Day Five Digging at Tham An Mah

January 7, 2010

The team has dug the one by two down to about a meter revealing a beautiful pot completely in tact. Joyce deliberated with BeunHoung about digging a square meter around the pot to get the whole thing out. This of course means more sifting. She said it was most likely a burial pot from the Iron Age, anywhere from 500 BCE to 500 CE. She has found many of these with the skeletons of children inside.

The Lid from the Plain of Jars in Trench B

Phou was showing me a large molar they had found sifting when I heard a commotion from the group around the one by two. Joyce and Helen were intently staring into the trench and motioned for me to come over to film. A crescent of white stone was peaking out of the corner of the trench. Helen said, “This is really exciting.” It looked kid of unassuming to me, just a white cookie. “Very exciting,” said Phou. Phou and Nor Sin work for a government organization that oversees the Plain of Jars, a series of sites in Xieng Khouang strewn with large rock urns. They recognized the lid immediately as something similar to those found in the Plain of Jars.

So the team will now have to expand the trench another meter in the opposite direction to unearth this feature.

While they were digging and sifting, Michael and I accompanied two Speleologists who are collecting core samples from stalagmites in the area for paleoclimatic change. They were hiking to a cave called Tham Kok Muh which translates as “pig sty cave.”

Expedition to Pig Sty Cave

The trek was (what felt like) a 70 degree angle hike up a loose dirt hill. At one point I was grabbing onto nothing but a root and my toe on a small rock. I had to pull a jedi mind trick to keep myself from thinking about the potential snakes and centipedes crawling around. Our guide from the village, however seemed to saunter up the path like a wind up toy. And he had flip flops on. Phou kept asking me in Lau if I was very very tired. “Moo-ai lai lai?” “No!” I declared bravely, not before tripping over a root and falling flat on backback. Confident that my embarrassing squeal scared away any unwanted wildlife in a mile radius, on we went.

The cave was nothing near a pig sty. The entrance was a deep hole that lead to one entrance way choked by a hole about a foot and a half wide. Phou, with his slight frame, was the only one who could fit. Kathleen gave him a CO2 meter because the caves around here have infamously bad air. He wriggled into the hole. I could barely look and his head disappeared behind the beige undulating columns.

Every so often Michael would yell monkey noises down into the hole to make sure he was still there, and conscious. We’d hear a faint high pitched animal noise in response.

Finally he came out with pictures of beautiful formations that the team hopes to drill and collect. But they will have to ask permission from the local village first.

Phou Searches for a GPS Reading in Pig Sty Cave

Phou then set off on his mission to enter the information about the site into his yellow GIS gizmo. It wasn’t picking up the satellite GPS signal, so he was scaling the walls of the exterior walls of the cave like spiderman leaping from one jagged outcropping to another. FInally he got a signal, and did a double fist pump and danced around in a circle like Rocky Balboa.

In the midst of our descent, I had to reserve all my attention and brain power to hand-eye coordination, but Phou of course was even making side-journeys into the brush. He emerged from behind a ganglea of vines with a knobby stick and said, “You eat it!” I asked what it was and he said that the Chinese believe it makes you live 100,000 years. I said I didn’t want to live that long. I would get “moo-ai lai lai” (very very tired.) He explained that it’s called bitter mountain vine and is used like penicillin. Chinese farmers slice bits of it into the drinking water for chickens when one gets sick. I said I wasn’t a sick chicken but I stuck my tongue out to taste whitish sap that exuded from the fiberous break he made in the vine. I recoiled at the taste. I braced myself for other more psychedelic symptoms, but the awful taste was the only thing I consciously experienced. He tapped me on the head with the vine like a magic wand and said I would live to be 100,000 years old.

We are spending two nights at the camp. I’m told the bathing water has leeches in it. Not part of my usual toilette, so I will pass on the bathing. Today we find out about what they’ve discovered about the lid and the burial jar!