The MUNI ride was interminable. I was late, but I knew I was going to be late, after checking out an Afro-Futurist art show in Hayes Valley and standing for too long on a windy windy hill while the sun set over Divisidero. The MUNI was behind schedule and packed. The gears and wires groaned as we inch-wormed over the hills of San Francisco.
Most of the guests were around the table already, drinking wine and eating cheese. Ruth’s dining room has been a constant during my graduate education–dinners with visiting academics, Thanksgivings where I’m one of the few Americans attending, parties for the successful passing of first year exams, always centered on her long, wooden table.
The occasion last night was a visit from playwright Sinan Ünel, who doing some background research–he’s interested in writing a play about an archaeologist at Çatalhöyük. Burcu spoke about interacting with the local community, Meg (who has never worked at Çatalhöyük, but has no end of wonderful insights about archaeology) chatted about Maria Gimbutas and feminist/masculinist archaeology, and Ruth spoke of hand ballets and the differences between being filmed by a stranger as opposed to another archaeologist.
The conversation wandered from archaeology to the news, and back to Çatalhöyük again. We started talking about excavating burials, as Sinan was particularly inspired by Ruth’s Remember Me video:
I was trying to think like a playwright–how would you stage an excavation in a way that would be interesting and meaningful to an audience? Usually plays are up on stage, with audiences looking up at the actors, whereas archaeologists are often at the bottom of a pit, the gladiators in the colosseum–or the monkeys in a zoo–with audiences towering over us. The excavation could be projected above the actors, I suppose, if the director was looking for verisimilitude. It would be difficult to show the face to face relationship that an excavator has with a burial, the intimacy of the small tools scraping out lacunae, carefully keeping everything in place.
Finally, I was struck by a visualization of excavation that I have often felt, but have not really articulated. The excavator identifies a burial cut, clears away all of the fill, bags the finds, photographs & draws the skeleton, writes up the 3+ context sheets that accompany the burial, makes sure that everything is fully recorded, and then…relief. The time between the full exposure of a burial and lifting the skeleton is harrowing, tension-filled–will I finish recording it in time, will I be able to keep all of the bones clean and in place for the photograph, am I taking too long, am I hurrying too much? This anxiety accompanies the exposure of most complex archaeology, but is much more pronounced for burials–unless, I suppose, you are a bioarchaeologist who digs nothing but burials.
There is this moment of release after I realize that the burial has been fully accounted for and I can start lifting and wrapping the bones, and I suddenly thought of that moment as literal release, as the person, now free of the dirt, getting up and walking away. Not a collection of bones, but as they once were. A moment, while not real in the field, could be made actual on the stage. (And then the newly revealed person walks down into the bioarch lab, lays on the table, submits to an inspection, and then is rolled up into a labeled box to live on a shelf in a dusty storage facility.)
After dinner Ruth drove us to the BART and we chatted with Sinan for a while longer. He was overwhelmed by the subject, by all of us, and had to have some time to think.
Today, during my morning jog around the lake, I listened to another episode of Radio Lab. One of the commentators said something to the effect that while science tells us that we are not unique or special in this universe, art tells us that we are. I’m not sure that the archaeologist on stage will be recognizable to me, that I will identify her hand with my own as she trowels across the dirt, and if that it is even important that she is recognizable. Ultimately Sinan will decide what is important to convey about the science and art of archaeology, the deeper meaning of it all, and I am excited to find out what that is.