It was confusing, it was dirty, and it was absolutely wonderful.

The dig at Songo Mnara already feels like another lifetime, or another world.

It was amazing. The site was incredible, the island was gorgeous, the people were great. The sun was unbelievably strong, straight down on us, and if the wind wasn’t blowing sand and dirt straight into your eyes, it was only because you were downwind of the sieve and getting mouthfuls of it. The minute tonal difference between the types of soils, trying to identify them, to distinguish between them, was infuriating – almost painful – and hours spent looking for traces of decoration or finished edges on pottery fragments had me hallucinating bases.

It was confusing, it was dirty, and it was absolutely wonderful.

sm04We worked dawn to dusk – literally – six days a week. We hit the trenches at 6:30am, trying to beat the heat. I’d scramble out of my tent with a few moments to spare (if that), pulling on my clothes as I went, grabbing a cup of coffee and a banana. We were all filthy by breakfast, getting back to the house in various shades of grey to red (you could have held up Munsell soil-color charts to our arms). Lunch break at noon usually saw people napping, or desperately wishing that they were napping, on the mat after we’d finished eating; we’d crawl back to the trenches, in the heat of the day, desperate to finish (to get to the bottom of a context, to hit sterile, to identify a feature, plan the profile) before we came in around 4pm for finds processing. Afternoons meant frantic counting of pottery shards – then, mad dashes for the shower as it was getting dark. Dinner by kerosene torches and head lamps. A few breaths – maybe. And then the (intensely competitive) cribbage matches or (more relaxed) hermit crab races. Stumbling to bed, asleep before I’d made it all the way in the tent. Repeat.

I arrived three weeks into the dig (after the geo-physical surveyors had left, and some space opened up at camp). I traveled from Dar with a grad student of African History from the States (who, conveniently, happened to be fluent in Kiswahili and very familiar with Tanzania – not to mention wonderfully friendly). After the 6hr bus ride (some of it actually on a road, all of it bumpy) we spent a night in Kilwa Masoko, the closest town on the mainland to the islands.

sm25The Swahili ruins at both Songo Mnara, where we were excavating, and Kilwa Kisiwani, a better known and more thoroughly researched island, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Kilwa Kisiwani is famous for its large monuments but Songo Mnara, everyone on the dig agreed (and we were only, of course, slightly biased) is far more interesting – in addition to a mosque and a “palace”, the main site has an unprecedented amount of domestic architecture – over fifty houses. Both were trading centers with more intensive inhabitation than the adjacent mainland – or, at least, more permanent remains to prove it.

Kilwa Masoko didn’t seem to be much more than a strip of guesthouses and shops a mile or so to the harbour; we came in one weekend and spent another night there after the dig, but other than the fact that it had cold (cold!) drinks, plumbing, and shops selling junk food and phone credit… not much going on. Despite the plethora of guesthouses we rarely saw more than a few other foreigners in town (and this was the height of the tourist season). There was a small locals’ market. A militia parade went by once. The first weekend that we came in, we managed to find a party (Club? We paid a cover fee.) in what was probably the local schoolyard – danced all night to a dj with a couple hundred Tanzanians who thought that the mzungus who’d wandered in were the most bizarre thing they’d ever seen.

It was three hours from Kilwa Masoko to Songo Mnara. We landed at the main fishing post – a few traditional huts, a woman cooking, smattering of boys and men, canoes floating around – and started the “hike” to camp. (It’s a bit of a walk, the Frenchwoman working for UNESCO who’d shared our boat warned us and we’d been told about the swamp we’d have to wade.) It turned out to be a pleasant ten minutes or less across startling white sand under drooping palm fronds; the swamp was less than a foot of clean water, a path through the mangrove forest that surrounds the island.

The camp, a dozen tents in front osm23f one small cement house, was within view of the ruins – the closest only a few hundred yards – with tall swaying palm trees all around, set up on top of a graveyard. (The first time they told me that my tent was on top of three graves, I thought it was a joke; the headstones were low, standing out of the sand only a few inches and one, just in front of the door to the house and the water cooler, managed to trip several people a day. The clearing we were camping in turned out to be where the islanders annually sacrifice a goat in an Islamic ceremony to keep the spirits happy.) There was a coral cove only a few minutes from the campsite, where boats docked when the tide was higher, and we could go swimming (not that there was much spare time).

