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What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 12

This is the twelfth installment of a series. There’s a link at the bottom of the page to the thirteenth installment.  Read Part 11 by clicking here, or start at the very beginning by clicking here.


After encountering an anomalous fragment of pottery decorated with a bee and a possible flower, the Beit Bat Ya’anah staff were hotly debating its origins. Leaving them to it and wandering out across the moonlit compound, Professor Wayfarer had recalled a fragment of poetry with a similar motif, causing her to wonder who the people were who had made this rocky site their home.

The Nature of the Hill: secrets and surprises

Outside the lab building, Einer Wayfarer glanced at her watch.  It was not quite 8.30, and she was ready for bed, unaccustomed to the long active hours on the hill, which were so different from her sedentary days behind a desk in her office, at the library, or in the classroom. She was surprised to find that she could read the hands of her wristwatch in the moonlight – the waxing moon was only slightly more than half full, yet she noticed her squat shadow running ahead of her sharp along the stony ground. In Lassiter the lardy moon was never this bright, even full. Here, colors were discernible in the clear desert moonlight. You could read poetry by it, Wayfarer thought – hell, you could write poetry by it, if you were that sort of person. If you were that sort of person.

As though intent on enabling such romantic pursuits, the moon lit two spots of bright color as the professor passed downhill of the shadowed dining tent: aniline pink hair and a man’s white shirt – two figures, leaning together against the end of one of the tables. Mikka the ex-cook/photographer and the elusive Dario had found a way to pass the evening that didn’t involve tiresome record-keeping in the ill-lit lab.

Unsurprised, Wayfarer looked and then looked away. To judge by the intimacy of their embrace, she concluded that the rearrangement of kitchen duties hadn’t impaired their acquaintance. It occurred to her to sympathize briefly with Avsa Szeringka for having to supervise the young man as a graduate student.  He seemed to be expert at simultaneously eluding unwanted contact and attracting attention to himself, a curiously infuriating skill set for an academic advisor to wrangle, and likely to create disruptions in a research setting.

Less earthily and more celestially, it also seemed to Wayfarer that the gibbous moon was in a forthcoming mood, naughtily giving up other people’s secrets to anyone who was paying attention. It would be foolish to not take advantage of its revelations, so she changed her mind about heading to bed. Instead, she climbed upward to the crest of the ridge where she had first stood with Wilson Rankle, just yesterday. She arrived at the top, puffing slightly and disappointed in her hope for a slight breeze.

Catching her breath, she looked down on the site. Einer Wayfarer was not superstitious, or prone to fancy. But she was also not unimaginative: over the years, she had acceptably and productively harnessed an active imagination to the yoke of scholarly creative thought. So although she didn’t expect to see a ghostly diorama of moonlit re-creation laid out before her — an ancient town’s crenellated stone-and-mud walls dimly peopled by long-dead shades of priests and goat-herds and potters and children and soldiers and dogs, shouting and tending smoky cooking fires, chasing screeching chickens, drinking wine, dying clothes, writing letters, and tanning hides — she was open to the possibility that the site, seen quite literally in a new light (to use that well-worn cliché she deplored in less careful academic writers) might show her something she hadn’t observed before, something more human than the dry chronological classifications recited by Wilson Rankle in the glare of daylight.

And she was not too stuffy to wish for a time machine to confirm such imaginings, since the methods of archeologists seemed to her, paradoxically, to be both technically sterile and too subjective all at once. Whereas one could easily imagine these walls long ago corralling all the same activities that people engage in today – cooking, lying, loving, keeping secrets, making mistakes, laughing, prevailing, struggling – it was the surprises, the things you’d never guess, that interested Einer Wayfarer. It was in surprises where progress lay in understanding ancient lives, in fleshing out people who lived long ago.  Surprises like a jar handle bearing a hidden ambiguous symbol, a painted bee drawn to an exotic flower on a sherd, and a young man whose tapped initial Rs and slightly retroflected Ss were not fully explained by either southern European origin or Scottish influence.

