The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action.
– Felix Adler
Often times, there’s nothing but soil. A lot of times there’s just soil. But sometimes, you get to be the first person to see something in 6000 years. Most times it’s pottery or stone. Sometimes with the right conditions it can be organic material. But again, you have to be in the right spot at the right time. A lot of archaeology can be surveyed and mapped, but a lot still comes down to luck.
I got lucky this excavation. I got super lucky.
About two weeks into the dig, with thunderheads looming across the Danube and a clear rain shadow in Serbia, we were pressed to finish our squares before the storm drove us out. I was nearly done with my square when I realized I had something at the edge continuing into the next section. It looked like a distal end of a bone. I alerted one of the dig supervisors, a professor from Bucharest. With one glance at the bone she said, ‘Human.’
I looked back to section of bone sticking from my square. That was a person. Then I looked to the square next to it. I didn’t know how far the bone extended into the next square, if it did at all. For all I knew the bone was broken. But, it might not be.
The storm rolled across the Danube and we rushed the equipment back to the dig house. The next day we returned to the site and I was given the next square. Carefully I started to scrap at the surface with my trowel, peeling back layers of soil. The bone kept getting longer and longer. No breaks.
It turned out to be a fully intact femur, except for wear on the distal and proximal ends. It was short, belonging to a sub-adult.
A teenager from the Neolithic.
During finds processing, I carefully scrubbed 6000 years of dirt off it with an old toothbrush. If I’m completely honest, it was disorienting. This person had died in the Neolithic, some odd 6000 years ago. Who they were will remain anonymous. Their age can be estimated by size of the bone, but not their sex. Sexual dimorphism is really only present in the pelvic and sometimes cranium bones. I’d like to think they were female, a teenage girl like me, but again there’s no way of knowing.
What I did know is this was once a person. Alive. They died young. I’d like to think they were missed. But they had been lost to time. Forgotten. Their burial disturbed by a later feature, leaving their bones disarticulated until some amateur archaeologist from Kansas stumbled upon one of their 206. Their femur of all their bones as well. Where had this person walked? Where had they traveled?
I’ll never know their full story, and it’s their anonymity that is so frustrating but irresistible at the same time. Where was the rest of them, the other 205 bones that once made up this person? They might be deeper in the trench. They might be gone. It’s the archaeological enigma.
I believe that archaeologists who excavate with the intent of finding out the whole truth will never be satisfied. The ones who recognize they can only catch quick glances into the past are the ones who succeed. The same could be said of today’s people. We will never fully understand everything. Hell, I barely understand my own days sometimes. But, we can catch glances. It’s about holding onto the small details in life and using those to make the bigger picture, with each memory connected like a spider’s web.
I think archaeology is not so much about discovery as it is about memory – the human memory. It’s about uncovering the memory of the past. Personally, I don’t believe things are so much lost as they are forgotten. Whom ever the bone belonged to is long gone, but they are still communicating with us. Their bone can tell us about who they were and the world they lived in. It’s like a fragment of Sappho’s poetry, the broken lines already so telling and beautiful. We are left wanting more, but to our bitter disappointment we have nothing else.
It is one of the many things I believe the ancient Egyptians got right. They believed so long as the memory of a person survives they will live on forever. I know that my 3 weeks in Romania was but a small part in the greater scheme of understanding Romanian prehistory. But, as I looked down to the bone I held in my hand, a gracile reminder of a human life, I got my glimpse into the past. A glimpse that once again gave a voice to whomever that person was.
And, honestly knowing my luck that person was probably some bratty Neolithic teenager.