Monday, January 18, 2010

trading jungles

Looks like I’m heading back to the States! My seven weeks have come and gone, now it’s time to emerge from one jungle and return, warily, into another. Today I lost my wheels. I had to return my car to the kind folks at Pacific Products. It kind of made me laugh inside when I returned the car today. When I returned it I saw the two people that were waiting for the rental to come in. They looked a little grumpy at the fact they had to wait for 5 minutes to get their car (that I had washed and detailed and filled with gas). I smiled to myself about the fact that I had put 1,500 miles on a car in seven weeks on a 30 mile-long island and used it as my traveling office/labratory/bed/disaster-mobile. It came back in fine shape, just as long as they don’t hypnotize it and ask any probing questions about chugging up and down mountains or driving across moderately intimidating bodies of water.

Nevertheless, the car is uma; that means finished. As in...uma lau malaga? finished with your trip? To that I would say: “Ioe, ua ou uma mo le malaga, ua uma i le aso!” (yeah I’m done with the trip, I finished it today!). It’s fun learning Samoan. It’s a beautiful language full of references to nature, obligatory laughter, nonsensical substitution of sounds and awkward contractions that sound like swear words. When hearing pure Samoan dialect, no slang, it’s like watching someone blow bubbles from a wand and understanding what each one means, making sense of floating, nimble and content words. It’s a wonderful string of sound. It’s a hopeful language, and I want to understand more.

On another note, my flight leaves the Island at about 11 pm on Sunday. I’ll get to Hawai’i at 5:30 am and leave for Los Angeles at 8:30. That will put me in LA around 4 or 5 local time, from there I’ll head to DFW and arrive at 9:30 on Monday night central time. Central time is 5 hours ahead of Samoa during the winter and 6 in summer due to daylight savings. Time changes are fun, especially when you realize how meaningless they are when traveling. I am able supersede time and space, zipping across our lonely planet to see the ones I love in the ribcage of an expensive metal albatross.

I love flying. It’s the best people watching opportunity I’ve ever come across, seriously. Just think, when you hit a serious rough patch, not the fun stuff now but true-blue bolt-rattling turbulence... you get to see how people react. Are they worried about their kids? spouses? laptop? unfinished bloody mary? Or are they happy to see they whole mess plunge into the sea! It’s a little fatalistic, perhaps a little morbid but it’s better than sudoku for 16 hours. Take a look around during a flight sometime. Sometimes I learn more during my journey than I do at my destination that’s all I’m saying.

I’ll keep this blog going during artifacts analysis at Texas A&M University so you can see the boring side of things! That’s a prevarication, the artifacts are my ticket, the analysis is my journey.

malo leva (thanks for hanging in there)


Friday, January 15, 2010

Sogai Miti

A merry morning to all! Today is my last weekday on Island. That really means very little besides the fact that tomorrow is Saturday, and Saturdays are notorious for barbecues and swimming, and barbecues and swimming are long as you wait 30 min before swimming of course.

I have been sitting in on tattoo sessions of a friend of mine, Oti. He is getting the full Samoan tattoo called a Sogai Miti (pronounced songuy miki). The process takes about a week and a half, with session usually taking around 4-5 hours each day. The process is absolutely grueling for everyone involved. The Tattooist, in this case Wilson, has to concentrate and be extremely precise for hours on end. The boys stretching the skin must stay, still, attentive and alert for hours. And for the person receiving the tattoo... well that form of pain is understood by very few people on this planet.

But! endurance through pain yields eternal beauty, in this case at least. On the middle of the back, the top most motif is a canoe, showing the man's place as a vessel to carry his family forward. Below that is an upside down triangle thingy; that is a mother fruit bat wrapping it's wings around him and protecting him. The lines below that reinforce family obligations and kinship responsibilities.

In the next few days Wilson will start on the legs, that'll be a lot of fun to watch.

Wilson, Otaro, Saya and Oti all submerged in a world of pain

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hail to the chief

We had a party to wrap up the work out at Aoa, good times! I woke up to the sudden stop of a pig squeal, there’s really only one thing that means time! I heard the guys say they’d try to find a size 2 pig. A size 2 is the usual party size and sizes go up to ten or so. Tens are usually saved for big big events like major funerals, church stuff etc. Well it was bigger than a size 2, seemed like a size bajillion but it was probably only a 4. Funny when you start to see animals by their culturally defined sizes, which shows a relative indication of the owner’s wealth/prestige potential.

