Say hello to your friendly neighborhood units

Allow me to introduce you to a few of our new friends. Their names are HeartFire, EarthMother, and NightSnake… or alternately New Buffalo Archaeological Project, Area 1, Units 1, 2, and 4. These names come from both necessity and superstition, and in the past weeks we have come to know them as personalities as much as scientific samples. We love and hate, sooth and cajole, comfort and confront these 2 meter square areas of the New Buffalo pit house. Beyond our individual relationships with the units and their names, we speak of them in a running commentary of the day’s work. What was or was not found in EarthMother slips out of the purely quantitative tally of nails and beads, into a soap opera-like recitation of wresting a Styrofoam cup from her steely grip, or slowly uncovering a metal tub under her kind encouragement.

I always find it fascinating how much is made of naming in archaeology. From material typologies, to site names, every thing must have one. And this project is no exception. We name our units so we can identify them, remember them, and (on more than one occasion) curse them. We are nice to them so that they might be nice to us. Sing softly in NightSnake’s ear and you might be so lucky as to easily uncover, as I did just this morning, a piece of yellow yarn still strung through a darning needle. But neglect your unit, and it will be sure to spite you with centimeter after centimeter of hard packed clay, sending bone shaking vibrations through your trowel and into your already beaten body.

We name the units before we really know them, before meters of their dirt has been shoveled, scraped, and sifted out of the pithouse of which they are a part. Much like naming a child it’s hard to say weather they grow to inhabit their name or their name morphs to fit their natures. EarthMother brought us finally to our first glimpse of the pithouse floor, HeartFire the rusted barrel and stone heart, NightSnake to traces of a plastered wall, a plastic parachute man, and perhaps even a natural stone bench. We know them for their artifacts – for what they have given to us.

I can’t say from where the impulse to personify these plots of dirt and the objects that come out of them comes. But I can say that sitting hour after in their alternately satisfying and infuriating embrace leaves me with the sneaking suspicion that they do, in fact, have a mind of their own.

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One thought on “Say hello to your friendly neighborhood units

  1. I love names and your writing about them is sheer poetry. Check out my comment at 2 steps “day4 in nm” blog for a thought about one particular name. You should post pictures of the three sites. Maybe there are some visual personality differences.

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