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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Column: Buried treasures

Zoë Stachel had been in the wilderness of Alaska for four weeks before she made a breakthrough. She’d survived clouds of mosquitoes, run-ins with giant musk oxen and 24-hour daylight – all for the sake of archaeology. Life on the dig was so Spartan that she’d only showered once a week (with a gallon of water and a bucket). But now, peaking out of the dirt was a white shape that looked awfully like a tool made of bone.

Stachel scraped away more soil to find a ceramic oil lamp next to the tool.

“You could tell by looking at the shape of it [the tool] that it was some kind of spoon on a paddle for stirring the oil,” she said.

This was a great find. The lamp was still intact after around 1,000 years in the eroding hillsides. The roof of the house – which belonged to the ancient Thule culture – had collapsed above it, and still it survived. Stachel and the other archaeologists at the site were thrilled.

“We went off to all the other sites and gloated,” she said.

I know this story because Stachel, a fourth year anthropology and classics major, is my roommate. She worked on the dig in Alaska for five weeks as part of a field school program partially run by the UC Davis. While I’m happy in my book-wormy English major, I couldn’t help being jealous when she came back this summer with stories about science in the tundra.

What I love about archaeology are the mysteries. Stachel couldn’t predict that she would find an ancient lamp – archaeologists can’t know what to expect.

“Who knows where things will show up,” said Stachel.

Archaeology is a gamble.

Just last week, archaeologists in Norway stumbled over a 5,500-year-old structure buried under a bank of sand.

“We expected to find an ‘ordinary’ Scandinavian Stone Age site, badly preserved and small. Instead, we discovered a unique site, buried under a thick sand layer,” lead archaeologist Lars Sundström, of the Museum of Cultural History at the University in Oslo, told Discovery News.

This summer, a team of archaeologists in England discovered an ancient Stonehenge-esque site that had been hidden for 4,500 years. They started on the corner of what they thought was a small stone structure and just kept digging until they’d uncovered the ruins of a huge Neolithic religious site.

“We’re gobsmacked,” site director Jim Leary told The Guardian.

These are the cases where the endless digging and pain-staking record keeping of archaeology pays off. Archaeology is a gamble, but it helps when the gamblers have some idea of where to start digging.

Then there are the nut-cases.

Back in the 1920’s, Louis Leakey decided to look for the origins of human life in Africa. This wasn’t just a gamble, this was insanity. At the time, archaeologists believed humans had originated in Asia. Leakey was only going on some arrowheads and tools he’d found in Kenya as a teenager. To have Leakey put his money on Africa was like having Aristarchus claim the earth revolved around the sun. Insanity!

But by 1959, Leakey was a hero. He and his wife, Mary, found Australopithecus boisei, a relative of humans much older than any hominoid fossils found in Asia. The discovery took more than 30 years, but Leakey’s gamble was worth it.

I love Indiana Jones. But to me, non-fiction stories of archaeological adventures are much more fascinating. It takes Dr. Jones just minutes to swash-buckle his way to a priceless artifact, but real-life archaeology takes a heroic combination of brains and blind faith. You can study the landscape forever, but until you start digging, you’ve got no chance of finding that oil lamp.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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