A two-dance day

Tension grows as we enter the final two weeks of the project.  One key aim of the season remains frustratingly out of reach: artefacts.  Early Stone Age artefacts.  We haven’t found them.  They taunt us daily, lying on the sands above the river. Staring back at us blindly.

They’re everywhere except in our trenches.

A cruel tease, Mbwilo.

Plan C is in full exhausting swing – two large trenches open, a third in the offing. Physical limits are being pushed by us all. Backs, hands and knees ache. Knuckles are raw, cuticles cracked. The coarse wet sands abrade skin, wood and stone.

A cumulative tiredness shows in early bedtimes (before 9 pm) and weary silence at the breakfast table.

My breakfast briefing is an attempt to stimulate, to generate a heart-beat for the coming day.  A balance of obstacles with promise.  The book according to Desmond [Clark] features often in the message of hope, drawing guidance from his experiences (and section drawings).  But reality reveals the differences between our sites.  This isn’t a game of snap.

Keep smiling, keep digging.  We’ll get there, I promise. The daily mantra.

Teeth brushed, anti-malarials swallowed, cold sunblock slapped onto faces, necks and arms.  Vehicles packed on autopilot: cases of water, sieves, picks, spades, buckets, and bags of bags.  A short drive later we unload, sharing the burden in preparation for the winding walk to the site.

The trail follows an ancient route. We pass a small Iron Age mound strewn with broken pottery; far to the left stands a large fig tree where Clark’s team camped.  Then past the weed-choked margins of Clark’s sprawling, eroded Site A.

We drop down a steep bank to a putrid spring.  A peacock’s-tail-scum reflecting on its surface. Feet cross the mire on a narrow log or squelch into foul-smelling mud.

Up and out onto a grassy plain. Lumpy cassava mounds lie underfoot to trip the unwary, a reminder that this is prime farmland. Then left onto a well-trodden track, a cliff-side glimpse of the river.  The original Site B – Clark’s original excavations over several seasons – comes into view.  Collapsed pits, one filled with trees.

We wend around a bend in the river, through head-high grass, the sweet scent of a distant fire on the air. The convoy steps gingerly over a culvert and soon arrives along the ashy rim of our Site B, high above the Kalambo River.

Site B is to the right, marked by trees

We down kit, set up a guide rope; relay team drops to the sandy scree below. With military precision the kit flows, hand-to-hand to the river’s edge. Automata collect backpacks, digging tools, water, miscellaneous bags – then head to trenches to await instructions.

Daily plans again, this time in detail, without exaggeration.  Opinions sought, collective action agreed.  Old hierarchies are disappearing, but not quite gone.  All turn to the Site Director for the final assent.

The survey-station stalwarts erect the tower of certainty.  The all-seeing laser eye; a digital panopticon onto the past.

An all too brief morning cool withers under a cloudless sky. Peak heat lies ahead, just after lunch.

We pick; shovel; spade; trowel; record; bag; and sieve.  Chatter gradually permeates the air as routines take hold and the ground is broken. Slight changes in soil colour, texture and content are the currency of conversation. A chance discovery can distinguish morning from afternoon, one day from the next. And today is such a day.


Mbwilo is unhappy with us, so says the guide to the Falls.  Our digging adds plumes of sediment to the beautiful river. Pollution. And sadly, we learn later that some village elders are unsettled.  They fear that Mbwilo, the river spirit, will abandon this place.  I feel bad about our well-intentioned disturbance.  We invite the local school to visit, to explain and soften our impact.

That plume is from our sieving

After two weeks the river’s daily drop has slowed, as if by spite. And then a Gabon adder* is spotted in the water heading our way.

“Larry, snake in the river, move!”

Standing ankle deep in the river, drawing a section, I’m absorbed, slow to respond. Adder and potential victim eye each other. The head shape, colouring and back patterning all signal danger. Sense prevails, the viper changes course into thick reeds on the opposite bank.  Was it five metres away or just two as Chris reckons?  Regardless, we are all alert to our landscape – and our oracle’s warning.

