Always expect the unexpected

Double rainbow

Double rainbow at Victoria Falls

It’s the end of the first week of the 2018 season and “expect the unexpected” pretty much sums up the last 10 days. Very little has gone to plan, right from the start.

On arrival last Wednesday all the excavation kit was impounded by Customs.  I was asked for a permit to import and export the equipment.  Blank look. Never been asked for one before. Ushered into an office, shown the required forms and told to contact a clearing agent.  Gulp.  Approval could take up to two weeks. Double gulp.  A mighty disruption in the making if this goes badly. Had just enough juice left on my Zambian phone from last season to contact the Director of the Livingstone Museum, Mr George Mudenda.

Within 45 minutes Museum staff came to my rescue bringing with them a clearing agent. I was released, but had to leave the equipment behind abandoned to an uncertain fate. At the Museum we drafted the documents needed by the revenue authority for submission that evening.  Reassurances were given that it shouldn’t take two weeks, maybe just a couple of days.  I wanted to believe the calming words.

Adding to the stress was the imminent arrival of the rest of the crew.  We could do some preliminary work without the kit, but a two-week delay would be serious.  The absence of the survey equipment would have the greatest impact from the start.  Students arrived the next day from the University of Liverpool and later from the University of Zambia with their lecturer, Martha Kayuni. The original plan was to start excavations first thing on Friday at Songwe Gorge before moving the following week to the Mosi oa Tunya National Park (see blog from last season).  We would work in the Park for the remaining three weeks of the field season.

So much for well-laid plans.  Behind the scenes, pressure was being applied by the Museum to hasten the release of the equipment.  I made phone calls every hour or two just be part of the process. Slowly, slowly – mbichana, mbichana – progress was being made for a Friday release.

Plan B made on the fly kept us busy for Friday morning.  We would try to find a site excavated by Desmond Clark back in the 1940s.  It was beyond the airport, which didn’t exist in Desmond’s day, and down a sandy slope below a colonial era lodge.  The story goes that the young Princess Elizabeth stayed at the lodge before being thrust unexpectedly into the limelight as Queen (her father, King George V died unexpectedly). It adds an historical touch to the location if it’s true.

No coordinates exist for Clark’s locality.  It’s just a hand stencilled number – ZB48 – on a small map in his publication The Stone Age Cultures of Northern Rhodesia (1950).   I found a signed copy in a second-hand bookshop long ago and it’s a treasured companion in the field.  Locality ZB48 preserves ‘fresh’ Sangoan tools of the Early to Middle Stone Age transition (also last season’s blog post). They lie buried beneath three metres of sand and there are sands below to bedrock. Digging here means much time and sweat. Worth it?  Probably if we’re held up for two weeks.  And the prize would be a rare chance to bracket the age range for the Sangoan by dating the sediments above and below.  We located the approximate area using Google Earth and our GPS records from last year’s discovery of Sangoan surface sites (just 400m away in the Park).  Pay-dirt beckoned.

But, and there is always as ‘but’ in this story, the land is in private hands and no one knew the name of the owners.  We were advised to seek help from the local council.  That would take time.

A call came through mid-day Friday to say that the kit would be released shortly, just wait a bit longer. Then collect the clearing agent and head for the airport.  We sat back at our lodge waiting, making calls, and waiting.  Hope turned to despair by 4:30 pm. We could hear the Friday evening exodus on the road outside.  Time for Plan C. We could use Old Skool technology and get a start at Songwe with string, nails and the trowels we had.

The phone rang at 4:40 to say we had 20 minutes to get to the airport before it closed. Relief. It was short-lived.  I rang Ken to come get me – hurry, please.  He too had given up hope and had put away the Museum vehicle for the weekend.  Twenty minutes later he turned up, we found the agent and sped to the airport, arriving at 5:13.  She was still there, the customs official in charge, as the last two tourists from a delayed flight wheeled their bags through.  Keys in hand she unlocked the store room, pointed to our kit and gave the go ahead to take it with us.  Phew!

