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What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: Part 17

This is the latest installment of the series. The following links will take you to the last episode before this one, and the very first episode of the series.  Also, each post has a link at the bottom to the next episode after it:

Read Part 16 ……………………………….For new readers: Read Part 1


The excavation season at Beit Bat Ya’anah is in its last two weeks, and Zvia BenTor is catching up on her personal letter-writing while she can. Before we look over her shoulder, let’s re-open earlier correspondence. First, the ambiguous letter that set things in motion, sent by Avsa Szeringka, grande dame of Elennui Studies, to her American counterpart Einer Wayfarer, meant to entice her to the unenchanting archeological dig deep in the Negev Desert. Then, three other messages: one from Wayfarer to Szeringka, short and wry like its author, intended to stir the pot; and a pair of letters – one rebellious and insolent, the other imperious and fierce – two sides of a fiery exchange between Dario and his adviser and mentor Szeringka, the contents of which we can only guess.

Correspondence: letters home

It was after lunch in the camp on the ridge below the wadi, the part of the day when it was too hot to work in the lab — too hot even to nap.  Today it was also too noisy: since early morning F-16 Falcons had been shrieking northward up the valley in pairs every few minutes, wingtips slicing the white sky. Kept by heat and noise from holing up in the tents for sleep, various Beit Bat Ya’anah staff lounged in the sharp-edged shade of the dining tarp, trying to minimize contact with the plastic table-cloths and each other: everyone was spaced unsociably, as far apart as the small number of tables and the concentrated shade allowed. The Australians idled in a teasing, loose clump; at the next table Shams was trying to coax his semi-broken Walkman to play an Icehouse cassette.  Moshe, muttering and sweating, was re-attaching something to the tarp frame with heat-molten duct tape. And a few distracted-looking BGU students were either huddled around a transistor radio, or listening to Lior strum Wimoweh on his guitar as IAF Kfir jets — Lioncubs — roared overhead, shaking the rocky ground of the ridge underfoot.

At the edge of the group sat Zvia Ben-Tor ignoring it all, barefoot, with a sun-faded rainbow scarf wound around her head, its knotted fringe tickling her neck in the hot wind. She kept brushing at it unconsciously, as if shooing a bug. On the table lay a stack of letters weighted with a battered, handy cobble so she didn’t have to chase them across the compound a second time while the Aussies twitted her about “Air Mail.” Except for the one to her uncle in Tel Aviv, the letters were in fact air mail, addressed to the States and decorated with blue and white do’ar avir stickers. Zvia always picked up sheets of the gummed stickers at the Be’er Sheva post office before going into the field, since their winged image of a swift deer personalized her correspondence: tsvia was a Hebrew word for doe. Though there were several envelopes under the cobble they made only a thin stack — her lilac airmail paper was so light that she could get several sheets into each envelope without extra postage.  This was useful, because on paper Zvia was more talkative than she was in person.

By the middle of the afternoon, she’d finished writing to her parents, her little brother, her older sister who shared her Princeton apartment, and her aunt Laura. Now she was writing to a pal from undergrad days who was currently a grad student in MacCormack U’s Elennui Studies program. Though Dugan would tease her for gossiping, Zvia knew her news would fall on especially interested ears: Einer Wayfarer was his advisor. She situated the page so that none of the nearby Aussies could snoop, and dished:

“… very disappointing that after coming all this way she wouldn’t allow our mysterious character to be the wehériəl sign – Anyway that was more than a week ago and she’s still here. No one knows why. I overheard her say something to Rankle about staying. There was no asking just telling.  Although it’s not like she’s just hanging around. She’s everywhere – now I get why you call her ‘The Eye’, she doesn’t miss a thing, does she? – helping out on the hill and in the lab, which is actually useful since the IDF is reinforcing its ranks by thinning ours. Now if only we can get young Eric to shut up about Indiana Jones — he sounds like such a jerk going on about that movie, when the sabras are worried about being called into combat…”

Out of the corner of one eye, she was aware of someone approaching.  She stopped writing, but it was just Shams with his natty hat and a question in his eye. “Need some laundry soap, Shams?” she anticipated.  It was a site mystery: since he usually wielded a transit instead of a trowel like the rest of them, Shams’s clothes never got dirty — yet he was always washing shirts with other people’s powder. “There’s a half-empty box of Maxima under the bunk in my tent. Just leave a little for me, okay?” Shams veered away towards the tents with a tip of his stingy-brim and a thumbs-up. Zvia re-read her last words, added some more underlining, and continued:

“Anyway the Eye seems to be eyeing Szeringka’s pride and joy – Dario Some-Last-Name-I-Can’t-Spell from her Institute — no, not eyeing that way, ecch! — I just mean asking questions. It doesn’t seem to be working — he’s made himself pretty scarce since she got here.  He’s supposed to be a hotshot Elennuist, you’d think he’d want to schmooze the eminence grise.  But with all the mummy-bead bracelets, slinky physique, and eurotrash accent he doesn’t exactly ooze academic credibility (although some of my co-workers don’t seem to object to whatever it is he does ooze). So, is the Eye just scouting Szeringka’s bench or what?  Or maybe it’s all in my imagination — she’s always asking everyone about everything…”

Here Zvia looked up in time to witness a small scene unfolding in the hot sun, which illustrated her point perfectly, so she passed it on to Dugan as it happened:

“In fact someone should warn Shams right now because there goes The Eye after him marching across camp towards the Trough toting her laundry bag and sporting a dorky bucket hat and stumpy beige shoes – I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen her in field togs? Although Moshe (He of the Sandals-with-Socks and tembel hat) seems to appreciate the look – in fact now there he goes after her trailing duct tape and concern to see if she needs anything… ever since she asked him about the Greenboim’s ostrich farm he… oh, that’s right – you don’t like to gossip so you won’t want to hear about our social intricacies. Anyway things relaxed around here after Amit got back so we’re not solely under Wee Willie’s thumb and the food’s been soooo much better since they demoted Mikke the “cook” back to photographer (did I tell you about the hyrax skull incident?) because Dario flings falafel way better than he ever did dirt.Oh, hell!”

