Craig Childs - House of Rain
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Field Notebook

November 30, 2007

A dust devil hissed and scrabbled around the edge of a barren hill. It winged across the backs of archaeologists who were crouched like animals inside their holes. One of the diggers, a woman on her knees, looked up from a trench to watch the wind sizzle past her. With the back of her hand she wiped sweat and dirt from under her sunglasses. The dust devil emptied itself back into the sky. The woman returned to her work. This was not much of a site, a minor prehistoric settlement in the dry vistas of northeast Arizona. It was like excavating a cluster of abandoned trailers and a little clapboard church off a side road, only a thousand years older. Five dusty workers dug on hands and knees in a criss-cross of trenches. I had stopped to watch the woman in sunglasses. I was crouched at the edge of her trench. Her face was close to the ground as if she were repairing some very small instrument. She had found the top of a pre-Columbian jar, and was brushing free its round lip. After about half an hour she had the complete circle exposed, circumference of 60.3 inches, radius of 20.2. She began working down the curve of coral-gray shoulder, and below lay the rest of her day's labor, a pot-bellied cooking vessel still sealed underground. "It's got some cracks," she said to me without looking up. "Down along here. It looks like it's broken. But it's all here. I bet you every piece of it." Packed in dessicated soil, the jar had retained its shape even though it was shattered. After a thousand years, this woman, a grad student from the University of Arizona, had won the bid to pry the jar out of the ground. The dig was completely legal. Agreements had been worked out with the Hopi tribe, the U.S. government, and all affiliated institutions. The trench was hers. Disclaimer: the woman was not digging up a grave. The bureaucracy that now goes with human remains discourages wanton grave-digging by archaeologists. Passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) adds layers of tribal permission and paperwork every time you hit human bone. An elder is called in, so you dig away from remains, not toward them. Not like it used to be, back in the 1980s when you'd be in a grave up to your hips in arrowshafts and bulges of painted pottery. Most archaeologists have come out in favor of NAGPRA. It is a long-awaited nod to Indians who have watched their ancestor's remains, even their grandparents, rifled out of the ground as if by a some sort of death cult. The woman was digging in what she called a living space, a utility area. Her trench was one of four on this hilltop. Most of the site was to be left untouched, an inheritence offered to future archaeologists who would no doubt cringe at the crude techniques used in the early 21st century. Using her small tools the woman had found what appeared to be the only artifact in her trench. She worked down the jar's curve until the first broken piece peeled into her hand. She passed it to me and asked if I would start a bag for her. I snapped open a brown paper lunchsack where I put the potsherd. She told me what to write on the bag, the jar's position in the room, the coded name of the site, the date of the recovery. In case it was ever needed again as reference material, the jar was to be taken from here into storage. In fact, every excavated bit of charcoal, sliver of wood, piece of pottery broken or whole was bound for a vault. An important argument might someday hinge upon the most obscure crumb of evidence, a piece of data so abstruse no one has yet thought of looking for it. Thus, everything must be collected. Where does it all go? This particular site owes its finds to the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, a museum that is just about full and has begun storing artifacts off-site. Within 5 to 10 years all of Arizona's principal repositories will have reached maximum capacity. The whole country is facing this dilemma. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone is overloaded with 50,000 cubic feet of artifacts, 75% of which are improperly stored and are thought to be disintegrating. It would take $20 million to put this relatively minor collection in order. Few repositories have the funding to curate what they already have, much less what continues to pour in from fresh excavations. I once visited an exasperated curator of a Park Service collection. She led me into a basement full of cardboard boxes and pots on shelves. There she showed me piss-yellow stains on ceiling tiles where upstairs plumbing was leaking into a collection of one million artifacts. