Digging at Tham An Mah

January 5, 2010

The third day of digging at the cave site, the trenches were down to about a foot or so. Two large bones were sticking out of the one-by-one. Helen said they looked human, but they wouldn’t know until the rest of them was uncovered. A piece of skull revealed itself in the one-by-two as well as a promising rim of a black pot.

We continued to sift the soil from the trenches, categorizing the finds into bags. Eventually we had to divide the “shell” bag into a “crab” bag because there were loads of big and small crab claws. I was attempting to sort the finds and came across what looked like a chunk of brick. I perused the bags to see where it might fit and found a bag labeled, “Orcle.” I thought this might be some archaeological term or maybe a Lao word that eluded me. “Helen, what is orcle?” “Orcle?” she asked perplexed. I showed the bag to Patricia, “Or-cle,” she said squinting. Bounheuang chimed in from across the cave, “Ochre! ochre! No Orcle.” Apparently ochre was used as a dye. I thought it was army green, but it also comes in shades of red. We continued to refer to it as orcle the rest of the day.

During this tedious sifting process we got to know the MMAP team members a little better. Sangporn and Bounheuang were trying to teach us a few words in Lao. Realizing this task was a it more difficult than expected, the conversation drifted into tongue twisters. Michael recited one that he’s particularly good at: Betty bought a bit of butter but the bit of butter Betty bought was bitter so Betty bought a better bit of butter better than the bitter butter Betty bought. This got an uproar of laughter from the team. Bounheuang tried to recount the sentence to Mu, who was engrossed in creating a scaled drawing of the Buddha paintings on the cave wall, but the only syllables he got out were, “…Body!” Mu had no idea what he was trying to say, but smiled nonetheless. I think we will really miss the people we’ve met here, and it’s only been 3 days.

Bounheuang said he’d teach us four words that we wouldn’t forget. “Mai, mai, mai, and mai,” he said. They all mean something different according to your vocal intonation. He demonstrated the difference between them. Mai: burn. Mai: wood (and he pointed to a stick.) Mai: silk. And Mai: new. We rolled our eyes at the prospect of mastering the Lau art of intonation and they laughed.

The words we have managed to file into our vocabulary are:
cop jai lai lai – thank you very much
sah bai dee – hello
soh dee – good luck
lah gohn – bye bye