Sometimes life makes things seem meaningless.
But then again, sometimes they are. From what we can see anyway.
The sun beat down, and the dust swirled past my eyes, clinging to my skin, crunching between my teeth. Precariously perched in the awkward position I had become accustomed to, I held a trowel between my blistered and calloused fingers. Meticulously I dragged it toward myself, slicing a thin layer of dirt off of the ground each time I did. Again and again, as I collected the resulting pile of soil in a pan and dumped it into a bucket, to be sifted. Stretching, I eased myself up, and carefully made my way to the sifter along with the bucket of dirt. My partner and I, tired from the work, and burnt from the sun, made mindless small talk, while tasting small bits of things to make sure they were bone, and scraping our nails along bits of other things to identify them as pottery.
Before long, our turn at the sifter ended, and we shuffled back to our little square, only to start the cycle again. I settled in my corner, and began the back and forth motion of trowelling. This time, however, something caught the edge. I quickly drew my trowel back, and carefully dragged around it, blowing the dirt off as I went, hoping none of our instructors had seen me do it. “Pauline!” I said “I’ve got something …”. She looked up, startled at the possibility that we might find more than post moulds or burnt bone. Perhaps it was the edge of an effigy pipe — something most of the other students had already found. Or a projectile point, or a large pot sherd, or anything other than the miniscule bits of unexciting things we had already found.
She joined me in delicately brushing the dirt off, and in collecting it in our dustpan. Partners working together in the same corner of their square always brought lots of attention, and one instructor quickened his step as he moved towards us.
“What have you got?” he asked.
“Look,” I replied, “Is it anything?”
“Keep going,” he said, with all the concealed excitement of a child at Christmas.
But the pace on an archaeological site is never fast. Things can not be rushed. So I spent a day or two slowly trowelling, brushing, collecting and sifting, layer after layer of soil, drawing maps of our square at regular intervals, detailing the depth, width, and type of soil as I went. Every grain of sand I moved destroyed another detail of the story and had to be recorded so that the history of this site could be retold, reimagined, and relearned.
Instructors would occasionally look at my progress, and then carry on hushed conversations with one another while looking over their shoulders at me.
I kept digging, assuming that some significance must be found here, even though I had since realized that what I was mapping, what I was being so meticulous about was really nothing more than a pile of rocks. A pile of angular, fist-shaped rocks.
At first I though it may be a hearth, a communal cooking area where the women of the Huron village we were excavating might congregate to share gossip and boil game. But there were no burn marks, no soot left behind on these rocks. No burnt scraps of bone, no charred wood.
A few days turned into a week, which then stretched into another week, and I wearily pushed on, trowelling around and brushing off my growing pile of rocks. Pauline had gone back to her own corner, finding lots of bone and bits of pottery there to sift through and catologue, but my pile of rocks had become the talk of the site. On their way to the sifter, other students would stop and ask how the rocks were doing, and if I still really had to draw them at each interval. As soon as I started to slow my pace, an instructor would stroll by with what I took for a smirk, checking my clipboard, watching my progress. But I kept on, complaining each night to Pauline while we brushed the dirt off of the artifacts she had found, watching the others clean their effigies and gaming discs with envy.
Before long, with much darker skin and heavy hearts, we all said goodbye to one another, packing up to leave the rest of the excavation to the instructors, the ones who would write research papers on what we had found.
Back at home, I settled back into my normal routine, hesitant to tell others about what I had discovered on the site. People seemed to expect that perhaps I might have discovered something big, something significant, something that might change the way we see history. Telling them I had spent weeks excavating a pile of rocks seemed like I was disappointing them somehow, so I told them about the other experiences I had had — fireside ceremonies, cultural lessons, vision quests, even about our induction into the favoured social past-time of archaeologists everywhere: eating pizza and drinking (root)beer while watching Indiana Jones.
But several months later, I received a telephone message. A message that gave my little pile of rocks meaning, significance, and an important place in the history of the site where we had worked under the heat of the sun and in the midst of the swirling dust.
Our instructors had finished the excavation of my little pile of rocks. And they had made an intriguing discovery.
One day, about 500 years ago, the life of a boy, maybe 5 or 6, had ended all too soon. He was well-loved, and spent his days playing near the river by his village, collecting berries with his mother and hunting deer with his father. He died suddenly, and was buried just outside of the longhouses. His grave was deep, and it contained the remains of some of his favourite playmates: frogs, which he probably enjoyed catching just as much as my own boys do now. His parents had prepared his grave and covered it to protect it from the elements and from hungry animals. They had covered it with a pile of angular, fist-shaped rocks.
My careful mapping, my meticulous trowelling and all of those hours under the hot sun began to make sense, it all began to have meaning.
But really, there had been meaning to it all along.
I just hadn’t seen it.