The Fieldwork Space-Time Warp and Other Musings

Jessica Thompsonby: Jess Thompson (Project Director, University of Queensland)

I promised I would keep up on the blog as we saw Andrew off at the Songwe border to Tanzania last week. Clearly, I have not been doing a top job of that and this entry will be short indeed. But a short entry is better than no entry I suppose – especially when I’ve never written a blog before. It is now Wednesday evening (yes, three separate people have made the “is it really WEDNESDAY already??” comment in the last several hours) and it’s a bit of a landmark date for two reasons. First, it is now officially August. So this means we are no longer leaving “next month” but now “at the end of this month”. This is bringing everything – everything we have accomplished and the enormous list of things yet to accomplish – into much sharper focus every day. Second, it reminds me that it was two weeks ago that we saw off the field school. Part of me can’t believe it’s already been two weeks and the rest of me is reeling at the thought that there was ever actually a field school here in the first place.

The frantic pace of all of this – in a country where frantic paces for anything are pretty much unheard off – has, if anything, actually picked up in the post-field school weeks. The students left and then the serious research began in earnest. We’ve had two separate groups of senior researchers and graduate students come in, and just recently one has also already moved on. In effect, we are already on our third field crew phase and for that reason it feels as though we have been here forever. But if I cast my mind back to Australia, and my little green car and my tiny over-priced apartment, and my strange little office that is no longer full of stacks of books to be donated to schools in Malawi…well it actually doesn’t seem like I’ve been here very long at all. A month is not such a long time, but it is when you are confronted with yet another one in front of you. In my case after I get back I will almost immediately have to plan for nearly two months in Ethiopia and then that is the end of 2012 just as though it never happened in the first place. That is one of in the interesting things about fieldwork. It’s like a time-space warp, and I know that when I emerge blinking back on the other side of the world I’ll wonder if all of this really could possibly have happened all in the space of a mere two months.

This particular dispatch from the field contains what are perhaps more personal ramblings, but that is also part of the package. Every field experience puts you into close confrontational contact with new people, cultures, challenges, and rewards. We are here for the joy of discovery – and believe me, there has been plenty of that this season! Our plans to come here and try to understand the Middle Stone Age deposits of northern Malawi are really starting to pay off intellectually. The diversity of sites is now becoming apparent, whereas before it was mainly the number that was so impressive. Now we are starting to see patterning in this landscape that is so littered with MSA artefacts, and we have identified the sites that are going to allow us to understand why that patterning exists. But even if we were to place all the intellectual merit aside, there is something about which we must all be honest.

As archaeologists, we do not just come to do fieldwork because it is a necessary means to an end of cold, hard scientific gain. We come because we love it. There is a special joy to going to work in the morning, knowing for certain that you will accomplish something meaningful that day and that you will go home tired from the complete intellectual, emotional, and physical experience of it. And at the end of the day you can feel the evening breeze on your face and watch that blood-red sun go down behind the dust and think, “This is my office”.

Now would be the time for me to make a comment about making sure if it is day three since your last bath you enjoy that breeze whilst standing downwind of your fellow dirty archaeologists. In fact it is also now that time of evening all archaeologists additionally experience. This is when you realise that you are tired beyond belief and running purely on adrenaline and possibly cheap brandy, all in anticipation of waking up in a matter of hours to do it all over again. Yet somehow, most definitely, loving it. Sorry Andrew, I’ve told you another fib; this blog is not at all a short one. But perhaps it offers a more personal dispatch from the field in complement to the fine work that has already been posted. Bright and early it will be straight back to business on memsap.org. Thanks for checking in!

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