This last startled exclamation was aloud. With no warning except a slight scent of cedar mixed with frying oil and dish soap, along with something distinctly more volatile, someone had come up behind her. It was Dario, the last person she’d expect to see at this time of day. He sank onto the bench, sidling over until his hip pressed against hers. He laid one hand on the cobble weighing down her letters and asked, “May I have this?”

Folding the page over so he couldn’t see what she’d been writing, Zvia shifted away and opened her mouth.  A desert full of rocks, and he had to have that one?  But before she could say no Dario set three plump apricots on the table in front of her. “Use these instead.” His face was inches from hers, his chin as round and dimpled as the fruit.

The sun-warmed fruit glowed golden against the lilac envelopes, emitting a soft floral scent. “mish-mish! — where did you get them?” Zvia exclaimed. It had been weeks since there had been any fruit in camp but tinned peaches.

“The last of the season, from Kibbutz Shizafon. I pursuaded Lior to bring a box from home. His brother works in the groves.  All three, for that ugly stone.”

Without doubt it was an excellent trade, but she wasn’t going to let him know it. “So why do you want it?”

“Because Moshe won’t lend me another hammer.”

Better not ask, Zvia decided, and instead sealed the deal.  “For three apricots, the rock’s yours,” she gestured towards it with her chin, and picked up her pen.  “But you overpaid. I would have settled for two.”

Dario smiled, but didn’t take the cobble.  Zvia said, “Look, I’m trying to finish a letter, do you mind?”

“I don’t mind.” He eyed the stack of mail, and didn’t budge. “You wrote to all of those people?”

“Just letters home,” she said, “to my family, mostly.”

“And do they write back?”

“Of course, except my butthead brother.”  She tried again. “Aren’t you going to take your rock?  Away?”

Dario leaned across her, reaching for the cobble. Zvia felt his warm ribs press against her briefly before he leaned away again. It occurred to her how few personal details she knew about him, even after working together all season. That was odd, for her – usually everything worth knowing about everyone on site was filed in her head long before this. For instance, where was Dario actually from? Current camp rumor had recently migrated from Yugoslavia to Italy, but Zvia couldn’t think why she’d never asked him directly. “Where do you call home, Dario?”

“Here,” he said, after considering. “I live here…”

“At Two-Bit-Yod?” Zvia laughed. “Well we all do, at the moment – us and the wasps and the centipedes. No, I mean where does your family live, where do you go between terms?”

He took one of her work-roughened hands in his even rougher one and turned it upward. “I know what you mean.” He pulled an ornate fountain pen from his shirt pocket, and began to write. The sticky pen-point dragged across Zvi’s palm, tickling, line after line, its ink giving off an exotic, coniferous odor. “I stay at the Institute,” Dario said, still writing. “Szeringka’s Institute.  Near Oxford.”

“I know where the Institute is,” Zvia said. Everyone in their field knew about the Institute, and the rumors.

He looked at her, lower lids slightly raised, and after a pause said, “Then you know where I live.”

Zvia didn’t pursue it – if he wanted to shelter behind an aura of sultry euro-mystery, fine: it was probably more interesting than whatever the truth was. She took her hand back when he didn’t release it, and offered, “Well, if you ever want to write on actual paper, I’ve got plenty of stationary.” She turned away to finish her own letter.

“Thank you, cara, I already wrote a letter home.” Dario replied, standing. “But I didn’t like the reply.”

After a moment, Zvia looked up. “What?” she asked. But he was already out of earshot, and almost out of sight.  Typical, she thought — he was either too close up, or too far away. “Hey, thanks for the mish-meshim,” she called after him. Only then did she unfold her palm to see what he’d written there in fragrant blue ink.

To be continued…

Posted by Allison on Jun 11th 2012 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (0)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: Part 16

This is the sixteenth installment of the series. The following links will take you to the last episode before this one, and the very first episode of the series.  Also, each post has a link at the bottom to the next episode after it:

Read Part 15 ……………………………….For new readers: Read Part 1


In her continuing attempts to learn about Beit Bat Ya’anah, Professor Wayfarer is offered after dinner refreshments by the camp manager Moshe, while he tells her a glorified tale about a part of the site’s history from the fairly recent past: the story of the Greenboim Brothers and their ostrich farm. An unwelcome (to Moshe) interruption by Wilson Rankle redirects the camp manager to telling a less idealized version of the tale, to which the Professor listens closely, and learns unexpected things.

Moshe’s tale part 2: smuggling eggs

A hot breeze had kicked up while Moshe was talking, swirling grit against Professor Wayfarer’s ankles. The string of little lights swung overhead, making shadows jump on the vinyl tablecloth. A stiff gust scoured one of the Bamba snacks out of the bowl and blew it across the table into the dirt. Wayfarer watched the starchy puff hop rodent-like across the compound. Its unnatural beige coloration caught the moonlight, making it easily visible until it lodged in a cage-like spurge at the far side of the open area. “It’s the sand rat’s lucky day,” she said.

But Moshe was focused on ostriches. “What the Greenboim brothers did wasn’t stealing, exactly,” he said again.

“No?” she asked.

“No.” The camp manager shook his head. “More mits, Professor Einer?”

“No!” barked Wayfarer, putting her hand over her plastic cup. “Thank you,” she added belatedly.

“Not stealing. It was….” Moshe circled a finger in the air, to conjure the word he wanted. “The opposite. Not taking something illegally, bringing something illegally.”

It puzzled the professor, but only for a moment. “Smuggling,” she suggested. She was intrigued by his opposition of stealing and smuggling, antonyms she herself never would have paired. But from a certain perspective – if you ignored the obvious axis of legality – it was logical. It reminded her of debating with Avsa Szeringka: Wayfarer admired the mental agility, while disagreeing with the premise.

“Yes! Smuggling.” Moshe slapped the table. “That’s not like stealing – who did it hurt? And it wasn’t the birds: how could you smuggle a big animal like an ostrich into or out of anywhere? No, remember I told you – the older brother Avidor had once worked in an ostrich farm in South Africa. He still had friends there. They told him there were rules about ostriches leaving the country. The market for meat, feathers, and leather was good – the South Africans didn’t want competition, so no birds could be exported. But eggs were different. No one cared about eggs – how could chicks in the egg survive the flight? you would arrive only with a big souvenir. So Avidor got eighteen eggs, a lucky number – and they flew back to Israel with them.”

