I return to a dark tent. There’s no power and I’m on my own now after an intense month at Kalambo Falls.
Minutes ago, we said a collective goodbye at the airport in Lusaka. The team homeward bound, looking ahead to what’s next. I remain to wrap up; to catch my breath. It’s been an unusually draining season, drawing on physical and emotional reserves.
The draw down started months ago. The bedside table at home bears witness to a legacy of 4 am worries. Hieroglyphs at odd angles cover the ‘to do’ list. They’re mostly trivial but cumulatively important.
The list grows as departure looms. Mild panics emerge as plans change by necessity. A taster: a key person drops out; there are no commercial flights to the north; the reserved vehicles are too small, too late to change; issues with Immigration unresolved. And so on, in addition to the day job.
In retrospect, Mbwilo’s been there from the start – watching, interfering, placing obstacles. Feels that way.
Back at camp, a cold Mosi beer starts the unwinding this evening. The self-imposed two-drink limit at risk, but the pull of a good cuppa (tea) before bed keeps me on track. Tomorrow looms and it’s back to practicalities. Not time to relax yet.
The artefacts await export for analysis – 24 handmade crates sit in an old shipping container on the outskirts of Lusaka. Not quite the “Top men are working on it…” warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But a secret or two lurks in that container. Careful analyses lie ahead. But export permit first then air freight to be arranged. One step at a time.
Chizipa means “good” in Mambwe, the language spoken around Kalambo – and was used regularly at camp in praise of the food served each evening by the young staff. They did their best to teach us key phrases. Shyness prevented some students from engaging, others grasped the opportunity wholeheartedly. Mwazyuku keni (good morning) and mwaombeni (good afternoon) being staples along with indi ningo sile (I am fine).
Chizipa also sums up the season – it was good from an archaeological perspective. In the final week we had an influx of six fresh faces and opinions on what had been found. All agreed that site ‘BLB’ as christened on day one (no prizes for guessing the derivation) exceeded expectations. Sands for dating (luminescence and electron spin resonance) were collected from across the site. Sands, silts and carbonates for reconstructing site formation. Organics for environmental analyses, including well-preserved wood and delicate leaves.
Razor sharp stone tools for functional analyses combined with experimental tool-making using local stone. A source of boulders upstream was found with Early Stone Age ‘roughouts’ of large bifacial tools (shaped by removing flakes from both sides of a blank). Back at camp, preliminary microscopic analyses gave glimpses of possible uses of the tools, large and small. Locally made handles were used to assess the effectiveness of hafting the big bifaces.
All these analyses are to come.
Noora Taipale (TraceoLab, University of Liege, Belgium) makes an initial assessment of traces of use on artefacts from BLB. We have very little information about how the large and small tools were used, and this basic knowledge is critical for understanding why the transition from hand-held to hafted tools took place.
For me, this was also a time of reflection on the process of change. Thirteen years ago, some of the team had been here to focus on the dating of the Early Stone Age (ESA) record. We worked about 100 m upstream, but that site is now no longer recognisable. The river changed course and ‘Site C North’ overlooks a reed marsh. Once women washed clothes and children played in the flowing river. Not now.
Washing clothes, the never ending chore. A view to Site C North in 2006. Today, the scene is one of thick reeds with the river barely visible (Photo courtesy of Mary Earnshaw).
It’s odd the rapidity of change in this landscape.
On the scale of 350,000 years, the tail end of the ESA, the Kalambo river must have worked its way across the valley and back again many times. Reworking and burying surface spreads of artefacts. We’ve been very lucky. Site BLB shows little reworking. Fresh tools and small flakes indicate unusually good preservation as do the areas of baked clay (hearths?) and the delicate organics preserved in silty clay. This was a quiet backwater before being breached by the river and buried under coarse sands.
Change is also all around in the local village. The last of the potters and iron smiths work next to the few houses with satellite dishes (electricity is arriving). Our young hosts back at camp represent the future and a discontinuity with the past. The internet is their window on a world village of connectivity on a scale never experienced by humanity. What will Kalambo village be like in 25 years, 50 years? Will the promises offered by the little handheld screen materialise for the majority? Will the youth leave in search of education, jobs, prosperity? Will traditions remain based on gender roles, inherited status? And what of Mbwilo? Already there are whispers that this river spirit has departed, even before we arrived and clouded (temporarily) the waters.
We too are agents of change. Exemplars of material modernity. And what if World Heritage status is granted? Our project can only help increase this possibility. More tourists will come, investment will be made in the local infrastructure and jobs created. A cash economy will make deeper inroads into a still rural agricultural existence. That’s inevitable. And how will the community manage the transition? Their physical, social, economic and spiritual landscape is changing. As it is the world over.
The Early to Middle Stone Age transition may seem an irrelevance. It is if we confine our vision to recent decades and centuries. But the long view is archaeology’s gift. If we choose to broaden our scope technology dependent social beings emerge long before us. The invention of hafting wasn’t the start of that dependence, but it altered our relationship with – well, everything. Think about it: what aspect of your life is not touched by complex technology? Try a brief digital detox. It’s the pace and scope of global change that’s the difference now.
On a lighter note, as I begin to recover (with the help of African tea and Zambian Mosi beer) the planning for Deep Roots 2020 is already underway. Yes, we’re in this for the long haul!