As she moved along the ridge to a better vantage point, she realized she wasn’t alone. Just ahead of her, perched on a flat rock, sat Amit Chayes.

“Does no one around here sleep?” she asked.

“Sleep? It’s still early,” Chayes said, turning. “Erev tov, Einer. Please sit,” he invited her. “Doing what?”

“Seeing what the moon has to show. And you?”

“The same. And the tables were occupied.”

Wayfarer chuckled. “Danish lessons, do you suppose?”

“I can remember being so young, can’t you?” Chayes smiled. “I met my wife on a dig. These things are to be expected — it’s natural.”

“Indeed it is,” Wayfarer said, not answering his actual question, and doubting the pertinence of matrimony in this instance. “In fact, Rory Zohn was just touting the advantage of working within natural systems, although his example was aptitude for cooking, not sex.”

“If camp gossip is true, perhaps in this case it’s related,” Chayes laughed. “Well, I should spend more time in the lab. I didn’t know discussion there was so intellectual, usually.”

“It seems like you’ve put together a fairly good crew.”

“Young, but good,” he agreed. “Pretty good. Some hard workers, some needing a bit more guidance, more experience. As usual. We were lucky: except for Zvia Ben-Tor, who requested to come, our permit came so late the crew was filled in the last minute with overflow from other site applicants.”

“Why is that?”

“The government is preoccupied with the Lebanese events. And so many archeologists are called up for military service at times like this, the Reshut HaAtikot — the IAA — is slowed down to an even less efficient pace than usual. Our small site had low priority.”

“Why are you digging here, Amit?” Wayfarer asked. She looked out over the hill, onto the squares making an orderly framework deeply cut against the pale, stony hilltop. Within the inky pits were dim outlines of walls and floors, none complete, few rectilinear, not at all aligned with the carefully surveyed lines of the archæologists’ grid, running their own imprecise, human-laid courses under the sternly oriented, scientifically imposed balks.

“Ah, the staff have been complaining to you,” Chayes stated, answering her meaning and not her words. “The simplest answer is archeological: because there are so few remains later than the Bronze Age at the site the Chalcolithic and even earlier levels, if present, should be relatively well-preserved. But also…” He glanced over his shoulder at the sheer cliffs that rose above the site a few hundred meters from where they sat. “I think that the place has… Well, to say it has secrets is too dramatic; all archeological sites have secrets; it’s their nature. So, I will say instead surprises. For instance, I was hoping you’d confirm that character on the amphora handle as wehériəl.

His words resonated uncannily with her earlier thoughts. “You’re looking for evidence of Elennui culture?” Wayfarer asked. “That is a surprise.”

Chayes shook his head, “No; no, I’m not looking. That’s unsound technique in our field: you almost always find what you look for. But, if it were to show up, that would be a surprise.”  He shrugged. “So, I hoped the symbol was evidence that Elennui speakers have lived here.”

Wayfarer cleared her throat. “I wish I could have confirmed it, but…”

The archeologist waved a hand. “No; of course. It was sound scholarship, much more important. And no matter – there is still much dirt to move.”

“Who has lived here?” she asked. Responding to Szeringka’s peremptory summons, Wayfarer hadn’t had time to read site reports, and Rankle’s dull orientation had meant little to her.

Chayes paused before responding. “Do you mean people of the Bible?”

She supposed he was accustomed to that question, perhaps irked by it. She replied, “No, that’s not my bias. I simply mean people.  Any people, of any book.  Or of no book. Who has lived here?”

“This is Israel – who hasn’t lived here?  Over the millenia, this ridge has been occupied by foreign soldiers; nomads from far and near; tale-telling hunter-gatherers with stone tools; well-organized patriarchs with scribes and cisterns, pottery and laws; zionist idealists; entrepreneurial ostrich farmers. Optimistic archeologists. People who left things, and people who are looking for those things. People hoping for secrets – surprises. But the site has kept its secrets well, I would say.”

