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What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 9

This is the ninth installment of a series. There’s a link at the bottom of the page to the next installment. Or, to read from the very beginning, click here.


Professor Einer Wayfarer wouldn’t be needing a ride back to Beer-Sheva right away: she’d found her “artifact with an accent” after all.

The Trenches

Once again, Einer Wayfarer stood on the top of the breezy ridge looking down on the gridded balks of Beit Bat Ya’anah with Wilson A. Rankle. This time, however, the director’s combover was safely encased in his hat and Wayfarer, instead of plotting a swift retreat, was planning the next few days, the about-face brought on by finally comprehending what – or, rather whom – Avsa Szeringka wanted her to see. She indicated one square of the grid below, an outlier, dug into the edge of the ridge, facing west and the mouth of the wadi.

“All right,” Rankle said, “but you know they’re only sinking a survey down through a midden? Outside a poorly preserved Iron Age house wall? Pretty tedious stuff. That’s where your little amphora handle came from.”

Wayfarer knew that, of course; it was one of the reasons she had elected to help in Area D. That, and who she saw down in the square. But she only said, “As a neophyte, excavating a trash pit sounds appropriate.” How much trouble could one get into excavating garbage? Also, she thought it would be interesting to observe what people rejected as undesirable.

Rankle grunted. “Up to you. Rory Zohn’s the Area Supervisor. He knows what he’s doing, at least; he’ll show you.”

“The big one. With the Ashurnasirpal beard?”

The dig director nodded, and moved off. “The only one doing any real work.”

This was only partly true. As she stumped down to Area D in her thick-soled, practical shoes with the morning sun already beastly on her shoulders, Wayfarer could see three people in the 5 meter square pit. One was the earnest undergrad Eric, on his knees, band-aids stuck to his wasp-stung neck, intently leveling a one meter-square patch of dirt with a trowel. Eric was dwarfed by big Rory Zohn, his tee shirt soaked with sweat, sweat darkening his boonie hat above forehead and ears, pale dirt coating the sweaty hairs on his sturdy forearms. Rory was taking careful measurements between obscure features in the soil of this precise square within a square, trying to manage the tape measure, refer to a hinged card printed with color swatches, and record numbers on a loose scrap of paper on his knee, all at the same time. He dropped the card, swore, and let it lie there. With no clipboard, the paper kept flapping, eluding his pencil, and Wayfarer could hear him swearing repeatedly and with gusto under his breath each time the paper blew up off his leg.

The third person was seated on a small metal gear box, leaning against the shady south balk, with a drawing board on his knees. A broad straw hat with a low beehive crown was pulled down over his face, his limbs were sheathed in long sleeves and trousers; the only bits of skin visible were relaxed fingers no longer holding a pencil — which had rolled onto the gridded plan clipped to the board and which was in danger of going over the edge — and brown toes encased in the unhip footgear Wayferer’s running shoe- or Birkenstock-shod students would snigger at as “euroboy sandals”. As she arrived at the bottom of the ladder, the pencil did roll off into the dirt, but the sleeper didn’t notice.

Rory did. “Dammit, Dario, wake the hell up,” he barked. Getting no response he chucked a pebble. The sleeper didn’t notice that, either. Rory griped, “I’ve been calling out numbers for half and hour… He probably didn’t get any of them…”

“Give me the paper,” said Wayfarer. “Read out your numbers and I’ll write them.” She studied the sleeping figure and on the basis of footgear alone, she was certain that he was last night’s nocturnal wildlife. “The missing Dario?” she asked.

“Yep; accounted for, but not truly present.” Rory said, handing her the paper, and beginning the backlog aloud. “Data point A13: twelve-point-five centimeters; soil color change. 5Y 9stroke2.” This last was off the card with the colored squares. “Or, no, hell; maybe 8/2? — it’s dried since we exposed it. He should be doing this; he’s got way more aptitude for that Munsell card crap than I do.”

Wayfarer supposed “he” meant the sleeper, who currently gave the impression his aptitude was mainly for shirking. Turning to the job at hand, she dutifully recorded, but didn’t offer an opinion on Rory’s color match – she couldn’t even distinguish the feature he was coordinating. “Do you want me to extract the drawing board?” she asked.

Rory shook his head. “No, let him sleep; he’s more trouble when he’s awake. And we’ve got all the features on there already; I’ll transfer the numbers in the lab tonight. It sucks, because his writing’s neater than mine. Wee Willie Rankle’ll…” he trailed off, belatedly circumspect in the presence of seniority. “I don’t know what the hell he does to get so wiped out every weekend,” he added, not meaning Dr. Rankle.

The professor remembered the strong odor of strong spirit in the dark, but she didn’t say anything.

The team of three, hats close together, worked efficiently for the rest of the morning; the undergrad Eric alternately scraping and pausing for Rory to measure, while Wayfarer recorded careful notes of the measurements, sieved small quantities of soil when asked, and helped the others use the chart to categorize the slight color changes in each soil layer. Before long, she understood why her archæological colleagues at MacCormack were mildly infuriated by the popularity of Indiana Jones and his lost Ark: the movie that was currently boosting public interest and suddenly filling previously under-enrolled university courses in the archæology of Egypt and the Holy Land clearly bore no resemblance to real-life excavation. There certainly were no lost treasures in sight here; not even any intact pottery, and positively no excitement. By the end of the work day – around 12.30 – the Area D team had excavated four more centimeters down in one half of the one-meter square, identified a small ash pit with possible bird bones and some carbonized twigs, compiled a long series of non-subjective numbers coordinated to their grid, and a unimpressive pile of gray ceramic shards in a bucket, labeled.

Professor Wayfarer knew she’d never spent six hours so tediously in her life. Well, maybe at Worley’s session at the spring ESSA conference, but at least that debacle had been air conditioned, and within steps of the hotel bar. She straightened her stiff knees, unkinked her aching back and stood, light-headed from unaccustomed hunched labor in 100 degree heat. Her skull throbbed, and she had no hope of anything to drink with lunch but reconstituted syrupy fruit juice, the ubiquitous mits.

Behind her, the sleeper stirred, his sandals scraping gritty soil. He’d been so still for so long that they’d forgotten about him.