There is something ineffable about this place.

We press on. Just days now to achieve the season’s aims. Setting aside the absence of stone artefacts, the results have been unexpectedly good.  Preserved wood, and now a possible hearth. A hoped-for but unplanned bonus.

Next to the edge of the river, a patch of what looks like baked clay overlies a charred log.

Possible hearth area seen from the river (post adder encounter!)

Back in its day, Kalambo Falls was famous for its early evidence of fire.  Now, the site is neither the oldest nor most convincing for evidence of early fire. Archaeologists demand a higher standard of proof than in Clark’s day, with more rigorous analytical methods. Doubt lingers about the validity of the original claims for burning and the site suffers from is formation history.  Very little, if any material survives intact without having been moved to some degree by the river’s flow.  The archaeological gaze shifted some time ago to more promising, less compromised sites elsewhere in Africa.

Before the end of the project we’ll extract this possible area of burning whole. It will be removed, boxed and shipped back to Liverpool for careful analysis.  A carpenter in Mbala is crafting the crates now.

But back to the central dilemma.

Where is the Early Stone Age?

The crunch – and a time for dancing

Back at camp the morning briefing blends despair with optimism.  Trench 3 may need to be closed by the end of the day – no artefacts. But Trench 1 is well-placed to deliver the Early Stone Age based on comparisons with Clark’s 1956 section plan (of old Site B round the bend). He shows fine pale sands overlying a spread of Acheulean tools (handaxes, cleavers and more). We’re finding the sands. Keep digging – nirvana is in reach.

That’s the brief – and how wrong it is.

As if by magic – and contrary to expectations – artefacts appear in Trench 3 from the start of the day. More than a hundred by the end of play.

The first of two impromptu dances takes place at 9:30 am. A large, well-made tool emerges in a corner, a cleaver edge on a handaxe.  Bliss! Hands and hips gyrate in an awkward dad-dance.  The first of the day.

Throughout the day small flakes and shaped tools are recorded, collected carefully to avoid contamination from hands and environment, and double-bagged.  Noora Taipale from the TraceoLab, University of Liège, will be arriving shortly to examine them for any adhering residues.  Vital clues to their uses.

Dance number two takes place in the heat of the afternoon.  A monster – no other word will do – dark red quartzite core-axe emerges slowly from the sands.  Priscilla, the finder, is ecstatic.  This beast of a tool barely fits our largest bag and is now safely wrapped and waiting analysis. No photo, sorry.

The dance?  Just sheer, unscripted, dorky joy.

Dance three follows the next day.  Another find by Priscilla, this time the jig is joined by others. It’s infectious and now has a name: the Clarissa Cleaver dance, named in honour of the absent Clarissa who’s back at base feeling (temporarily) under the weather.

Priscilla and core-axe

As for the hard-working Trench 1 team, promised so much, well, they say goodbye to their never-ending pit of fine pale sand. Health and safety brings this quest to a close. The depth is now more than a metre below the river, an accident waiting to happen. With only a few small flakes found at the base in a gravel lens.

Stepping back, Trench 1 gives us a full 8 metre section through the cliff face. Our control sequence for dating and environmental sampling.  And the crew are now in Trench 5, digging fine pale sand.

Just keep digging, great things are in store.  Wry looks.

Rachel and Maggie measuring trench 5

And guess what?  A double dance for trench 5 with two cleavers found in close succession. We’re back on track for a successful season.

Maggie with cleaver

*Boyd, the snake expert from the Zambian army confirmed the identification based on our description.

Ed note: Larry is finding it hard to upload anything on his weekly trips to find an internet connection and a video of ‘Clarissa’s dance’ planned for inclusion is not available, I will add it if/when it becomes available. If there are any errors I have introduced inadvertently, eg, mistakes with picture captions, I apologise in advance and they will be corrected later. 

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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.