Sunday, July 18, 2010

Excavations at Mlambalasi Rockshelter: Week 1

Although it seems like we've been in Tanzania for close to forever, our team has only been here for a month and in that time we've only just started our excavations at Mlambalasi rockshelter.

First some background information to catch you up to speed. In 2005 my supervisor traveled to Tanzania for the umpteenth time to conduct survey and excavations in a region called Mbeya. In order to get to Mbeya one must drive through Iringa, and my supervisor has a habit of always stopping in Iringa town for a day or two to visit a famous Acheulian site called Isimila. She had always thought that the rocky outcrops of granite that litter the mountainsides had great archaeological potential so she thought she'd ask the Department of Antiquities for permission to stop in Iringa and ask around about possibly working there. They agreed and she was fortunate to run into a wonderful woman called Joyce who is the District Cultural Officer for Iringa rural. Joyce ended up showing my supervisor three rockshelters with tons of artifacts littering the surface. So in 2006 my supervisor, her Tanzanian PhD student, and myself came to Iringa to conduct test excavations at two of these sites - Magubike and Mlambalasi. Both were even more incredible then we could have hoped for and we have been working on the materials (over 30,000 stone artifacts from five 1m x 1m test pits) from these sites ever since.

We decided to spend this field season conducting full scale excavations of Mlambalasi rockshelter. This is mostly because my supervisor had picked up a talented Masters student, Elizabeth, who specializes in analyzing human remains. Her blog provides excellent daily updates about our work in the pango (kiswahili for rockshelter). I am very jealous of her ability to post interesting and thoughtful updates everyday - I struggle to post monthly : D Although I have the knowledge base to identify and analyze human remains it is definitely not my specialty (nor my supervisors) so when we encountered a burial in our 2006 excavations we realized we needed to bring an osteoarchaeologist on board.

After many expected but still annoying delays (see previous posts), we were finally able to really start fieldwork on July 9th. It always takes a few days to get an excavation running and this one was no exception. We got off to a poor start when we had some problems with our total station. After a few days of me trying to recall what I had learned two years ago and with the assistance of our hired expert, we were finally able to work out the kinks and establish our excavation grid, site baseline, and site datum. We also mapped in the rockshelter, which has two overhangs or rooms, properly for the first time. These are tedious but very important first steps as everything we excavate needs to come from a known location. In archaeology, context is everything. Without knowing the context of an artifact, it is difficult to say anything about it beyond simple identification.

We decided to work in pairs and start with just three 1m x 1m excavation units . They are named J-10, I-9, and I-11 based on where they are located on our grid. We are excavating each unit by quadrants in 10cm levels.

From our test excavations we knew what to expect (Iron Age, Later Stone Age, and Middle Stone Age artifacts) and how much to expect, but it is still mind blowing how productive our initial three units have been. We have found debris associated with iron smelting and iron smithing (iron slag, iron pieces and tools, furnace fragments etc.). We have lithic artifacts in quartz, quartzite, and chert including cores, debitage and tools. Decorated rim sherds and undecorated body sherds are common. Important to the research of another wonderful Masters student Jennifer, is the large number of beads. We not only have beads made from many different types of materials (glass, plastic, ostrich egg shell) representing different periods of occupation but also shells in various stages of production. And Elizabeth is thrilled by the number of bone fragments we have encountered - both faunal and (possible) human.

The only downside to our many finds is that few come from a well preserved context. The first 10cm are heavily disturbed by trampling and repeated heavy use. The unit I have been working in turns out to be almost directly aligned with a test pit excavated by a Tanzanian archaeologist in 2002. One of our goals of this season was to determine where he had excavated, and we are happy to have found clear evidence of his unit. However, it unfortunately means that almost all the artifacts we have recovered are disturbed. At least this explains why we were encountering diagnostic artifacts from different time periods mixed together in a position that suggests a recent age.

We have decided to leave these three test pits after three levels and take down three more units to the same level (in checkerboard fashion) to try to better understand what is going on at the site. We hope to excavate at least twelve 1m x 1m units before our time here is done. We have a ton of work ahead of us, but at least we will get faster as work progresses and our interpretation of the site becomes clearer.

As we are off to Dar for a few days to deal with some business at the University of Dar es Salaam and the National Museum we won't be resuming excavation until the end of next week. This means it will be a couple of weeks before I post an update on our progress.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I know I owe a post on our last two weeks of excavation at Mlambalasi. As I am still trying to process everything that happened (we had an amazing but busy and exhausting last few days), I thought instead I'd free my mind of some other debitage that's been floating around in my head.

