Dung Beetle Stalking Prey: Chapter 11

[First post in this Novel: Dedication]
[Previous post in this Novel: Chapter 10]

Dr. Hamama had made it clear to Jesse that in order to assure significant and on-going funding, “wonderful discoveries” were expected to be made weekly. On the other hand, she assured Jesse that she would obtain as much funding as would be needed for the “Library of Hathor” work, and that he need not worry about raising funds for that. Given the political oversight and archaeo-political agenda that would surround the work at the library, the P.R.I.K. team would follow Dr. Hamamas’ research protocols – and not the standard operating procedures that western archaeological work was usually based on. Over the course of this season’s excavation she would be sending over a few of her “correctly trained” people to help with the fieldwork.

After receiving this news, the P.R.I.K.s’ dinner conversation that evening was very heated, even for academics. It was one thing for Her Very Specialness to take credit for all discoveries in the country; however, it was completely another thing to abandon well-established scientific methods of archaeological research to obtain archaeo-political sound bites. Collectively, without meaning to be insubordinate, the general consensus was that this was crossing a research values and ethics line. Not only would this hurt the individual researchers’ reputations, it would roll back the clock to the colonial rape-and-pillage type of archaeology that had not been openly practiced in Egypt for decades. Not to forget the loss of precious information by taking artifacts out of context before their provenance was properly recorded and studied.

Jesse, ever the pragmatic site director, assured everyone that in this instance, and this instance only, it would be insignificant. He felt that in the grand scheme of things it really did not matter because the most important information was contained in the scrolls and books. That being said, he assured everyone that due diligence regarding collection provenance would be conducted, albeit using non-standardized, but adequate protocols – just. Jesse stressed that given the nature of the site, the fine detail associated with context that might be lost in this case was of much less importance than in other types of sites.

Jesse informed the team that Archie had left with Dr. Hamama’s entourage to go to Cairo to oversee the ordering and packing of all the conservation equipment that would be needed, and to meet with Dr. Hamama’s staff to obtain additional detail on the innovative process that she was demanding. Archie would be returning with some top notch archaeological photography equipment that could take multiple pictures using the full spectrum of filters and lenses, to see what the eye can and can not see. In addition, Archie was returning with the new chief curator, Zahi Fathi of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, who would come for a few days to brief Virginie on filing protocols.

According to Jesse, during the taping, Dr. Hamama had proclaimed that the collection would ultimately reside in a full-scale replica of the Library of Hathor in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina science museum wing. Thus to reduce future problems with reconstruction and classification, Dr. Hamama felt that Dr. Fathi should visit the site as soon as possible. This last news brought nods of approval and acceptance of the inevitable.

Because of the significant number of people involved, and the need to do large transport runs, Dr. Hamama was going to donate a truck to the P.R.I.K. team. This last piece of news was greeted with what could almost be interpreted as cheers. Since the project’s inception, the P.R.I.K.s had had to make special arrangements to move anything that wouldn’t fit into the back seat of one of their three antiquated jeeps. The reasons the jeeps were still operable was that they were carefully sheltered during the harmattan sand storm season so that there were no negative weather conditions to corrode them, and also in no small measure thanks to the ingenuity and tenacity of Mahmoud – who truly was a jack of all trades and had a special talent and love of finding old car parts and sometimes even making them from various scraps of metal in his home-made forge.

Given the enormity of the task in the next few days, Jesse asked for volunteers from the other teams to help prep the library for the first onslaught of the press and curious tourists. In the end, after a perfunctory volley of back-and-forth, most of the team leads and their students agreed to help out. In truth, working on what would probably be the most important site in the world was an offer that few would have refused. The only exception, to no-one’s surprise, and everyone else’s relief, was Scott Boernwhore. Poop and Scoop bowed out on the grounds that he did not “…want to abuse taxpayer funds, in the form of his publicly funded research grant, by working on something that he, and his research grant, would not get credit for.” That the taxpayer would not care if he got credit or not was not brought up for debate.

Within hours of the filming, the area in and around the Hathor complex became a major hub of activity.

Her Very Specialness had dispatched a dozen additional military guards from Assiut to complement the two that had been posted at the library all year. While the P.R.I.K.s were uncomfortable being surrounded by men in khaki carrying machine guns, they all recognized the necessity. Achaeo-theft in Egypt was big business. It had been since antiquity, which is why the pharaohs were entombed in hidden chambers.

Clorice noted with pleasant surprise that one of the guards was Amides, Bishoy’s brother, whom she had met during her clandestine visit to Assiut a couple of weeks earlier. Amides gave Clorice a full wink and a charming lopsided grin when their eyes met in recognition.

