Thursday, May 24, 2012

Day 4: Bloodshed

Evening, All

The day was an eventful one.  Before it began, we had to deal with the humdrum routine of digging at Fort Tombecbe: storming a portcullis, fighting through clouds of biting insects, and avoiding the menacing gaze of guardian cattle.

We were shaken out of our habitual morning stupor by the announcement that we’d be starting with a group photo.  Most of the team managed a smile; I managed a glower that was halfway to civilized.

I was tasked with cracking open a brand new unit today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to illustrate how we go about things for those loved ones at home who are surely scratching their heads in confusion at our lunacy.

First and foremost, there is the paperwork.  No job is done without it; in archaeology, no job is started without it.  Ours is a destructive science.  That means that once we dig something up and study it, it’s destroyed for all time.  The only thing we have left, then, are our notes and the artifacts that we dredge up.  In order to help with this situation, we have built a number of redundancies into our method.  Each individual meter-by-meter square is given its own unit number, which has its own form.  The buckets into which our dirt is poured have IDs tied around their handles and a more succinct ID at their bottom.  Any artifacts pulled directly out of the ground go into a bag with the ID on it.  Any artifacts found at the screen go into another bag with the ID on it.  Any artifacts found at the lab go into yet another bag with the ID on it.  It’s a bit repetitious, is what I’m driving at.

Once the paperwork has been appeased, it’s time to start looking at the individual unit.  You can’t just dive in and start digging, though.  While unlikely, there remains the possibility that a few stray artifacts have made their way to the surface.  It’s even more unlikely that you’ll see these artifacts with the naked eye.  What you have to do is sift through the leaves and twigs and dirt with your fingers, feeling for them.  You may find something, you may not, but it has to be done either way.

Now we can finally start digging.  In many ways, this is a lot like giving a haircut.  We spend most of the time trying to shave dirt off in even layers, being careful not to gouge or scrape.  This process is hardly ever smooth, though, as we’re constantly interrupted by the need to clip at roots, which are always in the way and always stubborn.  After we’re through with that, we give the entire unit a nice brush to collect all of the loose dirt and make it look presentable.

After we’ve collected enough material, we cart it over to the water screen.  Here it is dumped out, sprayed with water, and smashed into pieces fine enough to fall through the screen.  In theory, we get rid of the dirt and are left with only the good stuff.  In practice, we end up with a lot of pebbles and roots.

It’s here that the colorful title of the post comes into play.  The unit that I was working on today was positively swollen with broken glass.  It’s so abundant that it is almost certainly some modern rubbish that’s been covered over in the past few years.  But it is the archaeologist’s duty to sift through this as well, so that’s what I found myself doing.  I thought I was being cautious in wearing a pair of leather gloves while running my hands through the glass shrapnel, but apparently I wasn’t cautious enough.  A shard of it sliced right through it and my skin, drawing a trickle of blood.  (Don’t worry, Mom.  I’m fine.)

Perhaps it’s a comment on the state of my mind that the worst part of this experience was the fact that I was away from the pits while the currently reigning artifact of the dig was found.  Kayla pulled an absolutely stunning bead out of her unit.  It’s smooth to the point of being silky and carved with a beautifully executed design.

It’s currently the artifact to beat, and I think we’re all eager to get back in there and do so.

…Tomorrow.  After we’ve slept.  A lot.

-Brett Shaw

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