I keep my personal collection of artifacts in a mug that I use to burn incense in. Fingering through these relics now is a reminder of days spent cloaked in mud and sweat. The euphoric feeling of a cold shower after digging a trench on mornings so humid, my sunburns blistered. Tan lines that ended mid-calf from wearing duck boots, and the sweet satisfaction of sharpening the blade of my trowel. Most of what I’ve collected is from the topsoil of my second dig: a chunk of red pottery, turtle teeth, coral, half a femur from a small mammal, wampum, and a parrot fish mandible (my favorite).
I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums with my mother at the age of twelve. The character Etheline Tenenbaum was an archaeologist, and embodied the kind of woman I wanted to become with her effortless blend of cool and academic. It didn’t occur to me that archaeology was something I could actually pursue until I took my first anthropology course during my sophomore year in college, upon the suggestion of a friend. At the time I was a psychology major in the midst of boredom, and anthropology was the answer to this underwhelmed 20-year-old’s prayers. I fell in love with the subject right away, and filled next semester’s schedule with anthropology and archaeology courses.
Before my first dig, I didn’t expect archaeology to be such a bizarre, periodically unethical profession. To me it was rugged and exciting; I would help uncover history with my bare hands. Archaeology as we know it today integrates an element of sensitivity into ongoing projects by working alongside landowners. Yet listening to some of the war stories of my classmates and instructors — such as, “We had the kids pose next to the burials for tourists” — hinted at an underbelly I was less sure of.
Still, I wanted stories of my own. The field taught me how to dig a perfect test pit and document stratigraphy. It taught me that touching charcoal ruins everything, and that if you’re digging in the States, uncovering human remains is a big no-no. As of 1990, excavating human remains in the United States was strictly prohibited under NAGPRA, the National Association of Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which asked that all human remains and culturally significant items stored in various American museums be returned to their federally recognized tribes. This meant enormous collections were emptied from museums, sparking tension among academics fighting for artifact preservation as well as within tribes that did not want federal recognition but would like their ancestors’ remains returned, please.
NAGPRA rightfully shone a spotlight on the bleak history of American archaeology. Presently, finding human remains (even by chance) can bring an ongoing excavation to a grinding halt, which could potentially result in losing years of research. Should your project uncover a burial during an excavation, the associated tribe must be contacted immediately and the project cannot continue in that area.
My first dig took place in Mystic, Connecticut, where I spent six weeks immersed in battlefield archaeology. I, along with six other students, participated in identifying the perimeters of a 17th-century battlefield. Because most of Mystic is residential neighborhoods, most of the digging took place in landscaped backyards. Centuries of farming and general land use sliced through Connecticut’s natural landscape. We trained our eyes to look for fragments of artifacts, some no bigger than the tip of my pinky.
One humid June morning, a classmate and I were digging a test pit together (a 50x50cm square-shaped pit) in five-centimeter intervals. Our instructions were to dig until we reached a third change in soil color, then document the stratigraphy. We had only dug a few centimeters when my classmate picked up a dirt-clotted white chip, too sharp to be a pebble and too dense to be plastic. Maybe part of a clay kaolin pipe? Using her nails to scrape the artifact clean, horror struck as we identified what was, unquestionably, a tooth.
Call the professor.
1700 seconds later, our professor crouched down, picked up the white fragment and, with a casualness that mocked our anxiety, said “cow tooth.” He then flicked the newly confirmed non-human tooth into the brush nearby. His words may have been “cow tooth,” but his cadence said, “girl, chill.”
I decided then that I’d go abroad for my next dig. If I wanted to gain any experience differentiating cow stuff from people stuff, I knew I’d have to leave the U.S. I spent the following summer digging on the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou, tracing the migratory pathways of the Lesser Antilles with fifteen students from the Southern states and fifteen Londoners. For those who do not know where Carriacou is or have never heard of it, you fall in line with much of the rest of the world. Until I applied to the program, I hadn’t heard of it either. It was brought to my attention at Customs in San Juan that other Caribbeans also haven’t heard of Carriacou.
