Monday, January 24, 2011

when digging up bones . . .

My mother walks through cemeteries – it’s a habit she has. She likes how peaceful they are and she’s curious about the people at rest. When I was a teenager I walked with her through groomed graveyards, in the fall, in Connecticut.  Later, we visited cemeteries made lively and floral for Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead – in San Antonio, Texas. We looked over the tombstones of another era and wondered about the lives lived between the dash, between date of birth and date of death.

And now I’ve gotten comfortable excavating human remains (this feels like a weird sentence to write), but the tedious work of removal is my focus. This season one burial was different and made me think about the people whose skeletons rested, still and brittle. We exposed several skulls within a few minutes of excavation, until we had a total of four. We slowly exposed the rest of the skeletons (often the skulls are easy to clear, but the ribs, and so many other fragile parts, take hours to properly expose). As I looked upon these bodies, laid together - I related to them, whoever they were.

Here was the skeleton of an adult, and on those bones were two children, and to the side of the adult, an infant.  Something happened to these people and it happened all at once. Maybe it was disease or famine, but not likely anything unseemly, besides death. They were interred with care. I mapped the assemblage of femurs and tibias, ulnas, tiny and large, and mandibles with baby teeth. I drew them how they were interred - and how that had decayed. The right arm of the adult lay under the right arm of one child, as if it was reaching around its skeletal pelvis, holding it. It was all so tender – holding children in the eternal night. Placed this way it seemed a message traveled through time; it was a moment I could understand. Here was love and loss. I wrote practical notes, took measurements and other standard field practices – but I also felt moved by the circumstance of their mass death. And one day soon the biological anthropologist will examine those human remains and will say more about them – about their physical bodies and maybe about their lives. But so much time has passed, and those who knew them have passed. Much will never be known. The life they had, in some ways, remains secret forever.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the dead . . . are not far off

For four weeks I’ve been digging in a landscape filled with graves.  Human remains are a frequent “find.” They are often disarticulated; skeletons lost from themselves with nothing holding them but shifting sand. As we find them, complete or in part, I map and remove them from an excavation area. I do this work along with a crew of Egyptian men and boys, but mostly with a man, Ahmed, who is about my father’s age. I speak simple, half-sentences in Arabic, so I’m often quiet. There’s a lot to do when digging up bones – not time to imagine the bones with living skin and pumping blood. The occupant is gone, left its frame, and centuries have passed. In the time that disconnects us, all the people who knew them have passed on too. It is interesting to work on the old bones, but never sad; the gulf between us is too great.  

Before sunrise, I walk a path to our excavation. My feet crunch across wind churned objects in the sand.  I see pottery and mud brick bits ages old, and a person’s toe bone. In the same sweep - a chip bag, a sleeve with a pearl snap button, date pits, and donkey droppings. In a low spot between dunes is a carcass of a large mammal (probably mummifying naturally), and plastic bits – all sorts. I step over a bright white eye-socket (from a human skull). It’s given me something to think on - there’s more to this walk. The sand is part inorganic; it impresses me as a mundane context. In it, and grain-sized, are the remains of people, and what they built. It’s everything that ever was, but fragmented and less recognizable.

We really do - quite literally - become dust. I can see it here, beneath my feet, the return to the earth. And the earth will process our parts back into its stratigraphic record - even the plastic and cultural discards of this age. 

This is Ahmed at our job.