MARCH 2009 – NO. 31
From that day, when adults asked the question, I said, "An archaeologist"
I'd seen dead people before. Pink colored satin tucked neatly around their shoulders, their arms resting on their stomachs like they'd fallen asleep in front of the television, like Dad when he watches football. My cousin, who I'd never seen wearing anything but camouflage, had too much make-up on, his beard still a slight brown in the corners of his mouth from the tobacco he chewed. I tried to imagine what he might say if he knew he was wearing rouge. I wondered, as I stood peering over him, what he would say if I made fun of him for not wearing his seatbelt. At several funerals, I'd even made myself touch the dead person. I'd held my grandma's leg as she sighed her last breath, and hidden behind a curtain when my grandpa did the same. Not only had I worked in a medical lab where I saw severed breasts, toes, and fetuses, but I'd also glued human bones back together in college. Held misshapen crania in my hand the way I'd been taught: my thumb through the foramen magnum, the hole at the base of the skull, the rest of my fingers gripping firmly but tenderly around the back of the head. Like holding a lover's face when I kissed her. Strained my back from leaning over to examine these faces only inches above the lab table in case I slipped, written on my exam Female, 20-30, Native American, sat down the skull on the circle of Styrofoam and moved to the femur at the next exam station. I'd done all that, but I'd never pulled anyone from his grave.
It rained hard all weekend and now mud was flowing from the hill, a stream of melted chocolate, down the footpath we'd stomped grassless the summer before. The trees were rainforest green with branches spilling and climbing everywhere, but the leaves hung like dead hands, the weight of water pushing them toward the earth. It was seven o'clock on a Monday morning, the grey sky spitting and already sticky hot. The other two trucks were coming down the gravel road, wipers beating time with the classic rock on our radio. Chris and I sighed, looked at each other, his blue eyes under dark black eyebrows, and his nostrils flaring from melodramatic frustration. We were looking into the bed of the truck. At the wheelbarrow, shovels, scythes, pick axes, screens, mattocks, bucket augers, and back at the mudflow: our only path to the top of the hill. All three trucks were packed full of the same equipment. "Do you think we'll break ground today?" I asked. Chris didn't answer; he was singing with Freddie Mercury, Another One Bites the Dust, his bangs swinging back and forth as he pumped his fist in the air.
I put on the leather gloves I had in my dig kit so I wouldn't cut my hands on the pieces of jagged metal and mesh poking from the dry screen. I'd decided to start up the hill with the most awkward object. Screens are made of two-by-fours and quarter inch mesh wire; they weigh half as much as me and are three times as wide. These were free standing and sturdy so we could dump five gallon buckets of dirt into them and push it all through, sifting out all the artifacts we missed while we were troweling. Starting up the hill backwards, I dug my hiking boots in the mud with my heel before stepping. I held the screen with one hand and grabbed at smaller trees on the path to pull myself and the screen up the hill. Chris, who was carrying only four shovels and two machetes, laid them aside on the path and helped me by pushing the screen while I pulled. Slipping in the mud and loose gravel, shaking water from the leaves of the trees, we grunted and cussed our way up the hill.
At the top, we threw the screen on its side, wiping the sweat from our faces with our forearms, making sure not to smear sweat on our fresh scratches. Chris went off into the bushes, though he'd just gone behind the truck before the others got there, and I decided to wait a couple of minutes before attempting to walk back down the hill. I followed the narrow footpath to the edge of the bluff, past the mound we'd dug the summer before. We'd worked on that mound for two months, finding bits of bone here and there, but no human bones, and only a few projectile points, a wooden bead. The mound looked bare now, all the dirt that had been on top we'd removed with paint brushes and tooth brushes, shovels and trowels. The rain had done the rest. And now there was what looked like the back of a bald head sticking up from the earth, bleached by the sun. A lone tree was left near the middle where we'd hacked off all its limbs in order to climb it with a deer stand for aerial photos. I had remembered the mound as a slight hump in the ground, as big around as an above ground swimming pool. To an untrained eye it would've looked like a little bump in the earth, to me it looked like a very old cemetery. But instead of reading the slabs of marble to find out who was below, I just had to stick my shovel in and see who came out.
There are at least ten tombstones with HOLZHAUSER carved across the top in the cemetery in my hometown. Every time I watched another family member lowered into the ground I'd picture what my own stone would look like. I'd usually be huddled together with my mom, the rain coming in sideways under a green canopy, her other hand stroking the red carpet covering the folding chairs. I had picked a place for my own grave by the time I was 12 Christina Holzhauser mother, wife, daughter, friend. January 18, 1980 and then I would figure a suitable year. Maybe something like 2070, which still seems fake it's so far away.
