77highway.typepad.com > Thailand - Earthwatch dig at Ban Non Wat (Dec 02)


This is an email journal from my first two days as a volunteer at the Earthwatch archaeological expedition "Origins of Angkor" led by a team from University of Otago, New Zealand.

SKIP THIS JOURNAL AND GO STRAIGHT TO EARTHWATCH THAILAND PHOTOS. These Thailand photos were taken with a Sony DSC- P10. I’ve since upgraded to a Sony DSC-V1. (More photo albums can be found here.)


Sent: 16 December 2002 18:35
Subject: DAY 1

The Phimai Inn in Khorat (250km northeast of Bangkok) is quite basic but it does have the important stuff like air con (a bonus, since I expected the worst) and an en suite bathroom with flush loo and shower (but there's no shower tray nor curtain so when I bathe the whole bathroom is soaked).

The mosquitos are vicious and myriad. Slept badly last night as there was one renegade mossie in my room that seemed invulnerable (even survived the Mortein spray SEF had bought for me). Will sleep with sheet pulled over my head tonight. When I got back from dinner last night, the wall outside my room door was plastered with mosquitos at rest... I did not linger outside but my impression was that there were at least a dozen mossies...

There are more professional and student archaeologists here than Earthwatch volunteers. Six from the NZ university and three volunteers: me, J and B. This is the start of the new dig season and we are prepping the site; the main contngent arrives in Jan. Local folk have also been hired to help with the site. There are about 20 people on the site now... growing to 30+ in Jan.

Note for aspiring Earthwatch volunteers: always ask if the Principal Investigator is going to be on-site during your expedition. We (the volunteers) were not informed by Earthwatch that Professor Higham would not be present till after our stint finishes. Needless to say I was extremely disappointed.

The Origins of Angkor dig is postulating that the Angkor civilisation (the zenith of which is in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap) can trace its prehistoric roots and influences to the peoples from the Khorat area in Thailand. Ancient inscriptions from Angkor reveal Khmer writing that pre-dates the Hindu influences from India.

J (40-something from Boston) is a project manager for a software gaming company specialising in multi-player games. Apparently it takes them 18 to 24 months per game project, and that includes 6 months of beta testing. She has 40 staff, about half of whom are programmers, and the others a variety of people with graphics, marketing, etc experience. She's here for the one week dig. Her job sounds very interesting.

B is a delightfully chatty septuagenarian who's been here a week already. She's here for the two week dig. She's a divorcee mother of 4 from Oregon. The last time she was in Thailand was 1959, when her hubby was stationed in Bangkok for a job with the US Information Agency.

For 7am breakfast we have a choice of American (egg, ham, sausage, bacon, 2 slices of tomato) or local (chicken with rice or rice with veggies). Coffee is of the instant ilk... so no Thai coffee, alas. Leave for dig site at 8am.

We pile into a covered pickup that takes us along, first, a macadamised road, then into dirt tracks deep into some farming area. It's a 40min ride... depending on traffic and who is driving. Traffic, btw, is scary: everyone seems to drive in the middle of the road where there it is least damaged... except for motorbikes which ply the road shoulders. A couple of close calls to / from the dig site already. And it's only Day One... Note to all: good time to buy insurance on my life...

Anyway, we disembark from vehicle at a villager's house built on stilts. We have commandeered the downstairs portion as our tea & lunch area. We have brought bananas for tea breaks, while lunch was prepared by Phimai Inn and loaded onto our vehicle earlier.

To the left of the house is the toilet. Not the automatic flush kind but I am relieved it does not pong at all. "Flushing" is taken care of by ladling water from a container and allowing gravity to manage the rest.

The dig site was yet another nice surprise: it has a roof ! And there's a constant light breeze. Certainly quite pleasant. The dig area is 4mx20m and already 2m deep. At this level we have reached early iron age. This area appears to have been continuously settled from neolithic through bronze to iron ages. To reach the earliest stage (neolithic) we need to dig another approximately 2m deep. Unearthed so far: funerary jars containing a grown man's bones, several smaller graves for babies. Lots of pottery and in many, many small pieces (potsherds).

It is to the pottery that Barbara and I have been assigned. I haven't been particularly good at jigsaw puzzles but this 3D recreation is quite taxing. Barbara and I try to spend some extra time washing the potsherds (basically this means we use water and scrub the pieces using Colgate medium firmness toothbrushes) as a procrastination attempt... We are somewhat successful with the first pot but we are certain that (a) we do not have all the pieces, and (b) there are fragments from another pot. Tomorrow we shall attempt the puzzle again.

