Friday, July 22, 2011

Out Of That Random Rubble

I have been doing a really poor job of updating this thing. It's a little surprising given the time I have spent on things like, say, playing Sporcle, but it's also not at all surprising considering my history of following through on things. I'm working on some stuff, but I'm afraid nothing is complete enough to be upload-worthy at the present moment. Plus my computer's throwing a fit about something and it's taken two hours and a forced restart for me to be able to post this.

At any rate, I wanted to share this wonderful poem by Katha Pollitt: “Archaeology”:

You knew the odds on failure from the start
that morning you first saw or thought you saw,
beneath the heatstruck plains of a second-rate country
the outline of buried cities. A thousand to one
you'd turn up nothing more than the rubbish heap
of a poor Near Eastern backwater:
a few chipped beads,
splinters of glass and pottery, broken tablets
whose secret lore, laboriously deciphered,
would prove to be only a collection of ancient grocery lists.
Still, the train moved away from the station without you.
How many lives ago
was that? How many choices?
Now that you've got your bushelful of shards
do you say, give me back my years
or wrap yourself in the distant
glitter of desert stars,
telling yourself it was foolish after all
to have dreamed of uncovering
some fluent vessel, the bronze head of a god?
Pack up your fragments. Let the simoom
flatten the digging site. Now come
the passionate midnights in the museum basement
when out of that random rubble you'll invent
the dusty market smelling of sheep and spices,
streets, palmy gardens, courtyards set with wells
to which, in the blue of evening, one by one
come strong veiled women, bearing their perfect jars.

To me, that's what archaeology is all about. I guess deep down we all dream of temples and tombs and... whatever the equivalent would be in American historical archaeology. But the more ubiquitous debris of everyday life is just as, if not more, enticing. I see the tourists come through CW and get excited about seeing a glass bottle or a couple of cow bones. Those things are exciting to archaeologists, too (They are to me, at least; I suppose I'm too young to speak for those a bit more jaded), but not just on the surface. They're also exciting to archaeologists because sometimes when we look at them, we see so much more. That's why I wanted to become an archaeologist instead of a historian—because I want to understand the everyday, the things too mundane and too obvious in their day to make it into the history books. We are not permitted to time travel, so we dig. And then we imagine.

On a personal note, I am still in Williamsburg, but I've switched over to doing lab work now, helping sort and process the artifacts that have been brought in. It's fine, but I won't lie: As nice as it is to sleep in another half hour and work at a table in an air-conditioned building, it's a bit of a letdown after five weeks in the field. As Kent Flannery famously wrote, “archaeology is... the most fun you can have with your pants on.”

It's good to see the whole process, though. I think all aspiring archaeologists should have to experience all aspects of archaeology at some point, and although I occasionally allude to my field school's many flaws, I will say that that's one thing it did very well, making sure all its students got to work on everything at least once. Lab work can be boring and lonely compared to excavation, and it's not for everyone, but I appreciate it. Not just because it's a break from manual labor, but because it's refreshing to see some of the results of all the sweat and bruises and shower drains clogged with dirt. I love the moment of discovery when someone pulls something awesome—an intact bottle, the bowl of a pipe, a gleaming jawbone—out of a hole in the ground, and I love being able to see the soil features coming to light underneath my trowel, to see how things are laid out and how they fit together in person instead of trying to make sense of the photos and maps later on. But it's in the lab where you can really see the scope of the artifacts recovered—bags and drawers and piles full of them!—and where you can finally examine them without the dirt and sift through the soil samples for tiny treasures like beads and pins and fish scales, things you'd never spot in the field no matter how careful you were or how sharp your eyes. Finding a padlock in the flotation machine (which I haven't, but which happened to someone here a few weeks ago) may not be quite as dramatic as picking it up from the place it hit the ground two hundred years ago, but I don't think it's inherently any less exciting.

Okay, maybe I'm trying to convince myself a little bit here.

A lot of field techs are field techs because they vastly prefer the sweat and the dirt to the repetitive tedium of the lab. I don't think I had ever been more aware that I'm one of them until I'd spent several days in the lab here picking through thousands of miniscule fragments of brick and bone and shell and glass and wanting to scream. I still don't believe I hate lab work unilaterally, because I've definitely had enjoyable experiences, too, but I had a very hard time with this particular transition. It's been good in some ways, though—I've enjoyed learning how to do flotation, and everyone seems to be in awe of my ability to spot teeny tiny beads among all the bits and pieces (to which I say, “Er... my mom makes costume jewelry. I've been looking at little glass beads my whole life.”). The other day I found four or five of them still strung on a bit of corroded copper wire, which really was very exciting.

I am trying very hard to remember that poem and that usually it is after the digging is done that we can begin to put all the pieces together and make sense of what we've found.

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