“Who says archæology doesn’t prepare you for the real world?” said Rory, mopping his heat-pink face with a faded bandana. “Now there’s a marketable job-skill: sleeping for six hours balanced half-assed on an ammo crate.”

“There’s a huge enormous wasp on his shoulder,” Eric observed, still gun-shy concerning stinging insects. “Should we tell him?”

They all looked at Dario, who pushed the Mediterranean straw hat back and opened his eyes, which were exactly the same pale amber color as the wasp. 5Y 7/8, Wayfarer thought automatically, with fresh expertise. But she was far more interested to hear the color of the young man’s words, when he finally spoke.

Not fully awake, Dario shooed the insect away without any fuss and yawned. “Is it lunchtime?” he inquired, then added colloquially, “I’m fucking ravenous.”

For the first time since arriving on site, Einer Wayfarer laughed out loud. It wasn’t the expletive, which she only noticed for its phonetics, but the accent. Although complex and even mildly exotic, it didn’t exhibit any clear influences or precedent. The professor felt like she’d just been handed a linguistic version of the ambiguous character on the potsherd – it could be anything, from anywhere. However, now she knew where she stood: like an archeologist at the surface of a stratified tel, she would have to do some digging to uncover the origins of the young man’s mongrel vowels.

To be continued…

To read the next installment, Part 10 “Ptitim with Amit”, click here.

Posted by Allison on Jun 28th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (4)

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 8

This is the eighth installment of a series. There’s a link at the bottom of the page to the next installment.  Or, to read from the very beginning, click here.


The sleek, scented body that had slipped past her in the dark engaged Wayfarer’s academic curiosity: he was no one she’d seen yet on site. Who was he? But then she thought, it hardly mattered; by tomorrow night, she’d be on a plane home.

The dawning

The next morning, or more exactly, forty three minutes since returning to bed after her bootlegged nocturnal shower and six minutes before it was set to sound, Einer Wayfarer’s hand flattened the off button of her wind-up alarm clock. She’d awakened abruptly, her sleep-working brain belatedly aware of what the dripping, moonlit young man’s exact words to her had been. She sat up, and reached under her cot to pull out her brief case. Checking the leather for undesirable arthropods and finding only an innocuous black beetle, she extracted the letter that had brought her to Beit Bat Ya’anah.

Her colleague’s continental penmanship was difficult to read, especially in what little dawn light filtered through the heavy canvas walls. Besides, English was not Avsa Szeringka’s second language, nor even her third. As a consequence her English style on paper, although as vivid and original as her native thinking, was not as clear. In professional texts, this made Avsa terribly dependent on her editor – Wayfarer had met Melita Matsouris in London and found her to be a very patient and determined woman. But personal missives from Avsa were never professionally wrangled, so they required careful recension. For one thing, they always suffered from swarms of commas. Wayfarer knew this infestation of punctuation was an attempt at clarity, but its effect was the opposite, particularly since they were seldom employed where actually needed.

Squinting a little even with her bifocals on, she ran her eyes down the hastily-written page until she found the portion she wished to re-read:

And also, too by the way, I am aware of a cryptocultural artefact I recommend you acquaint with, at a remote site in Negev, whom I think you would find interesting, and, quite compelling if my belly is correct since, because perhaps, is strongly authentic in style and origin. In a way, a cultural fossil, one might say a fly in amber; you might say maybe an unsecured antiquity. I beg do not be misled by appearance or impression of artefact, somewhat vulnerable, I think important to evaluate and conserve, with care.

Wayfarer’s colleague had added pragmatically and imperiously:

Airfares low, now, because of hot season, and your semester not yet started, so I have contacted Beit Bat Ya’anah, Ben Gurion University, excavation directors Amit Chayes and W.A. Rankle, to inform them of expecting you, later in this month. Therefore, no refusals, if you please, to my request.

Besides the advice on airfare, which had turned out to be accurate, Wayfarer realized that in the entire hash of phrases there was just one critical word, the significance of which she recognized only now: whom. “Whom I think you would find interesting,” referring not to the site, but the artifact. And initially concealed by all the other idiomatic idiosyncrasies, it was not a grammatical error: the vulnerable artifact, the unsecured antiquity, was not what, but who.

Wayfarer smiled to think how Avsa would laugh when she told her how she’d spent an evening puzzling over an ashy, broken lump of under-fired domestic-ware. And how disappointed Wilson Rankle was going to be when she informed him she wouldn’t be needing a ride back to Beer-Sheva right away: she’d found her “artifact with an accent” after all, and he had just wished her a fluent good morning in what was agreed by experts to be a thoroughly dead language.

To be continued…

To continue to the next installment, Part 9 “The Trenches”, click here

Posted by Allison on Jun 12th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (4)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 7

This is the seventh installment of a series. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to continue to the next installment.  Or, click here to read from the very beginning. Previously:

After getting nowhere with the stamped symbol on the broken piece of pottery, Professor Einer Wayfarer disappointingly proclaimed to the dig staff, “I’m afraid that until you find more evidence — like a related object — what you’ve got is a classic unsecured antiquity.” The entire trip had been a waste of time, and there was nothing to keep her longer at this remote desert excavation.

The Leopard and the Lionness

Wayfarer lay on top of her sheet on the camp cot, not sleeping. The mystery object which had drawn her to Beit Bat Ya’anah had been ambiguous at best, and disappointing, to say the least; not worth the fuss and travel. Personally, she was dismayed that Avsa’s enthusiasm for searching for physical evidence of an obscure culture had clearly gotten the better of her academic objectivity. Wayfarer knew her colleague was impetuous — it was a strength as well as a weakness — but it was imperative to remain detached from the subject, and Szeringka had either forgotten that, or, more disturbingly, abandoned an objective approach. This lapse had wasted a great deal of Wayfarer’s time. She was relieved to be leaving, and expected to be picked up next day by the department jeep to be delivered back to Beer-Sheva, then to the airport and back home in time to start preparing for the fall semester and to get some more editing done on the Lexicon before classes began. There was no reason she should be awake, thinking and sleepless.

