The Sandbox

The earth is a vault. Most of the time it chooses to give nothing away.

By Jennifer Williamson

The earth is a reluctant storyteller. Unless prodded by a backhoe or the blades of a plough, the soil retains its secrets. Perhaps today our inquisitive shovels will loosen its tongue. The screens and buckets, spades and trowels rattle in the box of the pickup as we veer off the highway onto the right-of-way, following the survey stakes and dodging clumps of prickly pear. Behind us, the rest of the crew bounces along with my dog perched precariously atop the hump of the wheel well. It’s 9:00 on an August morning and already the breeze is hot, the blue prairie sky unadorned with cloud.

The previous three weeks were spent near Fort Mac, where we slogged through the boreal forest in rain and blistering heat, clambered over deadfall and cursed the clouds of blackflies tormenting us—a scenario that contradicts all romantic notions of archaeology. But the discomforts of boreal surveying fade as I drive down this new right-of-way. Paradise is unfolding before my eyes. The prairie has breathing room; the sun is not sequestered by foliage. Our trucks tear across the short-grass prairie, kicking up dust. Like the northern parts of the province, the south is humming with activity. Pipelines, transmission lines, compressor stations and subdivisions are popping up like gophers. This boom in infrastructure is a contract archaeologist’s bread and butter. In the early 1980s, there’s plenty of cash for salvaging prehistoric sites.

“How much farther?” I ask Dave, handing him the topographic map. He points to a splotch of concentric lines.

“There’s a coulee up ahead. We’ll have to skirt it,” he says. Sure enough, wolf willow, tangles of wild rose and buffalo berry block our way. I lean on the horn to signal our departure from the right-of-way. On the other side of the parched creek bed we rejoin the stakes, which demarcate the route of a proposed pipeline. “Proposed” is the operating word in this business.  Depending on our excavation results, the developer may have to mitigate the impacts or possibly move the line.

According to the initial survey a trio of sites lie 200 metres south of the next compressor station. These include two tipi rings sitting smack in the middle of the right-of-way. Adjacent shovel tests produced several arrowheads and a bagful of flakes. In archaeological terms the presence of arrowheads is synonymous with winning the lottery, though stone effigies, butchered bones, the occasional pottery shard and garbage dumps are also coveted.

The trucks jerk to a halt. The white shepherd leaps over the side while the crew emerges, yawning and belching. Roger is a short, spare looking man who is eluding the demon of the Vietnam War. He followed me to Canada from the pueblos of New Mexico, hoping that the border might magically diffuse his nightmares. He’s on a disability pension and tourist visa and his free labour is much appreciated, though he’s skeptical we’ll find anything on the bald-ass prairie.

Dave is not your stereotypical archaeologist. He doesn’t wear cut-offs and baggy T-shirts. His collared shirts are always neatly tucked into his jeans. He never has food stuck in his beard, never farts in the confined space of an excavation. His meticulous approach to archaeology is a windfall since I, despite holding the permit for this gig, have yet to master the chronology of Plains point styles. He’s a true scientist, unlike the rest of us, who are more like treasure-mad pirates. When it comes to surveying, Dave is also king of the theodolite, a word I’ve only recently learned to pronounce.

Logan is leaning against the truck smoking, watching Kate’s breasts bobbing as she struggles to unchain the screens from the box of the truck. He’s a lazy bastard with few redeeming qualities, a man who eats and sleeps in his ball cap and takes notes like a kindergartner.

“She could use some help,” I shout. He grins and throws his smouldering butt on the ground. While they set up the screens, Roger and I haul the duffel bags out of the truck. They’re heavy, stuffed with flaming orange flagging tape, pegs, notebooks, index cards, trowels and baggies for storing artifacts. A large box holds 50-foot measuring tapes and the trusty old theodolite. Dave pushes the cooler with our prepackaged lunches under a truck and fills the dog’s water dish.


“There’s a pan of squares in my backpack,” Kate says. “Will it fit in the cooler?”

Dave retrieves it, lifting the foil lid. “What is it?”

“Brownies. From Caroline,” she answers. I have to laugh. Brownies is a misnomer. Caroline’s are primarily green, homegrown, definitely organic.

“They’re off limits until last break,” I warn.