After every internment, I'd run off, over and down the hill to where the older graves were, where there was a better view of the river. Eighteen twenty-four was the oldest stone I could find, or read. Mom always told me that as long as we remembered the person, they were not dead, not entirely. But there is no way that anyone alive now remembers the person from 1824, evidenced by the mere squatness of the stone and its severe erosion. And that means that they are completely dead and that, to me, is like never living at all. Someone in 2170 might look at my weathered headstone, trying to make out the name, assigning me a face, wondering what I did in my lifetime. But then again, maybe no one would ever know my name, or see my grave.
Three more screens needed to be brought up, along with two wheel barrows, four shovels, the large Rubbermaid tubs we used for keeping our artifact bags, and the survey equipment which was not only some of the heaviest equipment, but also the most expensive. I rested a minute while looking out over the valley. Even if there wasn't a burial up on that hill, it would be worth the climb for the view.
A small ledge jutted out from the side of the cliff, 100 feet above the ground, just big enough for someone to eat her lunch there, just small enough to make someone worry about stepping the wrong way. From that ledge, I could see a thin fog hanging in the valley and the river bottom waking to slowly kick off the sheet that covered it. Miles of rolling hills in each direction were bright green from the recent storms with only a gray sliver of a road cutting through the color. The road wound under me, under the bluff, and crossed the small river by the bridge. And the road and that bridge, that's the reason we were there.
When I started work with the Department of Transportation the summer before, they told me it wasn't likely there were human remains left in the mounds; they'd been potted by looters a hundred years ago for artifacts. Was it possible they got everything? Even if there were bones left, they'd be tossed about, out of provenience, and therefore worthless to us because the information was lost. Pot hunters, the archaeologists we see in the movies, dig for money, for priceless artifacts and we made fun of them. Anytime we were digging a site you could hear the shovel clink as it skimmed something other than dirt. The person outside the pit would say, "What is it?" And the person shoveling would lean over, stoop down to get a better look, "The Jade Idol." We'd laugh every time. Usually what we considered the most valuable (charcoal for Carbon-14 dating and holes full of pieces of chert flakes proving someone made tools there) looked like junk to anyone else. Legally, we were required to give the artifacts to land owners if they asked for them. When we handed one old farmer a bag full of flakes he snorted, handed them back like we were lying or crazy. It's likely what those potters on the mound found was nothing, or worse than nothing: rotten old bones.
I found a rotten old bone the first day I worked with the state. "It was dug up last year," the lab manager told me when he handed me the brown lunch sack full of dirt and artifacts. "It's from the mounds."
"You mean burial mounds?" I was excited.
He nodded and when I asked if there might be any human remains in the bag he just laughed in my face saying of course not. In the artifact lab, I was standing over a sink with a strainer full of dirt and chert flakes, scrubbing each one with an old toothbrush, the bristles rubbed to little brown stumps. It's a mindless task that's saved for interns, the hazing ritual of archaeologists. It wasn't too long after I'd begun that I felt something familiar in my fingers. What I was holding was much whiter than most usual chert colors. I scrubbed it lightly, the contact of toothbrush on the object felt too familiar. It wasn't chert at all, but a human molar. It had been two years since graduation, two years since the last time I saw one out of context of a human mouth, but in my gut, I knew. But I didn't want to show anyone if I was wrong. I waited. I shoved a finger far back in my mouth to see if it felt the same. That was my third day on the job. The archaeologists had overlooked it in the screen while they were digging, just thrown it in the bag with the bits of rocks and animal bone.
The situation I was in was tricky. A number of things could go wrong. I kept the tooth hidden for about ten minutes, doubting myself then convincing myself I knew I was right. There weren't supposed to be human remains. Human remains are bad for the state; that means indigenous people, which means lawsuits and paper work. If I was wrong, I'd look like a total fool, but if I was right, I was going to dig my first grave.
I took the tooth to the head of the lab.
"Right, upper, number two," I said. Jack the lab guy shook his head,
"Nah, you're sure that's human?"
"Pretty sure it is. It is." I said.
He walked away muttering he would take it to the archaeologist whose specialty was physical anthropology. Jack and Kathi came back in less than a minute. She smiled, "Good eye."
