Gearing up for the field

It’s that time of year when I write something on my “to do” list just in time to cross it off and add two more things in its place. You know that feeling you get when you travel, that you are certain you must have forgotten something important but can’t remember what it is? That’s what it’s like to prepare for fieldwork, except that you have that feeling every day for about six months.

Hopefully, though, the fact that fieldwork is looming means that the blogs will once again start rolling. We will try to keep people appraised of what we are doing this year from the planning stages all the way through to the end, and hopefully I can coerce several people to contribute so that we get a variety of perspectives. This year is particularly busy for preparation because I have moved to Emory University since the last field season in Malawi and I did not have access to any of the same equipment that I used to enjoy at UQ. Thus, I have spent most of the last year and a half seeking funding and building a new equipment store so that the next time we are in the field we can continue to collect the same quality of data that we have previously done.

This year we will be working mainly in southern Karonga, near the village of Ngara. This area will provide the complementary data to what we have obtained from the Chitimwe Bed deposits around the town of Karonga itself over the past five years. We suspect that patterns in precipitation, topography, and raw material abundance structured the ways that MSA people moved around on the Karonga landscape. Therefore, we expect to see some differences in how stone tools were made and curated when we compare the northern to the southern areas.

There are also some interesting deposits near Ngara that are somewhat isolated from other remnants of the Chitimwe Beds. These were surveyed in a preliminary way in 2014 and in one case there was evidence of intact knapping floors. Since these deposits are being rapidly eroded by natural processes, we want to maximize our data collection there. We will also be doing test-pitting, in the same way we did in 2012 and 2014, as that has given us so much information about the sub-surface distributions of artifacts and geological processes. We will be taking a new version of FAIMS Android-based recording system into the field, and we have a new drone that (unlike our last one) is not known for crashing randomly into mango trees.

While this work is ongoing in southern Karonga, a small group of us will split off and do some survey and possibly some very small test excavations on the Nyika Plateau and in the Mzimba District. These regions are likely to have mostly Later Stone Age materials preserved in rock shelters, and over the last year we have been developing some new lines of research to explore this time period. It is an incredibly interesting time, because it represents the lifeways of the last hunter-gatherers who lived in the area before they were either replaced or incorporated into incoming iron-working populations. There are still rich oral histories in the region that tell about these people, often referred to as the “Akafula”, and so there is a rare opportunity to link hunter-gatherer archaeology to other sources of information. This season will hopefully provide the pilot data we need to refine these ideas and write a competitive proposal for future work in the area. Thus, the months of July and August are shaping up to be very busy indeed – both because of wrapping up our work in Karonga and also planning our way forward for the future.

Hopefully we will be able to post some updates as we draw nearer to July, and you can continue to follow what we are doing all the way until the middle of August. Until then, and out of pure nostalgia, I am posting a copy of the “Sangalala” T-shirt logo that the legendary 2012 field school students created after that experience. Many of those students and the Antiquities representatives with whom we worked that year are now moving on into post-graduate work, have completed graduate work, or are working as professional archaeologists. I am always so happy that MEMSAP was able to be a part of their training! I am very grateful to the people and government of Malawi for their continued support of our research, and I am looking forward to seeing many dear friends and colleagues again this summer!

Dr. Jessica Thompson



One response to “Gearing up for the field

  1. I’ve just scanned your post and have grasped the gist of the field work. But I will have to get into its analysis as time goes by. Thank you. Oooops! the Sangalala logo is an amazing design, and that’s a job well done. But, it appears like the typical Carsberg beer logo. It’s like it’s adapted. Perhaps the designers could have solicited inputs especially from some locals so as to identify the communications on the MEMSAP attire with the culture of the locals. In my opinion, I believe this approach can have an added value to the operations of the project because if the locals are consulted, the additions they can make to the logo can give some insights we can use as we attempt to relate the survey findings to the contemporary way of living of the people. Much as we are born free of culture, we acquire this from the environment that raises us. And this culture is an ongoing process passed on from generation to generation. Though there have been modifications as generations pass on this culture, I still believe there are commonalities between the the Middle stone age and the late Stone age generations. Therefore, the present generation have some way of life of the middle stone age which can be uncovered by asking the local people on the design of the logo.

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