Staking and mapping the sites eat up the morning. We measure out a grid of one by one metre squares and decide to dig in 10 centimetre levels. Three of us will excavate, the other two will screen the dirt. Logan grabs a shovel. He deliberately whacks it against the side of the truck, knowing that the sudden clang of metal will send shell-shocked Roger prostrate to the ground.

“Quit being an asshole,” Kate says, digging her trowel into Logan’s back. We don our hats and sunscreen, fill our water bottles from the spigot on the water container and slip a Van Morrison tape into the portable tape deck. We chat, kidding each other about last week’s party, gossiping about certain supervisors. The temperature increases steadily, making us sweaty and lethargic, but we keep shovelling dirt into buckets for Logan and Kate to screen. Artifacts surface at seven centimetres.

“I thought the report said they were below 10,” Dave comments. I check the notes.

“Those guys are bozos. What do you expect?” Logan scoffs. Kate rolls her eyes as she bags and catalogues some flakes. Her pale blue eyes are shaded by the rim of her hat. She looks good even with dirt streaked across her face.

“What quadrant was your last bucket from?” she asks. Dave measures the distance from the walls.

“Northeast. Eight centimetres down. I think I’ll trowel. These flakes extend into the next quadrant.” We all stop to admire his excavation, which is a work of art, with walls perfectly aligned and a floor shaved with precision. Even the dog prefers Dave’s pits. She’s sleeping in the opposite corner, her back against the cool earth.

Both Roger’s and Dave’s squares are yielding dozens of artifacts. There’s a whoop when Roger unearths the bottom of a spear point, a thick quartzite side-notched projectile. Five minutes later the top half appears. Our heat stupor vanishes. We dig with renewed vigour, scraping the dirt with care, measuring, bagging and labelling. Because we’re trowelling, there’s no need for screens, so Kate and Logan begin lifting sod from two contiguous units. Over the next hour we recover three more points. The site is a gold mine. Roger dances in his pit while the rest of us cheer him on.

Kate shrieks. I expect to see blood in her pit. She rises from her knees brandishing an artifact unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

We don’t notice the bulging black clouds until wind starts flinging dirt into our faces. I look at Kate, who smiles, displaying teeth ringed with mud. The storm bears down with dark intensity. The temperature plummets 12 degrees.

“Hurry, grab the tarps!” I shout. We fight to secure the plastic sheets over the pits with rocks and shovels while Logan hurries over the ridge with a roll of toilet paper. When the hail starts, we make a dive for the trucks. Logan is soaked to the skin when he slides into the front seat beside me and slams the door, leaving the dog outside to be battered by the elements.

“Let the dog in, you idiot.”

“No way—she stinks,” he says.

“And you don’t? Either she’s in or you’re out.” A blast of cold air nearly rips the open door off its hinges. The dog leaps in, dripping and grateful. Twenty-five minutes later the torrent stops. The clouds trundle off to the east, exposing a brilliant sun. Steam rises from the ground; the air smells like wet clay. We’re all anxious to resume digging. Unfortunately my excavation is full of water, so I peel the sod from a sixth square. The shovel crunches through the sagebrush, which hangs tenaciously to the soil by its stunted roots, until finally one square metre of grey-green carpet fills the screen. The dirt is barely wet despite the rain. It sifts through my fingers, dropping its roots and worms and pebbles. Without looking, I can feel when a stone has been deliberately altered. Just as a blind mother can recognize the face of her child, I can identify the type of rock by touch—the homogeneous texture of finely pressed obsidian, the weighty smoothness of chert, the nubby character of quartzite. I am admiring the yellow swirls in a large core from which tools have been chipped, when Kate shrieks. I expect to see blood in her pit. She stands the tip of her trowel in the dirt as a marker, then rises from her knees brandishing an artifact unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There is a collective gasp as we converge inside her pit.

“Holy shit!” Dave drops his trowel in surprise. There’s no doubt this is a magnificent specimen, a blade at least nine centimetres long made of high quality obsidian. If resharpened, it would be keener than a surgical blade. The arrowheads pale in comparison. We each take turns holding it, feeling its weight, admiring the craftsmanship. Kate photographs it, then slips it into a bag with a card indicating its exact provenance. Her hands shake with excitement. No one cares that it’s 5:00 p.m. We’ve all been seized with pit fever. If there is one such artifact, there might be others. We dig on while the sun sinks towards the horizon, wedging its ruddy orange light through the gathering clouds. When I look up, the crew is silhouetted against the grey sky. Kate is hunched over a screen, tagging artifacts. Logan is shovelling dirt into a bucket. Dave is on his knees trowelling and Roger is mapping his last level. The screens cast long shadows down the ridge and the dog sits on her haunches overseeing the entire operation. The scene looks like a stage set, and with a click, my camera captures it.

