Writing history five centimeters at a time

By Yanik Ruiz-Ramón

I walked across the tarmac in Luang Prabang, the plane’s propellers still whirling behind me. After 46 hours of travel by train, bus, and plane to Laos, all that remained was two hours in the back of a truck down a dusty dirt road. My destination was a minuscule dot on the map called Ban Pha Daeng. It was there that I joined Joyce White’s quest for the elusive Middle Holocene Era.

After years of working for Dr. White as a work-study student in the dank and dreary basement of the Penn Museum, I was presented with an invitation on this distant excursion. I would document our adventures on video and broadcast them to the world. All of our near-death experiences and harrowing escapes would be preserved by the museum’s trusty camcorder. My excitement equaled her passion for Southeast Asian archaeology. 

Our co-workers implored me to ensure that Dr. White ate, rested, and didn’t fall off the mountain. Dr. White was glad she had another body to haul a suitcase filled with archaeological equipment—measuring tapes, ropes, waterproof bags, and the all-important packages of instant coffee.

When we got to Ban Pha Daeng, a swarm of adorable Laotian children stared at me, a tall bearded ghost, and hid behind their mother’s skirts. Bony dogs sniffed around our heels as we unloaded luggage. Hens pecked the yard clean. Cows moved slowly through the back yard, ringing their dull bells as though announcing our arrival.

I managed to stay awake until dinner. When I had my fill of sticky rice and soup, I sprawled in the wet heat underneath my mosquito net, and blissfully passed out.

The sleep was short-lived. At about five in the morning I was greeted by the welcoming cries of our neighborly roosters—an entire army playing reveille. Needless to say, it was sweet revenge when we slaughtered and ate one of them a few days later.

In the morning, we gathered around a fire, drank instant coffee, and ate more sticky rice. Then it was off to the mountain to find fame and academic glory. On the hike we were put to shame by our flip-flop-shod, crate-laden Laotian companions. We trudged up in our fancy boots and hiking shoes while they smoked cigarettes up ahead and waited for us. Eventually, we toughened up. By the end of the trip I, too, ascended in flip-flops.

After making it up the mountain and catching our breath, we began building our archaeological machine. Dr. White designated people to measure the cave we’d be working in, outline the trenches, dig, create reference points for our measurements, sift through dirt, classify artifacts, and bag them properly for later analysis. Despite a few kinks, dirt soon flowed from the trenches into buckets, and then through sifters. We scoured the dirt for artifacts and began finding animal bones, shells, and marked stones. Dust saturated the air.

After the first couple days of digging, the village’s sleepy cattle began to look exciting. Where were the ancient dead bodies, like in National Geographic? Where was the gold? The secret temples and the giant rolling boulders? I despaired. We had hit a shell midden, or a trash dump of shells. Every single flake had to be sorted out. Our pace flagged under orders to extract every shell intact. The finely tuned archaeological machine ground to a halt. There was a lot of waiting and a lot of sitting. Dr. Helen Lewis, our resident sedimentologist, told me cheerfully that this was a small shell midden. In some caves, they go on for meters.

The moment you realize archaeology is not Indiana Jones’ quest for the Ark of the Covenant, it becomes the most mind-numbing and suicide-inducing occupation invented by mankind. Instead of digging a hole with a shovel, like normal people, you use a tiny trowel. Every five centimeters you painstakingly draw the trench, to scale, with each stone, bone, and soil feature in place. Then you photograph it and measure its depth. Then you repeat. In time you realize that your back aches, there are 200 centimeters to go, and you’re still stuck in the middle of the midden. My grand preconceptions about archaeology were being shattered like the rat-bone fragments we kept digging up. Fascinating at first, these bits and pieces quickly lost their allure. 

So what salvation lay in this medieval torture? I became determined to find out. There had to be some redeeming feature, something that kept these archaeologists from going stark raving mad. How much could the Middle Holocene possibly matter, anyway?

