Friday, March 26, 2010

The Indus Valley Debate: Language, Script, Identity, Complexity

Recently a friend of mine pointed me to an article from The Independent on The Indus Valley Civilization, that posed the question: Was the Indus script really a script, or was it just a symbol system? Hidden within this question are several others: Were the Indus people capable of something as complex as a script? What language did they speak and/or write? and Who were they?

First, some background. The Indus Valley Civilization was centered on the Indus river and grew and flourished between 3300 B.C.E and 1300 B.C.E. It's exact boundaries are not known, but the sites where the Indus script are found are spread all over Pakistan, Western India, with some additional sites in Oman, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

It is considered by most scholars to be one of the major early "primary" states, i.e. it developed independently of influence from the outside. It was an urban civilization, with many large cities, with dense populations, neighborhoods, urban planning, and water and waste management. It also had many smaller towns and villages, mostly agricultural, some engaged in different specialized economic activities, such as coastal fishing villages, and sites with an almost industrial scale of shell bangle production.

So who were the Indus Valley people? Was their script a script or a symbol system?

A Steatite Seal with Indus Script and the Image of a Unicorn.

The article starts off by first quoting a local tour guide saying he's not sure the people of Harappa are his ancestors, because they had such complex technology. Then the article goes on to create a completely false divide between scholars in the west, and scholars in India and Pakistan. According to the author, Andrew Buncombe:
Many experts in south Asia and elsewhere believe that symbols and marks inscribed on seals and other artefacts found here represent an as yet undeciphered language. Arguing it may be the predecessor of one of several contemporary south Asian argots, these experts say it is proof of a literate Indian society that existed more than 4,000 years ago.

But other experts based in the West say although the symbols may contain information, they are not a true language. They claim the judgement of their counterparts in south Asia may be swayed by regional nationalism.
This ethnic/racial divide between people who claim it is a script and people who claim it isn't is total bull****. Pardon my French. There are plenty of scholars in the "west" who have written extensively about the Indus script as a script - not a symbol system. Examples among these are Asko Parpola - a Finnish professor of Indology at the University of Helsinki, and J. Mark Kenoyer - professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison (and my academic advisor).

A variety of people over the years have argued that the Indus script is really a symbol system, and not a real script. Their reasons for this usually stem from the lack of (preserved or discovered) long inscriptions. The vast majority of inscriptions come on Indus seals, with some on pottery, inscribed on shell and terracotta bangles etc. Wherever they are found, they tend to be just 6-10 letters or symbols long. This is the main reason why it has not yet been deciphered. As one of my professors put it, for the Indus Script, all we have is the white pages in the phone book. For those who do believe that these symbols are letters and not pictographs, it is argued that the seals, and other short inscriptions are the names of people and places, probably with honorifics. There may have been inscriptions or texts on paper, bark, papyrus, wood or cloth, all things that are not preserved today. We will probably never know if there were or not.

And that is the real problem with the debate. The answer is we really don't know for sure. We can take the data that we have, and draw inferences and interpretations from it. We know these letters/symbols are standardized, that there are patterns in which ones repeat, and in what order, that they are found on objects that we would consider to most probably have belonged to individuals, and not groups. There is also an inscription, one that was inlaid in wood on a sign board near the gateway to the city of Dholavira. The signboard had fallen, the wood disintegrated over time, but the inlay lay as it had fallen, flat on the ground, buried for thousands of years. We can make an inference, a judgement, based on the context of the inscription, it's placement, location, size etc., that it probably said "Dholavira" or maybe "Welcome to Dholavira". Without decipherment we can't really know for sure.

Aside from the short length of inscriptions, what has prevented any really conclusive and convincing decipherment of the Indus script is the fact that we don't know what languages people were speaking. Note the use of the plural: Languages. That's a huge problem, in a civilization as large and complex as the Indus Valley was, with sites spread across a huge area of mostly Pakistan and India, but also as I mentioned with sites showing presence in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Oman, we should not assume that everyone was speaking the same language. They probably were not. There were probably people from diverse backgrounds, speaking different languages, who came to trade, who may have used Indus styles of clothing, ornaments, and other markers of identity (or not), but still spoken different languages, perhaps their "mother-tongue" as well as whatever language was the lingua franca of the Indus Valley, the language people had in common.

It is really only modern identity politics that makes the language question matter. Modern South Asia has hundreds of languages, and most people speak more than one. Battles for identity are fought over language today, and the supposed "Aryan Invasion" that brought Indo-European languages to the subcontinent is an ancient sort of incarnation of the concept that people with a different language and identity came to India and took over. The Aryan Invasion Theory has been thoroughly debunked, but the modern implications of who the Indus Valley people were, are still at issue.

