English as spoken in Britain offers a rich vocabulary that sometimes just defies understanding, but hits the spot when it comes to conveying meaning. We had been digging and sieving in the gravels of the old Maramba River all morning, finding nothing. I said to my partner on the sieve, ‘not a sausage’. Maggie looked blank and I realised I’d crossed a cultural boundary. The phrase meant nothing to her and so I tried to explain the context of its use. More blank looks and then laughter at its absurdity. The rest of the Zambian crew shared the incredulity and ‘not a sausage’ entered the dig lexicon. And from then on it would alternate with the local Tonga ‘mbichana mbichana’ (‘slowly, slowly’) when artefacts appeared and the pace slowed.
Those phrases sum up the tempo of the last two weeks of excavation: famine and feast, with an average on the lean side.
The Maramba excavation began with great promise (see my last post) and now that I have washed and labelled all the artefacts (my Sunday relaxation) it’s clear that the site revealed more than expected in terms of the early Middle Stone Age (MSA from now on), but put on a poor show for the Acheulean (another English colloquialism). Much of the MSA is in good nick (colloqualism no. 3 for those counting) despite being moved by the river. There’s a range of big tools that are probably best used directly in the hand and small things probably best put in a handle or shaft for effectiveness, such as a spear point.
The invention of hafted tools is just what the project is about and we want to know when and how this occurred. By the time we got down to the Early Stone Age levels, the river had done its worst and the artefacts were rolled, and to the non-expert eye looked like nothing more than large stones.
We’d begun anticipating 3m of deposit and exquisitely made late Acheulean tools as Clark had found back in 1938. The reality was different. At a depth of about 1m the Early Stone Age artefacts showed clear evidence of being tumbled in an energetic river. Their surfaces were rounded from abrasion.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we found the predicted Acheulean, but its condition was disappointing as was the general rarity of artefacts. Very few sausages indeed. And without that meat product in good condition we couldn’t really make much headway in understanding how these tools might have been used.
Then the ‘disease’ entered the frame. That became our term for bedrock – the end of the deposit and the hoped for deep sequence. I hoped I was wrong when I saw the first tell-tale signs of weathered bedrock, with its angular and friable appearance – so unlike the rest of the sand and gravel.
It appeared in one corner and then spread across the pit like an unstoppable infection. And stop us it did. Out of frustration I took the pick and battered away, digging as far as I could to confirm the diagnosis of bedrock. It was therapy, this mad hammering of the top of 300 million-year-old lava rock. I did it to remove any niggling ‘if only’ doubt that maybe there was river sediment below the green-grey intruder.* Twenty minutes later Plan B kicked in.
An isolated mound of terrace stood between us and the modern Maramba river. Maybe bedrock here was lower down, giving us a chance to find more of the Early Stone Age and maybe in fresher condition. We moved the operation downslope in a series of step trenches (last blog).
The hope was short-lived as the disease was here too, but not after we had recovered some more early MSA at the top in and battered Early Stone Age at the base. A Pyrrhic victory so time to move on. No more time to waste as Geoff Duller, our dating specialist was arriving soon and we needed more pits for him to sample.
Two days later we were laying out excavation squares at the base of the deep red sands of the Mosi oa Tunya National Park – with an armed game scout for our protection from animals and poachers. Here, according to Clark we would find pristine ‘workshops’ of the early Middle Stone Age. And many sausages….
* Uncle Tom, our local assistant in the excavations, said he recognised what we were calling the ‘disease’ and took me over to his garden to look at two soakaways. His daughter Prudence was dry roasting peanuts by the back door and looked on in bemusement as I stepped carefully around the edges of two very deep pits. Visible in the pit walls was weathered bedrock and the poor souls who had done the digging had persevered for another metre below the contact with the Maramba gravels. I’ve learned a little lesson here, and will endeavour to be nosy and ask to see people’s pits before we dig.