Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Three “D’s” of Archeology

Digging, dining, and drinking; rarely in that order and often overlapping. Some days we would forget about digging all together, and in the most remote locations, drinking was not an option. I first became aware of the three “D’s” in a conversation with Mandy Mijares, a faculty member at the University of the Philippines. Still wet behind the ears, I asked Mandy what archeology was all about. Needless to say I was delighted by its simplicity.

An impatient man, I feared digging would interfere with my enjoyment of the trip. Thankfully I neglected to consider the tranquility that monotonous manual labor can bring to a mind that never stops. You know those little Japanese sandboxes with the rakes that people keep on their desk to reduce stress? Well, my sand box was two meters by two meters and instead of a rake I had a trowel. Not all of the digging was peaceful; digging in some sediment layers was thrilling, like when we excavated the remains of a 700 year old skeleton, while digging in other layers was so laborious that we needed a local to stay on call to fix the pickax because it would break every tenth swing. Our hard work was balanced with rest, and our mindless excavating was balanced with complex high-level thinking as we attempted to connect our finds to a larger historical tapestry.

I’ve never eaten so much rice in my entire life. If you took the amount of rice that I consumed over six weeks and put it all in one place, it would fit up three of our sieving buckets, maybe four. After spending the day in trenches you could have put anything in front of me and I would have eaten it. Sure there were strange foreign foods that you would never consider consuming in the States – duck embryo, chicken intestines, goat blood, and fish eyeballs – but in reality the cuisine was fairly basic. We ate a lot of fish, some chicken, and the occasional pork (a local delicacy.) We ate well, but, if I had to complain, I would ask for fewer bones and more sweets; oh the things I would have done for a piece of chocolate after every meal.

The best beer I have ever had was enjoyed on this trip. It was the second can of San Miguel that I drank during lunch on our island-hopping day in El Nido. It was ice cold, unexpected, and accompanied by good friends and good music. That beer taught me that while happiness may not be entirely situational, a good beer is. Our team certainly had a lot excuses to indulge – a new destination, the end of trench rounds, or even the end of a lecture (or during.) Depending on the night you had three options – cold beer, warm beer (if you didn’t get to the local store before the crowd,) and rum. It didn’t matter the occasion, drinking was always accepted, nay, encouraged.

Some might argue for a forth or even fifth “D” – documentation or danger perhaps – but when I look back on my time in field school I have to tip my cap to ole’ Mandy for helping me stay focused on the necessities.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Following on from Peter, but from the perspective of co-directing the project since 2004, I totally agree with him that this was a special year for people. We always have good people on site, and it has always been a very enjoyable time, but this year, amazingly, everyone was laid-back and got on with each other, despite spending 24/7 together for weeks in a heat wave and drought. The archaeology was kind of quiet: usually Ille Cave, of all the sites investigated in Dewil, is a bit like ‘Lost’ – every year we answer some questions but come away with several more. This year, as far as I know to date, there were no surprises – but we managed to begin to sort out some of the questions of the project which we had not been able to focus on previously.

For instance, because we had so many experienced archaeologists (and brilliant students) this year, we were able to test several open-air sites at Dewil and re-visit some of the other caves, which we had wanted to do for many years. I have come away from this season totally convinced that we should make a major effort at Makangit – previously I was interested in that landscape, which comprises a number of karst towers in the locality of a spring, but had never had the time/energy to go and really have a proper look at the caves there before. This year Peter, Victor and I were able to go off for extended periods of time and visit Sinilakan and Makangit. We collected some amazing pottery from both, and checked out a huge looters’ pit at Makangit Idulot. That site looks like an interesting place for a future test excavation, and we plan to do a detailed map of the whole Makangit area. We also managed to get some of the guys to go and map a couple of the caves – using caving and climbing expertise we haven’t had available to us before.