A lot, it turns out. Buried in our shell midden might be clues about how our hunting-and-gathering ancestors came to take up agriculture. Dr. Lewis reminded me that for about 99 percent of our existence, humans have been hunters and gatherers. How agriculture was taken up by past societies is one of the two or three most important “big questions” archaeologists study. The epoch between 6000 and 2000 BCE was a period of general global warming before the great civilizations of Asia and Africa began to flourish. As Dr. White explained in what turned out to be the most stimulating discussions I’d had all year, there is very little information about this period in Southeast Asia, and our discoveries might help her advance a hypothesis that goes against the standard account of what happened in this region during that pivotal shift.

Our cave was perched above the Nam Pa River, a tributary that feeds into the great Mekong. This area was part of a prehistoric highway system of sorts, which allowed nomadic peoples to travel between China and Southeast Asia. Modern wars and hostile governments have made Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia an archaeological black hole, yet understanding how people and technology traveled through this part of the world is crucial if we want to understand much of Asian prehistory. 

Dr. White went into this test dig hoping it would reveal a more nuanced picture of the Middle Holocene than the broad generalizations archaeologists have offered so far. The conventional view holds that migrants from China brought agriculture to this region. But modern botanical and genetic research suggests that many domesticated food plants are indigenous to Southeast Asia. Those methods have nothing to say about conditions thousands of years ago, however, which is where our dig comes in. Dr. White thinks the Middle Holocene may have been when tribes in Southeast Asian first began to cultivate rice, bananas, and other plants. But to prove either theory right, it will take actual evidence—even something as small as a few seeds. The answers could lie within our forsaken rock shelter and even this damnable shell midden! But only if we were meticulous enough not to squander whatever clues we might find.

Soon I got it: the garden trowel does indeed trump the shovel. Only when the depth and location of every artifact is faithfully recorded, and sealed in one of hundreds of labeled plastic bags, can the massive 3-D puzzle be put together to reveal history’s secrets. Use a shovel, and soon Holocene materials would be mixed up with Pleistocene, Iron Age with Bronze Age. What would make an archaeologist truly go mad is unearthing crucial artifacts only to have lost track of where they lay in relation to one another. 

An important objective was finding something that could be carbon-dated. Our return date closed in steadily and the expedition became tense. Day after day, what we needed eluded us: a tooth, a rice grain, anything organic and clearly positioned in the soil.  Without the final puzzle piece to tell us where we were on history’s timeline, all our digging would be practically for naught. Then, on the last day, we uncovered a charcoal deposit, in fact several. Excitement filled the air. Relieved, we refilled our little pits with all of the dirt we had removed. All of that painstaking excavation, and those beautiful trenches no longer existed. We carried the equipment and the artifacts back down to the village. 

At the end of two weeks we had about 150 bags of rocks, shells, bones, and dirt. We had about 50 precise drawings: each five-centimeter layer and the four walls of each pit was drawn to scale. Our first trench had been about four feet deep and the second one maybe three. We had spent so much time crouching and scraping inside of them that they seemed like second homes. But what had we learned? For the moment, the answer seemed to be: nothing. 

A month later, carbon-dates from three of the charcoal deposits placed the site on the border between the Pleistocene and the Holocene periods—or around 11,000 years ago. Although the dates were older than Dr. White had hoped when she picked this cave to excavate, she did not complain. It turns out that this period is also little known in Southeast Asia. More results will have to wait still longer. Specialists will be brought in to study those maddening shells and rat bones. Other specialists will be flown to Laos to study the wear and residues on the hundreds of stone artifacts we dug up. Then Dr. White will have to cross-reference all the data with the soil stratigraphy. And even when these analyses give some small bit of sense to what it all means, even more work lies ahead. More digging, and more drawings, five centimeters at a time.

Archaeologists must have created the maxim: patience is a virtue. Looking back at my foray from the Museum basement, I finally realized that we didn’t find any definitive part of the puzzle—we barely found a fraction of a single piece. All we’d earned was a tiny glimpse of skin that time forgot to clothe. Before I went to Laos, I would have thought that digging for two weeks for such a meager gain would be an amazing failure. But history isn’t discovered all at once. After two weeks in my trench, what seems more amazing is that we humans manage to piece enough tiny clues together to steal a glimpse of history at all. 

Yanik Ruiz-Ramon is a College junior majoring in communications and public service.

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