The Corn is as High as an Elephants Eye

A late start today due to monsoons and delayed flights thankfully gives me time to reflect on yesterday morning. We had the joyous opportunity to work with Michelle and Mason in the New Buffalo garden yesterday. Somehow weeding the corn and planting brussel sprouts made everything connect.

It was a beautiful clear-blue-sky kind of day and the whole team set itself to transplanting and sowing with the same enthusiasm I’ve seen it bring to (almost) every day of excavation. Seeing every bed in the garden with at least one care-taker bending over it to weed or water was a sight to behold. Let’s call the atmosphere bee-hive like and my mood ecstatic. I’d never gotten a chance to work this extensively in the garden (besides a few bouts of watering here and there) and given the closeness of our project to this place that continues to live with us in it it seemed wholly appropriate. I love the connectivity of everything that goes on there: a pulled weed gets thrown to a chicken, who then fertilizes the garden, or even more simply a bed planted with tomato and basil (the pasta plot!) will soon be ripe for primavera. Gardening and farming was an important part of the origins of New Buffalo and it gives great context and a sense of continuity to see how it persists (however different – thankfully). Michelle, Andrew, and Mason (soon to leave New Buffalo for Oregon) have worked really hard to get the garden up to snuff, and the leaps and bounds it’s taken since last year are incredible!

Working in the garden (and getting a nap in at lunch) left me with such a great feeling that setting up the total station in the afternoon, under the threat of giant storm heads, was a snap. ClockPunk, Darryl, Beatrix and I spent a speedy afternoon mapping in various community structures, including a sweat lodge that, while now defunct, clearly shows great concern with cardinal directions (something to ask the hippie informants about!). One thing I love about total station mapping is getting in a groove and being able to shoot a point in about 15 seconds flat. The four of us make a great team within Team.

Which brings us to this morning — with a new crew member Matt and a new project to start. Today we head out to the gorge to start work on the Pictured Tipi site near Pilar. Given that I spent the last year writing on the site I’m looking forward to it — however traumatic revisiting the locus of Thesis Crisis may be.

Blog Post as an Artifact of Repentance

I’ve been bad about posting to this blog, and so now it’s time to confess a few things.

First, this past week I’ve been thinking a lot about lines and squares and all other sundry geometries that archaeology makes use of. More than a few times we’ve almost missed out on the good stuff (ladders, chicken wire) because of the iron will of the grid. We cut square units around circular buildings and peel even layers of dirt off of surfaces on which years of feet and rain have encouraged undulation. I don’t say this critically. All these straights and squares allow us to see what we would otherwise overlook — the gentle curve of a pit in the “penthouse” units, for example only became visible after a slow leveling of hard clay and softer pit-fill. The hours spent straightening a wall make it possible to follow the stratigraphy of back-dirt from the digging of the pit house or layers of million year old volcanic ash. I do, however, marvel at the feeling I get when i look down and see the smooth remnants of excavations — a perfectly pedestaled styrofoam cup and a delicately revealed piece of plaster wall. It all seems so human, for lack of a better word (though our recent discovery of Bower bird art might make me take this back). The thrill can only be described as a feeling of triumph over the chaos of the past. However fleeting and vain, it does feel good to make corners straight and sweep dirt-floors clean.

Second, the epidemic of naming continues. “The Penthouse” units — comprised of “The Love Above”, “The Lindz-Lounge,” and “Darryl’s Den” has proven to be far more interesting than we expected — finally living up to it’s party-animal name. But maybe more importantly, ClockPunk our dearly infuriating total station (basically a fancy laser that allows us to map horizontal and vertical co-ordinates) has finally found a mate. ClockPunk’s heretofore unnamed prism and rod has been christened Beatrix. A love for the ages.

And so the dirty days pass …

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.