whafford (whafford) wrote,
whafford
whafford

Of Ostriches and Camel Spiders

22 June
The ‘other tomb’ is indeed like the first. The upper layers had Seleucid material but we quickly got into more secure 3rd millennium finds. The walls here were a little harder to define than the other chamber, but the same arched construction is apparent. There are also more stones here, probably slipped out from the high foundation beneath the mudbrick walls that were in pretty bad shape, especially on the east side.

Two things have been particularly interesting here. First of all, one of my students, Juls, was excavating and handed me a fragment of something. "What kind of pottery is this?" she asked. I looked it over. Yellowed and thin, it was nonetheless strong and curved, looking like a cross between bone and ceramic. "It’s not pottery," I replied, "It’s eggshell." Naturally, she didn’t believe me. We all know eggshell is thin and fragile, right? Ah, but this was not chicken egg or any other small avian. It came from a very large, flightless bird: an ostrich. Indeed, ostrich eggs were used for a variety of things in the ancient world, often made into cups, bowls, and vases. They are quite sturdy and preserve very well. They are also relatively exotic, even in this region at this time, so they tend to mark the higher end of finds, e.g., the more valuable objects to the people. Such a discovery was exciting, especially in this large a piece. In fact, we were to find many large pieces of shell in this layer, scattered throughout the lower areas of the chamber. I suspect we could reconstruct an entire egg or perhaps two from the pieces we collected here, but none show incised decoration or working that I could see in cursory examination.

There was also a small rim of a pot showing in the wall near a large clump of shell and at the edge of the stone foundations. We cleared it off and found it to be a complete miniature clay bowl, fine and quite elegant. It was sitting on its base as if on a surface but there was no good floor here and similar fill continued below. The same partial surfaces we found in the other chamber were occurring here as well, possible plastered areas at different heights throughout the fill, but never completely covering the chamber. Whatever happened to fill the room to the west also happened here.

As we worked deeper into the pit, we needed to clear away the overhang of roof left standing in the west since the arch widened underneath and it became dangerous to work under the overhang. The wall wasn’t going to hold it, so I decided to knock down the upper portion. Juls had been wanting to use the big pick for some time -- for some reason the destructive power of such a tool appealed to her -- but I only allow big picks in certain situations. This was one of them, so she wailed away. It came down quickly.

Under the remaining fill I found more stones including some that seemed to be arranged in a circle. If this really was a circular feature, it would be unusual since this is such a small chamber. How could any feature be used inside here? Perhaps it was intended to contain something, but I’m not convinced it really is an intentional feature. I’ll have to clear the soil around it and see if the stones are all at the same level sitting on a finished surface. I’ll also have to compare the inside and outside of the feature and look carefully at the stones to see if they were really placed here for a purpose or if they could simply have fallen in this arrangement.

Our site guard, Ismaien, has been collecting agrab (scorpions). At mangeria he showed us a plastic water bottle that had a few of them in a small amount of fluid at the bottom. He explained that the fluid was rubbing alcohol, but I’m not sure if that was to kill them or to try to preserve them. A little after mangeria we noticed Ismaien waving frantically to us from the back of the tent. Juls, Shiloh and I went up to see what he wanted and found him locked in mortal combat with a camel spider. Well, maybe not mortal combat, but he was determined to show us this giant sputha that was clinging to the tent, and he was equally determined to catch it.

It was definitely a big spider and the students were duly impressed, but Shiloh said she had expected these things to be everywhere. She sounded a little disappointed that we hadn’t seen more of them. Of course, she also didn’t want them killed. But Ismaien would have none of that for he wanted it in his bottle of collectibles. So he searched for a tool with which to catch the creature and ended up with a pair of tongs that were part of his nargileh set. A nargileh is a water pipe, also called a hooka or sheesha pipe in some areas. The tongs are used to move hot coals onto or off of the ceramic bowl at the top which holds the tobacco. Today they would be used to chase down and capture a camel spider.

Ismaien wielded his short tongs deftly, clamping down on one leg, or almost at any rate. He didn’t get a firm grip and the feisty arthropod (for they aren’t arachnids, instead they are more like scorpions or lobsters, with 10 legs and long bodies) darted away across the side of the tent. Ismaien jumped back but quickly regained his nerve and again the valiant guard lunged with his makeshift pincers. He caught the ‘spider’ by two back legs and it squirmed, biting at the metal that held it in its grip.

Now he tried to force the overlarge beast into the narrow neck of the water bottle. This seemed an absurd thing to do, but he wanted it to be with his other nasty creatures so he pushed while the thing continued to squirm. Its body was larger than the opening and his tongs’ grip on the legs loosened. Again the sputha ran off and again Ismaien chased it; an odd sight, his tongs held well in front and wary but at the same time reckless in his apparent abandon either to impress us or just to catch the beast.

The battle waged on, but Ismaien once more got hold. Again he pushed and, after a good deal of damage to the body of the spider, it finally squished into the neck of the bottle and with a last kick of its 10 legs, the sputha fell into the alcohol below, mostly dead already. It was not a pretty sight, but for some reason I had watched in - what was it? Shock? Horror? A strange mixture of puzzlement and a sense of the absurd? Now the triumphant Bedou of the Shafrat tribe held his trophy aloft and began animatedly to show everyone on the tell his conquest, telling elaborate stories of his heroism.

I went back to work.

Tags: dig 2008
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  • and then there were three

    30 June We wrote the final site reports yesterday over shwarma and soda. It isn’t really final, just the end of season reports for the…

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    28 June Seven hours later we were in Damascus. Extremely tired but there. We checked in to our hotel and rested briefly, then went to the…

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