Breaking Backs, Breaking Stereotypes at the Loyola Plantation (French Guiana Part 2)

It’s often important for archaeologists to point out that movies like the Indiana Jones franchise provide very poor examples of our  craft. Frankly, I can’t imagine why anyone thinks being shot at by Nazis, chased by giant boulders, or having your face melted off by a supernatural artifact sounds like a good day at work*. But a very different archaeology stereotype has us digging with toothpicks and toothbrushes, barely removing an inch of dust for our efforts. Your face has time to melt from boredom! Luckily, real life archaeology is more stimulating than the latter, but safer than the former.


I spent a week in the oven to the right

In 2006, I participated in a project in French Guiana, an overseas French territory in South America. We dug on the site of a colonial plantation established in 1668 by Jesuit Priests. The Jesuits were major land owners in French Guiana, and took full advantage of the slave trade. Over 1000 slaves worked on their five plantations, many of whom were of African descent, but others were natives of South America, and some were even convicts from France. The combination of inhumane treatment, hard labor in equatorial heat, and tropical diseases made this an undoubtedly terrible place. By about 1740, the Loyola plantation produced more sugar, coffee, and cocoa on its 1000 or so hectares of land than the rest of the colony put together.

Our project involved the unearthing of what remained of the sugar mill. Delicate techniques were not appropriate for removing the massive amounts of mud, dirt, and rocks covering the stone foundations. The extreme heat and humidity meant the mud at the surface was full of putrid wood, squirming insects, and rotting god knows what else. But since the shovels got stuck in that thick biomess, the job began with us removing it with our bare hands.

026It didn’t take me too long to realize that this project wasn’t going to involve much complex thinking…maybe later, when we had found what we were looking for. Occasionally, archaeology is more action than intellect, and it seemed that with all the strength of my impressive 5”2 100lb frame, I had been hired for grunt work. There was once a three-day stretch when the only tools I used were a pick-axe and wheel-barrel.

I thought I had managed to escape the stereotype of the weak and small, overly feminine blonde woman that had pursued me my whole life. Yet I had to push myself harder than ever, because that stereotype was never far behind. I stopped counting how many times I was referred to as “the blonde.” Any act of kindness towards me was because I was “blonde,”  not because I was a pleasant person who perhaps deserved to be treated nicely. Did they not see my dark roots? I stopped being a true blonde as a teenager, but I guess my choice of hair-dye must have affected the fundamental nature of my personality. Oh wait…hair color never affects the fundamental nature of one’s personality. Apparently, being among scientists –you know, those people who claim to adhere to fact and logic?– does not save you from unfair judgment.

In an oven for a week

In an oven for a week

Nor does science always mean precise data and high-tech instrumentation. And sometimes, as a petite archaeologist, you spend a week wedged inside of an ancient oven digging out rocks, because you are the only person who fits in that space.  And yet you still get called a princess because you dared to wear mascara after washing off the dirt from the hard day’s work. Maybe sometimes archaeology is like Indiana Jones, exciting and kind of sexist.

*Indiana Jones movies may portray poor archaeology, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them as movies!


An archaeology moment


An epic battle between wasp and spider. The spider lost.

Within an archaeology site, an epic battle between wasp and spider. The spider lost. French Guiana, 2006.

When you spend your day in the dirt, digging, moving rocks, you begin to merge with your environment. You observe the details, the tiny bits of life around you as they interact in ways never before noticed. The insect realm starts to feel oddly close and familiar, because for once you are sharing their space, their world; you are at their level.   The goal of archaeology may be to learn about ancient people, but its practice brings you closer to earth in more ways than one.

In this age of conspiracy…

With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our lives, misinformation, conspiracy, frauds, and pseudoscience have gained power and carved out a significant place in our society. Even for very smart, critical people, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between legitimate and questionable sources. In just the past few years, it seems that conspiracies have multiplied and gained traction. One of the most notable was the promise of the 2012 apocalypse as supposedly predicted by the Maya. The Maya never really predicted any such thing –the truth, like most truths, is more nuanced and not nearly as sensational– but it’s more exciting to think the world will explode, am I right?!

