Maura Griffith — Adventures in Archaeology, Part 3

Maura and Team in Romnaia

Transylvania Diaries – Week 3: Rain, Rain, Go Away

The Patakfalva Grounds for Trench Divorce:

  1. Attempted murder (bees, trowel, large rocks, etc)
  2. Singing
  3. Excessive bureaucracy
  4. Not enough room
  5. Found a cooler skeleton
  6. Hasn’t showered in 12 days
  7. Not having a great time
  8. Bad puns
  9. Had to go home

Throughout this week, the end of the field session was a looming presence that everyone tried to pretend wasn’t there. Starting on Wednesday, we slowly lost people as they went off on other adventures – to home, to other digs, to vacations.

This whole week was plagued with rainstorms. There was the apocalyptic storm on Friday, Tuesday was a complete wash, and Wednesday we had only half a day on-site due to rain. After each rainstorm, I spent the following day re-cleaning the burial I just finished getting photo ready (just feet) and uncovering them from small-scale mudslides. In other words: photo-ready, rain, clean, repeat. The rain made some of the walls in Trench 12, where I was working, unstable, which lead to some creative positions for excavating. We could no longer stand in one section of the trench, nicknamed “the Mines of Moria,” due to the flooding it experienced. This posed a particular problem for me, as I had been standing in them for the past two weeks. So all this week, I lay down above the grave, hoping not to collapse the walls around it, and try to determine how long I could be upside down without passing out. The answer is about 45 minutes, though the head rush is killer.

Since we were approaching the end of our session, the focus was on finishing all of the burials we had opened, rather than opening new ones. During this week in particular, everyone was jumping around working on various burials. After my feet were cleaned and photo ready, I finished prepping an adult burial for its photo; later in the week, I worked on mapping that same burial. In total, I worked on mapping three different burials; the feet were mapped on Wednesday after they had been cleaned for the third time. On Friday, when we were hurriedly trying to finish out as many burials as possible, I worked with Mary Catherine on mapping both a juvenile and an adult burials. Mary Catherine and I are part of the rare breed of people who actually enjoy mapping burials.

With all of the cleaning, and re-cleaning, and re-cleaning, I was so looking forward to finally pulling the feet. As the end of day on Friday approached, however, it became more and more clear that I would not be able to do that. When Zsolt arrived on site, there was a mad flurry to get all of the burials photo’d, have depths taken, and mapped. Mary Catherine and I were working on mapping the adult skeleton (which was particularly thorny – almost completely articulated except for the cranium and mandible being on top of the pelvis, several fragments, and a crushed scapula; it was definitely a mapping challenge) when Zsolt arrived. The Katie’s took depths on my grave, with the hope that Mary Catherine and I would be able to finish the map in time for me to pull the burial I had worked on for so many hours. Though it pained me, I knew it was more important to get the map finished, so I asked Katie Z. to pull the feet in the hopes that we could finish the map. To add insult to injury in that soul crushing moment, we weren’t able to finish the map before the bus came. In fact, we were so rushed at the end of the day that I ended up on the bus without shoes on my feet. The sacrifices we make for science.

Our final lectures were all about taphonomy, mortuary practices, and “deviant” or atypical burials. The taphonomy lecture was fantastic. It focused on all of the processes that leave post mortem marks on bones. This can range from marks from burial practices, root etching, watermarks, staining, or excavator damage. The mortuary practices lecture highlighted different practices and beliefs surrounding death from various cultures. One aspect of this is thinking about how excavated burials are a tiny fraction of all individuals who have died – it is limited by the people who died in a place, then those who were buried in a recognizable way, then those who were preserved, found, and analyzed. Each of those categories gets progressively smaller, leaving archaeologists with only a fraction of the population to study. Our lecture on a-typical burials highlighted the three factors for determining if a burial is atypical: it must significantly deviate from the burial norms of the area with respect to the people buried there (age, sex, etc), the burial processing, and method of disposal. Additionally, we talked about what factors may be the driving force behind an atypical burial. That individual may have experience a particular cause or manner of death, had specialized skills, or a particular cultural affiliation or status. Any one of these factors could influence an atypical burial. In some cases, it cannot be determined if a burial is atypical, if there is no baseline for a “normal” burial in the region.

I’m definitely sad to be leaving Patakfalva, though I am excited to be leaving behind the trench spiders. On Monday, I’ll start working in the Juvenile Osteology Lab under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Bethard and Donovan Adams.

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