Friday, August 27, 2010

Excavations at Mlambalasi Rockshelter: Weeks 3 & 4

I am a little behind in posting updates about our recently concluded excavation as things got pretty crazy at the site. Most archaeologists can tell you that the last few days of any excavation are grueling: there is too much work to be done and often too few people to do it. In our case, we finally found what we had previously only hoped would be present at the site: the rest of the remains of the individual we partially excavated in 2006. As stated in prior posts, in our 2006 test pit #1 we excavated some human remains (mostly parts from the "waist" down) which have been studied by one of our M.A. students on the project, Elizabeth. It began with Bushozi identifying some definitive human bone fragments in his unit. We stopped excavation in the surrounding units and decided to focus on the areas immediately surrounding the remains. We treated the remains as a feature which means we tried to carefully expose all of the individual bones then provenience, map and photograph them. This allows us to have a detailed and precise description of each bone in relationship to all other bones and any associated artifacts. It is a painfully slow but extremely critical process which ended up being backbreaking work for Elizabeth (and myself when I was asked to assist). The remains are very fragile and many have post-depositional crushing. Using plastic tools (and even wearing plastic bags on her hands), Elizabeth was able to gently reveal each individual bone and bone fragment including parts of the cranium, arms, and torso (including several vertebrae still articulated). Jennifer was our primary record keeper and did an amazing job writing down Elizabeth's observations, recording provenience, and creating bags and labels. Everyone else on the team was diverted to screening and sorting. Needless to say, this precise work which required a high level of attention left us all drained at the end of each day. We essentially spent five whole days working on this feature, and I am proud of the quality of work that was done. I wish I could better describe the intensity at the site those few days. It was something I'd never experienced before while excavating. Elizabeth will begin analysis of these remains upon our return to Canada, and I look forward to reading her M.A. thesis to see what she is able to determine. We were able to see the boundary of our 2006 test pit very clearly and thus are confident in saying that the remains recovered this year are part of the same individual I excavated in 2006. I think it's pretty cool that we will be able to make this individual whole again, as it were, after four years.

Once Elizabeth was sure we had recovered all of the remains, we resumed regular excavation. Being short on time, and in all honesty energy too, we focused all of our efforts on excavating one of our units which has the most intact deposits (i.e. was not disturbed by our 2006 excavation nor Msemwa's in 2002). We reached bedrock all too soon and the rest of our energy was expended in the creation of a stratigraphic profile and backfilling the 2m x 3m trench. Our excavation of the undisturbed portions of the site, plus our understanding based on our 2006 test excavation, has allowed us to gain a clearer picture of the culture history of this site. We now believe that we have an Iron Age to Holocene Later Stone Age to Pleistocene Later Stone Age sequence. We took numerous samples for dating from throughout the 2m x 3m trench which will allow us to clarify this sequence. In addition to human remains we recovered thousands of interesting artifacts. In total, we found 107 beads (plastic, glass, and shell) which Jennifer will study. I can't wait to see what she comes up with.

Overall, the excavation was successful. We were able to answer the three research questions we began the season with: where is the exact location of our 2006 test pit #1, where is the exact location of Msemwa's 2002 test pit, and are there more human remains at the site? We were able to delineate the boundaries of the test pits and clearly demonstrate that they are more than a meter apart, thus proving that the artifacts we recovered in 2006 were in situ and not disturbed. We were able to recover additional human remains, and also gained permission from Msemwa to export those he recovered for analysis back in Canada. We may have answered a few very important questions but many more new questions have arose which now require answers.

To some degree, my work at Mlambalasi is done. Although I will not be studying the artifacts recovered this season in my dissertation, much of the other information will prove to be very useful - especially the maps we've produced and any dates that we get from our samples. However, my status as a member of IRAP (Iringa Region Archaeological Program) will continue
indefinitely, and IRAP's work at Mlambalasi has only just begun.

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