As an archaeologist this drove me a little crazy, but to make things worse, I have family members who manage to believe in dozens of sometimes conflicting conspiracies at the same time. I have come to understand that sometimes the blind belief in the strange replaces traditional religion. This inspired me to write (and publish) a short fiction piece that explores the madness behind certain conspiracy theories. Misinformation is not just harmless fun; we have seen time and time again that this can lead unstable individuals to commit terrible acts in the name of…who exactly?

The Countdown

(originally published in print in The Watermark, 2013)

 by Natasha L.

The clock had been ticking for as long as he could remember. As a small child Michael heard the tick tock as he entertained himself in the living room, lying on the thick red rug, waiting. He stared at the room and its individual objects, inventing a story for each. The clock did not bother him then, but sometimes it sounded more like a tsk, the tsk, tsk of a mother scolding her child. The rhythm became urgent, as though time had sped up. This he heard in the night, awake or dreaming, when he walked by the cellar door or when his father stirred the cubes in his evening booze.

“Toward the end of Time the world will grow ill, truly worse than it is now. Wretched things will be heaped upon us, and the planet will no longer be safe, at least until December 21st when all will come to a halt. The 12th planet will finally appear in the night sky, and alignment will be achieved. The end will seem nigh, and yet the people will become calm and hopeful during the last minutes of respite –the Earth will give off a sense of peace,” intones Michael. He smiles to himself, enjoying the power of his own words.

That is how Michael imagines things will unravel, near the end of the calendar. And who better to know this than the clock himself? He had long come to the conclusion that he was time impersonated, his innards wiring and his heart the beating timepiece.

When the worst is expected, hopeful fools will always be lulled by the calm before the storm. With their guns, underground shelters and canned goods, they will believe themselves prepared. But when the earth does not immediately shatter and engulf all things living, the wicked will think themselves spared, the good will think themselves chosen. But Michael knows better; there will be no escape, and the final countdown will have just begun.

From the cellar he often heard voices, men and women, laughing hysterically. He was always left out and could only wonder at the white, paint-chipped door. He would sit on the cold, dirty linoleum of the kitchen floor, imagining the fun he must be missing. His father assumed he was too young to understand, but Michael was always listening to the adults, interpreting their words as best he could. Once, his father had compared the neighbor’s dog to his mother; Michael understood this was no laughing matter. That day, long ago, he opened the white door –he would share in this joke– and in doing so brought up a waft of incense and cold sweat, and laughter that turned into screams as they reached his ears.

free stockphoto_starsMichael believes that as all gaze upon the firmament, waiting for their demise to come from above, this is when the dead will reach out from their graves and tickle the unsuspecting feet of the living. As they wrestle the dirt to reach the light, they will remember their hunger. This part is not in the Popol Vuh; the ancient Maya had not seen “Dawn of the Dead.” Young Michael had, and something similar, in the cellar. They were not truly zombies, and after seeing a documentary on Santeria he later learned they had been drugged. But if the living could become zombie-like, then why not the dead?

Then will come the solar flares, so that living flesh sizzles and bone crumbles. Earth will become a marshmallow, melting and white with heat. The last few survivors will hear the wind above; it must be a storm. It is nothing but fire. Fire like the ball of heat that flowed from Michael’s mouth to his stomach the time he stole a taste from his father’s glass. His mother disapproved of alcohol, as she disapproved of most things beyond breathing and praying. She did not tolerate her husband and his pagan practices, she feared them, and prayed harder, counting her prayer beads out loud.

Michael suspects the last few to survive, atheists and religious fanatics alike, will have simultaneous epiphanies in which they fancy themselves filled with grace.

“We must be the Ones, the survivors of Armageddon that will inherit the Earth and repopulate it with acts of kindness. The World has been cleansed,” chants Michael. “And of course they would think this, since near the end, society will have taken a turn for the worst: murder, disease, war, economic and moral degradation!” Michael laughs and beams at his audience.

His daughters, small blond children of two and four, smile back. They are nervous and confused, but even now they trust him; he has always been a gentle, loving father. At bedtime he tells stories, wonderful magical stories of talking animals, hidden gardens and enchanted fruit.

“Then tell me, why did the world not end with Nazi Germany? Were those not trying times?” he continues, gesticulating wildly. His wife jerks her head, nods, as tears stream down her cheeks, wetting the duct tape that holds her mouth shut. But her eyes are pleading and full of questions.