“That’s a long flight for viable eggs they hoped to hatch. They chartered a plane?”

Moshe’s thick eyebrows bent upward. “You think they were made of money? No, El Al, tourist class, regular Johannesburg-Addis Ababa-Tel Aviv run. They carried the eggs in kitbegs they took on board.” The camp manager sat back, enjoying the leisurely rhythm of his tale.

The professor repressed a sigh. She wondered if it was the story making her impatient, or the unaccustomed influx of after-dinner sugar in the mits. If only the Aussies had managed to bring her wine from Eilat — a nice red was much more conducive than this sweet juice to long after-dinner tale-spinning.  Shams said they’d bought some, but somehow – unlike the Hawaii brand shampoo – the bottle hadn’t survived the late-night drive back to the site. Clean, tropical-scented hair was hardly compensation; it was understandable if she sounded a bit sharp. “You’re saying that the Greenboims smuggled a dozen and a half ostrich eggs past El Al security in their carry-on bags?”

Moshe shrugged. “No, I told you – that part was all legal, nothing done be’shushu. No one cared about eggs back then. El Al security was looking for hijackers’ bombs, not eggs. Eggs are not a problem; eggs don’t blow up.”

“Then where did the smuggling come in?”

“That’s what I’m telling you! It was a matter of timing. Eggs about to hatch didn’t need extra warmth to survive the flight, but if they hatched, disaster! – the Greenboims had no permit for bringing live animals.” Moshe shrugged. “Avidor did the best he could, but he picked eggs closer to hatching than he thought, and the kitbegs were warm.”

“So the eggs did blow up…”

Moshe nodded. “The first thing the brothers knew of it was over Khartoum – little peep peep noises coming out of the bags at their feet. After a couple of hours there were six, seven, eight small ostriches poking and pecking, then nine, ten, eleven, fifteen baby ostriches by the time they landed. Even the pilot came back to see the sight. That’s what the Greenboims smuggled into Israel – fifteen baby ostriches. Plus three eggs. In bags. Like I said, the eggs were no problem, but with no permit the baby chicks were a different story.”

“So what did they do?”

“They did nothing; it was the pilot who helped. He told the brothers to close their kitbegs tight and walk through customs with him. The pilot was a big important man and everyone knew him, so it worked. With him Danny and Avidor walked right through no problem, they were in!” Moshe made a triumphant sliding gesture with his hand to cap the tale. “Thanks to the Greenboims, there were ostriches in Israel once more!”

The professor took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and considered her response. Moshe was looking at her expectantly. She’d heard more than one colleague give a paper like this: a premise so enthusiastically presented you almost wished to overlook its improbability. It made a good story, but… She replaced her glasses, and was about to inquire about an obvious weak point when there was a nearby pop, then a more distant ratcheting grind. The lights dimmed and went out, leaving the whole camp dark except for moonlight. A combined cheering and groan issued from the lab building below.

Nine o’clock already? Moshe’s tale had taken even longer than she thought. Wayfarer held her watch near the flashlight; no — its hands showed 8:17, well short of usual lights-out.

Across the table the camp manager swore. “I’m sorry, Professor Einer, I have to take the flashlight now to look at this ma’afan generator. Please sit and enjoy the mits. Layla tov.” He nodded at her and moved off towards the afflicted equipment muttering irritably, transformed abruptly by malfunction from gracious host into testy camp manager once more.

*          *          *

Without Moshe’s flashlight or the camp lights, the moonlight shone bright enough for Wayfarer to see the escaped Bamba snack jump in the branches of the spurge as the air stirred it. Without the generator noise in the background, she noticed the breeze whistling in the tarp’s guylines, the gentle flap of the canvas, a jackal yipping at a distance. But what passed for desert darkness and quiet were brief. Moshe had barely disappeared when the staff who’d been working in the lab came trickling up the hill in a loose, chatty herd like goats. Lior, young Eric, Rory, and Zvia came first, laughing at something among themselves as Shams and the other Aussies split from the group and headed towards the springhouse. Then came Rankle and Chayes bringing up the rear like the shephards, discussing the day’s stratigraphic crux in low voices, their path lit by Rankle’s flashlight.

Zvia plunked herself down at the end of the table. Wayfarer saw her notice the snack tray and mits, along with Moshe’s retreating back. “Enjoying a chat with Moshe, Professor?” Zvia smiled. She helped herself to a handful of Bamba. “Would it have anything to do with ostriches?”

“Indeed; we talked Greenboim ostriches until the generator gave up the ghost.”

Rankle set his flashlight on the table, aimed at the plastic pitcher of mits, which threw off a dim, lemon-flavored glow, just sufficient to see who was who. “He’s got a fixation on those two scoundrels and their damn birds,” he tutted.

“I would say it differently.” Chayes’s deep voice was kinder. “To Moshe the brothers are heroes: independent problem solvers working on the edge of the system to make things better. He sees himself in them – rules exist to be creatively interpreted, as long as no one’s harmed.”

Rory asked, “Which version of the story did he tell you, professor?”

Wayfarer felt professional satisfaction – any good traditional tale had more than one recension. “Version?” she prompted.

Amit smiled, “Did the eggs hatch on the plane? Did the stewardesses help sneak the eggs through customs?”

“Well, there was pipping and peeping. No stewardesses, though. The ranking pilot came to the rescue.”

“He told me the stewardess version,” grinned Rory. “The girls put the chicks in their… uh… uniforms.”

Zvia snorted. “That wasn’t the version I heard. He told me a smart ‘lady doctor’ who happened to be seated in the same row helped hide them in her medical bag.”

Chayes lifted a shoulder. “It may have happened that way. However they did it, the Greenboims brought ostriches back to Israel. That’s what’s important to Moshe.”

“Too bad the whole thing ended so badly,” Rankle said.

“How so?”

“It was all due to shoddy research.” Rankle sniffed, as if he could smell the odor of sloppy fact-finding. “They hadn’t consulted an expert, and they got the wrong birds: Nature Reserves Authority biologists objected to the South African sub-species, and refused to introduce it into the wild here. Worse, this strain of ostriches turned out to be stupid and vicious – Danny lost an eye to one. No one wanted the birds after that. It was all over.”