While Dr. Hamama’s state-of-the-art photographic equipment would arrive shortly, it was decided that the first order of business was to conduct a quick back-of-the-envelope photo survey of the first room only in the library. Then the team would carefully remove the scrolls, books and other miscellaneous finds and debris from the floor in the first room, label and record them at the field house, and then pack them in the specially designed conservator crates that Archie would be bringing back from Cairo. Normally this expedient approach would only be considered in salvage archaeology, when a site was threatened with imminent destruction by bulldozers, making time of the essence. However, given that a hoard of photographers and journalists was expected, Virginie and Jesse decided that a small scale salvage approach in clearing up the library was appropriate as an uncluttered floor would reduce the risk of people stepping on, tripping over, or damaging the precious artifacts and destroying clues to interpreting the past. Clorice was to help Virginie with this work.

Archie was reportedly also going to obtain plexiglass sheets that could be put in front of the existing bookcases which were made out of mud brick attached to the walls and covered by mud plaster painted in various colors of oxides and crushed semi-precious stone such as malachite green and lapis lazuli blue. Virginie hypothesized that the colors may have possibly been related to an ancient cataloguing system. Although it would not reinforce the precarious shelves, the plexiglass would reduce the risk of damage due to carelessness.

Omar, Maxine and their students were to conduct a detailed archaeological and geoarchaeological survey of the Hathor complex. Oddly enough, while a very important task, the P.R.I.K.s had in the past done no more than a very cursory survey job. The detailed surveys had been put on the back burner once the most interesting parts of the site had been identified. This was in large part because of what the researchers had been interested in, and therefore sought and obtained funding for: exploring the parts of the site that interested them most, rather than doing the broad brush stroke basics. To date though, only the temple, the library and the burial grounds had been of any interest – not the entire complex. Now it absolutely had to be done, and at breakneck speed.

A few students were tasked with digitizing what was visible on the aerial photos and satellite images and inputting the data into a next generation multi-dimensional geographic information system. Maxine and her students would conduct a geophysical survey of the entire complex using non-destructive ground-penetrating radar to obtain images of the subsurface.

Omar and his students would lay out a grid over the entire site and conduct a field walk to look for artifacts or other indications on the surface. This walk would be rather like the kinds of evidence walks police might do in a homicide case, walking through fields, in a rough line only an arm’s length part from each other, looking for anything of interest. The police would be looking for scraps of clothes or cigarette butts, but the archaeologists would mainly be looking for potsherds or beads or anything old enough to be interesting.

Both the geophysical and field survey data would be interpreted, digitized and incorporated into separate layers into the geographic information system, along with high-resolution photographs taken from above in a low flying reconnaissance drone that had been repurposed after the war in Lybia. They were also acquiring Lidar images – laser interferometry topography maps capable of detecting as little as a centimetre difference in height. This information would then be incorporated into a large number of products, including: three-dimensional rotating animations of what the entire site would have looked like in the past; a suite a maps for promotional and scientific use; and interactive Tomb-Raider style computer and video games.

One of Omar’s students was sent to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to conduct a survey of existing literary and old survey information about the site specifically and Kharga generally – including ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and more modern sources such as Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Wright Gardner’s 1952 riveting classic Kharga Oasis in Prehistory. One of Virginie’s students who had experience in ethnographic fieldwork and spoke the local Western Egyptian Beja-Bedawi dialect would work with Ahmed, the P.R.I.K.s’ head field crewman for the Temple of Hathor Team, to collect any local lore about the site.

But the foreign archaeologists were not the only ones hard at work. Always the entrepreneurs, the P.R.I.K.s’ landlords and caretakers, Fatima and Mahmoud, were coordinating the building of a media house just outside the Temple complex. They rightly assumed that their foreign client base would grow with the discovery of the library, and that journalists, like the P.R.I.K. team, would need housing, a media center and local staff. In preparation for building construction, dozens of local fellahin, probably mostly Fatima and Mahmoud’s relatives, were hard at work hand making mud bricks. They were using the age old method of sifting mud through a mesh screen to eliminate any rocks, mixing the remaining mud, and adding straw with their bare feet until it thickened. Then they put the mud mixture into a wooden mold and packed it tightly to push out air bubbles and excess water. Finally, they would take the bricks out of the mold and let them dry in the Saharan sun for a few weeks. The ground was covered with drying bricks as far as the eye could see.

At the same time, Fatima and Mahmoud also coordinated a trip to Assiut to get truckloads of refreshments. One of their delightful dark-eyed nubile daughters was going to open up a drink, candy, toiletries and cigarette stand. How they managed to do all this, and at the same time take care of the existing P.R.I.K.s’ field camp needs, was mind-boggling. They really were time management gurus.

[Continue reading: Chapter 12]


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