Where are you going?
Well, I don’t know where that is.
I don’t know what to tell you.
I’m glad Carriacou is a well-kept secret. The island is only fourteen square miles, with lush green mountains, gorgeous ocean views, and hardly any tourists. The island had but one hotel, and I believe the combination of students and instructors brought said hotel to its full capacity. Having so many of us stay all at once was no doubt unusual, because our kitchen accessories were limited to three or four items per room. If I wanted to toast my bread, I’d have to knock on the room opposite mine and use their toaster. If I needed a big spoon to stir pasta, I’d head for the room down the hall. My roommate and I had the big spaghetti pot and an enormous mixing bowl, perfect for frying eggs or toasting bread. Now that time has passed, I can look back on this shared kitchen romantically, as if sharing a set of spoons brought me closer to my classmates.
Being on this dig was the closest I have ever come to a reality television show experience. I was bunkered in with thirty classmates I didn’t know. Kinship developed instantly because most of us arrived friendless. After one week, it did feel as if I’d known my classmates for years, yet I took comfort in the fact that I would return home the following month and probably never see them again.
There was something about working in the field that stripped a layer of conscientiousness in the way we interacted with one another. I think working alongside my professor and instructors barefoot in a mud trench for hours set the tone for a non-traditional classroom setting. Take our clothing, for example. Professors don’t wear khakis and sweaters on digs — they’re in hiking pants and raggedy t-shirts, getting sunburned with the rest of us. The element of leisure in archaeology might have also had a role in dismantling a professional wall. Digging gradually opened up room for talking, and I still remember bits and pieces of my conversations with each one of my crewmates and instructors.
But in the spirit of feeling more like pals than students, sometimes good sense went out the window. My professor’s “Welcome” speech, for example, was a less than ideal way to commence the trip. Most of us arrived on the island on Thursday, and on the following evening, my professor gave us an overview of Monday’s schedule as well as a few general “guidelines” to island life, including:
Smoking weed is illegal here. If you do smoke weed, I can’t bail you out, and believe me, you do not want to go to jail here. The most I can do is contact the Prime Minister.
Don’t sleep with the locals. There’s a lot of AIDS on this island. If you sleep with a local or if you bring them back to your room, you risk expulsion.
Ladies, please do not travel alone. It’s a status thing to sleep with European and American women. Do not walk around in your swimsuits, and if anyone tells you they’re “randy,” they’re not introducing themselves.
Unfortunately, these awful nails-on-a-chalkboard statements were not unusual.
The bay where the excavation took place was eroding at a rate of about 3m per year, spilling chunks of pottery, bones and other artifacts onto the beach. Our objective was to collect as much as possible in our five-week time slot. It was this beach where I learned how to excavate a burial site, how a human bone felt in my hands, and that, to my eyes, it is indistinguishable from turtle bone. If it weren’t for the supervision of my professor, I would have mismarked dozens of artifact bags. Perhaps I did.
That was a very real issue on digs. Mismarking or not labeling happened all the time, and enormous Ziploc bags filled with pottery chunks and charcoal became unusable. In archaeology, analysis cannot occur without context. I recall one instructor holding a filled freezer bag above his head. Does anyone know what quadrant this came from?
We were inexperienced. Washing peoples’ bones was also difficult because the remains from the burial sites we extracted were so delicate, separating them from soil required a dental kit. If handled too roughly, the bones could very easily fall apart, which made washing them very tricky. Human bone could not be submerged in water, I learned, but instead must be lightly brushed with wetted soft-bristle toothbrushes. One afternoon, my classmate and I were chatting while washing bone. She was holding a femur in her hand when she sneezed, and the force snapped the femur into several pieces. Another one bit the dust — the human dust.
Archaeology is part of my past now, but I remain keenly interested in it. Recently I visited the Museum of Natural History in New York, and as I walked through the Human Origins exhibit, looking at the skulls, the femurs, the incomplete and complete skeletons on display, I was reminded of the people I knew in the dirt. And to hold in my sneezes.