Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hand me a trowel please

Things started to get serious when we got to Koobi Fora base camp. First they laid out several hundred animal bones in the main banda - crocs, bovids, equids, a few primates, a few felids and hyaenids - that was enough to get me excited. Then they took us to a local site. I don't recall the exact Area number, but I think it might've been 103 (for those of you who know of such things). Anyway, this was enough to make me want to cry. There were fossils everywhere...just lying around! Here's a distal femur, there's an astragalus (my current fave bone), here's a bovid tooth...amazing! I seriously was a little choked up. My friend Matt and I (fellow fossil lover) were shaking with happiness.

The fun didn't end there...we had a few days of lectures on various things like faunal analysis and hominin fossils and then we got back in the unimog and the Land Rovers for the 2-3 hour drive up to Ileret.

Ileret is a small town a few km south of the Ethiopian border. It's on the lake...sort of...a bit of a drive, but close enough that we went there every evening to bathe. Okay, so here's the deal...we pitched our tents on the banks of a laga - that just means river bed (might be local language - not sure) - it's the Il Eriet River and it's ephemeral (only flows a bit twice a year during the two rainy seasons). If you dig down a meter or so though you'll hit water. Donkeys do it all by themselves...pretty cool to watch. I think I have a pic of a donkey drinking out of a laga well. And they weren't kidding when they said it's 110F everyday in this both Koobi and Ileret, we basically rested during the hottest part of each day (12:30-3:30). I'm trying to learn celsius - 110 is about 40.5 degrees. It got this hot every single day. Lucky for us there are trees lining the banks of the laga so we had a bit of shade. Oh...things I didn't think to bring but should've - hammock, camp chair, more m&ms, dried fruit, good vodka, dust broom/pan for tent (the sand is relentless). For future reference.

Moving along...there are two sites in the immediate vicinity that we were going to work at: Area 10 - FwJj25 (a Holocene site - that means within the past 10,000 years), and Area 1A - FwJj14East (an Okote site - I think it was Okote anyway...about 1.4 mya - million years ago). After a few days of prep work where we learned about the local vegetation, culture (Dassanech), blah blah blah, we finally got to break ground. My fave was the 14East site of course because I prefer old stuff to new stuff. They had found some hominin arm bones at this site previously and so we were looking to see if we could find some more (we did find a few fragments that have been fitted together...not sure if they belong to the same individual though - a PhD student, Dave Green, is working on it currently). There were also footprints - very very cool. I got to excavate some of these. It's mostly animal prints, but there are a few prints that look an awful lot like they were made by hominin feet (probably Homo ergaster/erectus). Excavating them was a delicate process - we used brushes to lightly get the sand out so that we could tell what animal(s) made them. There were carnivores, hippos, lots of birds and who knows what else...some of them were on top of each other so it was hard to tell.

There was a third site that some of us got to work at as well - it's further east along the laga - Area 41 - FwJj20. This site is a bit closer to the Ethiopian border and a bit more out of the way. Only those of us who were truly interested were to go. I got to be on the varsity team (Group A) - the first group to go - it was me and 7 boys. So much fun! Oh my goodness...we had a blast. They were such sweet guys. We set up a separate camp a few km from the main camp. Having a small camp was much easier to deal with than the big one. More intimate and fun. We only excavated for 2 days, but we got a lot done. This site had bones littered all over the landscape to an even greater extent than the Koobi area. It was remarkable. You had to watch where you stepped less you step on something important! There were stone tools too, but I'm much more interested in bones. :-) Anyway, this was probably in the Upper Burgi member (that just means that its dated to about 2mya). They didn't have definite dates yet, but it's definitely older than 1.8mya.