Parks and Wildlife

We started the next day at Songwe, looking over the site, deciding where to dig and setting reference points in the ground for surveying the area using our ‘total station’.  Yes, the same essential piece of survey equipment that had frustrated me last season.  This time there were four of us with experience of this temperamental beast.

On Monday, four students joined us from the University of Zambia – all local to Livingstone – along with their lecturer Martha Kayuni.  For the Zambian students this would be their first experience of archaeological excavation. We set off, a team of ten, on Monday to collect a second vehicle and a colleague from National Heritage.  Neither the vehicle nor the colleague could join us as planned.  Our numbers increased to twelve on Thursday and Ken came to the rescue with the loan of his personal vehicle. In the interim we commuted to ‘work’ in the cosy confines of a pick-up truck with an open back.  It’s a great way to get to know each other.

Finally, we could start excavating, the season was fully underway.  BUT, the next hurdle was in sight.  The original plan was to finish at Songwe in one week and then spend the remaining three weeks in the national park.  The dating specialists, scheduled to arrive at the end of the month, would collect samples from both localities and we’d wrap up the season. Access to the Mosi oa Tunya National Park was essential.  We were a couple of days behind schedule.  Not a problem.  The permit, however, to work in the park had not been approved, yet.  A big problem loomed.

I had submitted the paperwork three months earlier in the naïve belief that was enough time to get it sorted and the fees paid in advance.  But, nooo.  😦   The Director of the Livingstone Museum, Mr George Mudenda has made repeated interventions on our behalf to push the process along.  George knows the art of the deal, but this one eluded even his artistry until now. At the time of writing we’re hoping for resolution by Monday (16 July) with work starting in the park on Tuesday.


We headed back to Songwe Gorge for an extra day to finish off ‘cause were a bit behind. The sands there are turning up unexpected finds (more on this next time) and they need plotting in.  And that’s the problem.  We’ve faced unwanted but not entirely unexpected problems with the surveying beast, Damien.  That’s then name given by the students to the total station, in disgust.

Damien at work

Damien at work

One day this week it gradually stopped recognising our reference points and refused to compute locations. The message on screen said ‘needs servicing to ensure accuracy’ or something to that effect.  S—! – expletive deleted.  Customs can keep this monster under lock and key. The digital world is great when all works smoothly, but woe and thrice woe when it goes wrong.  We are treating this machine with kid gloves and hoping that some kind of repair can be made remotely online.  The irony is that we considered bringing an old fashioned dumpy level (analogue optics) as backup, but it was a misplaced confidence in the new technology and that led to the current situation.  I hope Elon Musk takes heed when planning missions to the Moon and Mars.  He’ll need more diplomatic skills as well a technical backup.

Happy days

But – and this is a positive one – there have been highlights this week. The students have been very understanding of the troubles I’ve been having and honestly this is the best team I’ve seen in a long time.  They’re keen as mustard to learn and share their learning.


Sectioning a hearth

Learning to section a hearth at Songwe

We’ve also shared in the cultural traditions of Zambia with a courtesy call to Chief Mukuni at his palace to obtain his blessing.  Our work at Songwe lies in his area and it’s expected that we seek his approval.  Karl Lee, our embedded ‘primitive’ technologist (last post once more) made the Chief a handaxe from the local rock and we presented him with a Deep Roots t-shirt.

Chief Mukuni

The Deep Roots 2018 team with Chief Mukuni (to the right of the lion)

And finally, we’re all enjoying being here and as trite as it may sound each day brings a challenge (or three) and a solution.  The unexpected is our new normal.

2 thoughts on “Always expect the unexpected

  1. Whew! As you said! Let’s hope you’ve had your full ration of problems for the time being. By the way, I didn’t manage to figure out who “Ken” is. I look forward to finding more news and photos – if you manage to find the time.


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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.