Meanwhile J's been busy scraping earth away from the outlines of a buried pot. She says her back and haunches hurt from so much squatting. I think she finally decided to sit. I will try my hand at unearthing later this week.

Lunch is a simple affair of rice and chicken curry and salad. We’d brought that with us from Phimai Inn this morning.

More washing and puzzling after lunch. The afternoon is hot but not humid and the light breeze continued to take the edge off the heat. There are several stray dogs; none are cute.

I did the tourist thing and took a few photos. It's going to be fairly dark since the whole site is roofed over.

At 4:30pm, we call it a day and we reach the Phimai Inn circa 5:15pm. I'm at the only internet cafe in town... a 15 min walk from the Inn. There are approximately 40 terminals about half of which are occupied by boys under 16 playing games. J and I are the only non-locals here... and the only females.

It's getting dark outside and dinner will be served at 7pm... so, bye for now !!!

Sent: 17 December 2002
Subject: DAY 2...

The cook at Phimai Inn is great ! I had the best tom yum goong ever at dinner last night. For some reason, I was seated next to the two vegetarians in the group so I helped myself to a (much) larger-than-normal serving of the soup.

The mossie spray seemed to have worked last night after two rounds of application. And to ensure I got a good night's rest, I slept with the sheet pulled over my head... and the aircon turned up high. Slept well.

Breakfast: tried the local breakfast of rice + veggie. Yummy ! Left all the rice, ate all the veggie with lots of chilly + fish sauce. Also tried some fried doughy thing that looked like an Indian poori (same shape & size) but has the consistency of light but slightly chewy fresh croissant. Equally yummy. It took all my self-restraint not to doggie-bag the remaining two pieces.

I lucked out today: I did not pull the jigsaw detail. Instead, they set me unearthing some pottery (broken, as usual) and bones (scattered remains of a baby and an adult).

The tools used by archaeologists don't seem to be specially developed for that field. Here's a rundown of what I used today:

* small mason's trowel (not garden trowel... and not towel, although the latter would have been useful to sit on) – for scraping away earth from the bones / pottery
* dental pick (the kind your dentist uses to remove plaque) – for finer work as you scrape away at the earth
* painter's brush (approx 2" wide) - for brushing away the earth as you think you are hitting something interesting with your trowel / dental pick
* dustpan - for clearing away the earth
* pail - for dumping the earth into
* a pair of secateurs (aka small pruning shears... of the garden variety) - for cutting away roots

For the first twenty minutes today, I found myself carefully scraping away earth from a hardened lump of... earth. Well, it looked like a useful find of some sort... Anyway, I was set right early on (whew !) and here are some tips to doing productive work on the site:

* listen to changes in the sound your trowel makes when it hits something: pottery and bone sound different from earth... even hardened earth
* look for changes in colour (hard to do when under shade, when not interested in look & feel generally, and when nearing forty) - dark brown muck is quite a different colour from bone (white) and pottery (in this area, it could be clay-orange, black or greyish)

When the pail is full of scraped earth, it's sent to be sifted for finer bone and pottery fragments. One hails a local worker (there always seems to be a couple sitting around doing absolutely nothing), hands the pail to him/her and say something like
"pissit"... which I am told is the Thai shorthand for "Please sift the pail of earth and return any fragments in the pail to me". I later find out that the word means “special” in Thai.

Lunch was a modest affair of rice, salad, extremely spicy but delicious minced pork and pineapple. We forgot to bring the bananas and had nothing to snack on for both tea breaks. My doughy breakfast things would've done quite nicely here...

When we have cleared the earth from around sufficient pottery and bones in that section (we leave the larger pieces where we find them, working round the pieces), it's time to for the photo shoot. Pictures have to be taken with the items in situ before removing them from the site for washing, cataloguing, reconstructing etc. There is some prepping to be done for the photo session and it consists of:

* using secateurs ("Pass me the secateurs, please" said the Kiwi archaeologist... completely apropros of nothing, or so I thought, until she explained what she needed them for removing the unsightly plant roots)
* using water, sponge and toothbrush to clean the pottery and bones so they look nice and shiny and clean in the photos
* lowering the blinds on the side where sunlight is streaming in to ensure the lighting is even

Since my little site had been commandeered for the photo session, I wandered over to the jigsaw puzzle table where B and J have done a terrific job on one of the black pots B and I had washed yesterday. I was jealous of their progress, but cheered silently as I realised they did not make any further inroads on the pot I had worked on yesterday...

OK, time to walk back from this net cafe to the Phimai Inn for dinner now. I wonder if we’re going to have the tom yum goong again…

Lots more photos here