Not a bad day at work

It’s been a helluva week. Good helluva.

Classes commenced for the Marine Civilizations department at UHaifa. So far I’ve managed to keep up with my professors’ breakneck Hebrew by furiously pecking at my electronic translator and asking classmates for en route translations. One great thing about grad school is that all of the classes are interesting, and my schedule runs the gamut from classes on marine mammal conservation, to mollusks in the archaeological record, to ancient shipbuilding techniques. Surprisingly, even masters students in Israel (who average around 30 years of age) tend to raise a racket in class with a mix of wise-cracks, inane questions and idle chatter. It’s an odd feeling to sit patiently in lecture and wait for the teachers, Ph.D. candidates and retired lawyers sitting next to me to pipe down. Chock it up to cultural differences. One other not-so-surprising discovery was that students in Israel avoid reading in English like I avoid gas station hot dogs- they simply refuse to read in English if there is ANY other alternative (including cheating). To this effect, I wandered around the library looking for Heroditus’ Histories, and found a beautiful leather-bound volume shelved in with the general collection. The translation was a little clunky and uber-British, but the book was gorgious and had all the original fold-out maps intact. I checked the publisher’s stamp: 1868. Mint condition. I’m still contemplating stealing it. The funniest part: the thing had been checked out only once in the last twenty years.

Class only eats up 3 days a week, so the rest of the time I try to get out in the field. This week I joined up with IMMRAC (Israel Marine Mammals Research And Conservation) for a dolphin survey off the coast of Michmoret. I drove down in a borrowed VW at 6 a.m., bleary eyed and excited, then slouched around on the deck of the zodiac while our head researcher Aviad tinkered with the engine. After two hours of fussing with spark plugs, carburetor, fuel tanks and starter, we gave up and borrowed a boat from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Literally seconds after clearing the harbor mouth, we spotted a foraging dolphin and followed it around, taking photos of its dorsal fin for the ID database and recording data on the animal’s movement and behavior. The dolphin didn’t seem to pay us any mind, and as we got closer Aviad was able to recognise that it was an individual he had met with before. “See how he lists to the left during his dives? That’s Pinchas, for sure. His snout is splotchy and white. Look now!” The dolphin often surfaced just meters from our gunwales, took a measured breath and then dove again, only to surface somewhere else. Everyone onboard was hyperalert, scanning the water for the next ascent. We began a life-size game of whack-a-mole, everyone’s eyes darting around until someone yelled “There!” and we’d all spin around snapping photos.

After leaving Pinchas, our party adopted a new strategy: we’d tool around looking for fishing trawlers, then creep up behind them and scan for dolphins around the nets. If none were sighted, we’d nose up to the rusting, diesel belching boats and make small talk on the VHF. Altogether, we were on the water for only three hours, after which Aviad had to get back and pick his kids up from school.

The next day (Thursday) was another early wakeup, 4:45 am departure for the Jordan Valley and another day of supplementary digging at the Calcolithic site we had opened up in the two-week dig last month. In February, we hadn’t found all that much at the site, apart from some imposing architecture and the usual assortment of ceramics and flint. Thursday we worked in a smaller group of only five researchers, but everyone was motivatted and highly experienced (save myself). It was a perfect day for digging, at the height of the wet season in this hilly region, and the whole surface of the planet seemed carpeted with desert wildflowers that reminded me of the alpine summer in Alaska. Blood-red poppies and Calaniot billowed in the breeze, crowded with tiny stalks of what back home would be Aster, Bluebells, Jacobs ladder and wild mustard. We all dug quickly and comfortably. Flocks of sheep bleated by, followed by Bedouin boys on donkeys carrying the new lambs that haden’t yet learned to keep up with the herd.

I got lucky. Within the first two hours of digging I found the base edge of a jug which seemed to continue on underground. After working around it for a while, I decided that it had to come out and focused on only a small square of earth surrounding the find. Some hours later, I finally got to the edge of the broken jug, but as I started pulling out the sherds, it turned out there was another pot underneath, this one whole. Everyone became very excited and we all scrambled around the egg-like mass, working furiously with brushes and putty knives in an effort to get the whole thing out by quitting-time. At the end of the day, I plucked out the pot intact, its broken jug cap still glued on with some sort of ancient plaster. Right now it’s sitting in the lab awaiting a CT scan, but this much seems clear: it’s probably the burial pot of a 6000 year old infant. Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job.

6000 yr old dead baby lays giant egg!


~ by jonlib on March 11, 2007.

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