When it comes to surveying, Dave is king of the theodolite.

Lightning dances in the west. Another storm is building. We sit down on the edge of Roger’s excavated unit while Kate offers the brownies and some bottled water. Dave removes the blade from its bag to examine it more closely.

“Analysis, Spock,” I quip. He turns it over in his palm.

“Well, the lateral edges have been pressure flaked from the ventral surface to its mid dorsal ridge. There’s been some step fracturing. Shit, it’s well made! Definitely not local.” He passes it around and we savour its uniqueness, running our fingers over the flutes and ridges.

“What kind of date are we looking at?” Roger asks.

“I’d say the site, at 10 centimetres, is around 3,000 years old based on point styles. But blade industries date from 7,000 years ago and this one is obviously an intrusion,” Dave explains. Kate whistles. An intrusion. Something traded in, perhaps a family heirloom. Of course we’ll never know its precise origin, but archaeologists are trained to fill in the blanks. I often wonder if the dead would be amused or angered by our inane reconstructions of their lives.

We pack up the gear, secure the tarps and throw the muddy shovels and damp bags into the back of the truck. The screens can stay until tomorrow. The dog hops up and we drive back to the range road in fine spirits, revelling in the magic of the day.

We head to the lone bar in this prairie hamlet, dishevelled and wind-burned. The beer tastes especially cold and frothy; the steak melts in our mouths. “Stayin’ Alive” plays on the jukebox. The pipeline company will not be as thrilled as we are. Significant sites require more excavation, more money. I lean over and wipe a thick streak of mud from Kate’s cheek, wishing I had been the one who pried the blade from the dirt, who exposed it to the light of day.

“You know, it didn’t exist until you found it,” Logan, who has been guzzling lagers, informs Kate. He has yet to remove his filthy hat.

“What are you talking about?” She flicks a bottle cap at him.

“Well, like the tree falling in the forest. If no one hears it, then it never happened,” he says, slurring his words. “Technically speaking, it defied its own existence by being buried.”

“Don’t get all existential on us, Logan,” Dave says, wrapping up the leftover steak for the dog.

“Technically speaking, you shouldn’t mix brownies and beer,” I tell him. “Be up by seven or you might not exist.” By the time we leave the bar, it’s almost midnight. We walk outside to the adjoining motel, breathing in the pungent smell of wet prairie soil. The stars have chased away the storm clouds; the moon is rising. Across the street a bluish light flickers inside the Chinese restaurant. A dog barks in someone’s yard. When we reach the doors to our rooms, Roger suddenly pulls his pants down to his thighs and bends over. His buttocks glow white under the bare bulb above his door.

“Moon’s full tonight,” he says, as casually as stating his name. This is one of his trauma induced eccentricities.

“So it is,” I tell him. “Now get some sleep.” Kate hums as she waves good night. Logan struggles to get his key in the lock as I hand Dave the artifact bag.

“Here, you can keep it in your room. Sweet dreams.” I take the dog for a short walk up Main Street. The village is quiet, yet there is so much life behind the facade of these ramshackle buildings, just as there is beneath the prairie, the forest, the rest of the planet. The earth is a vault. Most of the time it chooses to give nothing away, so we dig to find that one elusive artifact willing to divulge its secrets. A whisper from the past.

A half-dozen street lights illuminate the road, which melts into the velvet darkness of farmland. Above me a glittering swath of stars silver-plates the night sky. I think how ancient starlight is, how the farther we look into space, the farther we travel back through time. Like excavating—the deeper we dig, the older the artifacts. We don’t speak of light years, for each thin stratum might capture the essence of an entire generation. We don’t have a galaxy to work in. Instead, we dig with precision, knowing that a few centimetres of dirt may be the wormhole through which a thousand years slip away.

Jennifer Williamson is an Edmonton writer, teacher and former archaeologist.



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