This is my fourth trip to Tanzania in five years. This means a number of different things which I have recently been thinking about. First and foremost, I am super lucky. I often forget how incredible it really is that I have traveled here so frequently and do so in order to pursue my passion - archaeology. This is definitely one of the perks of the job - frequent travel to very cool places. As extended periods of time are required to conduct research this means I really get a feel for the environment and people around me. I get to interact with people in totally different ways than a tourist would, and in many ways, become part of the day to day fabric of life the places in which we work and live. Although we will always be visitors, we do effectively live in the places we work. We greet people we pass on the street and chat with the many people that work in the many places that we visit in our daily rounds about town. Since we've worked here for three years now, my supervisor and I are recognized by many people not just in Iringa town where we live, but in offices and villages throughout Iringa region. We discuss our work with everyone - from officials representing many divisions within all branches of government to students in small rural schools to random local individuals who drop by the site to see what is going on in their backyard. Although not everyone gets what we are doing, never mind the why's of it all, we do our best to explain and use as much of our baby swahili (or swinglish as we like to call it) as possible. We have created posters in both english and swahili to demonstrate that the knowledge we are acquiring is to be shared with all - that we are striving to make a contribution not just to academia but to the cultural heritage of the communities we live and work in.

However, there is a major downside. My comings and goings fail to make a big impression on friends and family any more. This isn't to say that they don't care if I'm around or not, but rather that they are so used to me having to travel to do fieldwork or attend conferences that they don't mark my departure with the same gusto anymore. Honestly, I don't blame them. In fact, I'm so lucky to have family and friends that are so accepting of my frequent long-term absences. I have missed an unspeakable number of milestone events in the lives of my friends and family: birthdays, weddings, births, anniversaries, showers, stagettes, holidays. This year I miss yet another wedding anniversary bringing the grand total of wedding anniversaries missed to four out of five. The fact that no one has ever held a missed event against me says a whole lot about the generous and forgiving nature of my friends and family. It is this amazing support network that has not only made long periods away from home tolerable, but have also made my entire career as a graduate student possible.

Simply, I am an extremely lucky individual. First because of the opportunities I have had to see the world, and second, because of the amazing people who are my home who have made it possible for me to take advantage of all the opportunities that have been thrown my way. I can only hope I am deserving/worthy of this luck.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Things to Do in Dar es Salaam

In honour of our last day here in Dar (for now), I thought I'd post some of my favourite ways to kill time while waiting around for permits (see previous post). You'll notice most of these are food places and shopping places commonly frequented by Mzungu (white people) like us, but seeing those are the two main things we seem to do in Dar when not in offices, I'm afraid this is what I have to report.

I love love love walking around the city center. Dar is a seriously interesting city. It is also huge with around 4.5 million people living in it. This means it isn't necessarily the most walkable city but the city center is. We stay at the Starlight Hotel which is on Bibi Titi Mohammed Street across from the Mnazi Mmoja ("One Coconut Tree" park) and close to Mosque Street. A number of other budget hotels (including one of our favourite haunts for internet and food, the Jambo Inn) are nearby. From the Starlight we can walk straight along Bibi Titi Mohammed Street either south towards Uhuru St. or north-northeast towards the Movenpick Royal Palm hotel. We can also head out the "back" of the hotel southeast along Libya and Mosque Streets towards Samora Avenue.

Uhuru Street is home to the khanga and kitenge fabric market. This is absolutely not to be missed. Here is where you buy all the beautiful khanga and kitenge that are characteristic and specific to East Africa. Khanga (or kanga) come in two joined panels which have a border containing large motifs with a swahili proverb printed along the bottom. Kitenge are huge bolts of patterned cloth. Both are brightly coloured which means the shops of Uhuru Street are literally a riot of colour.

The Movenpick Royal Palm is a beautiful modern hotel which we visit, mostly, because it has great, if not very expensive internet/office services, clean bathrooms, and a nice cafe. It has a small gift shop but the prices are very high and non-negotiable. The real treat at the Palm is the adjacent Nyumba ya Sanaa or House of Art and Culture. It contains numerous pieces of art created by the collective of artists who work there. Pieces are a little more expensive and less negotiable there but a discerning eye may be able to acquire a piece by a known or named artist. They also have traditional songs and dance in the evenings but I've actually never made it out to a performance. It also has another small outdoor cafe.

