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Entry #14 Archeological Dig week 2 in Phimai, Thailand

Week two

sunny 0 °F

Mon, Feb 27 – Day off – short entry follows

Slept in until 9:30

Inrternetted and a real cup of coffee - $2 total

No water in the shower – swam instead

Lunch – Phimai noodles

Reservations for after the placement

No room at the inn in Hua Hin, my favorite beach from former time in Thailand – Rethinking options.

Blogging all afternoon and I am caught up! YAAAAAAAH!!

Tues, Feb 28 – Day one of week 2

We added 4 new people this week, Alan and Pippa from Florida, Carl from Iowa and Maura from Connecticut. Three of the 4 have done archeological digs before, but Maura was new to it.

There are still loads of pots to retrieve, but it will be hard to use more than a few people at one time, as the gravesites are so close together. Erica, Helen and I were in the pit all day with various pots and our backs are feeling it. I have a feeling it is beneficial to be short in this industry. I was on my stomach for most of the day with my legs on one ledge, my body over a void and my head resting on the opposite ledge. There were many times when there just wasn’t any position you could get into that you could maintain for any length of time.

Over the grave.JPG

The old guard (last weeks group of 10) went back to what we had been doing when we finished last week. Pot #4 came up with not much trouble. Pot 5 was a huge mashed pot and added to the fact that Pot 6 was right behind it and wedged into the corner of the grave, it was not going to be an easy retrieval of either of them.

After much dirt moving and a little praying, Pot 6 emerged. Then the rest of my morning and most of the afternoon was spent undercutting Pot 5 in order that it could be lifted as a unit. With Charles’ help, Pot 5 emerged from the ground right after pm tea break.

Let me tell you about tea breaks. At 10:15 and 2:15, the bell rings and up we go for 15 minutes of rest, potty stop, water, sometimes cookies and always, hot tea. Believe it or not, hot tea in this climate is very refreshing; sometimes more so than cold water. In addition to the above-mentioned items, the little concession stand has items to buy. I always buy something to share and my current favorites are the sandwich butter/egg cookies with pineapple jam in the middle. Today, I also sampled purple/green/white spiral stick cookies (similar to the ones you might see at home in an ice cream dessert) They were slightly sweet and had some purple sweet stuff in the middle that looked like decorator icing.

I also bought a pat of sticky rice that had been made into a pancake and rice cakes with caramel sauce. These rice cakes are about ½ the width of ours in the US and the rice is considerably smaller in texture. Slightly sweet and very nice.

Other items I have bought or sampled include tamarinds in the shell, bean curd cake and this little rusk cake wrapped in paper that resembled our white bread but is denser and slightly sweet. All yummy.

No ice cream man today much to everyone’s disappointment. Hopefully, he is off restocking his cart with new flavors of us to enjoy the rest of the week.

The site is looking very different from 8 days ago. Today for the first time, you can enter the floor of the site without having to step up at all. Our first day last week, we had to go up a small ladder with three steps. One of the graves found last week has yielded incredibly beadwork that look like they were a beaded mesh similar to how chain mail might appear. This is new, as most of the other beads have either been random or in a line and apparently strung on a string.

Lunch fruit – Chom Poos! Also for breakfast. YYAAAHHH!

Tim, the grad student with size 14 shoes, will give a lecture tonight on spindle whorls. Karen and I have already heard the lecture as he gave us an impromptu discussion the day that I was cataloguing the box of finds.

Wed, Mar 1 - Ash Wednesday and we are still in the pit. Weather – overcast, breezy and cool – 75 degrees!

Pippa and I started back where we left off yesterday and I unearthed a complete and without-a-chip fluted pot. Less than 5% of the vessels come out of the ground whole and realizing the age and the amount of dirt and other stuff above them for 4000 years, it is a small wonder that any ceramic comes out whole.

whole pot.JPG

Our second location had nothing that was intact and we worked side by side all day and unearthed three large and badly squashed pots. At one point, I thought that we might not be the best work partners because we were having such a good time discussing our favorite books, I was not being very productive.