The Sibaltan site was a great success – this was a new look at an old village and trade site, known for its trade-ware pottery. Our aim was to see if we could find evidence at the open-air sites we investigated in Sibaltan to compare to our excavations at Ille Cave, to gather some knowledge of what was happening outside of cave sites. We excavated two locations: the Sibaltan Elementery School site and the Acosta site. Of course we found burials (we always do), including some that are comparable to graves found in the caves. We also found at least one buried soil level in a couple of our trenches, associated with probable post holes – this would mark an old period of stabilisation of the beach sands, with organic topsoil. At the moment we have no idea of the date of this phase. One of the best parts of the Sibaltan excavation was the reaction of the local community to our presence. Every day we had many visitors, and many villagers came for our daily rounds (where we tell each other what has happened in each trench that day). We were so popular that some of our crew who were fluent in local languages were asked to translate from our usual lingua franca (English) every day – and someone even remarked that our dig was like a new local soap opera... The people of Sibaltan were very welcoming, and we hope the exhibit created for the village by some of our crew will keep up their interest in the fascinating history and archaeology of their community and locality. Hope that we can arrange to do some more work at Sibaltan in the coming years!

I have been working for extended periods of time in this area for quite a while now, and every year I have a new type of animal encounter. Sometimes the project feels like an episode of some BBC nature show – the rock under a tent that turned out to be a turtle, giant pseudoscorpions with yellow-green babies on their backs, jumping spiders in Pasimbahan, foot-long flat worms, huge skin-shedding gheckos on the ceiling, the frog madness when the typhoon came, etc. – always in a back-drop of regular sightings of snakes, centipedes, scorpions and millions of interesting bugs. This year I encountered a weird, white ‘fluffy’ beetle, which I tried to no avail to get a photo of. We discovered that stink badgers are alive and well in the centre of Sibaltan. And we had a few new types of snake encounters. I was there for the cobra nest at Ille base camp – the first night we arrived to set up we met not one, but two baby cobras in the campsite (next to the eating area) – one unfortunately (?) died in the encounter, but the other we only managed to chase away. So we spent our first night camping in the knowledge that somewhere (probably under the hut) was a cobra nest. It was a long night... The next day a clear-out of the bags and equipment under the hut expelled a third cobra, and one other, apparently harmless, snake. No mother was ever found.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Another successful field school

This was the second year of three planned archaeology field schools in SE Asia, funded in part by the Henry Luce Foundation. The goal of these field schools is to build international relationships and advance archaeological field research by bringing students and senior scholars together for intensive field archaeology projects. From my perspective, this year was a huge success. I have been back in Seattle for a week now, but it already feels longer. Amazing how quickly we can move from total immersion to nostalgia! Looking back, the highlights for me were:

The people: most field projects bring together a diverse bunch of people, and the chemistry can be unpredictable. This year, the group worked better than I could have imagined. We had people from ten different countries (Philippines, USA, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Canada, and Ireland). Everyone brought differing levels of experience, different archaeological traditions and culture, not to mention strong personalities! But somehow it all worked and many new friendships were formed. Our host country director, Victor Paz, is a master organizer and leader, which helped smooth all the rough patches, Helen Lewis brought her own expertise and organizing abilities to the project that was just what was needed, and the staff of graduate students from UP and UW made the day-to-day running of the project almost too easy. Most importantly, every day was fun, even when we were hot, exhausted and discouraged. It takes a special group of people to make that happen.

The sites: We got to work in what I would call an archaeologist’s playground in northern Palawan Island. The beautiful Dewil Valley, which has seen 10 years of ongoing research, is filled with caves with records of long term human use, some well known and others waiting to be explored. Sibaltan proved to have the early open sites we were hoping for, though we had to tediously chip through cement like sediments to get to them. El Nido’s Pasimbahan cave was better then expected, with what looks to be pre-pottery deposits found already in our short project there. I’m looking forward to going back in future years and building on the work we completed, particularly the so-called “Neolithic” period, which remains murky in N. Palawan (and Island SE Asia generally).

Local communities: UP has a now long standing relationship with the people of New Ibahay, and that relationship was evident in the way people cared for sites in the area and participated in the ongoing research. Sibaltan was a new place for archaeology. Mindy and Lace’s exhibit was very well received there and I think we will be welcomed back to that place. The tourist town of El Nido may be a tougher nut to crack, but Victor has laid down the important infrastructure to build on in the future.

In all, a great project! I look forward to reading other’s perspectives here on this blog.