The people of modern Pakistan (and India) should be able to claim that the inhabitants of these amazing sites, with all their amazing technological achievements, are their direct ancestors. That this heritage is their heritage, and not somebody else's . So when someone comes along claiming that the Indus Valley script isn't a script, or that it was used to write a Dravidian-family language instead of an Indo-European one, or some other lost language, it is an insult to the people of modern India and Pakistan.

Because the inscriptions are so short, and because they were most likely using the script to write in more than one language, (the same way the roman script - that I'm using now can be used to write French and Spanish and Italian, among others) we can't really say for sure.

The argument that their civilization was complex, and therefore they must have had writing, is sort of a fallacy, though I can see why people would use it. There is no reason necessarily that a complex society must have had a complex writing system. It just so happens that, as far as we can tell, the Indus script has all the features of a writing system, and not a pictographic or symbol system. The same debate was waged about Egyptian hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered, which allowed the decipherment of hieroglyphics as a script, and not a bunch of symbols (bird, wheat, pot, man, fish, are all letters representing sounds like an alphabet, not symbolic representations of birds, wheat, pots, men, or fish).

So the truth is, we can't really be sure. The Indus script displays all the features of a writing system, (Steven Farmer is really, really wrong about this), but we won't know for sure until it's deciphered, and we can't decipher it until we know what languages they were writing, and which language was being written in a particular inscription. We probably can't know most of those things, unless we find longer inscriptions, or the Indus Valley equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.

Parpola (the Finnish Indologist) and Iravatham Mahadevan (an Indian epigraphist) have both argued that the script was used to write a Dravidian language. Neither of them have yet come up with a conclusive decipherment, but even if they (or someone else) someday is able to prove that the Indus Script was used to write a Dravidian language, this does not mean that the people of the Indus Valley are not the ancestors of modern Pakistan and India, who speak Indo-European languages.

Language and identity are one thing, and genetics another. A good example of this is the diversity of languages that was spoken in France before the standardization of Modern French. The people are the same, but over a number of generations they stopped speaking the languages they used to speak, and started speaking standard French. People may have spoken a Dravidian language (or another language which is lost today), but that doesn't change the fact that there is strong genetic continuity between the people of the Indus Valley Civilization and the modern inhabitants of Pakistan and Northwestern India.

Disclaimer: I'm not a specialist in Indus Valley archaeology. But I am an archaeologist and I have read a lot about this topic. This is my commentary on the subject, not an academic paper -- I'm not citing every statement I make. I probably should, but I don't have time. If you're really interested you can go track down publications by J. Mark Kenoyer, Gregory Possehl, Rita Wright, and many more. For more information check out


Recently The Hindu newspaper published an interview with Asko Parpola. This is some of what he had to say:
The Hindu: There is some criticism that the Indus script is not a writing system.

Parpola: I do not agree [with that]. All those features of the Indus script which have been mentioned as proof for its not being a writing system, characterise also the Egyptian hieroglyphic script during its first 600 years of existence. For detailed counterarguments, see my papers at the website

The Hindu: If it is a writing system, what reasons do you adduce for it?

Parpola: The script is highly standardised; the signs are as a rule written in regular lines; there are hundreds of sign sequences which recur in the same order, often at many different sites; the preserved texts are mostly seal stones, and seals in other cultures usually have writing recording the name or title of the seal owner; and the Indus people were acquainted with cuneiform writing through their trade contacts with Mesopotamia.

So there!!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Fight for Equality Goes On

I used to think Feminism was finished. That we were done with it. Not because it was irrelevant, but because I thought it had achieved its purpose, and was no longer really necessary. I was of this opinion by about age 15, when in high school, in Berkeley, California, as far as I could tell, women were equal to men, boys to girls. Pretty much every adult woman I knew had a career, had achieved as much if not more than some of the adult men I knew. Kids in school seemed equal, and so through the lens of that very limited (and perhaps rose-tinted) glass, it seemed to me feminism was no longer needed.

I was aware of feminism at the age of 15, because my mother was a feminist scholar and writer, someone who thought about and had written about gendered inequalities for most of her adult life. But at that point in my own life, I just didn't see the point. Why make such a big deal? Women were feminists, they had fought for equality, for their right to vote, to own property, to make decisions about their own bodies and health. Women had fought, and won. Or at least so it seemed to me.