“So, it’s not a tell…” Wayfarer punned, not sure Chayes’s English was colloquial enough to catch it.

He shrugged and made a literal reply. “Our hill is not a tel, technically.  Just superimposed occupation levels along a ridge – most of the topography is geologic, natural – piled up outwash from the upper wadi, now eroding slowly. But I understand your joke – and no; it is not a tell, in any sense. Especially in one way,” Chayes added, “the site has been entirely mute. The staff is right – Beit Bat Ya’anah is missing something.”

Wayfarer waited.

“We’ve sounded, and surface-surveyed across the whole ridge, and even searched downstream in the wadi. It’s a small but enduring habitation: one would expect…” the archeologist broke off, then finished bluntly, “No bones, no teeth. No evidence of burials or any human remains.”  He shrugged once again.  “Well, as I say, there is much dirt yet to move.”  Chayes turned back to the moonlit walls below, perhaps again hoping to be shown secrets, or at least surprises.

Einer Wayfarer took the hint, and stood to go. But she couldn’t keep from asking one more question. “Ostrich farmers?”

“You don’t know the meaning of Beit Bat Ya’anah?” Chayes asked.  “ya’anah is the female form of ya’en, ostrich. The name means ‘House of the Ostrich’s Daughter’. Ask Moshe sometime – he loves to tell that story.”

To be continued…

To read the next installment, Part 13 “Correspondence” click here

Posted by Allison on Aug 27th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (4)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 11

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


Our other on-going personnel matter,” Amit Chayes had explained about the sound of argument coming from the mess-tent. “I take full responsibility. I should have hired a cook with more experience, only, it seemed so fortunate to find a site photographer who was willing to cook as well. But we’ve had to re-kasher the refrigerator twice this season. If you’ll excuse me, I should go to mediate.”

Natural systems: flowers and bees, pottery and poetry

“Mikka quit?” Rory’s disbelieving shout of laughter caused Einer Wayfarer’s head to snap back upright.

The professor had volunteered to help in the lab after the evening meal partly out of the acerbic goodness of her heart, and because she was interested in seeing how these things were done. Recording data points from Rory’s grimy Area D field notebook onto locus cards proved to be no less mind-numbingly tedious work than the actual digging, so she felt entitled to occupy herself by eavesdropping on the staff’s conversation. That was worth staying awake for – the patois in the group was a casual shakshuka of old world languages, bound together in a matrix of English of several flavors. And it wasn’t really eavesdropping: with a voice as loud as Rory’s, hearing was hardly avoidable in the small, stuffy room. Now conversation had come around to gossip about the afternoon’s kitchen fuss and the absent Dario, who, per Amit according to Zvia, had been appointed as replacement for the unsatisfactorily breezy Mikka.

“She quit on the spot as cook,” Zvi said, “but not as photographer – she’ll be concentrating on site-and-find photography for the last two weeks of the dig.”

Rory groaned. “What did she do this time?”

“Moshe found the skull of a shafan…” Lior looked at Zvia for vocabulary help.

“Rock hyrax,” she supplied.

“… a hyrax skull on the dairy shelf in the refrigerator,” Lior explained, his forehead crinkled. “Not cool!”

“So they’re yanking Dario off the hill to cook?” Rory moaned. Wayfarer looked over in time to see him pretend to tear out the hair at his temples. “Damn! That leaves me short of slave-labor in Area D.” When he took his big hands away, the brown hanks twisted out to either side like unkempt ram’s horns.

“You’ve got Eric. And Dr. Wayfarer,” Zvi reminded him gently, tipping her head toward the far corner of the room. Rory moaned again, but not quietly enough.

“I can hear you, you know,” the professor pointed out. “And at least I stay awake under your barrage of monotonous numbers,” she told him.