Yet… Avsa Szeringka might have a quixotic academic cause, and she might be impulsive, but she was no fool. Why had she insisted that Wayfarer come to this remote, unpromising site? To see that unremarkable lump of clay with the uncertain symbol on it? It seemed unlikely. That question was keeping the professor awake; that question, and the heat.

It was stifling. No breeze stirred the oppressive night air — even with the end flaps open, the tent was a canvas oven. Feeling sleep evaporate once and for all, Wayfarer sat up to ponder means of relief for her sweltering insomnia and decided on a shower, despite Wilson Rankle’s regulations about hours and a limited water supply. Firmly squelching her conscience about that along with qualms about scorpions, centipedes and other nocturnal wildlife she risked encountering, Wayfarer shook out her sandals, slipped them onto her feet and grabbed a towel. The waxing half moon was still up, so she could see well without a flashlight. No need for proper clothes; her nightgown would get her across camp — at three forty-five in the morning, everyone else was sleeping.

But as she drew closer to the showers she could hear water running, the slap of droplets hitting the cement and spattering the tarp wall, their sound-pattern changing as someone moved around under the showerhead. Unbelievable, Wayfarer thought… it was 0-dark-30 and there was nocturnal wildlife around. She stopped, wondering if she should wait or go back to the tent, but like a lioness at the watering hole she decided to pull rank. “Hey,” she growled, “Are you almost done in there?”

No one replied, but the water shut off after a few seconds. Not knowing whether the bather was male or female, Wayfarer hesitated to push in; she stood outside the tarp overlap and waited. A scant moment later someone slipped out close by her, dripping wet, dark snakes of hair clinging to neck and shoulder blades, wearing a towel wrapped low around the hips and nothing else, except fisherman’s sandals.

Through the camo shade mesh, the moonlight limned a sleek body, dappling a quantity of exposed, brown skin. Einer Wayfarer was stolidly immune to this sort of animal display – nearly naked young men were of no interest to her whatever – but her eyes followed the creature with academic curiosity, if nothing more ardent. It was no one she’d seen yet on site. She wondered if the local Bedouin boys ever snuck into camp for the luxury of water. But, no: as he passed her, Wayfarer’s nose detected a blend of cedar-scented soap and arak. A luxurious nocturnal creature, then, and dissolute, she decided uncritically. But clean.

As she stepped under the tepid flow herself, she belatedly realized the young man had said something as he’d passed: was it good morning? She tried to replay the words in her head; they hadn’t been English, or Hebrew. And not Arabic, either, yet she’d understood them perfectly well. Unable to reconstruct the phrase, Wayfarer shook her head, realizing she wasn’t as awake as she felt, and let the water run down her scalp and over her shoulders, cooling her a little, but not much. It hardly mattered; by tomorrow night, she’d be on a plane home.

To be continued…

To read Part 8 “The Dawning”, click here

Posted by Allison on Jun 4th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (1)

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 6

This is the sixth installment of a series. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to continue to the next installment.  Or, click here to read from the very beginning. Previously:

After the professor’s official and disappointing debunking of the Mystery Object, the staff and students began to move away. Only the undergraduate Eric hadn’t given up on the topic. “What’s a wehériəl sign?” he asked in a tenacious whisper to Zvia, who ignored him as she headed toward the door. “And, say or not say what?” he persevered, following her out the lab door.

The view from under the walls

Zvia Ben-Tor was headed uphill away from the lab as fast as her athletic legs could take her through the moon-blue dark. She was pissed off. The scene in the lab had done it. This late in a tough season it was too easy to lose your cool, so she was ushering her aggravation out into the desert to chill, alone.

Young Eric was still trailing her. The last thing she wanted to do was answer his pesky questions about esoteric Elennui cosmological characters, so Zvia headed towards the latrines, figuring he wouldn’t follow her there. It worked — as soon as she was sure he’d given up, she cut over to the edge of the lower wadi, and made for the ruined springhouse up beyond the edge of camp.

Now well behind her, the dig camp was dark after lights out except for flashlight glow in a couple of the tents and the hazy flicker of someone’s candle at the dining tables. But the compound was still well-lit by the halfmoon light, and Zvia walked around to the other side of the springhouse to a large flat rock. It was the best place to sit, facing uphill toward the gape of the upper wadi, because dilapidated as they were the thick stone walls blocked out not only the sight but the sounds of camp: late conversation, Lior’s guitar, the Aussies’ laughter. She sat with her back against the pitted limestone, still warm from the setting sun, staring up at the bare cliffs above the wadi, her knees bent toward the sky, her hands curled round her ankles. It was exactly what she wanted – peaceful, solitary and calm.

But the calm didn’t help – Zvi was still pissed off. She was pissed off at Rankle for being a jerk, at Amit Chayes for not being there to mitigate that jerkiness, and even a little at Wayfarer for being so authoritatively and infuriatingly rigorous. And Dario, who’d found the damn character in the first place – where the hell had he been? As usual, nowhere in sight when help was needed, the jackal. How can anyone disappear so efficiently in a close-packed camp in the middle of a treeless desert?

Zvia’s brain kept replaying fragments of dialog. Especially Rankle proclaiming the stamped symbol was “Just a potter’s mark.” Just? Why the hell were they there if not to try to relate the things they hauled out of the dirt to the people who made and used them? Otherwise, at the end of the season, all their hot, hard work would just be square holes in the dirt and rooms full of buckets filled with gray, broken sherds, stripped of meaningful, human context. You might as well leave them buried where they lay.

Zvi pulled her heels closer to her hips and continued to stare at the stark cliff faces. The rock looked close, but she knew it was a trick of the clear air and bright moonlight: Shams’s survey put the formation at more than a kilometer away. It was strange, but in a way she could understand Rankle’s view – as an orderly, non-subjective excavator who worships the polished balk and the taut grid he didn’t believe anything but the soil and what it gives up, no matter how meager the yield is. He had no use for texts: words only clouded the clarity of dirt. Zvia had heard the director loud and clear on the subject just last week, when he’d refused to give a site tour to a visiting group from a midwestern Bible college, grumbling about how if they wanted to stagger around Israel brandishing the Old Testament like Baedeker’s guide to the Holy Land, then fine, but did they have to do it here? In the end the other director, Amit Chayes, had showed the group around the site himself, leaving them puzzled as to why they had visited Beit Bat Ya’anah, since he hadn’t used any of the words they knew, like “Israelites” or “Canaanites” or “Edomites,” to describe the people who had lived here: they wanted illustrations for their chapter and verse.