While we were there we found loads of stone tools and also a rib. The rib is probably from a bovid - a fairly large one - like the size of an eland (if you don't know what it is, you can look it up on wikipedia or something). AND...the rib has at least one cut mark. How cool is that!!?? So needless to say we were all very excited. The guy who is in charge of the site, Dave Braun, was jumping around with glee. The rib was found in the square that I was working on with Milo (one of my classmates). Milo's a good guy, but he gets teased a lot for being careless - even though he's really not. So I was off with two other people looking for surface fossils (especially suids) when Milo found the fossil. Apparently he wasn't being very gentle for the first few minutes and they were concerned that he'd damaged the bone (he didn't). I said to Dave, "I'm so sorry Dave, I should've been here." He replied, "Pam, you let me down" (or something to that extent). I was kidding of course, as was he, but I was a bit jealous that Milo'd found it and I hadn't. Now I understand how these crazy anthropologists compete for bones - it's such a game! Thankfully I have the presence of mind to recognize my own thoughts...because of course the game is mostly about luck.

On that note...I have to say, I loved excavating - moving dirt around with a trowel, sitting in the dirt, getting it all over myself - it was awesome. I definitely want to do this again and again. The heat is intense, it's true, but it's a small price to pay. It's immensely satisfying to excavate a 1x1 meter square, to find even the stuff we don't want like fish bone (and there was tons of it)...there's this sense of mystery about it that's a little bit addictive...but in a healthy way of course.

Our stay at Area 41 was far too short, and the JV team replaced us. They found a mandible - I think of a suid, but don't quote me on it. I was so sad that I wasn't there. Such is life.

Ileret was about a 2 1/2 week deal for us...maybe a bit longer. I'm not positive. We didn't have any water at the camp so we had to go to the lake to bath every evening. I stopped wearing my bathing suit after the first night and just went in shorts and a tank because it was too friggin' hot to put on a suit. Most people bathed in either underclothes or a suit. The water is really soft and we actually got quite clean, but it was shortlived. The ride back to camp always got us a bit dirty again - especially if we rode on the 'mog. I actually stopped riding on it at some point because they removed the seats from the back and people had to stand. Let me tell you that it is not an easy task to stand in the back of the 'mog. It hurt my back after the first time and I only did it one or two more times out of absolute necessity. Mostly I tried to ride in the cab with Bob ("Unimog Bob" - the driver - a Kiwi and all around awesome guy). Occasionally I rode in a Land Rover, but they were usually reserved for "staff". It was weird though because some of the staff are younger and in better shape than some of the students and in fact there were several of us "older" students who had a hard time standing in the 'mog. It was one of the major bitches I had with the field school. The young interns got to ride in comfort while those of us with crappy knees and backs had to go in the 'mog. I mean whatever, we all lived through it, but it was, as my friend Wayne would say, "bad form".

But I'm not here to complain...I'm here to tell moving right along.

One of the exercises we had to do at Ileret was to make our own "Karari scraper" - that's a stone tool from about 1.8mya (roughly). It wasn't easy to be least for those of us who'd never done it. Then we had the option of butchering a goat. I opted out. I considered just watching, but when they brought the little guy out to be killed (slitting its throat), I lost my nerve. I actually cried a bit. I even put on my headphones so I wouldn't hear it cry. It was so heartbreaking. But then I sat there and had a nice chat with David Braun (the guy from Area 41 - he's one of the instructors). So that was cool. I saw part of the butchering toward the end. Oh and I didn't eat any goat - I just couldn't bear it.

I have definitely not gone in chronological order here, but that's okay. It all happened around the same time. One important thing about Ileret...there were two things that were fairly constant - the wind and the Dassanech. The wind was relentless...and loud...I'm glad I brought earplugs. At the main camp the sand was very fine and silty and it would blow right into our tents (even with a fly on). Every morning I would wake with a thin layer of silt on everything (including my face). The Dassanech hung around our camp constantly - sometimes trying to sell us things, sometimes trying to get things from us. The little kids knew two phrases in English - "Give me pen." and "Give me shirt." But they were cute and sometimes we did give them those things. I mean really...who needs it more? Us or them? I'm leaving some shirts here to be taken back up there because I couldn't leave them at the time.

I guess I should wrap this one up. I have to be back at the apartment in 25 minutes. Oy vey...I still have errands to run!!

More soon...

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