Rory grinned. “It’s true – it’s more than a fair trade. It’s just that your chapeau’s not as quaint.”

Eric, more concerned about academic technicalities than head-gear, wanted to know, “How can they force him to cook? Isn’t he getting credit for excavating?”

“More importantly,” inquired Rory, “does he actually know anything about feeding people?”

Wayfarer heard Zvia make a small noise of modest expertise. Everyone looked at her expectantly.

“Actually,” she said, “they aren’t, he isn’t, and he does.” She explained, “Remember, he’s primarily a lit student, not an archæologist – Amit took him on as a favor for Dr. Szeringka…” (that makes two of us, thought Wayfarer) “…so he’s purely a volunteer, I guess. And Amit said Dario was happy to take over the kitchen. Supposedly he learned English at some school in the UK by working for the whole year as the cook.”

“Edinburgh,” stated Wayfarer, mostly to herself.

“Yes,” said Zvi, “Amit said Scotland, now that you mention it. But I don’t think he sounds Scottish at all.”

The professor shook her head. “He doesn’t; not entirely.” She’d detected a hint of it in the few words he’d said on the hill. “But it’s in the mix.” She didn’t go into detail; no one wanted to hear about rhotic differentiation and epipenthic vowels.

“I thought Dario was Yugoslavian or something,” said Shams, finally looking up from the light table.

“I thought he was Greek,” Eric said. “So what would he know about kosher food?”

“There are Greek Jews, Eric,” Zvia pointed out. “Besides, he’s not Greek. Or Yugoslavian. I don’t think... Anyway Moshe’s given him a crash course in kashrut.”

“Let’s hope that works better than it did with Mikka,” Lior muttered.

Zvi went on. “Anyway, she’s lucky: Rankle and Moshe wanted to fire her completely. But Amit prevailed. To settle the mess, he’s split meal prep up: Dario’s doing the actual cooking – breakfast and the main meal. Moshe’s in charge of supper since there’s no cooking, just chopping veggies. Mikka’s still putting out tea, and doing the washing-up. Plus the photography.”

Rory observed philosophically, “Well, if Mikka can’t de-koshrify the joint by washing dishes –” here Wayfarer distinctly heard Lior and Zvia snort in unison “– and Dario’s better at dinner than digging, I say go with the natural system. It’s more comfortable for everyone.”

koshrify isn’t a word,” Zvi said instructively. “And, Dario’s not out of the dirt entirely. He’s still supposed to work on the hill when needed, and help with paperwork in the lab.”

“Invisibly?” wondered Shams aloud, looking around theatrically.

Eric giggled, “Now you sound like the Wrinkle…”

Because she felt she was expected to, Wayfarer cleared her throat, simulating perfunctory disapproval. It had an effect: the laughter trailed off, although slowly. Rory and Zvia returned to their sherd-sorting, still snickering. Suddenly Zvi exclaimed, “Oh, hey – cool!” She held up a clay fragment that was decorated with a chocolate brown design on a buffy background. “Nice bichrome.”

Rory said to Lior, “Hey, Pottery Man, did you see this? It came up today, when we were clearing a well.”

Lior hung over Zvia’s shoulder. “It’s tsir’a, a wasp,” he said. “One of your friends, Eric,” he teased the younger man, who self-consciously raised one hand to his still-welted neck.

“Or devorah, I think, isn’t it,?” Zvia corrected Lior’s biology. “A bee?”

“I don’t think that’s bichrome,” he asserted, counter-correcting.

“Is that a flower? Too bad it broke right there; it looks like a foxglove.” Zvi brought the sherd to Wayfarer. “Did you want to see? We bring up so little decorated pottery at BBY.”

“Or anything else of interest…” the draughtsman muttered over his precisely inked site plan. Wayfarer noticed that no one laughed.