Like the walk in, the conditions at camp were much better than we’d been warned to expect. Some women from the village cooked for us – the food was better than I’d expected, although the fish (caught each morning; unfortunately, deep fried – until we sacrificed a sieving screen to make a grill) beans, rice, chapati, spinach, chicken, occasional tomato-based-sauce, and cabbage got monotonous. We had octopus once (chewy) and crab (the most incredible crab I’ve ever eaten). We got chickens every few days (even the vegetarians hearts seemed to harden after we discovered that dawn lasts all day for Tanzanian roosters and that they fought with each other – the camp workers loved it, didn’t even have to rig the fights in order to bet on them – and stormed into the house while we were counting finds) and, once, a goat. Fresh water came in by boat every other day, along with peanut butter (we averaged a jar’s consumption a day), a crate of beer, and a couple of car batteries to charge things on – including various ipods that meant that we ate dinner and even dug in the trenches to classic rock (depending on who was in charge – there was the ocassional pop, hip-hop, and Disney interlude). There was even cell reception. (… is there anywhere left, short of the North Pole, without cell reception?)

sm06The dig was lead by Jeff Flesiher from Rice University, who was looking at the social spaces, and Stephanie Wynn-Jones (from Bristol), who was looking at the interior domestic organization. There were four other undergraduates, from Rice, and five graduate students (a specialist in pottery from Nigeria, two African historians, an archaeologist, and guy specializing in inter tidal zones who was doing his own project in the mangrove swamps, taking core samples of the silt). All but three were American – it was odd to hear American accents, to be dropped down into a group of “my countrymen” again, after so long in England. (Halfway around the world to meet up – like my brother arriving tomorrow, I suppose.)

We set up 15 trenches, entering two of the houses and setting others over geo-magnetic areas that had been identified. I spent most of my time in the houses. The first house, whose excavation was quite far along and was supposed to be finishing up a few days after I arrived, had been chosen as an example of a less-affluent residence due to the simplicity of its architecture as compared to others. We found an incredible, unbelievable amount of coins (over thirty, I think, just in the back room), hundreds of small glass beads, and bag after bag after bag of pottery fragments and bones and shells. We sieved each bucketful to make sure that we found everything; I got to dig the first few days, but as the finds started to come in faster and faster. I ended up sorting and bagging things out of the sieve for hours at a time, as fast as I could.

sm10The Swahili workers, or Tunde in the trench, would shout “COIN! FETHA!” and we’d all pick up the call – it nearly became a chant as we kept finding them, with silly smiles, shaking our heads at the sheer number. Both of the professors were working in that trench the first week and it was fascinating to listen to the by-blow analysis as we went. The back room (open courtyard and cooking area, I think we decided) that never seemed to end, had a couple of ash deposits, a circle of stones that (once again, I think we decided) was a toilet, an entire turtle shell (in one of the lower contexts) and a shell midden. (I got possessive about the shell midden; I found it first, as a series of sea snail shells in perfect alignment, straight in a row, and switched from a trowel to a brush and uncovered several square feet of it – almost entirely the same type of shell, most of them in roughly the same orientation. It had to go, of course, later on.) I worked in the second house the last week. We barely had time to get a few small trenches in after clearing out the rubble, so we didn’t get to explore the rooms in full.

sm22I liked being in the trenches, but I got to bounce around the various side projects. I went out into the mangroves with Jack (we took core samples and described them – it was interesting, the ideas, but the work was so repetitive, and the real conclusions so delayed… ) and floated soil samples (to isolate the plant remains for later chemical analysis) with Dominic. Andrea, the history student that I’d traveled with, was interviewing the villagers about their oral histories and traditions relating to the villagers – I worked the tape recorder, took pictures, and tried to pretend that not speaking the language well enough to follow the stories was an advantage for focusing on body language and tone. I got to be present for the interview of the local Chairman of the Ruins Committee (the official history, more or less, the islands hopes for increased eco-tourism, and some fascinating side-notes on the continuing interaction with the site – ritual offerings, cleanings, ceremonies) and a few of the elder women in the village (folk legends and old tales).

sm17The camaraderie at the dig was great – particularly given that we were a small group stuck together intensely for weeks. I learned to play cribbage, but only just made it alive through a few games. (The tournament was cuthroat and vicious, but the final – played in the courtyard of the Palace a few days before the dig finished, at midnight to lamp-light and Rolling Stones songs – was quite dignified.) We played a football match against the local village one day (I sat on the sidelines and photographed).

The best part was the satisfaction, the realization, the confirmation that it – that was I was doing – was right. Archaeology and anthropology have been my passion, and my intended career, as long as I can remember. (Some point between learning to – at three – becoming obsessed with mythology – five, six? – and reading all of the Leakeys and Mead that I could find. I knew that I wanted to do anthropology before I knew the word. I remember putting out a vague description of the field; she told me that that was called anthropology and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.) But wandering around libraries in elementary school reading Bulfinchs and making flashcards of the type specimens of extinct hominid fossils (… yes, I was that nerdy; ask my family, they’ll confirm it – and, yes, I did have far superior study skills and an attention span at the age of nine than I do now, at twenty), taking the first years worth of university classes, is quite different from being there, doing it – and having it feel right.

I got to realize, I got to feel, that this – field work – is not just what I want to do – but that I can do it. I like doing it. I’m good at it. I’m really rather well suited for this sort of work. (I still, of course, haven’t finally settled on an exact specialty within the disciplines, or within paleoanth, but I still have a few years for that – I’m not too worried.)

So, yeah. The dig was great.

(Except for that whole robbery thing. Still irritated. Not the first time, though, and probably not the last – guess it comes with the job description. Hazard of the trade.)


Songo Mnara

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