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service, holds a total of 90 million artifacts, so this was a small repository, low on the endowment scale. She could not afford to fix the pipes, much less hire a staff to catalogue what was in there. A study of collections held in public trust in the United States found that 40% of all stockpiled artifacts are in unknown condition, unchecked since they were first put into storage. Curators around the country complain of bags splitting open and boxes decaying and collapsing. Sacks of soil samples are spilling into each other, some being deaccessioned, thrown in the trash. Whole collections have been rendered scientifically worthless, no name, no date, no address. There are artifacts from the late 1800s that were not unpacked from their original crates until the last few years. It has taken this long to deal with it all. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Southwest was emptied by the trainloads. The likes of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde were piled into boxcars and shipped to the East Coast where they feathered the nests of private collectors and prominent museums. At the time, archaeology was not so much a science as it was a free-for-all. Funding went to those who could uncover the most beautiful objects, the finest of which went on display. Many archaeologists now look back at those days as sheer vandalism. Archaeology has climbed the academic rungs, dusted itself off, and is presented as one of the pure sciences. But what is it really, unable to stop its own momentum as it stuffs more artifacts into the clogged mouths of museums? A government archaeologist, Glade Hadden, calls this kind of collecting an "act of silliness." Sun wrinkled, hat shading his eyes, Hadden alone oversees a big swath of land in western Colorado. He said, "I don't take things anymore unless I have to, if it's at obvious risk of being destroyed. The argument 'if we don't take it somebody else will' doesn't work for me. If you're really a scientist why would you need to possess the object itself? It's just an object. It's just stuff. For what archaeologists purport themselves to be, all they really need is context. After that you're just a collector." I am not sure how to feel about archaeology. Sometimes it seems like the most genuine of sciences. It makes no superstrains of grain to feed impoverished nations, no nanoparticles to make cars shinier. It is a science of undiluted curiosity, only the desire to know what happened before us. Other times it seems like glorified pothunting. I am not a stranger to digging. I have worked seasons in the ground, excavating bones, cutting off roots, offering dusty bits of detritus to the greater body of knowledge. But what is one more cracked pot worth? A smattering of data to add to the pool. This one was a rather unexceptional piece of Stone Age kitchenware, a kind of artifact you can buy on the internet, armloads of them for sale at a hundred bucks each. Maybe it would have been better left where it was, its busted shape held fast by the earth. Watching the woman dig around her jar, I asked, "Why do you dig?" Brushing, picking, poking, she considered my question without pause. Its like working inside of a clock, she said, and that was all. Without distraction she continued undressing her jar, leaning close and blowing dust out of the way. More sherds came out and I took them as the jar disappeared from the ground. I cupped the pieces into each other the way you nest pieces of a broken dish before throwing it away. An object the size of a globe, once able to hold two gallons of stew, was now the size of a sack lunch. While I packed pieces away I noticed another woman creeping up on us. She was moving on hands and knees at an almost imperceptible pace. Her subject was a tree root as thick as her own forearm. It was from an emaciated juniper off the side of the hill, an apocalyptic bonsai. The root had entered the room and follwed a moisture gradient along the hardpacked floor. As if knowing it was there, the root headed straight for the jar and wrapped around its base like a tentacle. The woman digging the root finally met with the woman digging the jar. Together they were divulging an underground tug-of-war; root seeking anchorage for its tree and wrapping around a buried vessel, then crushing it in black silence. Though everything else was recorded, there was no space in the archaeological ledgers for this arrangement. The root was not a cultural artifact. It did not exist. Yet there is was describing a perfect, ghostly circle of the jar it had held until today. I slid the last potsherd into its sack. The jar-digger kept scritching at the soil with her trowel, while the root-digger went to her pail and pulled out a hacksaw. She went to where the root entered the trench and in ten strokes and it was severed. Without a thought she pried it up and threw it out of the dig. I was aghast. I tend to obsess inappropriately on things like this, so I tried not to say anything. God forbid I make a fool of myself in front of professional scientists, saying, theyre in love, the root and the jar, cant you see? I wisely returned to my task, folding the top of the sack. I tore an inch of masking tape and sealed the jar forever.

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