When Clorice retuned to base camp, she was stunned to discover that Maxine Churcher, leader of the Dustbunny Team, was to be her roommate. Max was one of the greats in her area of expertise, and Clorice to be honest was a little in awe of her. As a university student in the 1970s, Max had wanted to be a geologist. Unfortunately during the early days of the Peace and Love Age, graduate school in this area was a domain basically closed to women in her native Rhodesia, as it was in most others countries as well. So as a compromise she completed her masters and doctorate degrees in African paleolithic archaeology.
During her early career she worked primarily in her native country, then moved on to Egypt when things started to become increasingly difficult for non-black African researchers in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. During her matriculation she became the world’s leading expert in what in the 1980s would become known as geoarchaeology, a multi-disciplinary approach using concepts and methods from Earth and biological sciences, physics and engineering to address archaeological research. While now officially retired, Max worked as an emeritus professor through her home base at the university in Alberta, where they still provided her with office and lab space, computer facilities and graduate students as long as she could get money to support them.
Max graciously agreed to let Clorice tag along with her and her team the next day. Prior to starting her own project, Clorice wanted to spend a day or two working with each of the research teams. This was an activity that Clorice always tried to engage in at the beginning of any field season as it provided solid bearings with regards to potential horizontal research opportunities, the intricacies of the teams dynamics, and, this time, potential insight that may be of use for her other job.
* * * * *
“Thanks for letting me tag along with you all day asking questions. It is so rare that I get the privilege to really stretch my brain muscles!” said Clorice.
“Let me see if I got this right in broad stokes – without going into the nitty-gritty: first, current through pharaonic Kharga and Dakhleh oasis populations are and were associated mostly with artesian wells; second, the further you go out into the desert from the center of the oasis, the more ephemeral playa lake and wadi deposits dot the landscape – these are associated with the early Holocene Wet Period, and often have neolithic circle-hut villages and cave drawings depicting fauna such as giraffes and ostriches suggesting African savanna-like conditions.
Max nodded for Clorice to continue.
“Next, you encounter dessicated red rain and lake deposits which are associated with late-middle stone age archaeological sites, similar to those in modern day Iraq; then further away from the epicenter of the oasis’ freshwater springs, there are calcarious spring mounds and lake deposits associated with early-middle stone age sites; and, finally, the last area that has been studied to date contains iron rich ferruginous spring mounds which pumped artesian water into three now dried up lakes which are associated with bones from African savannah species such as hippos, zebra, horse, giant turtle, an extinct form of buffalo and middle stone age artifacts which are believed to be archaic homo sapiens sites from around 200,000 years ago. And, although Acheulian hand axes associated with homo erectus sites have been reported, no undisturbed site has yet been found.
“Also around 200,000 years ago a huge and very deep freshwater lake formed in the oasis depression. The area around the lakes was attractive to animals and thus proto-human hunters. So you and your team basically look for the lake’s “bathtub rings” along the plateau’s escarpment to search for sites.” Clorice concluded.
“Not bad for a novice!” chuckled Max, “But today, we will go hunting for much older material – dinosaur-aged fossils.”
Clorice, Maxine and two of her graduate students got into the jeep and drove up the escarpment onto the Libyan Plateau. They followed the still very visible tracts left by Ralph Bagnold, who in 1929-1930 drove his modified Model T Ford through the desert in search of Zerzura – the Lost Oasis of the Little Birds. Neither Bagnold, desert sand scientist and founder and first commander of the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group during World War II, nor any others in the infamous Zerzura Club members such as Rupert Harding Newman and the Nazi spy László (Ladislaus) Almásy ever did find the elusive oasis first mentioned in the historical writings from the scribes of an emir in Benghazi, Libya in 1481. While unsuccessful in their quest, these early desert expeditions opened up the Western Desert to future generations of desert exploration and research and spawned countless loosely adapted cinematic tales such as The English Patient.
Max drove to an area that was covered in a sandless pearly light green, very friable, sedimentary rock. She indicated that this bedform was deposited when the area had been inhabited by the littoral and marine reptiles and fish of the late Cretaceous Tethyean Seaway. She said she expected this paleontological site to be loaded with aquatic dinosaur bones and shark teeth. True to her prediction, almost right away the crew spotted a massive bone bed. The bones, while lithified, were the color of dull ivory and stood in stark contrast to the shiny silver green marine sediments. The crew collected dozens of bags of what Maxine believed was perhaps a single mosasaur. Based on a cervical vertebra bone, the team guessed that it had been a very big one – perhaps as large as 15 meters long.
Dashing behind a wind-blasted, tear-dropped shaped bedrock yardang for a pee-pee break, Clorice spotted the scutes of a huge sea turtle. After much excited shouting and bagging, she was the toast of the morning – having found the first almost intact Archelon carapice in the region! Clorice, high on the vapid vapors of arrogant serendipity, felt for a brief moment in time that she could do anything.
After scarfing back a rather revolting lunch of processed orange coloured cheese product from a can smeared onto the local leavened bread that was chock-full of sand, dried dates that looked like and had the consistency of fossilized fecal pellets, topped off with beyond-tepid water from a plastic bottle that Clorice knew without a doubt would disrupt her endocrine system with time, the team regrouped and got back into the van to move onto the next site.
Content after the morning hunt, Clorice was not prepared for the next site. As the team scrambled out of the jeep they were faced with an area void of any topography. As far as the eye could see, the flat deflated landscape was completely covered by a stony desert pavement composed of closely packed pebbles and cobbles. Many of the pavement rocks had been shaped by a constant wind for perhaps millions of years into generally triangular shaped ventifacts all pointing in generally the same direction. What made the landscape even stranger was that everything was covered with a shiny, black manganese oxide and clay-based desert varnish fixed onto the exposed surfaces by microbial activity and time. A timeless surreal goth landscape under the Saharan sun.
Max told the team that this site was reputed to be a great spot for fossil shark and stingray teeth. The team broke up and each walked in a different direction to get maximum spatial coverage. After about an hour of looking without success, Clorice looked up and saw Max and her students watching her with mildly bemused looks on their faces.
Clorice walked to where they were all sitting and said, “I can’t seen to be able to find any teeth or bones – the site must not have any.”
“You are not looking at the world in the right way. Try again.” Max replied.
Clorice began searching again, her fair skin turning from a charming pink to an angry shade of red under the scorching and relentless Saharan sun. After half an hour she went back to the team who continued to look at her, bearing expressions of wry amusement.
“Max, this site is void of faunal material.” Clorice said with a very slight unbecoming whine in her voice and drank a litre of Baraka water in one long gulp.
Once again, Max replied, “You are not looking at the world in the right way. Try again.”
For the third time Clorice set out in search of the elusive skeletal material. No luck. Third time not the charm.
“Max, I am so sorry, I simply cannot find anything.” Clorice said, her late morning arrogance replaced with complete humility.
Max bent over, placed her hands onto the desert varnish, picked up two handfuls of rocks, let the sand fall through them and told Clorice to look closely. There were no rocks in her hands, they were all blackened manganese-coated teeth and bones! In an instant Clorice realized that she had been looking for white bones and teeth such as they had found at the other site. As she had a wrong preconceived notion of what to look for, she had failed to see what was right before her eyes. She was humbled, and surprised at the gift that Max had just given her.
On the ride back to the site the team had a long discussion about how preconceptions could be valuable timesavers when they were right, but could completely prevent seeing what is actually there when wrong.
[Continue reading: Chapter 5.4]