Excavating tools. You can tell the pros and the old hands at these digs. The pros can be spotted because they are walking around with clipboards and pencils and in the back pocket is the ever-present paint brush and personal trowel, some even have their names on the handles. The old hands among the volunteers arrive with personal kneepads or gardening pads to kneel or sit on while they work. As I mentioned before, my favorite tool is the bamboo stick with a point and allows you the clear dirt close to the item without a major chance of danger to the item. I can tell that volunteers with trowels, close to a delicate item probably bring fear to the hearts of the researchers. The item from everyday life that has been modified and is very helpful to me is a plastic pop bottle. It is sliced in the middle and the bottom half is used as a dustpan to collect loosened dust and dirt from around the area you are excavating. It is very flexible and able to collect dirt from small and cramped areas.

The people working around the skeletons and removing the bones and delicate artifacts also have dentist tools, small spatulas and the rubber bulbs that you use with babies to clear their noses. As they are working around the delicate areas, first they pick with the dentist tool, trowel gently and finally push the loosened dirt away with the bulb with puffs of air. Maybe some day, when I have more experience, they might let me gently work with the bones, under strict supervision of course.

Lunch fruit – tangerines

Still not sign of the ice cream men.

After work, I got off the transport in town and did a little shopping. I bought my favorite pickled mango and munched that on the way home. I also stopped at a stationary store and bought something that brought back many memories of my school days in Bangkok. In 4-6th grade, the coolest things that you could have in your pencil box (the ultimate of cool item to have) were brightly colored erasers. I found a whole bunch of them in the shop and they smelled just as I remembered them. I hope to go by my old school in Bangkok, but Annie tells me it has moved to the outskirts of town. I will see.

Dinner tonight was almost all seafood, which was not favored by all of the volunteers, but also pineapple and guava for dessert.

Because it was Pippa’s birthday, also for dessert was a lovely birthday cake bought by Diane in the market. The staff at the hotel counted all the occupied chairs and the 8 inch round cake was served to over 25 people.

Tessa gave us our evening lecture on stone adzes (rocks that are ground to form a sharp cutting surface and that were used as axes, hoes and other tools). Very thorough research and she hopes to finish it and present her paper in Australia by Christmas of this year.

Thurs, Mar 2 – The last of the shells – Still overcast and breezy.

If you remember from last week, I was working on cleaning shells that had formed a shroud over a specific burial. I did not want to leave with the job half done, so I asked Charles if I could finish the job for Sarah. I thought it would only take half a day, but it took until afternoon tea break and I only finished because Pippa assisted with the washing of the shells.

All during shell cleaning, Pippa, Myra, Onnolee and I exchanged books to be read. Pippa has chronicled books she has either read or listened to on tape for the last three years. We will spend some time together later and get all the titles written down.

Today is a day that we loose Tom from England who is searching for a topic for his PhD and is going to Borneo to check out some locations. I asked him to check in with the orangutans for me.

Lunch fruit – watermelon.

No sign of the ice cream man. Sigh!

In the afternoon, Team B went off site to explore Ban Prasat. Tomorrow afternoon, we may all go with Sarah to see other sites that she explored for her PhD work. I am not sure if I will go, it will depend on how the removal of pots of going.

I had a chance to speak to Helen, a PHD Student from Australia, for the last two days are we were working in close proximity, she with bone removal and I with pot removal. She, after 10 years of work, is pursuing her PhD and doing something she really enjoys instead of following the expected course and working. Hmmmm?

Just before we left today, inside the outer wall, a large jar was found. Charles assumes it will turn out to be another Neolithic infant burial. It is huge and has paintings on it.

burial jar.JPG

Charles is encouraging the crew to move quickly to remove the pots so that the site can be leveled. There are still 5 burial sites to be cleared and most of them have 15-20 pots each. Charles is very efficient when removing pots and I had a hard time keeping up with him. I sat behind him with all the labeled bags and he would call out a number and by the time I was handing him the bag, he was handing me the pot and indicating the next number. Finally, he had all the easy ones out (about 10 pots in less than 5 minutes) and started a big pot excavation for me to finish. I will continue with the big pot tomorrow first thing.

Current grave count is 470 with more projected for tomorrow, our second to the last day on the site. They say that there are usually very interesting finds the last day of the dig. I suspect it will be true of our visit to this site as well.

Anna was our evening speaker and she discussed her research on mortuary rituals for three sites in prehistoric Thailand. Absolutely fascinating to hear about all the patterns that appear depending on if the bones were in a coffin, wrapped or just put in the dirt. Who would have thought there was so much information on how a body was buried by simply looking at how the bones lay?

I realized today that I might not have very many photos of everyday life of Thailand. So much of what I see is expected or anticipated and therefore, doesn’t appear to be a photo subject until it is too far away. I will make more of an effort from here on. I am in Thailand until March 21, so should be able to expand my photo library before I go.