It took me a long time to realize that although this might be true, in limited contexts, severe inequalities still exist for women in many other places. Of course by college I had heard of the Taliban, and of various other forms of discrimination in America and around the world. But I had never really confronted it face to face. I don't think it really hit home until I came to India for the first time in 2001. By that time I had read enough anthropology about India, and Indian culture and society to be at least somewhat prepared for the gender bias that permeates most of Indian society. Here the bias against women persists across boundaries of language, religion, social status, across pretty much every barrier that divides Indian society.

I don't want to reiterate a large body of academic (and non-academic) work on gender relations, roles, and inequalities in South Asia. For those that are interested, I'll put a few suggested readings at the bottom of this post.

Women's education and literacy still lag behind men. Women, even Ph.D. educated ones, are frequently expected to give up careers in order to marry and have children. The feminine role of wife and mother is one where frequently little compromise is allowed. I don't want to paint an entirely dire picture. These things are changing somewhat, and bit by bit, young women are being allowed (the key word: allowed) to pursue both a career and motherhood. This is not made easy, since facilities like daytime and after school child care are extraordinarily hard to find. Women may sometimes be far more educated than their husbands, with career and earning prospects higher than their husbands, but family and culture dictate that she should stay home, and the husband work or pursue his goals. I had this discussion just the other day with an educated and intelligent woman, married into an especially conservative household here in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. She told me her in-laws (with whom she now lives in a joint family) don't allow her to sit on chairs. Men sit on chairs, and women are expected to sit on the floor. She works at a shop which is owned and managed by her husband's family. She isn't allowed to pursue a real career based on what she studied. She is not allowed to leave the house by herself, without a male relative as a chaperon.

In the university where I am conducting my research, there are many young women students. But only one woman in the department faculty. Most of the students will never get the chance to pursue archaeology as a career.

Women are also, to varying extents, viewed as sexual objects, and not as equals and human beings. They are subject to harassment in public spaces: groping, grabbing, lewd comments. This is horrifyingly and surprisingly common. It varies to some extent from North to South, with less harassment in South India than the North, but still is present everywhere. This is not even to mention the frequency of rape, domestic abuse, and more serious forms of sexual abuse.

Indian women are not the only victims of this harassment. All women are subjected to it. I have personally been groped, had my breast grabbed, been cat-called, whistled at, had men expose their genitals to me, listened to innumerable inappropriate comments, attempts to kiss me, solicit me, and 'seduce' me. I have heard stories told by women whose experiences were worse than that.

I guess if you've been reading this blog up until now, maybe you'll realize where this post is going. Recently I started an organization: IAWAWSA, the International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia. In my last post on the subject, I talked a bit about the goals of the organization, but didn't go into much detail as to why I decided to start it. The above issues in contemporary Indian society affect both Indian women and foreigners like myself. I wanted to start an organization to support women, and their career goals, to support research conducted by women, and to bridge the gap between different nationalities, to talk about the issues of gender bias that we all have in common.

It turns out there is still a need for feminism, for empowerment. Still a need for equality.

So now that I've talked about some of the issues and challenges that women still face in India, in the realm of equality, rights and freedoms, I want to address some points about what I want IAWAWSA to become.

The gender bias that exists in India is systemic. It is pretty much across-the-board. And if it is going to change, it needs to be confronted and challenged from all possible angles. I did not start an organization to give micro-finance loans to women-run businesses (though if you want to do that I recommend, and I don't belong to an NGO. There are plenty of those. I started an organization that I hope will help the people I know, women archaeologists, and simultaneously help further research in subjects I think are important.

Ultimately I do hope to be able to offer funding, scholarships and grants to women to do research and pursue their careers. But at the moment we are an organization that offers a less material form of support. We can offer the support and encouragement to each other as peers, and as mentors. We can offer the support of opportunities to learn, opportunities to do fieldwork, opportunities to conduct research. Until we have the funding to offer financial support, we will conduct conferences, seminars, and have meetings to get to know each other. We can develop more specific initiatives as we go along and gain in membership.

This brings me to my last conundrum. I started this organization with the express and specific purpose of helping women in a struggle for equality. The struggle is waged at both the level of colleges and universities, but also, and most importantly in the wider social context. I want to support women. I want to empower women. I want to have an organization FOR women. But the "for" does not necessarily imply that it is exclusively made up of women.

Exclusion based on gender is part of the problem. Excluding women from joining groups, being able to participate in a wide variety of activities a huge part of the problem. To exclude men would not solve anything. It would, it seems to me, just strengthen the divide between men and women, and create an atmosphere of hostility, rather than cooperation.

Civil rights for African Americans in the US were not won by organizations that discriminated against whites because they were not part of the category those organizations were created to help. A gay rights group is still a gay rights group, even if straight people join. And a group like IAWAWSA is still a group to support and empower women, even if men join.