That literalist approach, trying to force matches between archæology and literary texts, didn’t resonate with Zvia, either. But she wondered if what Amit had privately given her the nod to do – to keep an eye open for artifacts that might give a daily life to the mysterious poets whose words she studied – was really any different. Her PhD advisor scathingly referred to it as The Lost Crusade for Elennui Objects. Zvia could understand that viewpoint, too: Elennui Studies people already had a credibility issue with academics outside the field – who studies a language that nobody ever spoke?

Zvia yawned. If she was empathizing with Rankle and Sybar, it was time to get some sleep. She took a deep breath and bent her head back, hoping for a Perseid overhead. A closer movement at the top of the wall caught her eye.

Though the main spring had dried up decades ago, a stingy slick patch still dampened the rocks inside the springhouse walls. It was brown with meagre algae and useless for humans, but it attracted small desert mammals and their hunters. There was a hunter there now, perched right above her: a huge owl, its head-tufts blowing a little in the night breeze, its shape an extension of the jagged wall top. Against the deep sky, the bird’s head swiveled smoothly, and it gave two low hoots. Amplified by roofless walls, the soft sound carried clearly over Zvia into the open desert below.

As she watched, the bird dipped its head and stretched a shadowed wing. She wondered how long it had been up there. Forever, she thought sleepily... as long as mice have been coming to the spring for water; how convenient of us humans to build it a wall to hunt from. She tried to dredge up a verse they’d translated in class once, something about an owl’s mournful cries from a desolate wall, but couldn’t retrieve it. There must be no mice at the springhouse tonight – the owl didn’t linger, but launched silently, gliding easily uphill towards the upper wadi.

Following the bird’s flight as she stood to go, Zvia’s quick eye caught another movement, much more distant, almost under the moon-bright cliffs: a ghostly white shirt bobbing among tumbled rocks, headed toward the shadowy mouth of the upper wadi. As she watched the figure disappear under the dark wing of the gap, she realized that what had aggravated her — more than Rankle’s attitude, more than Wayfarer’s shrewd caution, more even than Dario’s vanishing act — was sharp disappointment. Like unprovenanced artefacts, Zvia thought, what good are words, if you don’t know who said them? And she could hardly bear to admit to herself even in the solitude of the blue desert dark how much she had wanted that discrete mark in the clay to be a genuine Elennui wehériəl sign.

To be continued…

To read part 7 “The Leopard and the Lionness” click here.

Posted by Allison on May 21st 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (1)

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 5

This is the fifth installment of a series. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to continue to the next installment.  Or, click here to read from the very beginning. Previously:

On the underside of the handle the mirror reflected a small textured mark pressed into the clay: a geometric, elemental symbol that was very familiar to her within the narrow context of her own literary subject. Was this what Avsa wanted her to see?

The Character

“There’s a character stamped here,” Professor Wayfarer said. “Have you taken a look at this?” she asked Wilson Rankle, who shook his head. To judge by the line of his mouth the headshake didn’t mean no so much as it indicated a desire for no involvement.

“It’s just a potter’s mark,” he said. “But feel free to make more of it, if you want.”

Finally with something to sink her formidable scholarly incisors into, Einer Wayfarer sat down. The old wooden chair creaked under her. She pushed her glasses up, then farther up, onto her forehead, and held the piece just inches under her short nose. Several minutes passed as she studied the object in silence, turning it over, her breath audible in her nostrils. She held it one way, then inverted it, and then looked at it again in the small mirror. Although she was aware of the silence in the room, and the pressure of curiosity in the bodies around her, she took her time. She asked someone to open the door to let in fresh air, and kept examining the object without noticing if anyone did. After another three minutes of intense, unhurried scrutiny, she cleared her throat, coughed twice, and pushed the piece away, vexed.

On closer examination, the character remained stubborn, mute. No, not mute: over-communicative and ambiguous – it sent too many messages, not too few. The angled strokes lent themselves to several interpretations. Ignoring chronology, Wayfarer could think of five possible writing systems that could have produced it, or, realistically, four and a long shot. And that didn’t take into account aberrant scribal forms, geographic variation, the idiosyncrasy of an individual artist, semi-literacy, or simple human error. Undecided, Wayfarer resorted to a cheap but effective professorial trick: putting a student on the spot.

“Who can tell me how this character could be read?” she asked the students, gesturing for them to come in close for a look. Sometimes young brains had fresh ideas.

After a pause, several of them spoke at once. “Well, it’s not cuneiform… Is it Aramaic?” “It’s a hieratic 6?” “It kind of looks like a Greek Xi…” “There’s a sign like that inscribed on a jar from Bet She’an…” “A Linear B syllabic symbol?” “Is it Phoenician?” Wayfarer noticed that like herself, they were all over the map, and the time line.

“Come on, people,” Rankle scolded his flock. “Who said Linear B? On a jar here?”

The undergrad looked sheepish. Murmuring something unconvincing about Mycenaean trade routes, he said defensively, “It could happen…”

Rankle glared at him. “Go look it up in Hooker, Eric, and tell me if you find a Linear B character anything like that.”

Noting that the director wasn’t contributing a suggestion himself, Wayfarer mercifully interrupted the peevish catechism. “So it’s not Linear B. On Dr. Rankle’s authority — and Mr. Hooker’s — we can at least rule out that possibility. So what is it? Most of the rest of you seem convinced it’s an alphabetic symbol. Is it? Is it a hieratic numeral? A logogram? Just a potter’s mark? Or if you insist on an alphabet, what about proto-sinaitic? Who reads paleo-Hebrew?” She offered the clay lump around to her left.

The students looked blank. “What paleo-letters have three horizontals?” Rankle prompted, to save time.

khet,” said someone. “hey,” said someone else, tentatively. “And samekh.” “Could it be a funky yod?” “A shin, if you turn it this way?”