Fri, Mar 3 – Second to the last day at the site – temperature 80 and sunny.

The days have become routine and it feels good to be in a rhythm, just in time to end and move on again. I find I am sleeping very well, even though I am not being physical every day. I think it is a combination of the heat and the work, although, I must say that the weather has been atypically pleasant for Thailand.

As we loaded into the bus, one of the volunteers had a call from New York from her sister. We learned after we were at the site that her mother had passed away. While not unexpected, it was still a shock.

Am tasks included pulling pots from the ground and delivering them to Meph. We are coming down to the last burials, but also had the burial jar that was found late yesterday. As predicted, there was an infant buried in the jar.

There are less and less people in the square both volunteers and workers as we wind down.

After lunch, I visited the bone house, where Anna catalogues and records all the burials. It is a tiny house, absolutely stuffed with boxes from the burials from this year alone. Outside is a very friendly Thai dog that resembles my sister’s Thai dog, Deva. Very sweet and adores having her tummy rubbed.

Lunch fruit – tangerines

In the afternoon, I was not needed in the square, so I spent my time picking out pots for Meph.
It was going to be a short afternoon, as Sarah was taking us on another excursion. Team B went to the museum and the Prasat and Team A went to King Jayarman VII hospital (One of a network that he established between all the Khmer sites in Thailand and Cambodia) and the victory gate.

Grave count at the end of the day – 470.

After that, I did a little shopping including my last roti and a Thai/English Dictionary. Quick dip in the pool and then to dinner.

I sat next to Charles and told him that I might appear in the back of his classroom when I am NZ in April and May. He said that his vacation house might be available. Once I figure out my itinerary and I will have to email him and see if that can be worked out. How exciting!

The after dinner entertainment was a Discovery Channel DVD on the Great Wall of China, staring Charles.

Tomorrow will be a short day, mainly on the surface working on pots and cleaning the area and the final discussion from Charles on what the researchers accomplished this year. Then we will go back to the hotel to freshen up and then to the river for a final celebration of a job well done by all.

It is hard to believe that the two weeks is almost over.

Sat, Mar 4 – Last day – still new jobs to be done.

Before I left the room this morning, I packed up my blue earthwatch shirt for my friend who runs the concession stand at the site. She had expressed an interest in it during the first week, and I relayed to her that it would be hers, after I laundered it of course.

There were still six burials being lifted, but most of the volunteers helped Meph with the pot cleaning, digging, and piecing together operation. Volunteer Helen and I were in the pit, Helen on pots and I, at the request of Charles, was gently lifting beads and sequins off a skeleton. I borrowed Tim’s dentist’s tool and started at it. With the help of staff member Helen’s baby bulb, I blew dirt away from the beads and gently worked around them. There were only about 6 large ones, about the size of a grain of rice, and 4 appeared to be stuck solid. Tim came by after a while and confirmed that they were stuck. He brought staff member Helen over, and indeed they were stuck. I continued with as many of the sequins as I could, but many of them were very thin and stuck well to the ribs or bones. When I had done all I could, I called Charles over and he managed to loosen the rest of the big ones and some of the sequins.

After that I was assigned to the burial that was unearthed yesterday that we covered in what appeared to be maggots. What they really are were small hollow beads made of shell. There were also larger blue beads that were stone and then the ubiquitous sequins. The team of experts was lifting those beads off the skeleton, and I was given a bag of dirt at the head of the grave to shift and see if more beads would appear. So all morning, I worked with sieves and the bag of dirt and came up with a fair number of each of the beads, mainly the thin narrow cylinders.

Lunch fruit – pineapple.

After lunch, Charles took all the volunteers on a walk around the village and explained the various phases of the site that is in total, the size of 24 football fields. He explained how with aerial photos and visiting the areas, they determined were to begin digging. The team had asked the local people where they found burials when they dug wells, where potsherds or beads appeared after the rainy season and if anyone else had excavated the area. Fascinating and all the more so because of the weeks we had been at the site.

At the location where Charles indicated was the site where the villagers find the most carnelian beads, Gail bent down and picked up a bead. Sure enough, it was a Bronze Age bead unique to the early period. Many of us had been amazed at the quantity of sherds that appeared throughout the village and that people just walk past and ignore. Most of us were itching to take a least a little piece with us, but were strongly advised not to even consider it. The Thai government is very serious about removing Thai antiquities from Thailand and if found in your luggage… Definitely not worth the risk in my mind.


