McAllister hated to run. She didn’t like it in in the moderate warmth of spring in Wisconsin. She found it morally objectionable in the crushing heat of the dig site, yards above sea level, in the perpetual summer of equatorial Africa. And yet, when Babatunde had described what he and the other grad students had found, running had seemed to be the appropriate response. She still didn’t like it, and liked it less with every step.
Babatunde, younger and at least theoretically used to the heat, although he had claimed the years in Wisconsin had taken his childhood callus off, rejoined the circle around the dig before she was half-way across. When she saw the collective body language of the dig team, she began to forget the heat.
Each previous discovery of some interesting artifact had made a similar cluster, as those facing the tedium of freeing yet another potsherd from nearly indistinguishable dirt sought a moment of novelty. But in all those cases, the formation was tighter, the urge to gawp surging like a tide against the generally informal training of archaeologists to watch where they were stepping. This group was wider, the ones at the front trying to shrink away, the ones at the back keeping them there as shields.
The faces, too, were arresting. Not the usual wonder of fresh discovery, or at least not that alone. If she didn’t know the context and was shown only the faces, McAllister would have called it religious awe, of the sort brimstone preachers wanted to induce.
Babatunde tapped shoulders, but didn’t try to lead McAllister through the hole in the formation. He let her pass, pointing to the low point they had made in a midden which had stopped stinking about the time people figured out how to make bronze.
It looked like just about anything else they’d found, its colour informed by the soil removed from around it, its shape wrenched askew by the pressure of increasing depth of burial and the effect of time. A box, was her first thought, and that was unusual enough. The people they were uncovering were big on baskets and bowls, but hadn’t appeared to be aware of joinery until now.
There was something familiar about that box, though, and McAllister carefully squatted to get a closer look. As she did, she noticed that the box appeared to have a little rack attached at one end, holding a jumble small rectangular items. She struggled to keep assumptions at bay when a small back-of-head voice suggested dice, but the things were familiar.
Familiar in a context she had almost forgotten, and when it came to her, she stumbled back, heedless of where her feet were going, until the other diggers were supporting her.
Archaeology was detective work, at its base. The lives of long-gone people were imperfectly revealed by the things and the bodies they left behind, and the situation in which those things were left. McAllister barely registered her own face adopting the same stunned amazement as the rest of her dig team as she tried to imagine how they might, using the principle of her discipline, explain the beige thing that lay before her.
McAllister began to weep, hardly noticing, in the face of what finding an Apple II under a layer of eight thousand year old cooking waste would mean for her discipline.
“Inktober 2019 – Ancient” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.