“Good — three verticals for shin if you re-orient it. So, we see the problem: either this or that… or maybe the other… or all of them,” Wayfarer agreed with the students comprehensively. “But, not exactly any of them.” She held the piece out once again. “Anything else? Anyone? Zvia?” The young woman took it into her small, square palms, studied it for a moment, then tilted her head. “Well, it could be…” She stopped abruptly.

“Oh, here we go,” muttered Rankle. “She’s going to say it.”

“Say what?” asked Eric.

“I am going to say it,” Zvi finished feistily. “It could be a wehériəl sign.”

The director snorted.

Ignoring this, Wayfarer held out her hand for the lump of clay. “Thank you, Zvia; I agree, it could be wehériəl. So, the question is should we say it? It’s precisely because it could be an aberrant version of any of these characters …” here she took a moment to look again at the mark, and shook her head, “…including a damn good Elennui wehériəl sign, that I think we can’t say it. Without other symbols to provide context, there are simply too many possibilities to permit firm conclusion. So…” She paused, then went on carefully, “So what I will say is this: we don’t know any more than we did at the start of this…. exercise. An artifact with an accent? I’m afraid that until you find more evidence, such as a related object, what you’ve got is an undatable jar handle stamped with an ambiguous character of uncertain origin. A classic unsecured antiquity — nothing more.” She handed the officially uninteresting artifact back to Zvi, who stood holding it as if it were a dead thing.

No one spoke, lulled into motionless silence by detail, and disappointment. At the back of the room, the door snicked to, then swung open again, as if a night breeze had passed through.

The sound broke the spell of quiet: behind her, Wayfarer heard Wilson Rankle give a satisfied sniff, and stand up. “Well, okay. Any questions, people? No? Then, party’s over. Thank you, Professor Wayfarer.” At his words, the cluster of staff and students began to move away. Rankle’s tone she disregarded; what concerned the professor was whether the students had gotten anything out of the process, and no questions was never a good sign. Wayfarer supposed the episode had at least demonstrated academic caution and restraint, virtues that these days seemed to her to be practiced haphazardly at best.

Only the undergraduate Eric hadn’t moved. “What’s a wehériəl sign?” he asked in a tenacious whisper to Zvi, who ignored him as she headed toward the door. “And, say or not say what?” he persevered, forced to follow her.

A seasoned veteran of classrooms, Professor Wayfarer had ears finely attuned to murmuring student puzzlement, even over the scraping of chairs and her private, irritable thoughts. Glancing at her watch, she predicted shortly, “No one’s saying anything, now. Except goodnight.”

At that moment, the generator clicked off. The lights flicked once and then went out, leaving the small group of scholars to make their way out of the stuffy room entirely in the dark.

To be continued…

To read Part 6 “The View from Under the Walls” click here.

Posted by Allison on May 7th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (2)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 4

This is the fourth installment of a series. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to continue to the next installment.  Or, click here to read from the very beginning. Previously:

Wayfarer was warming to her subject, the possible unsecured antiquity. “So you might say that we’re looking for an object like everything else around it, but not quite: an artifact with an accent.” “Well, the generator goes off at nine pm sharp,” Rankle interrupted her,” so if you’d like to see your little unsecured antiquity in the light, you’d better do it soon.”

The Unsecured Antiquity

Professor Einer Wayfarer hadn’t wanted an audience for her first view of the mystery object that had brought her to Beit Bat Ya’anah, but ultimately it hadn’t been possible to avoid it. She supposed it was her own fault: after her spirited exposition at dinner, everyone wanted to see what she was going to do. She felt she couldn’t refuse to satisfy the students’ curiosity – it was a legitimate educational opportunity for them – so she found herself following Wilson A. Rankle, marching downhill across the rough, stony soil of the moonlit compound to the lab, trailing a string of students and staff behind.

The one-room lab was the dig camp’s only intact hard-sided structure, left over from a failed settlement attempt in an earlier decade. Although recently painted, it was both shoddily built and structurally weathered – and it smelled like dry rot and insecticide – but inside there were cabinets and file drawers, a couple of light-tables, writing tables with archaic wooden school chairs with green backs and split black vinyl seats, and a banged-up dry sink that at night collected a surprising assortment of joint-legged samples of the local fauna that, once in, couldn’t escape its vertical sides. If the lab had housed a entomological research effort, this sink would have had appreciable scientific value, but as it was, everyone was merely repelled by what showed up in the porcelain trap every morning, and devised ways of not being the first one in who, by convention, had to liberate the leggy zoo with a four-by-six file card and a jam jar.

All the lab’s windows were high on the block walls. Many were painted shut, and those that weren’t opened just wide enough to let in small puffs of hot air and large numbers of moths and scarabs. The lighting was better than anywhere else in the compound, but still barely adequate for night work. This was where the senior staff and a handful of conscripted underlings worked afternoons and after dark, until the generator shut down, writing up daily reports, plotting features and matrices on maps of units, and recording on cards anything significant that came out of the ashy soil that day, which was a rare event. There was a skeleton library with basic resources: a beat-up first edition of Aharoni’s book in Hebrew, Shepard’s and Amiran’s books adjacent, dated but still useful, a few back issues of the BAR and JNES, and monographs and annual reports from other sites. There was one electric fan whose weak output everyone fought over except Shams, the dig’s meticulous draftsman/surveyor, who never sweated and was seldom seen without his stingy-brimmed panama hat, and who didn’t want a feeble breeze stirring his ink renderings even a little.

Now Shams, Zvia, Rory, about eight other grad students and staff plus the one eager undergrad named Eric – his neck still blotched and hot from the wasp stings – were sitting in the hard green chairs watching William A. Rankle rummage through a drawer.

“Where the hell is it, Ben-Tor?” he grumbled. It occurred to Wayfarer that the director didn’t know what he was looking for. Zvia went over and directly pulled a plastic bag out of the drawer he was disarranging. “Those are all in locus order, please, Dr. Rankle,” she pointed out, firmly. “Here; Dario said it’s this one.”

This reminded Rankle again of his missing staff member. He looked around, as if the young man might have somehow recently manifested. Not finding him, he asked, “Where did you say he is?” No one answered.