We headed back to the hotel early in order to clean up and get ready for the river cruise and final dinner. In the bus, there was a daily continuing discussion about the made up saga about some of the interesting people we lived with at the hotel for the last two weeks. There is one white man that we call the spy, mainly because he has suspicious behavior such as walking quickly by us and talking into his wallet. Many of the volunteers have drawn him into conversation and then compared stories, which don’t appear to match. To some people, he speaks with a British accent, others with an American accent. At times he talks about his wife, and other times he appears to have two girl friends. The best story was from Erica who said that he appeared in the lobby the other night and screamed at the desk staff that the handle had come off his wardrobe door. He had the door with him to show them the problem. We wonder if he is off his medication, in the witness protection program or on disability from the military. Gary decided he would approach him tonight and tell him that we know who he is, G said to throw the switch and that he was being reassigned to Burma. We will either go and retrieve Gary from the hospital, prison or the mortuary tomorrow.

Gary and Carl have also decided to try a fried scorpion each and Gail will take pictures. I will wait for the film.

The dinner event for the evening involved a cruise on a barge with drinks on the Mun River which was very nice. The highlight was going past the house that was sitting at a 45-degree angle to the river. Possible thoughts on how it got into that position included the stilts had rotted, it got stuck being lifted from the water and on to the land, or it had slide down the hill and stopped half way down. You can decide what you think the answer was.

House at an angle.JPG

Dinner was back on land at the Rin Moon restaurant. Very nice dishes including Phimai Noodles, which you have heard about before. Charles gave a wonderful thank you speech and Meph told us that 657 pots had been lifted, dug out, cleaned and reassembled by the volunteers this season, not including the ones the group finished today. I suspected the number would be closer to 700 pots when you add in the ones from today. As some of the group would be leaving at 7:00 am, Charles indicated that he would say goodbye at the dinner, as he would not be at the hotel that early.

I still can’t believe the time has gone so fast. The day after tomorrow, I will have been on the road for two months. It seems like a blink of an eye.

I suspected that this placement would be fun, but I had not idea how involved we would be with the site. We all feel pretty attached to it and I think that several of us are seriously considering coming back next year for the final season. From what I have heard from others who have done other archeological digs, this one was one of the most exciting mainly due to the quantity of finds and the varied things that volunteers do during the dig. While the hotel was not perfect, it is certainly more civilized that other digs that I have heard of, mainly considering you are excavating under a large tent and all the work areas are protected from the sun. At the end of his tour today, Charles asked us to imagine what it would be like to excavate under the blazing sun, which is more common. Even during the last two weeks, when the weather has been really quite good, it would have been miserable in the direct sun for more than 10 minutes.

I would encourage anyone who would like to do this type of volunteer work to seriously consider this Earthwatch placement next year, especially the last two-week session. The last placement tends to be the one where most of the finds are still visible and the staff is moving ahead with lots of excavations.

KUDOS to Charles Higham, Kaek, Wor, all the graduate students and the site workers from the village. They made us feel very welcome and were hugely patient with us, especially in our early days. Between my time in Peru, Easter Island and this site in Thailand, I would love to find some type of class or book that discussed early civilizations and what was happening on each continent when.

And I wonder what the volunteers will remember most of our experiences at Spa Ban Wat? The blue and sometimes green water in the pool? The sporadic hot showers and the brown water going down the drain after a hot day at the dig? Mr. Spy? Helicopter parenting? The clouds of dust from Mr. Nim’s commute to and from the site? The keys to all of our rooms left at the staircase for anyone to access them? Meph and her wonderful pots? Charles and his incredible patience and sense of humor?

I will remember what an interesting project it was, all the wonderful people I met and what fun it was to be back in Thailand.

Posted by ladyjanes 01:34 Archived in Thailand Tagged postcards

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Hey Jane,
I have been so crazy this past few months doing 3 shows at once and sometimes 4 that I missed reading your entries. It sounds so amazing. Hope it is turning out to be all that you wanted. Lorrin and I are going to Paris and Amsterdam May 12th - May 28th. My first vacation in a long time so I can't wait. When I get back I go right into rehearsals for The Full Monty...being brought back by popular demand for 8 lovely weeks. Same cast and they were a wonderful group so I am glad to be able to see them all again.
Stay well and love to you,

by Countess

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