We cooked the pig in an Samoan oven called an Umu. It’s hard to get the Umu just right even though it’s a pretty simple idea. Heat up a bunch of cobbles with a fire, spread the stones out and put food in, cover with stones and seal with a blanket of breadfruit leaves, then upside down banana leaves, then big taro leaves. The cooking time ranges from 45 minutes to a couple hours depending on what’s in there (i.e. breadfruit Vs. a whole pterodactyl). Anyway, once the pterodactyl is crispy, you uncover the tasty treats and carve it up with a machete or whatever sharp object is’s a samoan thing I guess.

We find old earth ovens while doing archaeological excavations too. The oldest one I’ve excavated dates to about 2,400 years old. It was up in the mountains on the west end of the island. The silly thing looked just like the one we made the other day. Funny how perfectly adapted technology remains constant across millennia.

I was made honorary chief of Falefu Village for the day! how cool is that! My first decree was for all the real chiefs to sit so I could take a picture. The physical expression of the situation is rather latent unless you are familiar with the matai (samoan chief system). Everyone in the meeting house has a specific post at which they sit. can’t change posts because the view is better over there. The Paramount chief sits at the center post of one end, the honored guest or next in rank, usually the village minister sits at the opposite end so they are in eye contact. The lower matai sit along the long edge of the meeting house. So, in the picture below you can see the high chief sitting along the long side of the house with the rest of the chiefs. In this way he has made a fun day of things and gave me the best seat in the house per se. We had a lot of fun.

hail to the chief...or just chill and eat

that pig was so hot, breadfruit leaves do not make good hotpads

uncovering the umu

Good morning Danny

hanging out in the shade

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Making maps, filling holes

Today was the last day of excavation at ’Aoa. After we finished digging in the new unit, B3, the guys helped me run tape measures while I took compass bearings to make the site map. There are a couple things that must be done in order to have any excavation make sense. 1). Set a site datum: this is a point on the landscape that you create and mark with a flagged peg, GPS the coordinates and then use it as the point from which other locations are tied to. 2). Once that is done you can take a compass bearing and tape measure or GPS to map out the excavation units. You also want to map in permanent objects like houses, walls, streams etc. Mapping in permanent structures lets future archaeologist figure out where I dug so they don’t waste time digging in part of one of my old excavation units.

Tomorrow I’ll bail out the water from the units and make a profile map of the unit wall. This lets me keep an illustrated map of the sediment layers and buried soils and shows how the layers relate to buried artifacts.

lastly we’ll backfill the excavation units. It’s hard work digging in reverse too. I’m always surprised at how much sediment is packed into a 1x1 meter hole in the ground. It’s hard work but it’s also fun to goof around in a good mood at the end of a project while backfilling.

In the next week and a half or so before I leave I plan on setting up a few meetings with the state historic preservation officer to discuss my plans for June/July. I’ll be returning for a few weeks next summer to survey Ofu island in order to figure out where folks got local clay for pottery. That project will be a good time too.

Well, thanks for hanging around for ’Aoa. I always looked forward to writing the week’s events while hanging out here in the village. Seeing that folks back home glance at what I’m up to now and then makes me feel a little more at home, thanks guys!

so long for now.

An eel found its way into excavation
unit B1, it's a first for me too.

in the belly of the beast, tagging stratigraphic
layers in Unit A1

Our water screening station made
excavations possible in the thick clay

The end is near

Well, looks like excavations at ‘Aoa are coming to an end. We’ve collected plenty of artifacts to analyze back at the lab, enough for the scope of this project. The Aoa project proved to be tougher than expected due to all the rain. If I remember correctly, we only had two dry days between Dec 19th and January 8th. When digging, the water table is intercepted at about 40 cm below the surface, hardly deep enough to call it an excavation unit out here. The depth of buried activity surfaces in this particular valley really only start below 120 cm. That means that we need to dig while under the water table for almost a meter before we get to anything. No matter what depth after 40 cm we’re still in knee deep water after bailing. Needless to say this is hardly optimal for digging 3000 year old stuff if you want to have any spatial control or high resolution information of where artifacts are coming from. This also removes any possibility of photographic evidence during excavation (yikes).

Because of the fact that we would be destroying archaeological deposits without proper documentation I have decided to terminate excavations at the site. Aoa has only limited real estate for archaeology along the buried beach berm. So, every time someone puts a square in the ground to study prehistory here a large relative percent of untouched space is destroyed. We have to keep this fact in mind and act upon responsible decisions when weather does not allow for accurate archaeological methods. A lack of archaeological self control and lowered procedural standards leads to academic happens.

