‘Please, are you worker, or student?’ the girl asked in polite English with Chinese accent.
Kathleen Jamie, in an earlier incarnation, was asked that question. She was in eastern Amdo province, designated by China, ‘Autonomous Region of Tibet’, which means it was regarded as China. I’d heard of Amdo because of Peter Matthiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard. I guess that makes me a student of literature. In the 1980s, when Tibetan villagers came shopping on yaks, or horseback, played Space Invaders, and perhaps visited the ancient Buddhist Labrang Monastery, Jamie was excavating herself. She knew she wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.
The work of a writer is to write. Jamie has managed to do that and make a living from writing, which is not the same thing. She begins her journey, outward and inward, in ‘The Rainbow Cave’ in the West Highlands, a bone cave where hundreds of reindeer antlers were excavated in the 1920s. No one is really sure how they got there.
Archaeology is about sifting mud and sifting theories. Jamie joins a number of digs. Dig is perhaps misleading. In the Alaskan village of Quinhagak, for example, the land thaws and freezes and thaws and freezes and everything much stays the same. Until the thaw comes earlier and the freezing later and with less snow and ice. And the past where the villagers’ ancestors lived and died, creeps up to the surface.
‘In Links of Noltland’ archaeological dig—which means sandy dunes of the land of the cattle—Jamie rents a room and joins the other fieldworkers in Orkney. The wind has obliterated much of an ancient dune system and the vegetation vanished. Another aspect of global warming, which has uncovered an extensive Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement (without much evidence of bronze). Historic Scotland provided funding for further excavation, but Historic Scotland was made history—defunct. The Phd educated students hear the clock ticking. The wind will bury their finds. The funding formula has been exposed.
‘It appears that the first farmers had built a hefty enclosing wall and, within it, several discrete houses with various yards and passageways and “activity areas”. Or maybe not.’
It’s the maybe not, that gets you. I guess when we’re young and excavating a piece of ground, as I did, behind the huts, with Jim Henry helping me, it wouldn’t have surprised us had we found King Arthur’s crown. Well, it might have surprised us a bit, but then we’d probably have fought over who found it first and who owned it. Instead we found bits of molten glass from an ancient volcano. ‘Or maybe not’.
Digging up fragments of bones and pottery is no fun. It’s work. Boring, back-breaking work and hard on the knees. If our ancestors weren’t dead by their early twenties, then they were ancient crones with arthritis and sore teeth. Or as a disillusioned George Orwell put it, after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, if they hadn’t died in battle, they’d have died of ‘some smelly disease’.
‘Or maybe not.’
Student or workers? Phd fieldworkers on digs being paid, indirectly, by the state?
They need to have some understanding what they’re looking for. And although it can seem like assembly-line work, it is and isn’t.
What were they like, these peoples being uncovered? They didn’t know they were living in Neolithic times. Just the same as we don’t really appreciate we’re living at a time of global warming and mass-species extinction. The Anthropocene Age. They just got on with it, was a common refrain. We just got on with it too.
I’d have liked to know more about Jamie’s granny, the wife of a miner, who lost her way with depression and was taken away with a blanket over her head. Given shock therapy, which helped. ‘Or maybe not.’
Good writers create connections, resonance between past and present. Jamie does that. We might just get on with it, like our ancestors. But knowing their story helps us to know our story better. Worker or student? Surfacing brings much of what it is to be human—to the surface.