“They couldn’t sell the ostriches for meat?” Wayfarer asked.

Chayes shook his head. “Avidor wanted to, but ostrich isn’t kosher, and no exporter was interested in such a small quantity. Anyway Danny refused to kill the birds – despite everything he felt responsibility since they’d brought them here. Besides neither brother wanted to give up. But they needed money to keep on, so they tried to change directions with the farm. They added some pens with a toothless old hyena, an ibex, a leopard cub, some goats and bee-hives – for the land of milk and honey – and the Beit Bat Ya’anah Ostrich Farm became a small zoo of biblical animals.  They even sold postcards and cheap souvenirs to the tourists.”

“That failed as well,” Rankle chuckled, “in a kind of dire ornithological twist: the ostrich as albatross. Sounds like a subtitle for one of your colleagues’ scholarly efforts, Einer.   Is there an equivalent to karma in your abstruse language?”

It was unclear to Wayfarer why the man found the brothers’ failure funny, and she didn’t appreciate the deprecating tone of his question. “Yes, Bill, in fact the Elennui language expresses several related concepts,” she replied blandly, repressing his incivility with academic detail. “The closest might be huwúm. It’s usually translated as ‘inescapable resolution.’ Especially appropriate since it also has an ornithological connection, although it’s ‘owl’ and not ‘albatross,’ so you’ll have to abandon your Coleridge metaphor.”

Chayes interrupted this chilly exchange placidly. “Well, things didn’t go bad for the brothers right away. The bees were very productive at first, and honey sales kept the ‘zoo’ going for a little while. But the leopard was expensive to feed, and the track was too long and rough – you’ve ridden it, it’s the same road we use now. Not enough tourists came. Then the bees left the hives – no one knew why, or where they went. Without the honey income, the brothers ran out of money before their second summer. That spring they abandoned the site just like the bees. Danny opened the animals’ cages wide before they drove away. The Bedouin claim they still see a leopard in the rocks up the wadi from time to time.”

“Hence I ask you, who would go up there in the dark,” said Rankle, “except an idiot?”  After this assertion he found it necessary to smooth his comb-over.

Next to her on the bench, Wayfarer felt Zvia shift uneasily, and glance at Rory.

Rankle picked up his flashlight, leaving the group around the table in darkness. “Well, I don’t think we’ll be achieving illumination any time tonight,” he said. “I’m packing it in.”

Chayes stood too. “I’m going see if Moshe needs any help. Layla tov.

ani ba itkha,” said Lior, following him. As he left, he looked back at Rory and Zvia, and said, “I won’t be long. lehitra’ot.

No one else moved, or switched on a flashlight. Patient and silent in the dark, Wayfarer waited, like a lion at a watering hole. She felt there was more to be learned.

“It’s just a legend, right?” young Eric asked when the directors were out of earshot. “The Greenboim’s leopard?  I mean, it couldn’t still be alive after all these years, could it?”

“I don’t know how long leopards live,” Zvia replied tartly.  “Rankle’s just being…”

“…himself,” Rory summed up. “Talk about having a fixation. He’s worked up about the wrong thing, as usual. He’d pop a vein if he knew what the Aussies and Mikka are up to behind the springhouse right now.”

Eric giggled, and Zvia shushed them both. “I’ll clean this up, professor, and lock up, if you’re through.” She gathered up the remains of Moshe’s hospitality, pouring the loose Bamba snacks from the bowl back into the bag and taking up the tray. “Goodnight. See you in the morning.” Her small hands full, Zvia marched efficiently to the mess tent.

With one big hand Rory snagged the open bag of Bamba snacks as she passed, then together with Eric he headed uphill; toward the springhouse, Wayfarer assumed. Whether Zvia followed them or not, the professor didn’t notice: none of this was a revelation she cared about in the least.  What the staff got up to after hours wasn’t her concern. But did they really think that the distinctive smoke – which frequently reached her tent, wafted downhill on the cooling night air – was a secret?

She doubted it. More likely they were simply willing to risk it: a few minutes of sociable, clandestine relaxation after the grind of wearisome digging and field analysis would be considered well worth whatever unpleasantness Rankle dished out. Wayfarer couldn’t blame them: the man would drive anyone to furtiveness.

Reflecting on everything she’d heard, the professor surprised herself by feeling a pang of sympathy for the Greenboims. Returning Old Testament fauna to Israel must have seemed sufficiently worthwhile to face the risks. But in the attempt the brothers lost their investment, Danny lost an eye, and there still wasn’t a viable wild population of ostriches in the land. To be dismissed as nothing but “scoundrels” by Wilson Rankle on account of shoddy research seemed too harsh. Wayfarer valued solid research highly, but the price the brothers paid for their good intentions had been severe.

Call it what you will: karma, nemesis, manīyah, Schicksal, huwúm, or inevitability, the concept of moral cause and effect had been near the heart of human stories for millennia. Open a newspaper, read a novel or a poem from any people or culture, and you’d see the same story written a thousand ways.  The obscure literature she studied was full of such plots in every permutation, some full of regret and retribution, others subversively rejoicing in the victory of right over law. And, as she told her students, only the finest line lay between the comic triumph of the unrepentant scoundrel and the tragedy of the misguided hero.

Sitting alone in the dark, Wayfarer was no longer thinking especially of the Greenboims, or Moshe’s flexible versions of the truth, or the youthful crew’s indiscretions, but of Szeringka’s elusive protégé Dario and his illicit nocturnal forays into the upper wadi.

She looked up the ridge past the springhouse toward the moon-washed faces of the cliffs, to where they were marred by the dark gash of the wadi’s mouth. It was an entrance, but also an exit: a shadowed cleft that held secrets, but also disgorged them.

The professor decided that she needed to know more about the wadi.

To be continued…  To read the next installment “Letters home” click here.