Zvia said, “If it’s not an articulated masonry wall, Shams has no use for it. Although it’s true, BBY hasn’t been the most productive site, so far, either in small finds or architecturally.” She was still holding out the sherd. The professor obediently regarded the small scrap of scuffed clay, only slightly more colorful than the dirt it came out of: she saw there was indeed a bee painted there, wings spread in flight. In front of it the blunt end of a phallic-shaped object just pushed into view from one of the broken edges – Zvia’s “foxglove”.

“The clay body’s too red for bichrome…” Lior was saying, intent on his ceramic thought process. He had trailed Zvi across the room, and was now studying the piece in Wayfarer’s hand.

“A flower? Looks like a cigar to me,” joked Eric.

Lior muttered, “And I’ve seen birds and bulls and ibexes on bichrome, but…”

“Everything looks like a cigar to you,” said Shams, to Eric.

“…but never insects, or flowers…” Lior reached for the sherd and Wayfarer placed it in his palm.

“Sometimes a foxglove is just a foxglove…” she said, standing. To her, the “flower” looked like a geometric space-filler, a result of a Bronze Age potter’s horror vacui. She pushed in her chair to leave: the younger folk, archæologically fervent, were now hotly debating whether the piece was really bichrome and if not, what. She wished them goodnight, and received a polite layla tov in return.

Wayfarer left the lab mulling over the chip of colored clay displayed in Zvi’s square, grubby palm: its date and technical description were for the experts who cared about such things, but the possible flower and bee motif interested the professor, whose efficient memory had shuffled to the surface a handful of lines of fragmentary but appropriate verse. Wandering out across the dark compound, the professor wondered where the foxglove nearest to this arid, rocky ridge grew: probably, she concluded, the Pleistocene.

To be continued…

To read the next installment, Part 12 “The Nature of the Hill” click here.

Posted by Allison on Aug 15th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (2)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 10

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

Dario’s inelegant complaint was not much to go on, and his mildly exotic accent was like a linguistic version of the ambiguous character on the potsherd – it could be anything, from anywhere. Unless you knew what to look for: Wayfarer would have to do some digging to uncover the origins of the young man’s mongrel vowels. To do that, she would need to hear him say more than three words together.

Ptitim with Amit

As the dusty, sweaty excavation team trailed panting off the ridge, they homed in on the mess tarp as efficiently as vultures on a carcass. At the start of the season it had been showers first, but now no one except Wilson Rankle bothered until after eating. Kibbutz-style, lunch was the main meal of the day, and the only cooked meal. As the season wore on, people had grown less polite or more hungry: they helped themselves to the prime portions, and stragglers risked finding protein-short rations awaiting them.

Under the high midday sun, the tarp shaded all the tables well and although there was some habitual grumbling about the repetitive menu and mediocre flavor, there was no jostling for shady seats. People got their food and settled into place by location, polarization, or association: the Aussies were in one grubby, boisterous clump, and the Israelis were in another, but Wayfarer was surprised to see most of the rest sitting with their area teams. She thought that after long hours working together in cramped pits everyone would be ready for a change. As a newcomer, she felt free to stir things up by settling anywhere. Intent on investigating her “artifact with an accent”, she was considering heading for the spot where a wide-brimmed straw hat with a beehive crown had been set on a table, when behind her a voice rumbling with gutterals said, “Professor Wayfarer!”

She turned, and found herself within handshake range of a brown, wiry man in his forties with a bent Medici nose and close-cropped hair. “Amit Chayes,” he said, squeezing her hand in one of his and her upper arm with the other. “Shalom! I hear you’ve decided to stay with us longer — welcome.”

“Thank you,” Wayfarer replied. “Please, call me Einer.”

“Of course.” The co-director’s cordial grip was strong and brief. Releasing her he said, “Come please, sit.” Wayfarer allowed him to guide her to a seat via the food table, while he explained that he’d been off-site since his six-year old had been bitten by a spider at home in Be’er Sheva. “He’s fine now, but he needed a few days in hospital for observation and my wife is away for her reserve service at the moment.”

