Saturday 18 February 2012

Picnic All Day; Party All Night

Although I never much appreciated his avowedly atheoretical approach to archaeology, Roy Carlson was ever a gracious host. And, like so many good hosts, he had a saying for almost every occasion. My favorite was his way of describing field campaigns as 'A picnic all day and a party all night.' Dry drunks and relatives of alcoholics will please excuse the following reminiscences. 
     No names will be mentioned, no documentary photos will be uploaded. But perhaps this'll make your Friday mood a little lighter. It's almost axiomatic--as a group, archaeologists ingest prodigious quantities of ethanol, and inhale more pot smoke than there is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 
     Once upon a time the project director left the remote site for a long weekend. The only people left in camp were the ones that had no family to go home to. So they decided one hot sunny morning that they'd officially declare the day Palaeo Day. Everyone busied themselves with little projects that they thought would best express their most fondly held feelings about the past. One of them promptly took off all his clothes, tied a bandana around his head, roughly laced a very un-artifact-like piece of rock to a fairly straight tree branch, and ran off into the hinterland by himself. Two members of the team set to work building a scale model of a pithouse, complete with a cutaway to show the inner construction, and a lego human for scale. 

[In reality these structures were homeothermic, waterproof, efficient dwellings for a sedentary people in a continental climate--cool in the 40 degree Celsius summer heat and warm in winter's 40 degrees below.
Hat Creek Ranch aboriginal guest group pithouse. Thanks to for this view. Photo ©Alison Gardner.
Inside, these buildings could accommodate a good number of people in a small space, and some of these structures were 20 m in diameter! Inside they were much homier than the scruffy looking mound in the photo above. Have a look. Life could be a lot worse!]
Again, thanks to for this view. Photo ©Alison Gardner.
Back to our story.
The senior archaeologist that remained in camp decided to try duplicating a traditional earth oven. So he and another guy drove a worn-out Toyota pickup to the local watercourse to gather flat, river-rounded cobbles and bullrushes to line the oven. 
     By noon the five or six archaeologists were into the second flat of beers, the pithouse model had gone through an accelerated regime of quasi-experimental archaeology. The experiment included a demonstration of what happens when, toward the end of the useful life of such dwellings, the inhabitants torch the superstructure to rid the house of vermin, after which they scour out the debris and re-build the house in the same location, a little deeper in the ground each time the house is renewed.
    No one gave much thought that day to the bandana-ed naked guy that ran off into the bush that morning, brandishing his stick. All they  knew for sure was that he wasn't alone on the vast site, 'cause there'd been the buzz of a motor-bike on the wind all morning. What no one had counted on was that the spear-carrier had progressed from his morning quest for altered states of consciousness and had, in his imagination, become the self-proclaimed guardian of the site. No one is sure what really took place that day among the remnant cultural depressions that were all that was left of the once-vibrant community. However, the locals tell of the time one summer afternoon when Sammy was ridin' around the old village site. Out of nowhere, some naked guy with a real bad sunburn stood ramrod straight by the track with the make-shift spear held out horizontally to block the rider's progress. When he realized that he was face to face with one of the traditional owners of the land, naked guy apparently mumbled something incoherent, realized what he'd just done, and disappeared into the sagebrush in a running crouch.
     By the time the sun was heading west in a hurry, about a half dozen dusty, drunk, archaeologists gathered by the fire they'd built over the earth oven waiting for the spuds and carrots, corn, parsnips, beets and rutabagas to be exhumed. By this time they were each deep in conversation with Jack, Jim or Johnny (Daniels, Beam, or Walker), and as darkness fell a contemplative silence fell over the camp, leaving only the crackle of the fire to be heard.
     At about that time naked guy stumbles down the precipitous and prickly pear riddled side of the arroyo nearby, yelling 'Ouch! Ow! Ahhhh!' with every sliding step. He was, after all, naked all over!
     'Must be Charlie,' someone suggested. 'Charlie' nearly careers into the fire with the built-up momentum of his trip down the hill and pulls himself upright at the last second, one foot held in the air so as not to push the thorns in any further. Almost falling backward now, he enquired as to everyone's day, as if nothing unusual had taken place.
     Soon the fire was pushed aside, the dirt and bullrushes were carefully lifted off, and the very un-paleo aluminum foil-covered vegetables were pulled from the oven. No one ever had such sweet corn, smoked and roasted carrots, or sweet potatoes. And no one noticed at the time that they had succeeded in turning Roy Carlson's characterization of archaeology on its head. They'd partied all day and picnicked all night! Truly, there's no better job in the world than that of an archaeologist.