That being said, my excavations here have produced a wealth of well-provenienced artifacts. Personally, I’m quite surprised at the bulk of ceramics, stone flakes and volcanic glass artifacts that Unit B2 offered. The evidence provided by Unit B2 allows this project to be viewed as a success.

On a side note, I may have tracked down the location of the volcanic glass procurement location. That last sentence may seem a little anti-climactic. Let me explain. Volcanic glass is a close geochemical relative of obsidian, a glassy sharp volcanic stone that produces the sharpest edge available under current technology. This stone material was sought by ceramic period inhabitants in the Samoan Islands from 3,000-2000 years ago. It was traded within an interaction sphere of about 300 km from one end of the Samoan Archipelago to the other (that’s a long way for a little sail boat y’all). Anyway, since about 1964 archaeologist have seen this type of artifact all over the island chain but never knew where folks were getting it from.

The importance of finding the raw material source is that it allows us to trace prehistoric interaction. It lets us create a solid understand of ceramic period trade dynamics at the intra and inter-island levels. In other words, given no formal currency or state level society, how do people choose to organize the dispersal of a prized item... (ie: where does it come from, how is it controlled and who gets it). These questions are only approachable when you know both the procurement site and the consumption locations. I will likely track down this source next June when I return to Tutuila and test it geochemically upon my return to Texas A&M to see if it is in fact the source. Sorry no hints about where it is, I need to nerd out about it for a while still.

so long.

sometimes you just can't dig

Sunday, January 3, 2010

the life and times of minnow fries

E te fia tasi i’a Tanielu? That means “hey Dan, want more fish?” Now, I like fish, I honestly do, always have...but the minnow fries have got to go. I’ve begun eating only ten or so, just so maybe they’ll give me less next time but I don’t think that trick works in Samoa. You know, it’s not that the little critters taste bad, I just don’t like eating fish scales, bones and gut sand for dinner that’s all.

I went fishing today, we go every afternoon to get for food that night. There’s a lot of people to feed here so finding and preparing food is always the first and foremost task for the family. It feels good to go fish and bring back food that the whole family needs. working together to get locally available food caught, husked, peeled, boiled or chopped makes the meal extra satisfying. We usually spend the hours after fieldwork throwing the cast net for bait and minnow fries (leftover bait) and then some time out on the reef edge fishing for larger edible treats.

On an archaeology note, due to the ever present...uh...presence of water in the excavation units we’ve all decided to become terrestrial maritime archaeologists and just bail water and dig as we go (this part is true). This is not the way to do archaeology, kids, cover your ears (also true). But, since I am rapidly approaching time left = 0, I’ve issued the crew blue jumpsuits, red beanies and matching white sneakers. We do jumping jacks on the beach to stay ready for pirates and use dry-docked dolphins as echo-locating ground-penetrating radar. This approach seems to be working rather well so far if I may say so myself (third truth).


so long for now

excavation unit or swimming hole?

I know I sort of flatlined there for a little while, the place I’m staying at has no internet access, cell reception, stop signs or white people (well one now I guess). A normal day here starts around 6:00 am, the sun is up a little before then anyway so it’s hard to sleep in. I have a cup of coffee with the crew at the table outside my room and we discuss my plans for them that day. breakfast is hard to predict. somedays it’s cornflakes, or a bowl of ramen. Perhaps it’s an egg sandwich, two sausages, a fish, rice and bananas...with mayo. the joys and pitfalls of being fed by a loving samoan family are many.

We leave by 7:00 am. I drive the crew to the site which is just across the bay (you can see it on the map from the other day). we pile out, throw rocks at the growling dogs that wake up, startled away from dreams of killing chickens, and make our way to our beloved 1x1 meter squares in the earth. Excavations have been slow slow slow. Slow for two reasons primarily: 1). The sediment and soil of Aoa Valley consists of thick clays and gravels which makes digging and screening for artifacts arduous. 2). Rains have been very heavy, almost 30 inches this December! The rain wouldn’t be a big deal in most other settings, however this site is adjacent to a creek, so when heavy rains come the water table rises...our excavation units can actually fill with water from the ground up! Soon after heavy rains, our hard work only produces little square swimming pools...which I must say are quite refreshing albeit annoying.

On the upside, we encountered ceramic sherds and stone tools in unit B2 at a depth of 40 cm below the surface. To those that know me well, imagine the grin I had on my face when I realized I had managed to lead a crew smack dab into the thick of a 2,800 year old pottery deposit, nice.

It’s a fetish, field archaeology, it almost has to be.

This is Tovio. Without his help my project would be much less productive and entertaining.

Minnow fries anyone?