The Archaeologist’s guns (Image via assemblage.group.shef.ac.uk)
There’s always something charming about archaeological sites. Perhaps it’s the history of the place, or the deep cultural meanings and values enveloping that certain space. Or perhaps it’s the idea of being able to uncover the long-forgotten stories and the lives of past peoples frozen in that piece of land. There are so many reasons why Archaeology is an interesting subject and why it is so addictive to join archaeological excavations.
This year I was given the chance (which I am very thankful for) to be once again a member of an archaeological team investigating a site in Southern Luzon. I’ve been a part of the team for five consecutive seasons and there’s always something interesting to find each year. The site is very rich with archaeological material and the field still continues on.
The archaeology of the place is very exciting. It is just a few yards away from the beach (a very strategic place not only for the past peoples but also for us excavators). It is a burial site around a thousand or so years old. We found more than 60 burial jars – primary and secondary – and a handful of extended burials. These burials are topped by various forms of covering – cairns, slabs and grooved markers. Some jars also have tridacnae markers on top of them. Shell midden and pots are also present in the area, which may suggest that there are areas for offerings in the site. The jar burial culture of the site coincides with the burial procedures across the country and many parts of Southeast Asia and also early Japan (where they used two jars placed together mouth-to-mouth as burial). Several grave goods are also associated with the burials such as beads (one jar has more than 300 beads), shells and blades. One of the students from our Australian counterpart wrote about the mortuary practices exemplified in the site but I have yet to read her research.
Aside from the archaeology, the fieldwork (not just this fieldwork, but every other fieldwork) is also interesting for its group dynamics. Everyday in the field is routine speckled by bits of fun and so many opportunities to learn not just about the site but also about the people around. In the field, you also learn about life and humanity. It sounds like a cliche but it’s true. The history and the material culture of the site are the main focus in an archaeological dig, but there are also many dimensions to it. The fieldwork is not a hollow space. It is a social space with different dynamics going on between people — between the locals and the members alike.
The fieldwork is not “reality” for the excavators and even for the locals. For the excavators, the field isn’t daily life. It is so much different and for many, it requires so much adjustments. It’s an alien environment surrounded by unfamiliar things.
Of course, the fieldwork is an opportunity to meet new people and even meet new friends from the locals and even from the team itself. Where I joined, there were familiar faces but there were also a lot of new people. Thankfully, my social skills are getting better and I became friends with many of them.
However, since it’s an alien environment, we only get to interact amongst ourselves. Imagine three weeks interacting with the same people and without escape. Much like being in Big Brother. Of course, tensions would arise and it’s usually about the pettiest things one could imagine. Different personalities get mashed in one space. Everything, every sensation, every emotion is heightened in the field as people become vulnerable from being detached from their real lives for some time.
Amidst the goings-on in the field, some of these new faces end up as good friends. I’ve gained a lot of amazing friends from the field — friends who have been there for me and helped me during my low moments, friends who have accepted me for who I am. These friendships last for a lifetime. I never saw some of the good friends I gained after the field (which makes me sad), but we still continue to be friends until now. And for those who come back, it is always a breath of fresh air to see them again.
As for the locals, the field season is the time when foreign people (even Filipinos from the team are foreign in the area) enter their lives. For some, life goes on and they are apathetic to the excavation. But for most locals, these new people are everywhere — walking in the beach, swimming in the sea, riding their boats, meeting them face-to-face on the roads, buying stuff from their stores. For three weeks, these foreign people enter their lives. And these locals also get involved in what these weird foreign people are doing. They visit, become curious, ask around and even help out in the archaeological activities. It’s always great to meet a curious local who’s interested to learn about what’s going on in the site and how it is connected with his/her past.
After three weeks, these foreign people leave. There is an abrupt disjunction to all the commotion that was stirred. For many of them, there is sadness in not seeing the people they’ve become accustomed in seeing everyday for three weeks. Every year, I see a couple of locals cry when we leave. We are sad too for we’ve become friends with many of them. Much more than being locals or more than being informants, they’ve become our buddies and they let us enter their lives.
A person must know how to tread in the field. One is never on his/her own so it’s not fair to only think about one’s self. Again, the field is not just about the archaeology but also about the community around. After a day’s worth of digging, one must face the people who make up an essential part of the field.
Lastly, I’d like to point out than an archaeological dig is more than just digging in the sandbox. It is also more exciting than an Indiana Jones film (in terms of archaeology, the people and experience). It is a mishmash of scientific and social encounters. There’s always something new to learn every season.
Note: Photos will follow tomorrow.