From the Palm you can walk southeast along Ohio Street towards another of our food haunts - the "food court" which contains Steers (a South African burger and chicken franchise), Orient Express (an Indian and Chinese food place with surprisingly good, if rather mild, curries), Wheatfields (which has decent coffee, fresh juices, and snacks), and Debonairs (a pizza place). It also has A Novel Idea - a fantastic bookstore which stocks books by Tanzanian and African authors along with the usual North American and European fare. The City Garden restaurant and the Imaleseko supermarket are also nearby on Garden Avenue. The central post office is just off Garden Avenue on Azikiwe Street. Postcards and standard letters cost 700 shillings (TSH) to mail (about 70 cents).

From the "food court" you should walk northeast along Samora Avenue towards the Makumbusho ya Taifa or the National Museum of Tanzania. Even though it is currently under extensive renovations which means the exhibits are still under construction, you should visit the National Museum as it does have some interesting things to see and is home to one of the most important finds in palaeoanthropology - Zinjanthropus boisei (see 2009 "Zinj" posts). They need your support and the small entry cost helps ensure that the products of our research have an appropriate home.

You have two options from the National Museum. You can walk southwest along Sokoine Avenue back towards Ohio Street then turn onto the Kuvukoni Front. Here you will experience the sights and sounds of the harbour as you make your way towards another very expensive hotel, and thus Mzungu haunt, the Kilimanjaro. You have to check out this hotel just because it looks so cool. The shops and restaurants are as expensive as you'd expect those in a 5 star hotel to be. Definitely take the elevator to the top floor and the Level 8 Bar. You'll have to pay 5 times the amount for a beer but the view of the harbour is absolutely worth it. Go just before dusk for a pre-dinner drink and watch the sunset over Dar. A beautiful sight!

You can also go back (southwest) along Samora Avenue which contains a number of shops. Some of the shops contain tourist items but many contain very random collections of items needed for day to day life. Most are organized by theme (books, stationary, electronics) but others really seem to have whatever goods they were able to get their hands on. I think this is awesome and love peeking into shops to see what sorts of neat things they have. It's rare for the items to have prices on them so part of the fun is finding out what they cost and negotiating something different. You really can find anything you might need, however bizarre it may be, and if you can't find something in one shop generally asking for it will cause someone to go running from shop to shop until they find it for you. This also is a frequent occurrence at the market; you can almost always find someone willing to help you (speaking a little swahili, especially greetings and simple conversational stuff will go along way with this).

On Samora Avenue is the City Center Supermarket located within the Harbourview Suites Tower. There is a decent "Italian" restaurant (i.e. pizza and pasta). The supermarket is a convenient place to buy Mzungu products. From here you just cross the street and head northwest up Mosque Street back towards our hotel. No surprise that Mosque Street is named because of the large number of beautiful mosques located along it. In front of all the shops there are also tons of little stalls which sell everything from fresh fruits to kofia (swahili Muslem caps) to prayer rugs with compasses pointing towards Mecca. Mosque Street terminates at Libya Street. Right in front of you should be the Jambo Inn which has delicious and cheap food plus a reasonable but hot and slow internet cafe.

So you've walked your feet off in the +30c sun and want a break. You can jump in a taxi and head off to a number of other places. For about 10,000 TSH (15,000 TSH return), you can go to the Kijiji cha Makumbusho (the Village Museum) or the Slipway. The Village Museum contains a number of examples of house types from all over Tanzania. There are traditional performances and local artisans throughout the village. It's well worth the small price of admission.

The Slipway is another Mzungu haunt. It's a modern but outdoor shopping and dining center located off of Oyster Bay. You can sit right on the water and enjoy some excellent fresh kalimari and ice cold Kilimanjaro beer, or test out your bargaining skills at the very friendly Souk (outdoor market). I always recommend it as a first shopping experience as the sales people are not pushy at all and will patiently listen to your stumbling attempts to bargain in kiswahili. It is also home to Mapozi Designs - my favourite store in all of Tanzania. It contains modern fashions made from traditional Tanzanian khangas. You can stock up on lovely and comfortable skirts, tops, and dresses perfect for Dar weather (and spring and summer back home). Another branch of A Novel Idea is also located here with a far larger selection of books and music.

Finally, you can also take a taxi (20,000 TSH) to the woodcarvers market at Mwenge. There are a number of stands where you can buy a bewildering amount of "traditional" Tanzanian gifts including carvings, jewelry, paintings, bags, t-shirts etc. It's pretty intense but tons of fun.

Dar has so much more to offer but this is just a sampling of my favourite, if not very touristy, things. I'll post some more about my home away from home, Iringa, shortly.