In fact we need men to join. We need men to understand the problem. If the society as a whole is going to change, as it needs to for women to become equals, the change has to come from everyone. Women alone can't change the system. Not only would it be hypocritical to exclude men based on their gender, it would be counter-productive to our overall goal.

It has recently been suggested to me that if men are allowed join IAWAWSA that would change the nature of the organization. That would make it an organization FOR everyone. It would change everything. I strongly disagree . The stated purpose, the raison d'ĂȘtre of the organization, to support and empower women in the profession of archaeology, and it need not change if men are members. To the contrary, I think that male membership will strengthen the organization, and demonstrate that we are all equals.

I don't really expect many men to join IAWAWSA, but if they want to, if they want to support the cause of equality, and empower women to pursue careers and research, then I think that's wonderful. It gives me hope that more men will come to see the value and importance of equality. The sooner that happens the sooner the system will change.

I am curious though how you, my readers, feel about this issue: so I have a short poll here to find out what you all think.

Suggested (and very selected) readings:

Bumiller, Elizabeth (1990) May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons. New York: Random House Books.

Jeffrey, Patricia (1979, 2000 reprint) Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah. Delhi: Manohar.

Desai, Neera and Maithreyi Krishnaraj (2004) An Overview of the Status of Women in India. In: M. Mohanty (ed.), Caste, Class, Gender: Readings in Indian Government and Politics (pp. 296-319). London: Sage Publications.

A Day in the Life

I am an archaeologist. I love that I get to say this whenever anyone asks the inevitable question, "What do you do?" The inevitable response: "Oh! I always wanted to be an archaeologist." Which leads me to ask them, "So why aren't you?" The answers to that one vary from, "my parents never would have supported that", to "well I discovered I wanted to be a ______ more", but most commonly, "well i never thought you could really make a career out of it". To which my answer is usually (silently), "It's not that hard!".

In any case, the profession of archaeology has a sort of mythos amongst the general populace. The stereotype is somewhere between Indiana Jones (rugged, outdoorsy, unshaven, and adventurous) to Lara Croft (sexy, rugged, outdoorsy, adventurous, and um... shaved?) In any case, whatever our use of razors, we are apparently either hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine, and we prefer the jungle to the library. The latter is probably true, but the former not so much.

Whatever the gender, the other representation that the public has of archaeology is through extraordinarily dry and boring TV shows on PBS, Nova, and the History Channel. The actual work of what it means to be an archaeologist, what it is really like, is rarely accurately represented in the media. So I guess I've decided to take it upon myself to try to change that.

So what is a day in the life of an archaeologist like?

Well, the true answer is that there is no typical day. And that is probably the best part. Even within a single profession, we wear many hats, and routines change frequently, moving across the globe in many different settings. On one day, you might find me excavating at a site somewhere in India, and on another day find me in a library, a university classroom, a lab, walking across a landscape, or staring at the most minute aspects of an object, like a bead drill hole, using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM).

The truth is that aside from the manner in which most archaeologists divide their time between teaching and research, there are many, many different things that constitute doing archaeological research. To start with, I'll outline a day in the field, excavating, since that's where I was most recently, and that may be the most fun part of the job. But keep in mind that the amount of time spent excavating is frequently a rather small percentage of an archaeologists time. Out of a year, most archaeologists are lucky to spend 2 months in the field excavating, and even that is limited by funding, research permits, and other constraints. With that in mind, here we go, down the rabbit hole, a typical day in the field:

5:45 am - Wake up. It's still dark outside. I have set at least two alarms to make sure I drag my sorry, exhausted, carcass out of bed. I am not a morning person, but to dig, it's worth my while to wake up. It's not uncommon for me to form some expletive, out loud, or in my head, as my first waking thought. "****. I have to get up. ****. Oh, but I get to dig!" And I hop out of bed.

6:00 am - Get dressed. Field clothes: usually some sort of REI cargo pants, many pockets, hopefully vented for air circulation, and a cotton shirt. Applying gobs of SPF 50 waterproof sunblock. Applying some sort of bug repellent.

6:15 am - Get packed for field. Backpack must contain: Trowel, notebook, clip board with necessary recording forms, pencils, measuring tapes, line level, plumb bob, cloth and plastic bags to collect artifacts, sharpies to write on said bags. Also need four liters of water, extra sun screen, extra bug spray, first aid kit.

6:30 am - Departure. On my most recent field project, we stayed in the rather luxurious accommodations of a hotel. This isn't always the case, but it certainly is nice. We'd hit the road by 6:30, stopping on the edge of town for breakfast, on the way to the site.