“She’s not exempt, as a mother?”

“The Lebanese matter has changed things for now.” Chayes shrugged. “It’s not combat duty, anyway.” He waved the subject away with a firm hand. “Are you finding yourself comfortable? Unless one has just come off military duty, the showers take a bit getting used to. And the heat, of course.”

His direct, intuitive manner caused Wayfarer to feel relief on behalf of the Beit Bat Ya’anah staff, especially the younger, more callow ones; she judged that his forthright character adequately balanced Rankle’s peevish authoritarian style. “Visit Lassiter in July if you want to experience oppressive summer weather,” she replied. “And insects. Although, I keep hearing impressive stories about your local entomology.”

“Entomology?” The bench jumped as Zvia joined them without ceremony. “Was young Eric boring you with bugs, professor? He’s obsessed with them. And arachnids. But then, he seems to attract the nastier specimens. And we’ve got some monsters: camel spiders the size of your hand…”

Chayes lifted his chin in acknowledgment. “The Negev is a tough environment. It breeds tough creatures,” he said, spearing a chunk of chicken with his fork. “Have you encountered any of our nocturnal desert wildlife yet, Einer?”

Wayfarer’s eyes shifted momentarily over the archæologist’s shoulder to where the owner of the straw hat was now sitting with a plate heaped with ptitim and tinned vegetables, steadily working through it and taking no part in the conversation around him. She said, “I thought I might have seen a leopard marauding last night.”

“A leopard?” Chayes’s keen eyes followed her pale blue glance, and he showed even, white teeth in a smile. “Ah, you mean Dr. Szeringka’s protegé. Our very own djinn, manifesting in the darkness – his midnight baths are no secret.” He fixed her with an inquisitive look and said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t ask what you were doing up in the early hours?”

Not conjuring djinn,” Wayfarer replied promptly, “I assure you. But other than that, I’d rather not say… on the assumption that Wilson has devised a suitable penalty for dastardly water thieves and their ilk.” At her elbow, she heard Zvia unsuccessfully suppress a snicker.

Chayes showed more teeth. “You shouldn’t worry, Einer. But Bill does have a problem with… ah… well, one of the more independent staff members in particular, you might guess which. One of our few personnel issues. You’d better not mention the incident, in fact. It’s been a long season, and…”

At this moment, a fuss was heard coming from inside the mess tent. Outright shouting in emphatic and unrestrained Hebrew billowed like cooking smoke through the gaping door flaps, making the Israeli students at the next table laugh. Wayfarer could only distinguish the word shafan, which she vaguely recalled was some kind of etymologically significant animal, and — repeatedly — syllables that sounded like lo ba’mkarer, “not in the refrigerator!” The shouting in Hebrew was punctuated by equally vehement but not entirely fluent English denials of responsibility.

“Oh no, not again!” muttered Zvia.

“Apparently so, “ Chayes said. “The other on-going personnel issue. Our cook Mikka is Danish,” he added as if that accounted for it, and took another bite of chicken. Chewing, he listened. “Moshe sounds very angry,” he commented.

“Camp manager,” Zvia explained to Wayfarer. “You haven’t met him yet, I don’t think. Can be a bit, ummm… crusty…”

Chayes said placidly, “Moshe’s strengths are organizational, not social. He’s an invaluable member of the dig team and an old friend, but he has strong beliefs. Not religious as much as administrative – the University requires us to provide kosher meals to dig participants, although out here we manage only the most rudimentary kashrut. Even that’s been a struggle for Mikka. It could be worse – no one on site is very religious, so Moshe’s the only one who minds, because as he says rules are rules and it’s his job.”

Zvia began tartly, “And because Mikka is a…”

“A very good photographer,” Chayes finished for her, firmly. “I take responsibility,” the director went on. “I should have hired someone with more kitchen experience –” here he raised one shoulder philosophically, “– only, it seemed so fortunate to find a site photographer who was willing to cook, too. But it proved to be – what’s the term?”

