robertisenberg

Excavation #3: Paintbrushes

In Uncategorized, Vermont on May 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of excavated obelisk, which was never fully carved or removed from its quarry, Egypt.

We crowded around the site, and the archaeologist pointed downward. We followed his finger to the rectangle of open soil. The shape of a grave, only wider, shallower. The bottom lay uneven, like a broken sidewalk. We fidgeted and bounced on the balls of our feet. It was a warm, humid spring day. The sun beat down on us, and we kept swatting away flies and honeybees. This was not what we expected.

“From the evidence,” said the archaeologist, “there was an Abenaki settlement right here.”

Evidence. This was something they never sought in the movies. This archaeologist was not what I knew an archaeologist to be—not the rugged man in a pith helmet, but a skinny, middle-aged guy wearing a button-down shirt. His hair was thin and graying. He wore glasses. This was not an adventurer who showed up in villages and got into car-chases. He sported hiking boots and blue jeans. And there was no pick-ax, no shovel, no torch burning in an ancient tomb.

“Here’s the tool of the trade,” said the archaeologist, picking up a delicate paintbrush. “Some of these artifacts are so fragile, we have to brush the soil away with a brush. And before we can even think of removing them, we have to catalogue everything we find. We draw them out on a map, like a blueprint.”

Slow. Tedious. This was how ruins were exhumed. Nothing was found by accident, but by research. I saw the string tied around wooden pikes, how they formed grids above the nearby grass. The archaeology I knew from cartoons, from picture books, from action-movies—they all seemed so sloppy now. No secret passages were broken open. No booby traps threatened the archaeologist’s henchmen. And at the end, there were only these bits and pieces—shards of pottery, maybe an arrowhead. To find a fully preserved sheaf of wampum? Unthinkable. Priceless.

As we proceeded to the museum, I was crestfallen. I was 10 years old and this all felt like such drudgery. I felt the same way when my dream of becoming an architect fizzled. You know you’ll have to learn a lot of math, older people told me. I could never learn so much math. And now I would never be an archaeologist, either. I could never spend so much time poring over stray debris, the breakable chunks that somehow tell a story.

Later I’d learn that lots of boys had this epiphany. The story became a kind of joke. I wanted to be an archaeologist, but then I learned about the paintbrushes. Friends alighted at this remark: I know, right? I wanted to be one, too! And then I’m like, that’s all there is? It sounds so boring!

It took years to see the joys in such labor. It took working in cubicles and restaurant kitchens and ticket booths to realize how much I’d prefer working in the outdoors, on the sacred ground of an extinct tribe. In later years, I would give anything to pick up that paintbrush and catalogue my findings. A single ceramic chunk, unearthed through the millimeters of dust, might have made me palpitate.

By then, it was too late for archaeology. Pith helmet or paintbrush, I missed my chance. So I tried something different. If other people found these traces first, the least I could do was find them second, embellish, report, see them in new and refracting light.

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