UI professors dig for ancient artifacts

Archaeology is a two-edged blade. It is a field of dichotomies: archaeologists spend weeks and months in sterile labs under fluorescent lights carefully cataloguing and analyzing artifacts, then set off to do field work in muddy, dirty environments.

Their work can be reconstructive – they sometimes rebuild ancient settlements and piece together pieces of pottery – but it is also inherently destructive.

When archaeologists receive grants to go out into the field, their travels can lead them to some of the most remote places of the world and some of the least convenient places to excavate. University professors have done fieldwork in caves in Central America, alongside cliffs in East Africa, in the Mississippi riverbed and people’s backyards in Illinois.

And even as trained excavators, archaeologists are not always equipped to confront the threats these unfamiliar environments have in store for them.

“I’m from the suburbs. I don’t know the jungle like the local people do,” said Lisa Lucero, anthropology professor and archaeologist. “And here we were in a place where there are leopards, crocodiles, snakes and army ants. But this is where the artifacts are. Everyone in the group brought machetes with them when we went out into the jungle.”

Anthropology professor Stanley Ambrose, who did fieldwork in Kenya, said he and his group slept at a campsite inside an electric fence to fend off the lions and hyenas that prowled outside.

Sara Schroeder, a junior in LAS who went to Belize last summer on a course taught by Lucero, said that members of her group were around biting ants, tarantulas, scorpions and crocodiles while in the jungle.

“We got bitten by fire ants, and those hurt a lot,” Schroeder said. “They would fall from the trees and crawl on you, get in your clothes and bite you.”

When Christina Halperin, an anthropology professor who has done fieldwork in Belize, Mexico and Guatemala, was in the jungle, a fly inserted a larva into one of her pores. She said the “botflies,” or fly larvae, that must be suffocated and squeezed out of the skin before they mature inside a person’s skin, are common in the jungle.

Before archaeologists can begin the work of digging up and identifying artifacts, they must have a general sense of where the treasures lie.

Christopher Fennell, an anthropology professor, said teams sometimes use satellite technology to survey the ground and estimate where artifacts and buried ancient structures are located. Fennell has been excavating the New Philadelphia site in southern Illinois, the earliest all-black town incorporated under a legal regime by a freed slave. The team used archived town plans of New Philadelphia to map out where to dig.

Archaeologists conduct their work not only in fields and forests, using spades to unearth artifacts; they also explore caves and lakes.

Halperin searched caves in Mexico for artifacts left in religious rituals. People used these caves thousands of years ago for ceremonial purposes and to bury their dead.

Of course, excavation site locations are not determined by convenience. The most intact sites are often the ones that are most remote. The artifacts that remain intact after centuries of looting are generally in the least accessible places.

“We worked in total darkness, except for headlamps,” Halperin said.

Halperin and her group found that the cave was connected to the ancient ceremonial center, evidence that the public participated in cave rituals, which are generally thought to have been esoteric.

Lucero said she has plans to return to Belize this summer to search several lakes that are believed to have been religious pilgrimage sites for the Maya, who may have tossed religious offerings into the water. The pools, 23 in all, are up to 300 feet deep.

“The waters were seen as portals to the underworld,” Lucero said.

Local communities often help in the archaeological work. Archaeologists hire local men to do much of the digging and serve as guides.

Many locals have a vested cultural interest in the work being done, and generally they are not protective of the sanctity of the ruins; rather, they want the secrets of the past to be unearthed.

“They are learning, too,” Lucero said. “They help with pieces of the puzzle, connecting things we find to things they still use today. They can place us back in time.”

The archaeologists’ work involves not only the drawing and analysis of materials used by humans, but the study of details of prehistoric environments through obscure peripheral methods.

Ambrose is working on extracting data on seasonal vegetation and rainfall as recorded in ancient goats’ teeth. He keeps bags of these teeth in the lab; the teeth must be tested layer by layer.

And with a site like the New Philadelphia site – about 40 acres – the work could go on for another decade.

“In the first three years, we’ve done a lot of work, but it’s only 1 percent of the site,” Fennell said.

“We started seven years ago asking if the archaeological record was intact, and now it has developed to national landmark status, the highest recognition given by the government.”

Fennel said the site is the largest archaeological dig site to be put on the national landmark list.

Fieldwork can be physically grueling, especially in the early stages, when archaeologists must dig through several feet of dirt that have accumulated and buried lost villages over the millennia.

It is painstaking work. The tools get progressively smaller as archaeologists work on artifacts, from shovels and spades down to popsicle sticks and dental floss, Fennell said. Workers must sift dirt off of artifacts at the site and draw them.

And at the end, all the dirt must go back into the ground. Workers have to “back-fill” the site, leaving it as pristine as it was found.

“It’s the worst part of the process,” Halperin said. “It’s grueling.”

At the end of it all, Lucero said she proved to herself – and to the locals where she excavated – that she was up for the challenge of grueling work that always had surprises in store.

The locals said to her, “You no easy,” meaning, essentially, that she was tough. She said she tried to act blasé about the compliment, but she was elated.

She continues to revisit sites and build upon relationships she formed with the local people.

“You always find something the last day,” Lucero said. “You just have to keep coming back.”