Winter Break at Elandsfontein

Excavations at Elandsfontein
By Jonathan Reeves
February 09, 2015

As an archaeologist one of the things I look forward to most is getting into the field. I had my first field experience when I was 18 years old. Since then I have made a concerted effort to ensure that I am in the field every year and have amassed a diversity of experiences. So when my supervisor informed me that I would be heading to Elandsfontein, in South Africa, for a brief field season over the winter break, I wasn’t too surprised. Despite the fact that I would be sacrificing my winter break, I embraced the opportunity to be in a new place doing new things.

While I had been in the field a great deal before, this was the first time that I would be directing excavations at a site. The night before we went to the field, I reflected on my previous experience, wondering if it had prepared me for what I was about to be responsible for. Though I was pretty well versed in archaeological field methods, every field project has a unique system, so I would have to learn a new excavation protocol. This seemed daunting, as not only would I be implementing an unfamiliar protocol but also keeping track of the progress of the excavation. As a site manager, you are required to broaden your focus, but maintain the intimate knowledge that you would have as if you were excavating each square yourself.  However, you don’t have that luxury and so your responsibility shifts to becoming a monitor.

The excavations at Elandsfontein were held in conjunction with the University of Cape Town’s field methods course. We were not only doing research but also training students. I enjoyed the teaching component but it added to the number of new things I already was juggling in my mind. You had to trust the students to do the job you had given them and also ensure that they made steady progress. Make them go too slow and you slow progress. However, make them go too fast and you lose the integrity of your excavation. Striking that balance was probably the hardest obstacle.

Fortunately for me, my supervisor paired me with an excellent Co-Manager, Niv, who knew the ropes. Though the first couple days I definitely felt that she could have ran the site on her own, in retrospect I was grateful that I had someone like Niv who made my transition to a site manager as smooth as possible. With her help, I settled into the role and began to enjoy myself. I found the role mentally stimulating.  Aside from being a facilitator, I really enjoyed getting to better understand the stratigraphy of the site, and making interpretations about the formational processes that ultimately governed where and when I would open up new excavation squares. I got to engage with the site in a way that I had never had an opportunity to do so before.

Still, as we began to find more and more, I had to resist the urge to excavate myself. Despite how mentally stimulating I had found site directing, I felt as if I physically wasn’t doing enough. In this role, I watched everything happen around me. I felt lazy watching everyone work in the hot sun while I stood staring into the sand as if it would improve the chances of recovering something monumental. As a result, I tried to be as helpful as possible and eventually I did get my chance to do some excavation of my own.

We were fortunate enough to have recovered several fossils of a large bovid, including a relatively complete mandible and some vertebrae that were still articulated. I worked alongside other students to prepare and lift many of these delicate fossils out of the ground, and transport them back to the lab.

The strangest thing about the entire experience was that while I felt as if I was doing 80% less work that I normally would on site, I was 100% more exhausted at the end of the day. I have to chalk it up to how fast my mind was moving during the day. The hours seemed to fly by. I realized I spent the day constantly thinking. As a manager, you stop being the doer of work and become the facilitator. My supervisor was right when he said that directing involves not just thinking about what is going on but thinking about what’s going to happen three hours from now.

In the end, I was disappointed to leave the field early to start classes back in Washington. I definitely wish I could have stayed longer. Two and a half weeks is a short time to be in the field but I definitely did not regret it. I felt like I had learned a lot and, despite not having a traditional Christmas break, I felt revitalized. After completing my first semester at GW, and adjusting to life as a graduate student in a new place, I was left feeling stress and tired. However, having the field experience that I did over the Christmas break, I realized that the hard work I had put in the semester before was all worth it. As long as I can be involved in field research, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this.