Colin pulled off the highway at the last exit before the border, through a veritable labyrinth of sketchier and sketchier roads in rural Quebec, before finally parking the car on a dirt (or, rather, MUD) road between a hill covered in vines, and a field densely packed with tall grasses.

After a quick tour of the site (punctuated every so often with such phrases as “That’s the Elephant pit. Don’t fall into it.”) We got to work. Though the terrain of the Graveyard (the tall grasses) made it fairly difficult, we did a field survey, covering the area between the Historical remains of a farmhouse and the Test pits dug last week by group A. Though the Grass was difficult to march through, we called upon our inner fortitude and pushed forwards, avoiding pits. As White and King state, “During field survey there is a constant need for measuring space, especially calculating distance. Much of this is associated with basic logistics like establishing and maintaining transect width (pg 101.)” Unfortunately for Ashley, this resulted in the unfortunate reality that she was forced to hack her way through the Meters tall reeds that were growing on the foundations of the farm house.

During our survey, we found a largish mound, just the west of Magic’s pit, and, Colin, full of the spirit of discovery and joy, decided that we were to dig our test pits on this mound, because he was curious, and “A big mound next to a pit where we know a part of the elephant was found is good!” The test pits we sank were to be a half meter by a meter, and would likely reach the ground water or bedrock. Well, no bedrock was reached, but plenty of other rocks were. At every turn, we were stymied by the multitudes of rocks within out pits (Rocks which Colin had the Gall to call Pebbles.) On that mound, few pits were able to go deeper than half a meter deep before an impassable rock was to be found. The most interesting piece of archeological remains that was found was a length of ubiquitous orange twine, running through two or three test pits.

Colin then concluded that, if there was anything to be found in the mound, we weren’t going to find it without a backhoe, and sent the few of us who had attended the first class off to dig more test pits in other promising locations, and those that hadn’t attended to learn to use the Total Station.

These test pits proved as fruitless as the others, My own, dug between the “Mass grave” and Magic, yielded nothing but a solid layer of Dirt, followed by a thick layer of compacted Sawdust, refuse from the barns the animals stayed in during the winter. Tom, the luckiest of us, found a plastic bag containing two small vertebrae on the surface level of his last test pit.

This really reinforced how much of Archeology is truly dependent on luck. How, even in this site, which, supposedly, is incredibly rich, it is possible for a group of people to fail to find anything, with a number of test pits scattered throughout the area. Who knows, had I sunk a test pit a half meter to the left, perhaps I’d have found my Lion… Or perhaps I’d still have found a whole lot of nothing.

One last note. Word of warning to ya’ll digging next week: Apparently The entire cemetery is a hotbed of Simian herpes. (I exaggerate, but the reason we’re digging at this particular gravesite is that the other one has known Simian burials, which can infect us with some horrific form of herpes… We should be safe at this cemetery, Except that we have NO records of what was buried in what we’re excavating.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Pits

As I, giddy with excitement, boarded the Archaeological Minivan of Science, I realized that I had no idea what to expect of actual fieldwork. I had extrapolated fantastic visions of spelunking inside the ribcage of Magic (the flesh-laden elephant corps circa 1980’s), but what was in store was more exciting than my wildest dreams.

We were there to dig pits.

When our car ride of Anth-jokes and squabbling over music concluded we went for a quick tour through the site, where I had my first real experience with an archaeological pit. Pushing through the tall grass, I came about 10 centimeters from stepping in Magic’s excavation pit from last year; now flooded with stagnant dead-elephant water.

Regardless of the humor that stems from a digging up a dead elephant, archaeological pits deserve a second thought. The reason for their existence is to allow archaeologists to catch a glimpse of a different time. Whether it’s a Neanderthal burial, or a field of dead zoo-animals, the basic principal remains the same: Digging up the past also destroys it, so you’d better get as much information out as possible. This thought is perturbing to me, since it’s too easy to imagine myself blowing the most important find of a site.

Fortunately, in reality things are almost never that glum. When we got to dig our test pits (TPs) we were quickly instructed in all of the proper archaeological methods. Recording the local of an artifact when you find it, and not (albeit hard to resist) immediately yanking it out of the ground to clutch feverously, is just one of many methods we learned.

TPs are simple shovel-dug holes in the ground that allow you to see under the soil you’re standing on, yet they are more complicated than something so simple should ever be. White and King (2007:113) say that “[TPs] are small, square to round excavations generally measuring 40 to 50 cm (1.3 to 1.6 ft) across, with maximum depth depending on local geomorphology and the likely depth of cultural deposits”. Getting down to a depth where “cultural deposits” are likely seemed easy, until “local geomorphology” got in the way. It was often in the form of giant rocks that screeched loudly when hit with your shovel, and got stuck in the mud when you tried to remove them. Occasionally “local geomorphology” took the shape of thick roots that crisscrossed your TP, which made digging much more arduous than originally expected. Just being able to dig down a meter can be physically challenging, as it forced some of us to lie down and continue to dig while at 90º. The most challenging problem I encountered was a tightly buried burlap sack I found at about half the desired depth of my TP. This sack, although technically part of the “cultural deposits”, was immovable and ended up completely thwarting the path of my shovel. No matter how hard I tried it was impossible to puncture, or even dig around this frustration.

As I sweated with annoyance at this sack, my brain began to freeze up. How could a “cultural deposit” in my pit be hindering my attempts at finding something important? In a flash, the futility of trying to understand archaeology strictly in terms of “local geomorphology” and “cultural deposits” dawned on me. You can’t just read a book and then traipse onto the field knowing exactly what to do. Archaeology isn’t astrophysics or theoretical mathematics, no; it’s real science. You have to be able to adapt your theories in a pinch, stay scientific in the most difficult situations, and be able to evaluate whether or not to continue to struggle with a burlap sack. I’m glad to have learned this early on so I can later squeeze as much information as possible out of instructional archaeology texts, and use that information as a frame, not as rule.

It’s amazing what you can learn from a pit.

Works Cited:

White, G. and T. King

2007. The Archaeological Survey Manual. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.