Wayfarer received the bag from Zvia, hefting it in her palm: it was weighty for its volume, but not large. She asked, “May I handle it?”

Rankle laughed. “Knock yourself out. It’s nothing special. Despite what Dario says.”

Dr. Wayfarer noticed Zvia turn slightly pink at the last part of this remark, as if it were directed at her. “Everyone’s an expert, aren’t they?” the professor commented neutrally as she took the object out of the plastic bag, and laid it on the table. Then she pulled out her glasses, and perched them on the end of her nose to take a good long look at the Object.

Evidently the AWOL Dario, whoever he was, had a sense of humor: after staring at it for no more than thirty seconds, she declared authoritatively, “Well, it’s definitely not a spoon.”

What she had placed on the table – the “mystery object”, the much-anticipated unsecured antiquity – appeared to be nothing more than a lump of broken pottery: a handle, evidently broken off of a medium-sized vessel, with a fragment of neck joining the two ends. There was no sign of surface decoration, such as glaze, slip or incision. The clay body was gritty and brown, and the item was neatly if casually formed. But Wayfarer wasn’t an archæologist; the unrefined ceramic fragment meant little to her, yielded nothing to her inexpert examination. She cleared her throat; a noise that sounded distinctly like hrrmph. “Someone tell me about the type of vessel this comes from. Please.”

Rankle prompted, “Ben-Tor?”

“Pottery man did that one,” Zvia said. “Since Amit wasn’t here.”

“Pottery man” — Amit’s grad student Lior — spoke up promptly, “Fragment; strap-handle. Probably from an amphora; retrieved from an Iron Age exterior residential midden, stratigraphically undatable; maybe a small Canaanite jar, originally for transport, maybe afterwards re-used for domestic wine storage.”

Wayfarer hrrmphed again; it was the closest she was going to get to wine tonight, apparently. But she nodded at Lior, summarizing, “An undatable storage jar handle. Thank you.” She placed her finger in the loop of clay and held the fragment up once more. The shape was unremarkable, the construction was unremarkable. It was merely household waste; part of a broken, discarded wine jar. Very disappointing. Worse yet, she found herself in agreement with Rankle: the object was nothing special. It was an unremarkable fragment altogether, with nothing at all to recommend it for her further notice.

She was about to say so when something stopped her. Pulling her blunt finger out of the handle and looking underneath it for the source of a sensation of roughness against her skin she asked, “Does anyone have a dental mirror?” One was handed to her, and she slid it under the strap of clay.

On the underside of the handle, where it was invisible to the eye but would have been felt with the fingers of anyone picking up or pouring the vessel, the mirror reflected a small textured mark. It had been pressed into the clay while still soft: a geometric, elemental symbol that was very familiar to Dr. Wayfarer within the narrow context of her own literary subject.

Was this what Avsa wanted her to see – not a piece of pottery, but a character? Characters she knew something about. A character, Wayfarer thought, she might be able to do something with.

To be continued…

To read Part 5 “The Character”, click here.

Posted by Allison on Apr 22nd 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (0)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 3

This is the third installment of a series. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to continue to the next installment.  Or, click here to read from the very beginning. Previously:

“There’s half an hour until dinner. Would you like to see the object now?” After coming halfway around the world on short notice, she was being offered just half an hour of face time with the mystery object? Not damn likely. “Thanks, Wilson,” she said, “but it can wait until after dinner, I think. I’d like to chat with your staff.”

Wayfarer’s explanation

“Every museum in the world has some, imprisoned in drawers, supporting rodent traps in off-site storage lockers, hunkered down in the bottom of boxes with yellowing, silverfish-nibbled labels,” Professor Wayfarer was warming to her subject. Overhead a string of low-wattage bulbs twinkled, shedding a soft glow onto the dining tables at the dig camp. After dinner, her first night on site and against her better judgment, Wayfarer found herself explaining – more or less – why she was at Beit Bat Ya’anah.

She was at the excavation site at Avsa Szeringka’s request.  But that she was explaining why publicly was William A. Rankle’s fault: during the meal he had started in, critically, about Szeringka’s well-known professional eccentricities. In a different field, he didn’t know Avsa personally: he was just repeating hearsay, which irritated Wayfarer particularly. She felt she ought to put up some defense for a friend, even though she herself wasn’t entirely convinced of her colleague’s recent research direction. Pushing her plastic plate across the oilcloth table cover, the professor noticed that it was a cheerful printed version of the floral-on-white pattern of the eastern mediterranean faience glazes still common on clay tableware and tiles in the homes and suqs all over Israel and Lebanon, Rhodes and Cyprus, as well as excavated from ruins of the countryside. So much cultural division in this part of the world, she reflected, yet so much cultural continuity visible in the tools of everyday life.

She continued, “Every day these ‘mystery objects’ are re-discovered during routine organization and clean-up of collections; they’re liberated while searching for other accessions; they arrive well-wrapped in crated bequests and cartons of anonymous donations; they’re even unearthed alongside provenanced artifacts at excavations: the so-called unsecured antiquities.  Most of the time, however, they’re not even noticed. They’re the objects that no one knows what to do with, not the world-class ethno-pundits, the egg-head art history mavens, not even the archæo-techs with their analytical equipment or the archæo-geeks with their objective, impersonalized classification systems.” Not above this jab at Rankle, and never averse to holding forth in front of an audience, Wayfarer was in full spate. It was pleasant sitting under the high-starred indigo sky, her bobbed gray hair ruffled by a light breeze that was almost refreshing, with a group of attentive students listening to her over empty plates. Still no wine, but at least there were no mosquitoes, either, unlike in Lassiter.

“So, you’re trying to identify these unsecured antiquities?” asked the undergraduate, whose wasp-stung neck had sprouted a couple of painful-looking swellings.

“No, I’m an expert on neither archæology nor ancient history. My specialty is a body of literature in a language very few people outside the field have ever heard of. But a small number of my colleagues – Avsa Szeringka foremost among them – questions the likelihood that any culture would leave a substantial amount of written material behind them but no quotidian artifacts. She thinks the scattered numbers of bastard belongings – the unsecured antiquities currently unrecognized in university, museum and private collections all over the world could be ‘mined’ for candidate items, for the belongings of this crypto-culture, these hidden people.” That was sufficient; the students didn’t need to know the rest of Avsa’s controversial theories, and Rankle was already hostile enough.

