Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wrapping Up Fieldwork in Tanzania

The process of wrapping up fieldwork in Tanzania is less complicated than that for beginning fieldwork but I thought I'd run through what needs to be done before heading home.

1. Finalize work at the site. This includes backfilling the excavation trench and picking up any garbage. Like campers, it is the archaeologist creed to restore sites to their pre-excavation condition. It's dirty, hard work that is also a little depressing. Seeing the huge pile of dirt returned to the trench you worked all summer to dig is just sad.

2. Pay hired workers. We have found it is best to pay our workers at the end of the field season with small "bonuses" given throughout the field season rather than pay a daily or weekly wage. We also "gift them" with any field gear we've purchased from local shops, like head pans, hoes, shovels, screens, which are cheaply acquired (for us), and any gently worn clothing which our souvenir stuffed luggage no longer has room for. We also give them copies of pictures that we have taken of them and us throughout the field season - we've purchased a small, portable photo printer so we can do this and have found it was an excellent investment. Everyone loves getting photos and not having to wait for promised ones to arrive in the mail.

3. Revisit local offices and villages to let people know that we have finished our fieldwork and will be departing for home shortly. These are more than just courtsey visits, they are an important means of demonstrating our intention to share the knowledge we've gained through our work. We give preliminary reports of what was accomplished and what we've learned, and reiterate our promise to return with final reports, posters, and other publications for their use.

4. Prepare documents necessary for export permit: letter of request, preliminary research report, and inventory of artifacts recovered/those wanted for export. Many copies of each will be required by the Department of Antiquities. Our Antiquities Officer is crucial in this process as (s)he writes a report concerning our conduct and weighs in on not only whether or not we should be allowed to export our finds but also if we should be given research clearance and excavation licenses in the future. My supervisor has 20 years of excellent standing with the Tanzanian authorities so we usually encounter few problems with this step. It just takes a few days to get the necessary signatures.

5. Once an export permit is obtained, you must have the items valued by the Ministry of Mines and Energy (or "Madini"). My supervisor always remarks how ironic it is that we spend thousands of dollars to excavate these materials only to have them valued at as worthless by Madini. Madini requires us to bring not just our letters of permission, export permits, and inventories but also packing tape, white string (line level string will do), lacqueri (sealing wax), and lighters so they can literally seal the boxes shut once they have examined them. This step is usually very tedious - not in the actual sealing of the boxes - but in convincing the officials that we aren't just wasting their time. They are so used to seeing valuable gemstones come through their doors, they sometimes have trouble understanding why we would go to such expense shipping "worthless" items all the way to Canada. I must admit I can see why this would be difficult to understand if you are used to assessing commercial not cultural and scientific value of rocks and minerals. They are generally good natured about this though and will provide us with the documentation we need as long as we have all the other paperwork in order and pay the 20,000 TSH fee.

6. Find a commercial shipper such as DHL or Fed Ex to have the materials transported back to Canada. Most of the hard work has been done by this point. The tough part with this stage is having enough cash (USD or TSH) on hand if the agent is unable to take credit card (which is often the case). My supervisor has always elected to pay more to ensure the materials are shipped fast (and are tracked at each stage in their journey) ever since we had to take the cheaper option where we did not see our artifacts for almost four months!

7. Forward copies of documentation to the shipping office at the University of Alberta. They will hire a shipping agent who will facilitate the process of clearing the artifacts at customs and transporting them to the UofA. With luck our artifacts will even beat us back to Canada, and the UofA guys will have the artifacts waiting for us in the lab when we return. As I write this our artifacts from this season are already arriving in Canada - it will be race to see "who" makes it to the UofA first!

8. Reconfirm flights. We have found that even in this connected world a quick in-person visit to our airline is a great way to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information concerning the status of our flights and check-in times. Usually we get changes emailed to us, but not always, so it never hurts to just drop in to make sure that the flight information you have is correct.

9. Go shopping! We have always taken this part very seriously. As the first six steps outlined above can take anywhere from two to five days to successfully complete, it is really nice to be able to take the last few days of our trip to play tourist and revisit all of our favourite places in Dar es Salaam (see previous post). It's a great way to stay busy, or "kill time" as my supervisor likes to say, while waiting to make the long trip back home. By this point I'm usually more than ready to head home despite my love for this country and the work I do here so shopping is a pleasant distraction. This step also includes revisiting all of our favourite restaurants and cramming our bellies full of our favourite Tanzanian foods!

It's not a lot of work but it does require at least two high intensity days - most of which is spent in accordance with the Tanzanian motto of "hurry up and wait" - followed by a few days of relaxing which are desperately needed after a long season in the field.

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.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Excavations at Mlambalasi Rockshelter: Week 2

We’ve been back excavating for about a week now so it is time for an update. We opened another three 1m x 1m units bringing our grand total of excavation units to six. We now have a 2m x 3m excavation trench, which takes up a good portion of the open floor space of the shelter. These three new units have been critical in establishing the location and boundaries of the 1m x 2m test unit excavated by Msemwa in 2002, and our Test Pit #1 excavated in 2006. Unfortunately we are recovering a lot of artifacts in the backfill of these previous test units. As I know there is no way we missed out on collecting these artifacts when we excavated, and doubt Msemwa would have too, this means that there are some post-depositional processes that are affecting the distribution of artifacts at the site. Most likely the artifacts, many of which are small in size and light, were transported into the backfilled units by water or by gravity. We re-fill the units with the sediment and non-artifact rocks (i.e. backfill) when we are done excavating. This means that there can be empty spaces between the backfilled rocks and sediment that could act as artifact traps. Understanding the post-depositional processes at the site is now more important than ever.

The artifacts we are finding, both in context and in the disturbed/backfilled units, are still mostly from the Iron Age. However, we are seeing a decrease in the number of pottery fragments, iron pieces, slag, and furnace fragments with an increase in the number of quartzite lithic artifacts which means we are just at the transition to the Later Stone Age.
With reaching the Later Stone Age we expect the recovery of additional human remains. In anticipation of this, we have discussed with our two local workers, Suleman and Thomas, that we will likely find human remains, if we do they are of significant age (could be 12,000 years old), and if they are uncomfortable with this we are more than willing to release them from work with the full payment of earned wages. Both were completely fine with this so excavations will continue.

The sheer number of artifacts we are recovering has meant that we’ve had to decrease the number of days we spend doing fieldwork. We are obligated to wash, sort, and count all of our finds before we can request an export permit and permission to study them back in Canada. This “lab work” is a very time consuming process but very necessary as we would never have enough time to complete our fieldwork and study the artifacts here. It took over a year to analyze the artifacts recovered from our two 2006 test excavation units. Analyzing everything from six units is going to be quite the task!

As it is we are quickly running out of time. We are hoping to squeeze at least another ten full days of fieldwork (with ten days of lab work intermixed) before we have to head back to Dar and begin the export process. Personally this time crunch has me fairly stressed. It has been extremely difficult to get much work done on my dissertation after working all day, preparing for the next day’s work, and dealing with other business – like getting everything ready to teach an Introduction to Archaeology course. I am still hoping to have a full draft of my dissertation completed around the end of September. I have three and a half chapters to go plus references and an appendix. Some downtime after returning from almost three months in the field would have been nice, but such is the life of a grad student and archaeologist!