Something not everyone realizes is that archaeology is actually a subfield of anthropology, the study of humans and their culture. Admittedly, it’s not completely obvious – poking around in the dirt doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the world of living people. But archaeology deals with the physical materials that people left behind over the courses of their lives. Even though these people may not be alive, it doesn’t follow that their lives don’t hold meaning for people today.
Starting last week, the nature of my work changed. The cemetery survey has been ongoing, but for the past two weeks I have finally been able to put a shovel to the ground. Across the highway from Plateau cemetery, there is a hill with a falling-down chimney perched on it. This chimney belonged to the house of a man named Peter Lee, or, to use his Fon name, Gumpa. Where there’s a chimney, it’s no great leap of logic to imagine a house attached to it.There’s a slight problem in that a highway bridge was built right through the area in 1991, even after a required archaeological survey was conducted, but hopefully there’s something left for us to find.
This week defies a nice, tidy summary. It’s been all over the place as funding, permissions, equipment, and people have slowly come together. That’s the thing about archaeological projects – even if things are going to work out, sometimes you don’t know until it’s right down to the wire. I was admittedly a little baffled as to how this could be, but I decided to just enjoy the experience as it unfolds. The reality of fieldwork involves more preparation beforehand than I had realized, which, looking back, makes me feel incredibly naïve. My professor’s been running all over town meeting with community outreach people, descendents of Clotilda survivors, and of course the lovely people funding the project. When you’re a student in a field school, you never see any of this. The supervisors lead you to the site, hand you a shovel, and say, “Here. Get digging.”
My second week of research is drifting to an end. Come Monday morning, I’ll be embarking on a 14-hour car ride to Mobile, Alabama. I can’t believe how quickly my prep weeks at William and Mary have gone by – part of me wishes I could have them all back to re-live (just to have more time to wander around campus and CW, hang out with friends…and, uh, do some more background reading, obviously!). Most of me, however, is ready to move on to the next part of the adventure.
The next time you’re standing in front of the Wren building, look around. What do you notice? If you’re like me, you’re so used to the surroundings that nothing significant jumps out at you. Now look closer. All around you is order, symmetry, and rationalism made manifest on the landscape. Academically-inclined types call this the “Georgian worldview,” taking its name from the English monarch of the 18th century. Enlightenment ideals turned up even in such concrete things as the architecture and landscaping of the time, and these, being things that we encounter every day, unconsciously influence us. Walk on the bricks, not on the grass. Stay in line. Think inside the box. If you never realized, don’t worry – few people do. One of my favorite class periods to date was one last fall when Dr. Norman took his African archaeology class down through the campus to Colonial Williamsburg, and pointed these things out to us. I’ve never looked at the campus in the same way since (for example, I try to walk on the grass whenever possible!).