8:00 am - Arrive. Start digging. Well, actually, start making notes. Making notes, recording observations, taking measurements, and writing down every possible piece of information is the most important part of digging. We don't just dig things up out of holes in the ground to admire them aesthetically. The artifacts, whether they are pottery, animal bones, beads, charred seeds or wood, stone tools, are meaningless without context. Without understanding where an object comes from, it is essentially meaningless.

So for the sake of argument, I'll just say we're starting to excavate a new "level". What is a "level", you might ask. A level is an volume of dirt, which is a layer of soil, as it was originally deposited there, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

At Kadebakele, the site where I was recently working, our units were 2x2 meters square, though the area being excavated might combine multiple 2x2 meter units, up to 4x4 or 4x6 meters together. These areas were selected because they represent different parts of the site, areas where different activities were occurring. Because people did things differently in different areas, there are different layers of soil in each place. Our job is to understand what was going on in an area at a particular time, and that means taking out a layer of soil which is horizontal, which was deposited as the result of some activity in the past.

Because we dig deeper, and deeper, and as we dig, we remove the dirt above, in effect destroying it, we must record the exact position and relationship of objects in a layer, (or level). To do this we have a piece of paper called a "Level Form". A level form helps us keep track of all the relevant information. For instance, how deep were we when the level started.

To measure this, we have set up something called a "datum", a point for which the exact elevation (in meters above sea level) is known. From the main datum, we then set up a point near each trench, called the "sub-datum" to measure the depth of things within that trench. We set up the sub-data (plural of sub-datum) because sometimes the trench is a long way away from the main datum, and because we can. Once we know the elevation of the sub-datum relative to the main datum, we can also know the elevation of everything inside the trench.

Because dirt accumulates over time, in layers, the layers on top are the most recent, and the layers on the bottom are the oldest. This is the law of superposition. Things frequently don't work out as neatly as this, but for the sake of argument let's just pretend that today they are. That means that identifying the layers, as they were deposited, and digging each one up separately is the most important thing we can do, in order to understand what was going on in the period in which that dirt was deposited.

So the top of the form. We write down the starting depths of our level. We use the metric system, because well, it makes sense. We write down 5 different depths, each of the four corners of the square unit, and the center. We do this because though things are deposited in layers, those layers aren't always exactly flat. Sometimes they slope down, or make a hump up, or do a million other things.

We then record things about the soil itself. What kind of soil is it? Is it sandy? Is it silty? What color is it? We use the Munsell soil color chart as a way of specifically identifying the color so that it can be compared later. "Brown" isn't a very useful or descriptive term. We also describe how compact the soil is, it's texture, and how densely filled with artifacts it is.

We start digging. We look for changes in the above mentioned aspects of the soil. We want to take out all the dirt that is the same together. We want to leave dirt that is different for the next level, or if it's a smaller area than the whole unit, like a pit, we will call it a "feature".

I scrape the dirt with my trowel. Is the dirt the same color as it was above? Is it the same texture, the same compactness? Any sort of change might be grounds to stop excavating this level, and start a new one. Everything artifactual, mainly pottery, animal bone, charcoal, beads, bangles, assorted other objects of human manufacture, is placed in some sort of bag and container, and labeled with the information about it's origin. It is labeled according to the designation of the site, the trench, the unit, the level, the depths, the type of contents, the date and the people excavating it.

These objects will be analyzed later. This is one of the other ways in which I (and many other archaeologists) actually spend a lot of my time. It's not enough to dig up a bunch of stuff. In order to really understand it, the people who made it, what life was like at that time, we have to employ many different methods to analyze these different kinds of artifacts. This is food for future blog posts.

In any case, the principle is, if the dirt is different, it may belong to a different time period, and the objects found inside should be kept separate. They can always be combined later, if it is decided that two separate levels really belong to the same time. But this determination is left until later when other data, like radiocarbon dates, can be employed to help determine whether or not these differently colored or textured deposits of dirt are different or not.

We dig more. All of the dirt that comes out of the unit is put through a metal screen, of at least 1/8th of an inch mesh. This helps us catch all the small things, that would almost certainly be missed if we just had to go by eye. Everything is important. Everything is data. For instance we will collect the animal bones, and they will be identified later to help understand what people were eating, and how their diet and habits changed over time. If we didn't use the screen, if we didn't collect the small bones, we'd have a very biased perspective. It would appear that people ate mostly large mammals, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and maybe wild animals like deer. With the bones we collect from the screens, we find that people were also eating small birds, small mammals, and fish.

We put these different artifact categories into different bags. We label the bags carefully. We keep track of how many bags there are, by writing that information on the form. We also collect items like charcoal, and measure the exact coordinates of that charcoal, in order to get the kinds of radiocarbon dates I mentioned before. Ideally we'd like to have a date for each layer that we excavate, so that we can see the full sequence of dates and understand the deposition of the layers at the site.

