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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)

“You never know which foot is when”

That’s the motto of The Pseudopod Waltz logo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 9

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


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

The Trenches

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

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

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

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

“The big one. With the Ashurnasirpal beard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 8

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


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

The dawning

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

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

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

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

Wayfarer’s colleague had added pragmatically and imperiously:

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 7

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

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

The Leopard and the Lionness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

To read Part 8 “The Dawning”, click here

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

What Happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 5

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

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

The Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say what?” asked Eric.

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

The director snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

What happened at Beit Bat Ya’anah: part 3

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

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

Wayfarer’s explanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unrecognized in museum collections?” he asked.

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

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

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

“Like what kinds of things?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

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