Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Day at the Dig

I'm a week late with the account of what it's like to go on an archeological dig, and you won't get the semi-obligatory pictures because I have no means to take them. (When they make an app that lets the things be used as binoculars, that's when I get a mobile phone.) You'll have to settle for my verbal artistry.

Because the site is between three and four hours away from my house, I drove up the night before and, in deference to the freezing temperatures, stayed at a hotel in the nearest town with a hotel. Glad I was to have done it, too, when after my breakfast of homemade muffins and hot tea brewed in my room, I dragged my picnic basket, cooler, giant Thermos, and backpack down to the car and found poor Moby Dick the Great White Car coated in frost. Moby is an afternoon person and doesn't like to start on the best of mornings; on a day like that, he'd as soon stall out in an intersection as not if he thinks I've rushed him, so I turned him on and let him warm up while I used the badge from a convention I attended in August (it pays to not clean out the car!) to scrape the windows. We got underway around 6:30 and drove the, whatever it is, 30 or 40 miles to the site at a liesurely pace through the fog. I always forget, between trips, how long the road is, but I didn't miss any of my turnings.

For most of the way I had a truck behind me, which I hoped was associated with the site, as I didn't have the code to open the main gate. (Access to all archeological sites has to be controlled due to the danger of looting and vandalism. I'm allowed to camp on the site, but the campsite is not near the dig area and no one wanders around there alone.) I pulled off at the old ranch house associated with the property and sure enough, saw the truck turn in at the gated drive, so I put Moby back into gear and followed her through. It turned out to be Nancy Littlefield, the volunteer coordinator. We drove down the long drive, past another, manual gate intended to keep the longhorns in check, and parked at the metal barn perched at the brink of the creek bottoms.

It's been a long time since I was here, and that was in summer. Since then they've cleared a lot of brush, and the track that was a steep alternative to the flooded-out easy way down, fresh-cut with a Bobcat the first time I visited the site in 2007, looked like a full-fledged country road. Not only that, Nancy told me to load my stuff (yes, it is a lot, but I can't eat granola bars like normal people) onto the Gault Kart. This is a golf cart they bought on e-bay to accommodate an elderly visitor with mobility problems, painted with its name and the Gault symbol (a Texas flag with a Clovis point instead of the star). We rode down into the creek bottoms in style.

The current dig is on the far side of the creek, which you cross on a pipe bridge, in the broad open area where, years ago, you could pay $0.50 to dig up as many "arrowheads" as you cared to walk away with. So rich is this site that this concentrated looting did not by any means exhaust it; in fact, the current project - to punch down through the disturbed layers to the undisturbed ones and dig meticulously to bedrock, thus determining exactly how long humans have utilized the site and expanding our knowledge of the earliest peopling of Texas -- has been considerably delayed by the finding of unexpected unlooted levels of the Archaic periods. On the one hand, these are interesting in their own right; on the other hand the grant money they're working with is for digging the mysterious Pleistocene layers, so the need is to blitz through the Archaic stuff as fast as possible without mucking the job up - everything needs to be curated and recorded so it can be analyzed later. They can't just mine the 11,000-15,000 year old layers, as that wouldn't be safe, or secure. And, oh yes, the grant money runs out this year. Hence the need for unpaid, unskilled labor like me.

The open units (unit being the term for "100 cm x 100 cm square hole in the ground") are covered by a Weatherport, an enormous tent shaped like a Quonsett hut. We unzipped the doors and entered, getting out of the wind but not out of the cold. Nancy got all the paperwork and equipment organized and I went around uncovering the units she told me to. The heavy clay of the site shrinks and swells and cracks a lot in response to weather, so the sides of the units tend to crack, crumble, and leak dirt and embedded rocks. To prevent contamination and confusion, all the units are covered with ground cloth when not being dug. One of the units had a big surveying-tape X on it, with the words "DON'T STEP HERE OR YOU DIE" on them; these were to prevent damage to an interesting find that had been made at the end of the last working day.

Soon the other volunteers arrived, all of them younger than me (though I've worked with plenty of fellow middle-aged ladies here), and grad student Steve and Nancy began talking about his death threat-inducing find - a piece of flat bone in an Archaic unit, much larger than the bone usually found at the site (the soil tends to eat bone up) that appeared to be segmented. Cinda Timperley, the paleontologist, wasn't available to size it up at a glance as she usually did, so Steve and Nancy were saying what it looked like: turtle, only not really, and nine-banded armadillo - which would have revolutionized our understanding of something, because the nine-banded armadillo only came to Texas in 1921. (Yeah, hard to believe, but true.)

Steve set about the nitpicky job of clearing away more dirt without damaging the bone, which is hard to do. At a certain level of fragility, you can cause a bone in this soil to disintegrate by poking the ground with a chopstick too near and too vigorously. The other two volunteers were working a deeper Archaic unit, on the other side of the "witness column" (a pillar of undug units left standing to demonstrate the stratigraphy, leave something for more advanced archeologists to dig 20 years from now, and drip dirt onto the cloths covering the surrounding units) and I never did see what they were working on.

I was not given anything so delicate to do, and with good reason. As someone who, though not a novice, has not got a lot of experience, I got one of the upper levels, already partially dug and mapped by another person, to finish up - dig it down to the desired level, finish mapping, curate any artifacts found, set the labeled bucket aside for screening. To assist me in this I had access to a laser level to tell me how deep below the surface I was and a handy 100 cm x 100 cm frame subdivided into 20 cm squares. So, still freezing and wishing I'd gotten more hot tea, I set to puzzling out what the person who'd opened this unit had done with the map (I'm spacially challenged), figuring out when the laser level was upright (and my balance problems can make it hard to tell straight from crooked), and scraping away at the dirt with a trowel, whisk broom, and chopsticks.