Posted by Allison on May 31st 2012 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (2)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 15

This is the fifteenth installment of the series. The following links will take you to the last episode before this one, and the very first episode of the series:

Read Part 14 ………………………………………………………………….For new readers: Read Part 1


Having extended her time at Beit Bat Ya’anah to try to learn more about Szeringka’s elusive protégé, Einer Wayfarer also continues to gather info about the site itself. “Beit Bat Ya’anah means House of the Ostrich’s Daughter,” Amit Chayes had told her. “There used to be an ostrich farm on the site. Ask Moshe sometime – he loves to tell that story.” Since the professor now finds herself dreaming about herds of strong-toed ostriches wandering freely among the jumbled rocks of the Upper Wadi, she resolves to ask Moshe about this part of the site’s history.

Moshe’s tale part 1: hai bar and hospitality

“And so you must imagine the greening of the Wilderness!” Moshe declared to his audience of one. The dim light strings edging the dining tarp barely lit the tables, making the dark only slightly brighter than actual starlight. Equipped with rough but expressive English, Moshe struck Wayfarer as an enthusiastic storyteller, and his usual short temper was nowhere in evidence. The professor supposed it was because he was momentarily playing camp host and not manager. She made a scholarly mental note: the guest-host relationship, well-documented from antiquity, was still thriving in this part of the world. She filed the thought, and caught up with his tale.

“Such heroic years back then, when the Negev was tamed by man’s hand, made fruitful for all the people.” Moshe gestured grandly towards the dark, vacant land wrapped all around the camp. Wayfarer assumed it was a symbolic gesture, meaning other parts of the southern desert: the barren stony flats below the ridge at Beit Bat Ya’anah seemed never to have received the benefits of human efforts, or shown results if they had.

“Kibbutzim like the oasis Yotvata at Ein Radian; Sde Boker, Ben Gurion’s last home,” Moshe continued with his bold pioneer theme. “Revivim raised from the sand – these places and more had sprouted with hope and irrigation and hard work, so that there were vines and olives and lemons, fields and schools and houses, where before there were just barren stones, wild beasts, and serpents.”

And fellaheen villages, and Bedouin tents and herds. Wayfarer’s adamantly impartial brain – the one she applied to her student’s papers, colleagues’ talks at meetings, and her own research – supplied this thought silently. She was interested in facts, complexity, cause and effect, and had no patience for a sanitized one-sided story, whatever the historical setting.  Unaware, Moshe went on.

“But some people saw that though the land was filling with men, their farms, and factories, in another way it was empty. Long before the State, and after rifles became common, hunters shot everything that moved and no one cared. Oryx, ostrich, crocodile, wild ass, cheetah, ibex – they all were gone from the wild places. Many of the places were gone, too: not gone, but improved, no longer wild enough for the animals. So began Hai Bar, the “wildlife” project to put back wild creatures of the Bible into the land, and make national parks and nature preserves for them to live in, like Noah’s Ark on land. At this time the government was paying big money for animals to put back in the desert. It was an expensive project.” He paused, then jabbed one finger decisively into the air.  “And that is where the Greenboim brothers come in.”

“Ah, the Greenboim brothers,” said a voice from the dark. At the edge of the circle of light, Wayfarer could see Wilson Rankle heading toward the mess tent. “Just getting a cola,” he explained.

“The Greenboim brothers?” Wayfarer asked Moshe.

From the tent: “They must have been one slick pair of…”

“Businessmen,” Moshe stated, raising his voice over the unsolicited commentary. “The Greenboims: Danny and Avidor, brothers from Jerusalem, looking for a way to help the country and to make money at the same time. All these wild animals had to be bought from other desert countries then brought here at great expense – do you know how much the Shah of Iran wanted for a fallow deer, or the Saudis for an oryx? Danny and Avidor hated the thought of so many Israeli lirot flying out of the country. They asked why couldn’t the money stay here, why couldn’t some of the animals be raised here? Cheetahs, hyenas, leopards, no thank you, Danny didn’t want to get involved with sharp teeth and claws. But an ostrich, that was another story – just a very big chicken, yes? The eggs and young birds could be sold to the government for the nature preserves, yes? And Avidor had experience – he’d worked in a South African ostrich farm as a young man. So, they decided ostriches. The Greenboims would be rich, and the desert full of big birds again: a solid plan. Now all they needed was land, and after a lot of searching, this dry ridge was where they came, holding a lease from the government. They put up fencing to hold in the birds and keep out the leopards and hyenas…”

Wayfarer’s pale blue eyes opened a little, an eaglish, sharpening look that any of her students would have recognized with unease. “Hold on,” she said, “I thought you said there were no wild animals left.”

Well, maybe still a few,” Moshe acceded. “This part of the Negev is far: now, and more far back then, sof ha’olam smola – at the end of the world go left, yes? That was why the land was available.” Having cleared up the point, and received no further interruption, he continued. “There was water at the old spring house back in those days, and they built the lab building to hold incubators for the eggs and a place to make food for the chicks, and the ostriches multiplied…”

“Just a minute,” the professor broke in again, valuing accuracy even above formulaic narration. “You skipped something. Where did their breeding stock come from, if ostriches were extinct in the wild?”

Moshe didn’t have a chance to answer. Wilson Rankle erupted from the mess tent wielding an opened bottle of cold cola, and stepped into the light. Hat-free, the director’s combover was neatly in place. Below it his forehead was pale and his nose was pink. “Where the hell is Dario?” he demanded.  As usual the question went unanswered. Rankle sputtered, “That idiot forgot to padlock the refrigerator!”

“You padlock the refrigerator?” Wayfarer exclaimed. She recalled having that thought about him her first afternoon in camp, without suspecting its literal truth.

“And the pantry,” grumbled the archæologist. “Only at night, for the same reason we padlock the tool shed. Otherwise the Bedouin boys – natural thieves, the little thugs – will sneak over in the dark and help themselves.”

“More likely the Aussies will,” joked Moshe, winking at Wayfarer. “But really, it’s only to make sure the door stays shut to hold in the cold all night when the generator is off. You can’t lock a tent.” He winked again.

The winks surprised her. To Wayfarer’s further surprise Rankle crossed to their table, swigged his cola, and settled as if he meant to socialize. “I can’t believe Chayes entrusted that pain in the ass with a key… he’s flakier than the girl. And I wouldn’t put it past him to help himself to a midnight snack, either.” He seemed to expect support from Moshe on the topic, but only received a shrug.