Still digging. I notice that the soil is becoming more compact. It's also a different color. I'm coming to the end of my level. I remove all the dirt from above this change in the soil, and call that the end of the level. We record the ending depths, four corners and the center. We make more notes about the contents of the level. We draw a map (in plan view) of what the bottom of the level looks like. Is there a house? are there stones making up the wall of a structure, is there a pit? These kinds of things have to be mapped, because they will be removed and destroyed in digging up the next level.

If there is something like the outlines of a structure visible in the holes where wooden posts once stood, or in the stone foundations, this is important. We want to try to figure out what kind of structure it was, and if possible excavate the material inside the structure as separate from the outside. This will help us understand what kinds of activities took place inside the structure, and what kinds of activities went on outside. We may not be able to tell if something is a house, or some other structure until later, when we do analyze the contents.

In this system of excavation and recording, something like a structure becomes a 'feature'. It gets a separate kind of recording form, and it will be excavated so that we can see what's going on inside it, versus outside.

What I am describing is a very oversimplified version of how these things usually go, but it's meant to help you non-archaeologists understand. So I hope my fellow archaeologists will stop rolling their eyes now at the over-simplification, and let me go on.

In the case of one of the trenches I was recently supervising in excavation, the major 'feature' of the trench was a large pit. Actually two large pits, to be exact. Pits are tricky to understand because they get filled up with dirt, but their filling-up is usually un-related to the reason why they were dug in the first place. As far as we archaeologists can understand, people most frequently dug pits for storage. They needed a place to put things, food, or other important stuff, and without cabinets and shelves, and tupperware containers, the easiest place to put things was in a pit in the ground. But then most pits don't fill up with the sorts of things people actually wanted to store. Most of the time it would appear people took out their food or clothes, or whatever they were storing, and filled the pit up with other dirt that wasn't important. Sometimes they may have filled in the pits on purpose, and other times they may have been left open and un-used, and filled up over time, rather unintentionally.

So I finished excavating my first level. At the bottom of this level I have noticed two different kinds of soils, not just one. Around three edges of my square 2x2 meter unit, I found a mud-plaster surface, a surface someone prepared intentionally, perhaps as part of a house or courtyard. This surface is very compact, and it's light colored. But the surface doesn't cover the whole unit. There is a giant pit. The soil inside the pit is much looser, and darker brown. It's also much more full of artifacts. In other words, it's full of garbage.

In this case, the pit is identified as a 'feature'. It gets excavated separately. It will also get excavated first, because, by definition the pit is a later intrusion into the surface which it is dug into. The surface had to be there first, in order to have the pit dug into it. We will try to excavate out the contents of the pit before excavating the material around it, so that we can also avoid mixing the material from these different time periods.

Even within the pit, we try to dig out different layers of the dirt inside the pit separately. Among the most important English phrases the Kannada-speaking villagers who work with us have learned is: "separate separate", right after "different different".

Oops I left out lunch. Oh well. We usually stop for lunch around 12:30 or 1:00pm. We eat a picnic lunch of plain and masala buns, with fresh veggies like cucumber, tomato, and onion, and an occasional hard boiled egg. We have additional snacks like (the eponymous) tasty nuts, dried fruit, and a box of apple juice. Reapply sunscreen. Especially those as pale as myself.

4:00pm - Quitting time. Pack everything up. Carry back to the village all buckets, tools, etc. More digging will have to wait 'til tomorrow.

4:30pm - Back to the hotel. Long ride home. The scenery is beautiful. At least on the main road, the traffic can be atrocious. Hopefully we'll be home in an hour. Sometimes it takes as long as two.

6:30pm - Lab work time. Now that we're back at the hotel, and (hopefully) freshened up, it's time to do all the work on the computers to record all the key information from the day. Primarily this involves checking in all the bags of artifacts that we collected, and entering them into the database. Once they have been entered, the pottery can go back to the village where some of the local women are employed to wash the dirt off it, so that we can study it more easily later. The rest of the things get sorted by categories and locations, and put in to various trunks and boxes for later analysis.

7:30pm - Dinner. Meet the crew and go out for some grub. Exhausted, starved, and sometimes bedraggled and dirty, we are always an interesting sight to see at any of the restaurants around town.

8:30pm - Back to the lab. Usually there's still work to do after dinner. More data entry, more organizing the finds.

10:30pm - Bed. Totally and utterly exhausted. Not a minute spent in my day doing anything besides working, eating, bathing, and working. Barely enough time left over for breathing. I'm usually asleep before I've even hit the pillow. Have to make sure the alarms are set for tomorrow.


