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.


  1. This is amazing! What a fascinating experience. I hope you are having a great time : ) Sonya

  2. It certainly changes my perspective ... seeing things that are unusual, but become regular sights after awhile.