“I know what you are thinking, love. For a time I wasn’t worried, but then the clock started ticking faster…tsk, tsk, tsk, and everything was pointing towards 2012. It’s all over the media! Websites, documentaries, even the ancient texts! The Maya themselves predicted it,” he explains, as he smoothes out her hair, removing a few strands from her trembling brow.

When the ground starts to shake, Michael knows it will not be the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, despite all that his mother said. The earthquakes will sound more like beating drums, the ones his father used to play. The tectonic plates will shake and bend as the poles reverse, the plates will shift, free from the magnetic field that he thinks holds them in place. The Earth’s crust will collapse like a soggy cracker as the oceans wash over it.

“Do you understand? It’s not about good or evil. It will simply be the End; no new beginning after December 21st. How could there be? The calendar ends,” says Michael, hands held together in gentle supplication. “This is for the best, trust me.”

He starts counting the pills; the dosage must be exact. The sound they make as they fall from the bottle to the countertop matches the ticking in his head.

“Now open your mouths.”

He feeds them to his daughters. He waits to ensure they have swallowed and then unties his wife’s bonds. It is too late to fight; defeated she willingly takes the pills and hurries over to her children.  Michael leads them to the sofa and grabs a thick, leather-bound book from the shelf. Before they go to sleep, he will read them one last fairytale, his favorite of all.

“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth…”



An Ancient Quarry on a Mountain Desert (Mauna Kea, Hawaii or the Big Island)

Imagine ascending a dormant monster, a volcano whose summit reaches beyond the clouds. You are on foot, weighed down by life sustaining necessities such as fuel, water, and food. Your home base has already disappeared in the distance, and you have much farther to go. The air is thin and as dry as an old biscuit, because oxygen is scarcer as you ascend, and due to the accelerated evaporation in high altitude, dehydration sets in. You will be camping at this height for some time; you must acclimate.

View from adze quarry, Mauna Kea

View from adze quarry, Mauna Kea

You climbed above the treeline some time ago, and now the world has turned into a cold desert. Vegetation has given way to a harsher environment, beautiful, earthy, remote. From hundreds of thousands of years of eruptions, accumulations of lava have created cinder cones of various sizes and colors: browns, reds, blacks. The sand is not sand, it is ash, scattered over the slopes and summit. But you and your fellow travelers will not be scaling the summit, you will be stopping at one of the natural basalt quarries to extract the stone that will permit you to make a most important tool, the adze.

Requiring considerable stamina, this is not an activity many would attempt today, and yet Native Hawaiians scaled this volcano for hundreds of years before European colonization. But Mauna Kea was not just any volcano, as the highest mountain on the island at 13,796 feet, it was a particularly sacred place. In the Hawaiian tongue, Mauna Kea means white mountain, which refers to its snow-capped summit in the winter months. The mountain is also known as Mauna o Wākea or Mountain of the deity Wākea.

Basalt flakes next to natural rock. Mauna Kea

Basalt flakes next to natural rock. Mauna Kea

On the volcano’s south flank, at an elevation of around 12,000 feet, Hawaiians quarried and flaked large pieces of basaltic rock. This was the first step in the complex art of manufacturing ground and polished adzes, which would in their final form be attached to wooden handles and used, among other things, to make canoes.

Today, these quarries are considered important archaeologically and culturally, and continue to be sacred for Native Hawaiians. They are visually arresting sites and worth visiting if you can find someone to guide you there. The blue-grey stones impacted by extraction and flaking can be found in huge piles, contrasting sharply with the reddish shades of the surrounding rocks. Many pieces left behind are tiny flakes, but over time their accumulation has created mounds reaching occasionally three meters in height. Other flaked stones are too large for one person to lift and show scars where smaller pieces of stone were removed by striking the hard surface.

Basalt flakes

Basalt flakes, Mauna Kea

The whole archaeological complex includes not only the remnants of lithic production, but shrines, trails, rock shelters, and petroglyphs. This is a case where close observation can be greatly rewarded, as what may at first glance appear to be nothing more than haphazard rock formations are in truth the remains of centuries of human activity reshaping a barren landscape. Sitting on these ancient stones, this ancient mountain deity, where many before you sat, you can gaze out over both land and sky. Stone never felt so alive.