5:45am - ****. ****. Time to get up and start another day. OOOH! I get to dig up stuff no one has touched in over 2000 years!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A very unpleasant experience

I was having a lovely evening ... went to a great sushi place in Bangalore tonight with my two friends from the dig, my last night here before I go to a conference, and before they leave to go home to the U.S. I had a great dinner, and great company, and was feeling like life was pretty good.

But after arriving back at the hotel, a rather fancy establishment on Residency Road near Bridage Road, I had one of the top most unpleasant moments of my time here in India. I asked for my clean laundry at the front desk, when I returned from dinner, since I am leaving in the morning and I have to pack the clothes. The man at the desk said he'd send someone.

I went up stairs, said goodnight to my friends and went to my room. I was met in the hallway, by a young guy holding a bag with my laundry. When I opened the door to my room, he tried to step inside, but I stopped him at the entry way, and told him to put down the laundry there. I tried to get rid of him, because he seemed creepy even then, but he said "You check" and indicated the laundry. So I set down the bag and opened it. I was counting the clothes looking down at the bench, when he stepped closer, and I looked over and realized his penis was hanging out of his pants. It was right there, and it wasn't an accident. He told me to sign the receipt, and I did, avoiding looking at him all together, to get him out as quickly as possible and shut the door.

I called the front desk and asked to speak to the manager, but I was told he isn't there now. The man asked if he could help me. So I told him what happened, saying that the man who delivered my laundry had "inappropriately exposed himself to me". He came up stairs to speak with me in person, but he brought the guy with him. So when I asked to speak to the front desk guy they both stepped in to the room. Without looking directly at him, I gestured at the guy, and said "He has to leave". So the manager told him to wait outside, and stepped into the entry to the room. I asked him to close the door so I could speak with him privately. He did, and I explained, gesturing at my own "down there" and said "He exposed himself to me!". I had to say it twice for it to sink in, but then the front desk guy did indeed look very shocked. He paused for a second, and then asked "Maybe by accident?". I told him, "No, I don't think it was an accident. When he walked away, he was laughing."

The hotel desk employee or whoever he was, apologized profusely, said in the future that it would not happen. I don't know if there will be a future as I'm pretty sure I never want to stay at this hotel again, but I guess that's reassuring.

I think the thing that's bothering me the most is that now I don't feel safe, or like I truly have privacy in this room. It has made me paranoid that there is some sort of secret hole in the wall, that the mirror is really a mirror you can see through, or some other invasion of my privacy. It's probably unnecessary paranoia, but it isn't a pleasant feeling to wonder if there are sick men hiding on the other side of the walls, watching with their parts exposed.

I don't like to feel like a victim, and if I can help it, I'll just avoid the feeling all together. I suppose it could be worse, he didn't try anything else, but I do feel sort of victimized, assaulted, and harassed. I also feel like there is a pretty good chance that that this has happened to others here, but they may have been too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it or complain.

I am not the kind of person who feels that sort of shame or embarrassment. I half contemplated for a moment whether this event might in some way be my fault, whether I might have done something that invited this. But I immediately discarded that notion. I recognized it immediately as one of the signs of victims of sexual assault or abuse. I trained in college as a sexual assault support counselor. I know how common it is for victims of many forms of sexual assault to blame themselves. A google search will tell you the same thing. So I decided I am not to blame. I reported it once to the front desk, and I will report it again in the morning.

I don't necessarily feel that the entire hotel is bad, or that it should be avoided. I think most of the people who work here are decent and good people. I don't blame them either. But I do hope this employee loses his job, and I hope that I am wrong in my paranoia about holes in the walls. I am not sure I'll ever stay here again, but I'll have to see how I feel about it later. Maybe I'll be able to get over my anxiety and come back again. Or maybe not.

Friday, March 05, 2010


I know it's been a while since I've written. I was working on an excavation in Karnataka for almost two months, and it was extraordinarily busy and exhausting. It was also wonderful, and I'll write a post about that soon. Just a note of warning, this post is a bit more personal than what I usually write. And by personal, I guess I mean emotional. Oh well.

Now that the excavation season is over, everyone I was working with is about to go home. They return to comfort and familiarity, to family and friends. And I will be in India for about 8 more months. Though I have not been homesick at all in the past four months, I was suddenly hit with pangs of longing, as I listened to my friends talk about the things they are looking forward to back home.

The thing is, I'm not really homesick. I don't have a home to be sick for. I find myself longing for a home that doesn't exist. I find myself missing a home I have never had. I long for the home I someday hope to have. It's pure fantasy, it lives in the form of day dreams, scribblings, and internet research.