Wayfarer noticed Zvi was watching the director now, whose mouth was set in an asymmetrical, skeptical line.  But the big grad student with the impressive beard was watching her.

“Unrecognized in museum collections?” he asked.

Rankle said, “Zohn thinks he’s interested in museum studies.”

A good-natured booming filled the space under the tarp and bowled Rankle’s condescending remark cleanly out into the desert. “I am interested in museum sciences,” Rory laughed.  “And I’d like to know what to keep an eye out for, since I’ve got an intern-fellowship starting next fall at the Ashmolean. The Tradescant Collection must be full of unsecured antiquities.”

“Exactly; it’s one of Avsa’s favorite places to dig for them,” commented Wayfarer, “Oxford is within easy range of the Szeringka Institute… you may run into her searching for things.”

“Like what kinds of things?”

Wayfarer shrugged. “Like spoons,” she said, holding hers up, “for instance.”  The professor knew the word spoon was usually good for a laugh, and the students obliged.

“I mean that fairly literally,” she told them. “Spoons have been around for millenia. It’s just the sort of thing that might show evidence of cultural personalization, or a declaration of ethnic association. It’s not uncommon for cultural cohorts without a dedicated homeland to maintain their social, ethnic, religious, or ancestral identity in their implements of daily life.” This didn’t seem like something she should need to explain to this group, in this place.

“You’re looking for a personalized spoon?” asked the wasp-stung undergrad. The maroon welts on his neck clashed with his bright blue Oriental Institute tee shirt, its white Achæmenid winged lion design cracked and sun-faded, and full of tiny holes at the letter-edges.

His tenacity made Wayfarer smile. “What’s your name, son? Well, Eric, perhaps not actually a spoon. But I would start by looking for an object with an identifying mark, a distinctive and perhaps unexpected characteristic.” Years of teaching had shown her that if you wanted students to understand, you had to speak their language. “A logo, if you will: like on your tee shirt. It could be a symbol, or a character, something that sets it, and its owner, apart from the neighbors. In fact you could say,” she wound up thematically aptly, “that we’re looking for an object like everything else around it, but not quite. As someone who studies language, I might say, an artifact with an accent.”

Rankle interrupted this lesson pragmatically. “Well, the generator goes off at nine pm sharp, so if you’d like to see your little unsecured antiquity in the light, you’d better do it soon.”

There were a dozen or so pairs of eyes on her. It didn’t seem as if this day was ever going to end, but Wayfarer stood up. “By all means,” she said, “let’s have a look.”

To be continued…

To read Part 4, “The Unsecured Antiquity”, click here.

Posted by Allison on Apr 8th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (1)

Just a reminder from Three Star Owl

I wrote the following promo last month and then promptly forgot all about it in my WordPress “drafts”. So, here it is, to be used as a reminder that the exhibition is almost over:

Allison Shock/Three Star Owl is pleased to debut the new piece “Assemblage: Owl Hives” at the Arizona Clay Annual Juried Exhibition at the Chandler Center for the Arts. The “Assemblage” is a group of artefaux which may provide evidence for the ancient and apocryphal practice of strigiculture — the raising of owls — for either domestication or ritual purposes.

detail, “Assemblage: Owl Hives” (photo and piece by A.Shock, click to enlarge) >>

The Exhibit features work by more than 40 Arizona clay artists, and runs from 18 March – 16 April 2011. Come to the Chandler Center for the Arts, and see what the Arizona clay community is up to.

An Exhibition of Clay Works by Arizona Artists

March 18 – April 16, 2011

Jennifer Allred∗Linda S. Baker∗Barbara Baskerville∗Sandra Blain∗David L. Bradley∗Cheryl Brandon∗Sarah Brodie∗Stephen Bunyard∗Tristyn Bustamante∗Robin Cadigan∗Susan Cielek∗Jeanne Collins∗Shirlee Daulton∗Ken Drolet∗Paulette Galop∗Jan Gaumnitz∗Audrey Goldstein∗Rena Hamilton∗Lisa Harnish∗Pam Harrison∗Susan Hearn∗Julie Hendrickson∗Janet Wills Keller∗Alene Kells∗Sue Kopca∗Gabrielle Koza∗Sandra Luehrsen∗Patricia Manarin∗Steve Marks∗Constance McBride∗Mirjana McLadinov∗Kim Mendoza∗Candice Methe∗Kaye Murphy∗Virginia Pates∗Karen VanBarneveld Price∗Kazuma Sambe∗Allison Shock∗Phyllis Stringer∗Genie Swanstrom∗Christopher Torrez∗Neal Walde∗Diane Marie Watkins∗Annette Weaver

Exhibition Dates: March 18 – April 16, 2011
Gallery Hours: Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Saturdays, Noon – 4 p.m.
at: Chandler Center for the Arts
250 North Arizona Avenue
Chandler AZ 85225
Sponsored by the Chandler Center for the Arts, the Chandler Cultural Foundation, and the Chandler Arts Commission, Chandler Cultural Foundation
Images courtesy of the artists.
For more information call 480-782-2695.

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 2

This is the second installment of the series, click on the link at the bottom of this page to continue to the next installment.  Or, click here to start reading from the very beginning.  Previously:

Wilson A. Rankle waved a hand to indicate they should follow the goat track back down to camp. “Well, it’s almost tea-time,” he said. “Mikka will have put out mits, biscuits and hot water. Oh, there’s coffee too…” “Marvelous,” Professor Wayfarer said, not impressed with the standard options of reconstituted juice or hot drinks. “Lead the way.”

Tea and Announcements

The staff of Beit Bat Ya’anah was clumped along one edge of the dining tarp at the dig camp compound. The sun was low, and there was only a small trapezoid of dirt on the east side of the shelter that wasn’t in the sun. A table for dry biscuits, teabags, instant coffee, cups, and a hot water urn took up the prime part of the trapezoid, and everyone was crowded into the remaining geometry of shade around it. Nobody was talking much, except to pass the sugar or powdered milk, or to ask for water to dilute the puckeringly sweet mits fruit juice.

