The daily commute

Sunday. A very welcome day off. Time to catch up on what’s been happening both off (thank you, work emails) and on site.  And for aching bones and muscles to recover.

Sunday’s work, washing artefacts with my adopted guardian, Grumpy Cat


This first full week of excavation was interspersed with errands – buying essential final bits and pieces.

First, excavation bags. No, not the ‘Ziplok’ style plastic bags, but cloth ones. These will be used to store the artefacts in Livingstone Museum for posterity (I’m being optimistic).

Over the years I’ve developed a tradition of having bags made locally of African ‘chitenge’ fabric. This is the colourful cloth that women use to wrap babies snugly on their backs while going about their everyday work.

Every local market has this cotton material hanging in 2m strips.  But after a wheeler-dealer of a tailor tried (and failed) to fleece me, I took advice from my Zambian colleagues and off we went to Maramba market, which is also the source of handmade buckets – and spades labelled ‘Lord and Hope’.

A fabric Aladdin’s cave awaited, encrusted with cotton jewels from the Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zambia.  Bedazzling.  I went for something blue, with plenty in stock, and two days later we had 110 bags hand made at a fraction of the ‘muzungu* price’ I had been offered.

*white person

Next was the search for buff tags to attach to the bags, This was not so straight forward as they are disappearing from stationers’ everywhere, as barcodes penetrate most every corner of life – even archaeology (coding for artefacts is now available).

But a dusty brown box labelled ‘shipping tags’ was produced from beneath a counter at a general traders on the main road.  These were the last of the tags – and I bought all 156.  They won’t be getting any more and, yes, it makes me feel a bit ancient.

And so the time had come to fill the bags with artefacts – but nothing moves too fast around here, as I have come to accept over the years.

Despite my impatience for an early start to the excavating day, it is not to be.

Each day I awake at 5am as the truck traffic roars past to the border with Zimbabwe, which is closed overnight to reduce road accidents.

A muezzin calls at 5:30am and, not to be outdone, the bells of the nearest church peal out shortly afterwards.

Breakfast – not to be missed when a day of hard physical labour beckons – is available from 7am and as I drink my first cup of African tea I order the day’s sandwiches from the Chef. I agree to pick them up at 9am – a running joke. Either I’m late or the lunch isn’t ready to collect.

An 8am start is normal on my digs, but this is a different set up. We’re not camping, I’m reliant on a crew living in different areas of town and on Ken, our driver, who was with me back in 1994 at Mumbwa Caves.

Ken operates in his own time zone and has a uniquely odd sense of distance.  But he has a good eye for artefacts and is a careful driver – so well worth a wait.

Ken with handaxe found in level 9

We load up, drive back, pick up the sandwiches and survey kit. Then, across the road we buy bottled water for the day (24 about covers our need) and a packet of orange crème biscuits.

Ten minutes later we reach the two-room hut where the tenant of the land we’re working on lives with her six children and husband.  Only one day this week did we arrive before 10am.  A deep well of patience and sense of humour are useful attributes…

And so at last the day begins. (Yes, the next post will actually bring you a bit more detail.)

Greetings exchanged, the gear is unloaded and either Ken or I waits while Rafael, the elder son, climbs the pawpaw tree leading to the corrugated zinc roof where our sieve and ladder are stored overnight.  Both are passed down – and the reverse process repeated in the evening.

Rafa climbing the paw paw to retrieve our sieve

It’s an unusual routine, but if you take these things in your stride they are made normal by practice.

All this kit is carried about 100 yards across a dry maize field, where the season’s first snake made a brief appearance this week. A snake-eating mongoose made a welcome visit next day.

Next we spread a plastic sheet under a small patch of shade, deposit the water and lunch, and – finally – head over to the sun-baked trench.

I give a little summary of the day’s goals and then it’s: ‘places everyone’.

The body aching rhythms begin: picking, shovelling, passing buckets to the sieve team and then sieving.

It may not look like much but this represents a lot of hard work in the baking sun, early days of last week. Maggie and Ken taking a well-deserved break

At 1pm we stop for lunch, then it’s back to work at 1:45 until 5pm.

A welcome visitor: here I am with Maggie Katongo and the Director of Livingstone Museum, George Mudenda, whose help both this year and last has been invaluable

We trudge back to Rafa and the roof at 5pm, weary, aching and having more than made up for the late start.

Rafa passing down the sieve. He also looked after our ladder as the dig became deeper

But what have we been finding, you ask?

Next time … but meanwhile, a taster:

Grumpy Cat with a cleaver from MC-1 on one of our handmade blue finds bags

2 thoughts on “The daily commute

  1. After hours of digging and sifting in the hot sun you owe it to yourself to sample a local brew. Wouldn’t be a Barham without a cat nearby. Our feline, Elvis, is jealous.


    1. Local brew sampled and apologies to Elvis – I now havea a following of three black & white cats each morning, but Elvis is still the one.
      How’s Mom?


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About Larry Barham

My name is Larry (Lawrence if I’m feeling formal) Barham and I'm a Professor of African Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, England, teaching evolutionary anthropology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.