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.

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