Einer Wayfarer inserted herself among the subdued group, managing to get most of her upper body out of the sun. But her feet, already dusty again from the walk from the shower to her cabin-tent to the tea table, were baking in the late afternoon light. She was still mildly disgruntled from discovering that the showers, an open-air affair on a rough cement slab surrounded by semi-opaque plastic sheeting and inadequately shaded by camo-mesh, were communal, with set times for men and women.

In Wayfarer’s firm opinion, this rustic system wasn’t ideal: the real possibility of getting sunburnt while bathing did not appeal; and the water, heated by the sun all day in exposed plumbing, had been unpleasantly hot. Furthermore, the cracked and pitted cement looked like a prime breeding ground for foot fungus. Still, considering the remoteness of the site, she was pleasantly surprised to find running water at all, and wondered about its source.

Precise enough to note physical discomfort, but too practical to be hampered by it, Wayfarer got on with studying the dig staff. It was apparent that the BGU archæology department didn’t employ local workmen: to judge by the accents she was hearing this was a diverse international bunch: she counted fourteen, mostly Yanks and a few Aussies and Europeans, plus a handful of Israelis. All of the staff she saw were the right age to be grad students or post-docs, except for one precocious American undergrad who must have been deemed sufficiently mature by his advisor to be packed off to help. That meant everyone was working for free, receiving either course credit or resumé-plumping experience in exchange for heavy manual labor, long hours and mediocre food.

She decided that archæology students presented more disreputably than her tidy literary lot back in the states, and that all of the Americans and most of the Aussies were even grungier-looking than the Israelis, if that were possible. Of course, this was to be expected; it was the tail-end of a long, hard season, and everyone looked tired and worn as thin as their grubby tee-shirts.

Wayfarer also noticed that besides herself and the person she assumed was the cook, Mikka, who had startlingly pink hair and a nose stud, there was only one other woman present – young, almost as short as the professor but a good deal slimmer, and who, having grabbed a styrofoam cup of coffee, was headed directly at her.

“Zvi,” the young woman said briefly, then elaborated “Zvia Ben-Tor. You must be Professor Wayfarer. My advisor’s your buddy Ballard Sybar, at Princeton.” She held out a square palm to shake. Everything about her, starting with her name and her haircut, seemed abbreviated.

“Ah, Ballard,” Wayfarer said diplomatically. “We missed him at the ESSA meeting this spring.” This was an outright lie. No one ever missed Sybar — he was a bully and a pain in the ass. Wayfarer thought if this compact young woman could put up with Ballard, she could put up with anything.

“I’m sure you did,” Zvi said, with equal truth and perfect understanding. “By the way,” she added quietly. “The E-word is a four-letter word around here, just so you know.”

Wayfarer, recalling Wilson Rankle’s earlier peevishness, said without lowering her voice, “Yes, I gathered as much. Both directors?”

“Just Dr. Rankle,” Zvi explained. “Amit’s a love-muffin. Not literally,” she added quickly, as Wayfarer’s pale blue eyes latched onto her inquisitively. “I mean, on that topic. Maintains an open mind, at least. He hired me, for example. I’m the only Elennuist on the staff, practically.”

“Practically?” asked Wayfarer; one was either an Elennuist or not.

Zvia opened her mouth, but closed it again, and tilted her head to point. “Oh, here comes Dr. Rankle. It’s afternoon announcement time.”

Wayfarer looked. Wilson A. Rankle was approaching, the comb-over now firmly in place against his pink scalp. He was holding a cold bottle of soda in one hand. No doubt it was from some personal supply; she imagined there might even be a padlock involved. Wayfarer disliked soft drinks, but she disliked self-endowed aristocracy even more.

“Good afternoon, people. Ben-Tor, put on some shoes, will you, unless you’re trolling for scorpions?” He opened his mouth to continue, but something caught his eye. “Eric, what’s that mess you’re holding on your neck?”

“Ice,” the sole undergrad explained, “in a baggie. Area D has wasps in the balks again.”

“Are you allergic? No? Well then, I’ll get on with it. Have you all met Dr. Wayfarer? She’s from MacCormack U and is here to look at our supposed Mystery Object in case it’s something special. Please extend her the courtesy of showing her the ropes around camp and in the lab for however long she’s with us. Also, I have a general announcement that I shouldn’t have to make, but since Dr. Wayfarer has just arrived, it’s worth informing her and reminding you all that this late in the season, water is in very short supply, so limit your showers to three minutes and keep them within the afternoon hours, so the pumps have enough time to refill the cistern, otherwise we’ll go dry. Limit clothes-washing to bare necessity, too. What’s so funny, Zohn?” he added wearily, as if engaged in a habitual battle.

The remark was directed at a sturdy staff member with a nimbus of brown hair and a patriarch’s beard. “Just thinking how appropriate the term rank and vile will be,” he joked. Everyone tittered.

“That’s rank and file, Zohn,” the director corrected, as if it were ignorance and not a pun. He went on as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “And, let me remind everyone, once again, that for your own safety the upper wadi is strictly off limits, at any time, but especially after dark. None of you has any reason… any reason to be up there. At all. And I mean none of…” he looked around and demanded, “where’s Dario?”

No one said anything.

Rankle finished up abruptly, “Well, I think I’ve made myself clear. That’s all.”

He turned to Einer Wayfarer. “There’s half an hour until dinner. Would you like to see the object now?”

Half an hour? Half an hour? She’d come half-way around the world on short notice and she was being offered half an hour of face time with the mystery object? Not damn likely. Wayfarer settled her dense body weightily onto a bench and folded her short-fingered hands firmly around her styrofoam cup.

“Thanks, Wilson,” she said, “but it can wait until after dinner, I think. I’d like to chat with your staff.”

To be continued…

To read Part 3 “Wayfarer’s Explanation”, click here.

(This series is a prequel to the eight-part “Ganskopf Incident”, click here to read the Ganskopf Incident; earliest posts are at the bottom; scroll down to start there.)

Posted by Allison on Mar 25th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (1)

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