“That pain in the ass keeps kashrut okay,” Moshe said pragmatically, “which saves time and water. And saves me from more gray hairs.”

And his cooking is a noticeable improvement,” Wayfarer commented. “Go on, Moshe; you were about to explain where the ostriches came from.”

Rankle said, “From what I’ve heard, they stole them.”

“There was no stealing.” Moshe waved a hand. “And who’s telling this story, I ask you?”

Rankle looked at him, then at Wayfarer, then back at Moshe.  “Pardon me for interrupting this… private party.” He stood. “Just make sure the refrigerator is locked up tight before you go to bed, will you?”

Ken betach, sure okay, if I remember so long,” the camp manager replied, knocking his gray head with weather-beaten knuckles as Rankle headed back towards the lab, still clucking about “natural thieves”.  Once he was out of earshot, Moshe said to Wayfarer, “I hate to spoil his big bad mood, so I didn’t say – it’s me who unlocked the refrigerator. I thought a cold drink would be nice for our desert story.”

He disappeared into the mess tent, then came out, the host once more, carrying a plastic pitcher of mits and a bowl of something that looked like a beige version of the horrible puffy snacks Wayfarer had banned from the computer room for depositing an orange residue on terminal keyboards. Moshe placed the bowl near her, and held out his palm in invitation. This soon after dinner, the professor was neither hungry nor thirsty, but she dutifully accepted her role as guest. She took the plastic cup of reconstituted fruit juice Moshe offered – there were ice cubes in it, the first she’d seen since arriving – and tried one of the starchy puffs.

“Is this… peanut butter?”

Ken, yes; Bamba snacks – zeh tov, zeh tov, it’s good for you, all natural. More, please.” He pushed the bowl closer. “They put vitamins in.”

“What an extraordinary flavor.” Wayfarer intended this response to be imprecise enough to pass for approval.

But Moshe didn’t seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm: he was shaking his head again, staring after Rankle. “All season he’s like this with me… How do you steal ostriches?” he demanded. “Feh!” He swiped his palm through the air dismissively. “There was no stealing,” he said.  “They did not steal ostriches,” Moshe raised his shoulders. “Well, at least not exactly…”

To read the next episode, “Smuggling Eggs” click here.

Posted by Allison on Mar 20th 2012 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah,pseudopod waltz | Comments (1)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 14

UPDATE: I’ve just made it easier to navigate between episodes of What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah. Now at the beginning of each new episode there are links to previous installments: one to the immediately previous episode, and one to the very first episode.  In addition, there’s a link at the end of each episode to click on so that you can read the very next one in the series, if it’s been posted.  You can always click on the Beit Bat Y a’anah category in the left-hand sidebar, but it’s a little awkward to navigate forwards through time from the bottom up now that the series is stretching into more episodes. (My apologies to those readers whose RSS feeds may have been bombed with updates this morning as a result of the changes, although I hope it’s not many of you!)

This is the fourteenth installment of the series. The following links will take you to the last episode before this one, and the very first episode:

Read Part 13 ………………………………………………………………….For new readers: Read Part 1


Having taken a brief side-trip to observe the volatile and imperious Avsa Szeringka at home in her Institute near London, we rejoin the excavation at Beit Bat Ya’anah (BBY), where Professor Wayfarer, still frustrated in her efforts to observe Szeringka’s graduate student, is once again considering whether or not to extend her stay at the remote, unpromising site in the Negev desert. To her own surprise, every fact she learns about BBY – such as its lack of ancient burials and its brief stint as an ostrich ranch – makes her more curious about the process of excavation, the many unanswered questions about the place, and its residents, both past and present.

Meanwhile back at the ranch: earthmoving

Einer Wayfarer had never been among people who knew or cared so much about dirt.

As a well-established and respected figure in her recondite field, the professor had at her disposal considerable quantities of highly specialized and well-integrated philological, linguistic, and literary knowledge. But after eight days assisting the excavation team at Beit Bat Ya’anah, the professor had acquired a range of experience which she’d never expected to accrue in her lifetime – most of it concerning dirt, the objects people lost or left in it, and the best tools for moving large amounts of it quickly but carefully.

During the past week Wayfarer had helped shift a lot of dirt. Though exempted by seniority from some of the more strenuous tasks, she’d watched the younger folk swing a pick to loosen the hard soil, then use the sturdy hoe called a turiyah to fill a guffah or a dli to pass to someone topside to push to the soil dump in a wheelbarrow.

Wayfarer herself had shake-sieved cubic feet of stony soil for infinitesimal clues to lives from distant times. She learned to use a masterina to work around an object in situ, to level surfaces, and to remove small amounts of dirt. She observed that Marshalltown was the trowel of choice among the Americans, whereas the Israelis and Aussies preferred no-name brands from local building suppliers, with the result that unfortunate young Eric took constant flak from both sides about the British-made WHS 4” pointing trowel his parents had mail-ordered specially from a posh archæological outfitter in London.

Thanks to Rory’s instruction, Wayfarer was becoming handy with a patiche and could use one to polish a balk without undercutting, to reveal a vertical stratigraphic witness to the sharp interpretive eyes of the senior staff. Zvia showed the professor the difference between a packed-dirt floor horizon and an organic-rich kitchen midden or an ashy interior hearth feature, and how it was possible to articulate a wall with acceptable statistical probability from a poor showing of three or four rough-hewn blocks or even sketchier field-cobbles. Wayfarer learned that a pisé wall was different than a mud brick wall, and that both decayed by dissolving from the bottom up between the corners, as opposed to stone walls which dilapidated from the top down. She learned that stone tools weren’t necessarily a sign of great antiquity: handy rocks were used in every era for many reasons, and ancient tools were often kept and used through centuries, their presence in a stratum providing no more than a terminus post quem. Lior had helped her construct a rudimentary but functional pottery typography in her head, and she could sort with some accuracy the local chalcolithic ceramics from Bronze Age. She was surprised to learn that there were shells from both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea found at the land-locked site, and that it was necessary not only to identify and quantify them, but also to field-screen them for signs of secondary usage by looking for signs of edge wear or drill holes. At the end of the day when the sun angled low, the professor had climbed back onto the hill to help anchor the ladder for Mikke who, with her billowing gypsy skirt tucked into her waistband shirwal-style, cantilevered riskily from upper rungs in order to shoot down onto squares with newly uncovered features or strata; and Wayfarer had held the stadium rod for Shams’s precise transit surveys of the growing length of meager, mainly Middle Bronze Age walls visible on the ridge.