Dr. Mike Collins arrived before the fog burned off and was taken straight down to see the bone. Mike has been doing this for a long, long time and can tell what a lot of things are at a glance. He got down and peered at the myster bone and said: "That's not natural." "Not natural" is not a term of opprobrium in archeology; it means People Did This and transformed the bone from a bone into an artifact. Someone, thousands of years ago, had incised a crisscross pattern of lines on a flat piece of bone, a scapula, he thought.

Now, Gault has produced a number of incised stones, but incised bone is a unprecedented at this location, so this was thrilling. Pictures had to be made and the bone prepared for removal to a lab for study, and these were not things to do casually. It would fall to pieces if touched, and would have to be hardened, so Mike, Nancy, and Steve talked about what we had on hand and how to go about hardening it; and Mike took the pictures, though his hands kept shaking with cold and he couldn't get the generator started to power the spotlight, so Steve had to stand a reflector up to catch enough light for a good picture. Another bone next to it looked like an intact joint and had to be treated similarly; though, as Steve uncovered more of it, it became clear that this pieces was peculiar in its own right. The apparent joint was a break, but the bone was flat and came to a point. Nobody speculated about what, if anything, that meant. It could just be a broken bone.

So we dug, and talked about things like crappy day jobs, incised bone, how much education each of us had (neither Nancy nor I has a degree), the proper way to address someone with a Ph.D. (they don't like being called doctor) and why you shouldn't listen to music when out here alone. The danger from humans, though alas never absent in this world, is minimal; but weather can come up suddenly, and the site is roamed by bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and the longhorns. You do not want to be bopping along to the beat and not notice that you are annoying the longhorns. Nancy has been trapped by rising flood waters before. "Be aware of your surroundings" is just as important in the country as in the city.

Dr. Clark Werneke came through with a scheduled tour. I forget Clark's title, but he's basically Mike's second-in-command and he does a lot of education and outreach. I don't think I ever heard who the tour consisted of, who had organized it, but about 30 people, including children, came out in the cold to see the site and have it explained to them. I think a few of them bought t-shirts and hats. We kept on doing what we were doing while they came through and Clark explained what was going on. Mike told them about the bone. It's nice when something new and spectacular is on hand to show the tourists. There almost always is at this site. (I kind of like tour days and field schools. It means they pay to bring Porta-Potties in. Otherwise, it's primitive camping all the way.)

After Clark returned from sending the tour upon its way we broke for lunch. The fog was all gone and we were warm enough to take off our gloves to eat without suffering. Lunch is a good time on a dig, because the people with the good stories aren't distracted from telling them. My low-sodium diet prompted Clark to reminisce about digging in the Mayan jungle (where you want lots of sodium); something already recalled to him when he was asked a question about conflicts with local Indian groups. This hasn't arisen at Gault, so far, partly because no human remains have been recovered and partly because no tribe in particular lays claim to this area. The tribes that lived in Central Texas in historical times were recent arrivals; forensic archeology would have to be done on any human remains to even find out who has a right to object to their being studied. Besides, the difficulty of working with native tribes is exagerrated in the public mind by the tendency of the press to report bad news. Kennewick Man was poorly handled by pretty much everybody involved; but who has heard of the remains found in On Your Knees Cave, and the cooperation of tribal members and archeologists to study and preserve them? But the question brought to mind the Mayan experience, because the Mayans he worked with would get annoyed when the tourists asked: "So what happened to the mysterious Mayans? Where did they disappear?" They didn't; Mayans live and work in the same areas they used to when the site he worked on was a city.

After lunch we all resumed work, and Dr. Collins had another couple of people to walk through; a separate deal from the tour. I wasn't paying attention to who they were or why they didn't come on the tour, because that isn't my business and because the Gault School is always educating everybody they can. In my experience, archeologists are all big geeks who are eager to share their enthusiasm with anyone who will sit still and look. They'll look at your rocks, they'll answer your questions, they'll tell you all about the rocks and the science and the history, and they'll slap a trowel in your hand or put you at a screen and tell you what to look for if you show the slightest inclination to do any work.

The unit I was working on contained mostly large chunks of rock, most of it limestone and some of it burned, and a few small flakes of chert. It's very close to the surface, part of what is called the "burned midden," where historic and prehistoric inhabitants dumped their trash and possibly already pretty well turned over during the site's pay-to-dig days back in the 20s. In short, not very interesting. I found my own sliver of bone, which I recognized by its color, shape, and texture. The first few times you dig, screen, or sort you have a hard time telling bone from limestone, but I've gotten reasonably good at it even as little of this work as I've managed to do. Once mapped, the big chunks of rock could be removed and added to the berm protecting the site from raging floodwaters, except for a couple Mike wanted left intact to drill. Some new technique enables labs to examine the magnetism of rocks and determine how they were moved around. I'm not sure what that tells you in a midden, but I'm not the one who can look at incised bone and see that the markings aren't natural, either.

I closed out the unit around 3:00 - i.e., had it down to where it was supposed to be, mapped, notes made, and paperwork wrapped up - and Nancy asked me to go around cleaning out the open units of loose dirt and starting to shut them down. Steve finished up what he needed/could do with his bones and we replaced the cover and the death threat.

One of Mike's guests teaches 7th grade, so I showed her the copy of 11,000 I keep in the car and gave her my card. Maybe I'll get a school visit out of this. Maybe I won't.

The day had warmed up enough to leave the gloves off and unbutoon my sweater, but not been wet so I didn't have to change into the spare clothes I'd brought. I left the site around 5 and got home before 9, fending off starvation on the way by eating trail mix. My knees hurt, my back hurt, and I was tired to the bone for three days.

But I'm okay with that. I got to see the incised bone. And that's cool.

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