“A false economy,” Wayfarer supplied, listening to the fuss in the tent escalate.

Chayes nodded. “Precisely: we’ve had to re-kasher the refrigerator twice this season. Work and water we can ill spare.”

From inside the dim canvas doorway came the clatter of metal on metal. The director shook his head and put down his fork. “Please excuse me, I must go mediate.” As he moved away Amit Chayes looked over to the now empty place where Szeringka’s protegé had been sitting, then glanced back at Zvia. “Eyfo Dario?”

Ani lo yoda’at,” she answered, frowning a little. “Ask Lior or Yael, they were sitting over there.”

Chayes growled the same question at the group of BGU students lingering nearby, eavesdropping on the fracas. Only his grad student Lior replied, with a jerk of the chin that signaled equal lack of knowledge and lack of interest, and Chayes disappeared into the overheated gloom of the mess tent, where the volume of bilingual squabbling dropped immediately.

Eyfo Dario,” Wayfarer repeated, where’s Dario. No one ever seemed to know. Or, admitted knowing. “That question is asked with some frequency around here,” she said.

“It is,” Zvia agreed, collecting their empty plates from the table. Her brown eyes were fixed on a point somewhere in the desert above the camp, and she was still frowning. “Recently, at least. Anyway, Amit will find him. Or he’ll just show up. He always does. No reason to be worried.”

The professor was not worried. Like a spotted leopard, the wayward Dario seemed to be able to disappear effortlessly against any background and reappear again just as smoothly, no doubt promptly at mealtime. But, assessing the young woman’s knit brows astutely, Wayfarer knew that Zvia — who didn’t strike her as the worrying type — intended the reassuring words for herself, and that was far more interesting.

…to be continued

To read the next installment, Part 11 “Natural Systems” click here.

Posted by Allison on Jul 20th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (1)

“You never know which foot is when”

That’s the motto of The Pseudopod Waltz logo:

Remember it! It’s your sign of quality Three Star Owl fiction (what “quality” I’ll leave up to the reader).  Up until this point, there are two illustrated, serialized stories in this space:

The Ganskopf Incident, which ran in eight short episodes and an epilogue, and is complete (or is it?).  In  personal notes and sketches for an illustrated article on “owl fetishes”, a museum illustrator recounts events at the obscure Ganskopf Institute, involving its librarian Miss Laguna, the sleek and enigmatic scholar Dr. Darius Danneru, a particular artifact, and a cup of tea.  It can be read in its entirety by clicking on The Ganskopf Incident category (under T for The!)  in the left-hand sidebar, or by clicking here.

There is also the currently running What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah.  Its longer, more complex storyline is a prequel to The Ganskopf Incident: it begins the story which ends in The Ganskopf Incident (or does it?). During the Lebanese conflict in the early 1980s, professor Einer Wayfarer — an expert in the study of a mysterious extinct language and its arcane body of literature — is convinced by an eccentric colleague to visit a remote and unpromising archeological site deep in the Negev Desert of Israel, in order to examine an artifact which may be of some importance to her field. This tale can be read by clicking the Beit Bat Ya’anah category in the left-hand sidebar, or by clicking here.  The next episode, part 10, “Ptitim with Amit”, will be appearing shortly.

In order to begin at the beginning of each story, the structure of the blog archives requires you to scroll down to the bottom of the page, then click “previous” to move back in time to the earliest posts.  You will need to go back several pages in each story line, and then read from the bottom up.

So claim the comfy chair, get yourself a cup of tea (some luxurious green rooibos, perhaps?) or something stronger (like arak, if that’s more your taste) and enjoy the journey!

Posted by Allison on Jul 20th 2011 | Filed in art/clay,artefaux,pseudopod waltz | Comments (1)

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)

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