The state departments of transportation have archaeologists in order to comply with Section 106, a document which guarantees historical preservation. Whenever the state rebuilds a road or bridge, archaeologists have to survey the land first. Most of my job was digging small holes around the state to see if anything was there at all, or just taking pictures of old culverts and the scraps of farmhouses left to the elements. At the end of the day Chris and I would be sunburned, covered in poison ivy, and on the verge of heat stroke. If I started complaining too much, Chris would pull at the neck of his sweaty shirt, exposing the tattoo over his heart of Freddie Mercury. I'd smile and nod and after a long shower in our hotel rooms, we'd all go drinking. In the case of the mounds, the road was being moved because it flooded too much. The road happened to wind past a jutting bluff which overlooked the meeting of a small river and a creek. The people who lived nearby in towns with rural populations had voted to blow up the bluff instead of having the road shut down for one week, because then they'd have to drive an extra ten miles to get to town.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that the locals knew about the mounds on top.
One of the engineers working on the new design, itching to get going on the project (as most others who worked for the department were) climbed the hill long enough to say, "Hurry up or there's gonna be skulls flying outta this hill 'for long!
Outside of my grandma's house in my hometown, lies an old tombstone. The location of it has always troubled me. Lying flat, like it was knocked over years ago, moss growing on it because it's on the north side of the house. But the foundation of the house is only inches from the thing. No one on my dad's side of the family knows where it came from. The thing is sticking out from under the house like the Wicked Witch's red stripped socks. Dad tells me that for a long time a porch was built on top of it. When they tore down the porch there it was, but no one seems to know anything about it. When my cousins and I would play football in the yard on Thanksgiving, I'd stall before going back inside to the smell of grandmas' rolls, just so I could look at the tombstone there in the yard and imagine the house was accidentally built on an entire graveyard.
It takes weeks to dig any archaeological site. Usually, the first few days are just paperwork and a lot of waiting to be told what to do. One of our first tasks at this site was to move the huge mound of rocks we'd piled there the summer before. We'd piled the rocks from the first mound onto the second, smaller one, because the engineers told us the bluff would only be blown back so far. But the engineers had changed their minds, so we were back to get whoever was in the ground so the road workers wouldn't have the thrill of seeing skulls roll out of the rock debris. We put on leather gloves and set to work, straining our backs lifting the rocks we'd put there as well as the stones they'd put there. We uprooted them from the position they'd been in for well over 3,000 years. The rocks were heaved into wheel barrows and taken to another place on the hill where they were dumped in piles again; creating our own archaeology from the archaeology. We joked about how this mound would fool archaeologists a hundred years from now. I said maybe this wasn't a burial mound at all, but the result of some man punishing his child, making him pile rocks and then move the pile again until he'd thought long and hard about what he'd done. Everyone smiled.
The mound we were making was growing when one of our bosses said, "Do you hear that?" We listened, confused as hell, as he dropped a stone onto the other stones. "The noise," he said. We listened again; it was the chalky thunk and squeak that only soft limestone onto limestone can make. "This must be the sound they heard that day," he said, "when they buried him." We listened, his usual sleazy smile had faded; he let another fall from his grip. We stared at the pile, heard an old Chevy gurgling down the highway. Every rock I threw into the pile became the one I placed, to hear the sound, to show my respect, to get those chills from loving what I was doing.
Early humans left bodies where they dropped and kept going because they were still nomadic, and they realized that the body was useless without the person inhabiting it (though they probably couldn't understand these thoughts). But after humans figured out agriculture they started to bury the dead, not out of respect, but desperate need. Dead things stink. So people put their loved ones underground to hide the smell, or burned them so they'd take up less space. Rituals are formed out of necessity, so after just kicking some dirt over the dead, people probably started burying things with the guy. His favorite projectile point or shell necklace — in the case of Egyptians, their servants and favorite pets. After language developed a bit more, people started saying things over the body, I guess and the rest, as they say, is history.
My education also taught me that crying at funerals is a social construct. Some cultures laugh hysterically, throw a party, or ritually gnaw the bones after a few months of marinating underground. Naturally, we feel a loss, but our long lost ancestors didn't grieve. I cry at funerals. But the whole time I'm tell myself I look stupid, that I'm taught to do this, shut-up you can control this. Be logical. You're crying because you're taught to cry.
Unfortunately, I've grown-up in funeral homes and cemeteries. Used to reunite with long lost relatives over coffee in the basement at visitations. I looked forward to sitting with my family and friends, catching up, the smell of funeral flowers stuck in my nose. I've been to more internments and the like than most people, I think. People tell me, anyway, they've been to two funerals — ever. I laugh. I can't count how many. "Big family" I say. What I mean is "unlucky" or "fuck you."