The professor had quickly realized that what had at first appeared to her to be a grubby collection of callow, work-worn drones was actually a field-hardened team with specialized skills carrying out a project where success was neither guaranteed nor likely to be spectacular, and failure was irreversible: archaeology was controlled destruction – once a feature, locus, or a soil horizon was removed, it was gone beyond recovery. In an excavation so devoid of significant cultural artifacts, the soil and rocks they were uncovering were everything: even a lowly trowel-wielding novice such as herself had to pay close attention in order to avoid committing irreparable errors of excavation like digging through a foundation trench or clearing rubble that turned out to be a casually paved floor.

The only thing that mitigated this destruction was meticulous record-keeping – written, quantified, measured, sketched, and photographic – since it preserved information for interpretation and, inevitably, later re-interpretation. The schedule was unvarying: digging on the Hill in the morning and recording in the lab in the evening, but the interpretation was constant. The staff spent endless hours on site, in the lab, and around the dinner table in earnest and democratic discussion of minute changes in soil, the relative stratigraphy between areas, and the chronological relationships of excavated features, levels, and loci.

Watching the senior staff at work, Wayfarer began to comprehend the blend of informed observation, technical expertise, bare-knuckled logistics and personnel management skills that a successful dig demanded. She saw that BBY’s directors Chayes and Rankle – whatever she might think of their contrasting personal styles – were each experts in their own ways, both indispensable to a smooth field campaign. Keeping a sharp eye was a question not only of archæological necessity, but sometimes of fundamental safety, as Wilson Rankle reminded them all in a harsh public scolding of young Eric. The director had discovered an undercut 2 meter balk in Area C which he proclaimed to be “an unmitigated catastrophe waiting to happen, Eric, with your damn name writ large upon it.”

In addition to the arcane secrets of managing dirt, the practical skills of desert life were now Wayfarer’s too. She’d learned the importance of drinking water before she was thirsty and of never picking up sun-heated tools by the metal parts. During breaks she learned to value even the smallest scrap of shade, and was known to take refuge in big Rory Zohn’s substantial umbra despite the olfactory risk. In camp, she knew to check her shoes each morning for scorpions and centipedes, to always carry a flashlight after dark, and to keep her distance from the flat rock at the downhill end of the communal sinks because of the yellow-jackets during the day, and at night, too, since a small viper had taken up residence underneath to ambush tiny scurrying mammals attracted by the sink’s moist outflow. Less usefully (although more likely to impress her students back in Lassiter), because of the international nature of the crew and the earthy quality of conversation in the lab in the evenings, the professor now knew how to exhort someone to go screw themselves in four new languages including – thanks to Shams – both Urdu and Strine.

But she hadn’t planned on staying more than a few extra days, and that time was up. Originally, Wayfarer had postponed her departure on Avsa’s behalf, but now, a little more than a week later, there were other reasons the professor was considering extending her stay at “Two-Bit Yod” (as Rory had semi-affectionately subverted the Hebrew letters Beit-Beit-Yod of the site-abbreviation, written on every find tag and locus card). One main reason was purely altruistic: this close to the end of the season, any assistance, even rookie, was helpful. The site was chronically short staffed due to the Lebanese conflict: the Israelis kept having to report for brief stints of discreet military service. Yael the ethnobotanist was the latest to disappear – early one morning Wayfarer saw him sling his kitbeg into the back of the site Landrover where it settled with the somber clank of gunmetal. Chayes drove him out to the highway to hitch a ride to Be’er Sheva – but later at tea, no one said anything about this departure. Wayfarer thought it likely that Aman, Israeli military intelligence, recruited as heavily among archeologists as other governments had during conflicts in Europe and the Middle East – in retrospect, she suspected that Chayes’s earlier absence had had more to do with Aman than with his son’s spider bite.

So, despite the heat, discomfort, and insect life, Wayfarer’s mind was made up. She asked Amit if an extra pair of hands would be welcome; he smiled and clapped her shoulder, saying he’d let Moshe know. Rankle she merely informed that she was staying, and received a pessimistic response doubting whether the water would last. It only remained for her to ask the Aussies, who were headed out to Eilat for weekend leave, to pick up some things for her: a bottle of Hawaii shampoo, a sack of clothes pins (her colorful plastic ones in a clever mesh bag had gone missing off of the line), a bottle of red, and she’d be good for another week, until the end of the season.

Practicalities being satisfactorily settled, the professor spared some attention to the lingering question of Avsa’s uncooperative protégé, who continued to avoid her like a student with a delinquent thesis chapter. But she didn’t give him much thought. When it came to coaxing results out of students she knew more than one way to skin a cat.

No; Wayfarer was definitely not yet ready to leave. By Saturday night, or Sunday morning at the latest, she should have a bottle of wine to look forward to. And ever since Amit had mentioned them, she’d been dreaming about herds of strong-toed ostriches wandering freely among the jumbled rocks of the Upper Wadi, their big liquid eyes peering deep into her resting mind.

To be continued… To read the next episode, “Hai bar and hospitality” click here.

Posted by Allison on Jan 31st 2012 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (0)

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 13

Note to readers: It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to advance the tale of the archæological site called Beit Bat Ya’anah and its inhabitants. The progress of Professor Einer Wayfarer’s efforts on that remote ridge in the Negev Desert to observe the seemingly out-of-place and elusive protégé of her controversial colleague Avsa Szeringka was temporarily interrupted by non-literary Three Star Owl activities: a busy fall season of pottery-making for shows, sales, and holiday shoppers kept me more in the studio than at the keyboard. Posting on my blog has suffered in general: there simply hasn’t been enough time to assemble both words and art for weeks and weeks. But things have relaxed somewhat now, and I’d like to get back to telling the tale. So far, all the action has occurred at the dig site, and only a few days have elapsed since Professor Wayfarer’s unenthusiastic arrival there.

