Guano and Sacrificial Pigs

January 12, 2010

bar_sri2Last night we missed a big party at the camp. They held a ceremony called a Bar Sri in Thai for Mu’s last day on excavation. Everyone sat around an offering of duck, beer, bananas and chips with candles flickering. Everyone tied white string around each others’ wrists and incanted a blessing: “May you live a long life and have great success…” and they also tacked on “and may MMAP find a lot of things” for good measure. The tying of strings symbolized the tying of your soul to your body.

Feature in Trench B

A few days ago, the team had noticed a red deposit amid the gray soil in a circular shape. This potentially indicates a separate feature, that the soil has been excavated in the past. Helen thought it was may be a mound. After much dispute between Joyce, Patricia, and Helen about whether the feature was a mound or a pit, a convex or concave deposit, it turned out to be a pit containing a beautiful burial pot 40 cm down. The matrix or soil around the pit may have patches of guano. Helen sent Patricia a detailed email explaining exactly why it would not be 100% bat excrement. I have never in my life heard the word guano thrown around so cavalierly as if they were talking about something as benign as copy paper. “Oh, is the printer out of bat guano again?”

The Second Pot is Found in Trench B

Helen collected little tins of soil samples that will, I’m told, get “impregnated” with plastic. These sections will be analyzed by a petrographic microscope (meaning they will be viewed as through a lightbox) to determine how the soil formed. This analysis will determine if the soil is ash or guano or something else.

Essentially, you have a pot. Someone, thousands of years ago, buried their dear old uncle in it. Then, something happened to throw all that dirt over the pit. Helen’s analysis will determine what kind of disturbance it was: roots? worms burrowing? hoards of humans trampling over it and throwing their ancient candy wrappers? or just random organic processes? I’m surprised I managed to get through that sentence without mentioning bat guano.

On Sunday, the team managed to remove the large pot they’d uncovered earlier and the lid which Thongsa had confirmed to be the same as those at the Plain of Jars. Unfortunately the pot underneath the lid did not remain in tact and has now become a bag of sherds. They rigged up a basket out of rope and attached it to bamboo poles to lug it down the mountain. Korakot Boonlop, from the Princess Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, who has been with MMAP every season since 2005, our Physical Anthropologist arrived this morning. He is up at Tham An Mah right now excavating the bones found underneath the large pot. He identified a pair of pelvis bones that will be taken down to the lab for analysis.

village_kids_cameraTomorrow, Kathleen, Mick, Stephanie, Michael, Phou and a few others will take a half hour drive to a remote Khmu village called Ban Long Kwai. From there we’ll take a 45 minute hike to Tham Loum, the longest cave in Laos stretching about a kilometer underground. During this trip I have feared for my life and the lives around me more than once a day. I was hoping that statistic would decrease as the trip went on, but I’m told there will be spiders, a single track mountain road, and a very narrow opening to the cave not good for a claustrophobe like me. Yesterday, the team also scouted out the cave of Tham Dook (or bone cave) where they found a substantial amount of animal bones which may indicate some good settlement activity. The bones are quite big like a cow or water buffalo which are kinds of things that don’t just get into caves on their own, so this is a good indication of prehistoric human activity.

The Hmung people are apparently very adamant about respecting the spirits of the caves and Joyce warned us that they might have to sacrifice a pig or other large animal before taking any speleothem samples. Kathleen is really looking forward to putting the purchase of a sacrificial pig on her expense report. Although we both said we would certainly not be able to look if this was the case. This trip is really urging me to the brink of vegetarianism. That might just be my next blog subject.