I'd always heard you should never step on a grave, but there is no way to excavate what's under you without being on top. I discussed this while Kathi assured us she'd dug Native American burials, and nothing bad happened to her. I believed what she said, I hardly felt superstitious, but just in case I spoke to the mound before putting my trowel into the soil. "I'm here to help you," I said inside my head. I imagined the dirt had the power to kill me if I put my trowel to it with impure intentions. For a moment, I considered my fate, looked deep inside myself. I figured the spirits or whatever knew I was here on a rescue mission.
After having cleared the roots and large rocks, I put my trowel to the ground and began scraping. You know someone does archaeology because one forearm will be twice the size of the other, and that same hand will be three times as callused. You have to be careful troweling the dirt, beginners like to just shove the pointed end far into the ground and pry it up that way. Doing that compromises the integrity of the provenience. The public would make fun of us because we'd take weeks to go a few feet into the ground. What they don't understand is that we take only ten centimeters at a time, the edges of our trowels so sharp people sometimes cut themselves. We shave the dirt over and over and over until we're satisfied we've gone as far back in time as possible.
I was combing the soil with my trowel, gathering dirt into my five gallon bucket, when my trowel hit something and pulled it, just a little, from where it had been resting. I put my nose inches from the bone, careful not to inhale the dirt I'd loosened. Again, it had been a few years since college, but I knew what it was. "I have his foot." I said. Chris gave me the rock and roll sign; first and pinky fingers in the air and he nodded his head. I recognized the metatarsal, even covered in black dirt. I pushed it back into place in the dirt, where it had been for centuries; I knew we had to map it exactly. I kept troweling beside it, a little jealous figuring the skull would be at least five feet away, in someone else's unit. Three more metatarsals emerged from the ground. The rest of my coworkers stopped what they were doing to see our first find. Until then, the archaeologists in charge had been uncertain if there would be any bones there. I used the brown toothbrush and one of the many chopsticks we'd stolen from Chinese buffets to remove each fleck of dirt surrounding the foot. The perpetual smile on my face might have looked like satisfaction, but it was probably more amazement than anything.
It was in third grade that I ripped the page out of an old National Geographic and took it to Mrs. Elley's class. Mom was concerned, "Why didn't you just take the whole magazine?" I didn't know why. I'd pull the picture out of my pocket every chance I could, unfold it careful not to rip it, and stare. A baby girl swaddled in a parka, the fur around her face was twice the size of her head, and she'd been frozen that way for 3,000 years. But I could see her eyelids, the wrinkled, leather brown skin. Until that day when people asked what I wanted to be I'd said, "A doctor." From that day on when adults asked the same question I said, "An archaeologist." Only when they asked would I explain what that was.
Digging that mound was all I'd thought about for a few weeks. I hadn't slept well in days, wanting to break ground and find my first human beneath the fertile Missouri soil. Then, and only then, would I do what I'd dreamed of since I was eight years old. Everything I'd gone to college to learn about.
Chris and I were given two separate units at the apex of the mound. We dug with partners, but not each other. At first I was sad, because he was my best friend and we talked about music while we dug. But then, I figured whoever found something first would have to show it to the other. This doubled my chances of being one of the firsts to see anything. Maybe I only ripped the page out of the magazine so I could feel the thrill of discovery every time I fished the paper out of my pocket and unfolded it. That little frozen girl was always just a few layers away.
I had just finished mapping the few bones I'd found of the foot, had used the transit to determine the depth, when I heard someone say, "skull." I yanked the bones from their spot and put them in a paper bag, labeled them and realized the person saying skull was in the unit next to me. Skulls are exciting because they can give the most accurate information as to the skeletons' age, ethnicity, and sex. I glanced into the meter by meter square unit. Twenty centimeters below surface, three centimeters above a rock shelf, there was three-quarter of a mandible wedged between two rocks. Since the jaw bone was still mostly covered in dirt and in the ground it looked like someone who'd just chewed up a bunch of Oreo cookies and smiled, the cookie bits stuck in between and on all of the teeth. As usual, I put my face inches from the bone, smelling the must of wet ground that had been covered for hundreds of years. Without touching the mandible, I looked at the teeth. Native Americans have shovel-shaped incisors while Caucasians and Africans have blade shaped front teeth. A shovel-shaped incisor looks no different when you see someone smile, but if you look at the backs of their teeth, there's a ridge which creates a kind of pocket. I was infamous for asking my Mexican friends in Houston if I could just look in their mouths. It was hard to see the incisors on this jaw because they'd been worn to nothing. The molars were just as bad, completely flat on the surface from grinding nuts or more likely, all the sand he'd eaten accidentally, the bits that had fallen into his food from the pottery made of earth. "He was old" I said. Which could've meant he was 40, which was old a long time ago. Chris cocked an eyebrow, "He?" I checked the angle of his jaw bone, almost 90 degrees. I was positive.