The home I dream of having changes from day to day. It changes settings, countries, and climates. It changes changes architectural styles, and it varies in size, form, color, and shape.

I have no real formal training in architecture. But when I was about 6 years old, I took an empty tissue box, added cut out cardboard wheels on drinking straw axles, and independently invented the concept of the 'mobile home'. At summer camp I started doing woodwork, and made a number of small items, and then began to work on furniture. When I was in high school I studied architecture and design, primarily in the form of a class at The New School on furniture design. I particularly enjoyed the section on the Bauhaus Modern, and wrote my paper on Mies van der Rohe. Though many of my scribbled drawings of my imagined home are frequently in my own version of the high modern style, I actually feel most at home in places with much more natural wood and stone, than I do with stainless steel. I love the warmth of wood, the color of light that it reflects, the infinite visual depths of the grain.

One thing is constant. The plans of my imaginary houses are always open, airy and full of light. One version of my home is perched on the side of a mountain, overlooking a deep valley. In this incarnation, it is mostly glass (triple-pane for good insulation), with stone floors. It is built into the mountain, and two or three-tiered, partially subterranean. It leans into the mountain, and is rooted there, with windows on three sides. It smells like the damp earth.

In another incarnation my home is in the desert, it is single storied, and square like a hacienda with a huge open air courtyard in the interior. It has a peaked ceramic tile roof, with wooden rafters, and adobe walls. It is made of shade, and sunlight, with a cistern to catch the rain. The courtyard is paved with sandstone and pebbles collected from a dry gully wash. The pebbles make a secret mosaic, only showing their colors when they are made wet by the rare desert rain.

In another incarnation the house is a cabin, deep in the woods amongst rolling hills. It is small in plan, but with a tall atrium roof. The interior is paneled with a warm rich pine wood, honey colored, and sweet smelling. It nestles in amongst the trees, with bright tall windows, it brings in the light that filters through their leaves. The light changes the house with the seasons, from green to yellow red orange, to white and back to green.

Another version of the house is three storied, brick and stone and wood. On the ground floor, in the center is a living room under an atrium that goes up three stories to the roof. On either side, two separate staircases lead up to bedrooms and on the third floor, studies. My third floor study is surrounded on all four sides by windows with built in book shelves all around. Across the atrium opening, through my windows, I can see the man I imagine I'm married to puttering about in his study, making notes, pacing back and forth, absorbed in his work or some other project.

Aside from the changing architecture, the changing materials, climates and locations, my homes have variously changing inhabitants. Sometimes they are full of pets, a dog, two cats, or a couple of parrots. Sometimes there are kids. Sometimes I am alone. Lately, these daydreams have been populated by one person in particular. This is the most dangerous part of the fantasy, the part most likely to cause heart break and disappointment later. It's also frequently the hardest part to avoid imagining.

Of course, these homes are concepts of design, primarily in the aesthetic sense. If they were to become realities, I would have to take into account the question of environment, of energy efficiency, of water, etc. Obviously these things are important, but to me they are impossible to conceptualize in the abstract. Each location, each climate, each house would have its own specific needs, its own conditions of heat and cold with which to contend. Those things can and should be dealt with later, dealt with in reality.

To add to the list of homes described above, which are the product of many years of thought, many years of contemplation and sketching in notebooks, I have recently been given new concepts to consider, especially: WeeHouse and some of these from such as this, and this. These teeny tiny houses appeal to me at multiple levels. First, it brings me back to my original (re)invention of a house on wheels, a home you can take anywhere. Second, I love the eco-friendly nature of it, and the coziness of something so small, so compact. I love the idea of minimal living. It is a way of life I feel I am more or less engaged in now.

To imagine a home that I someday hope to have, however, is really an exercise in futility. In the career path that I have chosen, to be an archaeologist, I will in all likelihood have to sacrifice the ability to choose where I will end up living, and simply go wherever I can get a job. To have a job at a college or university, if it's in the US, probably means that my home will not be in the desert, on a mountain top, or amongst deep woods. And although the image of this home is important to me, it isn't as important as my career.

Home is where the heart is, or at least, that is how the cliche goes. The problem is that my heart is divided amongst so many places... places that I have lived, places where family and close friends are, and places that I hope to someday live. Recently my heart has set up shop in a new location, with it's hopes no longer set on a place, or a kind of house, but rather on a particular person, who I can't seem to stop myself from hoping will be the co-inhabitor of this imaginary home. As I have repeatedly told myself to let go of the attachment to all of my other dream homes, so as to avoid disappointment later, I have told myself to let go of this hope as well. So far though, no success.