This is the thirteenth episode in the series.  To read the twelfth episode, click here. If you wish to catch up on the entire story in full detail, click here to start at the very beginning.  At the end of each installment, there’s a link to click to continue on to the next one. If you need a less thorough reminder, or a basic intro to the fiction I post here, there’s also a brief summary of both What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah and its prequel The Ganskopf Incident in this post.

Now let’s take up the tale again, first by jogging the memory (caution mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the rest of the story yet), and then by a brief change of scene, with a look at Professor Wayfarer’s volatile European colleague Avsa Szeringka, who is the director of “the Institute” and who may be behind much of what has happened in the story so far.

Previously, we learned that Wayfarer was enticed to the remote archæological site “at the behest of her colleague and friend Avsa Szeringka (pronounced “zhə-RING-ka” with a zh like in Zsa-Zsa or French je), who had somehow herself managed to remain comfortably ensconced at the Institute near cool, gray Oxford,” by means of an imperious letter in expressive but convolute and ambiguous English, which is “not Avsa Szeringka’s second language, nor even her third.” This letter obliquely requires Wayfarer to seek out “an artefact” at the site, which she eventually realizes is actually a person: Dario, Avsa’s sleek grad student of uncertain linguistic and ethnic origins. While Wayfarer is making slow progress trying to understand who Dario is, his mentor is monitoring – if not manipulating – events from afar.

[Note: for anyone wondering about the prominence of hand-written correspondence in this story, now is a good time to remind you that the action takes place in the early 1980s, when email and cellular phones were just beginning to be used in universities and businesses. For participants in a remote desert dig, telephone access would be limited to weekend leave and payphones in town. For overseas communication, everyone would have relied on gummed stamps you had to lick, crinkly onion-skin air-mail paper, and postal delivery times measured in days, if not weeks, with letters being driven into town and mail fetched back to the site no more than once or twice a week, along with groceries and other supplies.]

Correspondence: considering two letters

Her silk-robed figure barely discernible from the rare antiques which furnished the damask-curtained, high-ceilinged room that functioned as both boudoir and office in her eponymous Institute near Oxford, Avsa Szeringka didn’t look up as her assistant placed the daily mail on the desk in front of her. It was the usual thick stack, arranged as Avsa required with the journals and manuscripts to be reviewed at the bottom, the routine business correspondence next, and any hand-addressed personal missives sorted to the top to be read immediately if they were from someone of whom she approved, or to be individually snubbed, if not. Bills she never saw; she had people for that.

This morning two envelopes interested her. She took them from the top of the stack and pushed the rest across the desk, disturbing the striped cat bunched at the corner of the Turkish leather writing pad. The tiger opened its mouth to complain, but nothing came out but a staccato fishy click, which Szeringka ignored, except to briefly bare her teeth back at the animal as she placed the two interesting letters in front of herself.

She considered them. They were both postmarked on the same date in Be’er Sheva, Israel, and they were each addressed with familiar but contrasting scripts. Unexpectedly, both packets were flimsy; neither could have more than one sheet of paper sealed inside. This was disappointing: she’d hoped to provoke heftier responses from each of her correspondents.

She reached a long-fingered hand towards one, but picked up the other instead, opened it and read it quickly.

Avsa,” it began bluntly, “your ‘artifact’ is decorative but uncooperative and gives the distinct impression of preferring not to be handled, at least by me. This is an attempt to extend your metaphor accurately, and not prurience. Otherwise, the Negev is hot as hell, the living conditions are primitive, and the insect life is both appallingly forward and unanimously venomous: wish you were here.” Signed briefly, “E.W.

Szeringka sniffed. The gruff humor of the message was hardly worth the postage to transmit it. If Einer didn’t have more to say, then it was clear that her dear friend and colleague wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Avsa made an impatient sound with her tongue. This letter required no answer.

She let it drop and picked up the other. Its external address was tidy and elegant, much more precisely written than Einer’s hasty American scrawl. She passed the unopened envelope briefly under her nose, noting a coniferous odor, faint but still detectable: she’d given him the fountain pen with the amber-scented ink herself, ostensibly a prize for some end of term academic achievement. Unperfumed versions of these showy trophy pens were coveted by their awardees, treasured carefully and displayed prominently on desks all over the Institute, and not, she knew, generally employed to write with. How like him to think so little of the prize, or of the inconvenience, as to bring an old-fashioned reservoir pen with him into the field, and actually operate it in the desert heat and grit. Avsa slid a fingertip under the envelope flap and, unfolding the page, read what he’d inked there.

When she had read his words twice – there were only a few – she stood and moved to the window, parting the heavy draperies a hand’s width. A blade of northern sunlight slid in, not gray at all but a sharp white ray of August, showing the many lines on the pale planes of Szeringka’s face in deep relief.

The lines at the corners of her mouth deepened. Yes, each of these letters was disappointing; the first, perhaps predictably, but the second, shockingly. Uncooperative, Einer had written about her student. Avsa had thought this must be irritable exaggeration, until she had read his letter.

She turned her head from the window and called out to her assistant in heavily accented English. “Wynn, tea! The osmanthus oolong whole leaf, I think, this morning. And a sheet of the official letterhead.”

Einer had said he preferred not to be handled. Yet that was precisely what his letter — that impertinent, rebellious tone in so few words! – required her to do. He had left her no choice but to handle this, and not gently.

Avsa Szeringka abruptly pushed back the floral drape wide, flooding the walls, the carpet, her dressing gown, her slippers, herself, with light. Really, it shouldn’t be necessary to strong-arm the stubborn creature: like it or not, he was going to have to take some responsibility in the effort. She strode back to her desk, pushed the cat off with animus, and while impatiently waiting for Wynn to arrive with both tea and stationary, began to calculate postal turn-around time to that stony armpit of the desiccated south while drafting stern and irrefutable points across the offending letter’s envelope. This time, wishing to be perfectly understood, she didn’t waste time with English.

To be continued…. Click here to read Part 14 “Earthmoving”

Posted by Allison on Dec 20th 2011 | Filed in archaeology,art/clay,artefaux,Beit Bat Ya'anah | Comments (7)

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)

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)

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