I've heard that people who watch autopsies or surgeries have the most trouble when the knife is taken to the hands or the face. In my own experience, I'd had trouble looking into the eyes of the woman whose autopsy I was helping with. A face personalizes the dead, is the thing humans look for to recognize individuals. To see someone on the street with a severely scarred face is one thing, but to watch as someone cuts around the forehead and pulls the flap of skin back until it rests on a person's neck is quite another. Looking at the mandible personalized the bones for me. It was half of some man's smile. He'd probably had kids, grandkids who loved to see him laugh, though I imagined it happened rarely. I was digging up someone's grandpa. On top of that, I was digging up the ancestor of someone who was still alive and probably pissed at me for doing so. But I was one of the first people to see these remains since the day he was put here by his family and friends. When no one was looking I would run my fingers over the bones hoping I'd suddenly gained psychic powers and I could see him, or a snapshot of his life. I hoped, too, that he could feel that touch and know I was only there to help.
After the mandible I had to go to the bathroom, so I wandered to the girls' side of the hill. While the guys went next to the bluff, behind any tree, the women trekked further out, on the opposite side to where the woods became a valley in the hill. Tall golden grass was waving in the slight breeze, the sun beating down. And that's where I saw him, the owner of the foot. I saw a tribe of Osage coming down through the valley, filing past me with a man at the front of the procession, lying on a shoddy wooden gurney. One foot had fallen off the platform and was bobbing to the rhythm of the men carrying him; his muscles were toned in a way modern humans could never achieve because he used his body to hunt and build and lead. I stretched out my arms, facing the valley, and closed my eyes. I was flying above the man so I could see his face. And then I pictured myself in his place.
It was local knowledge that the mounds were up on the hill. But the people chose to blow up the bluff rather than drive around for a few days. What I'm not sure of is if they knew those mounds were burial mounds. But, then again, what ancient culture took the time to make a mound for no good reason? Though most Missourians probably couldn't find a burial mound in their back yard, they know they exist. They're all over the state. In fact, one is only five miles from my house. On a bluff overlooking a creek. And like the other mounds, at the point of the bluff, for the best view. On the eastern side of the state is a park where there are almost a hundred mounds in the area, all privately owned. Driving down the highway at dusk, on our way back from digging, Chris and I saw someone had put a cattle loading platform on one of his mounds. Chris slowed down, pulled the truck over a little to the side of the road, "Sick," he said as he turned down the radio. I imagined myself finding one of his relative's graves and using it as a stepping stone in my back yard.
I'm afraid the locals didn't mind blowing up the bluff because the person or people there were Native Americans. I'm certain that if there was a tombstone lying on top they wouldn't have been so quick in their decision. Maybe people deal only in symbols. When we visit graveyards we cry over the tombstone, not the three-by-six feet hole beneath us. I've never seen anyone touch the ground and cry. And when a tombstone has fallen over, we're so sad, never mind that our loved one has rotted beneath our feet, bugs crawling in and out of their faces. Some coffins, preserved accidentally in the right climate have been found to contain adipocre "body liquor," a dark brown, fatty goo that was once a living breathing person. I can't help but envision all of the stages of decomposition when I visit a graveyard. A fresh hump of dirt symbolizes rigormortis and severe bloating, the grave from 1824 could be bits of a skeleton; a foot in a brand new leather shoe.
If there was a gravestone, one that the locals could read, not the symbolic one we dug for, then maybe they would reconsider. If the history of the mounds was written on paper, in English, then maybe the remains we found that day would be resting in their original position, still gazing out over the valley and the creeks.
And what about that tombstone in my Grandma's yard? Thanks to the state historical society and research, I know a little more about Julia B. Jones. She had two brothers and two sisters. She was the daughter of a doctor. I still can't figure out how she died, but it was in 1864 and she was 17 years old. There is a finger on her tombstone that points upward (were it standing), a sign of the times meaning that she was going to heaven.
As four o'clock came we started putting the large boards and tarps over our pits, in case it rained. A few of us grabbed the paper sacks with the remains. I made sure I'd written everything correctly on the bag. Metatarsals, Phalanges, Unit 4, Level 2, C.H. There were about ten of us then, trekking back down the hill in single file, because the trail is only so wide. Chris was behind me, I could smell him, like Off! and sweat and dirt.
I started the truck to let the air conditioner get going as we loaded our gear in the back. The remains went into the suburban, with one of my bosses. We drove back to the office like that, the suburban in front, the other two yellow trucks tailing, rolling along the hills and dips, past herds of cattle and old convenience stores, past schools and cemeteries.
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