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04 August, 2010

2D, or Not 2D?

The map here depicts part of Nu'alolo Kai, where archaeologists worked for a decade to draw the whole village. Earlier generations had dug the hell out of this site, making it famous, and providing centuries worth of artifacts that helped us understand things like chronological variation of fishhooks and Hawaiian rituals.

The wiser portion of the public knows that archaeologists don't generally fight nazis with bullwhips, but still labors under the misapprehension that we dig all the time. I do carry a trowel in the field, but as much as a talisman as anything else, a fetish of the archaeology tribe that points north in photos and opens beers. Sure, I love the craft of digging, the coat of ancient dirt, the occasional cool find, but excavation has its drawbacks. Artifacts and samples must be bagged, cleaned, sorted again and again, analyzed, documented every which way, stabilized, curated forever...

Besides the thrill of a nice artifact emerging from the soil (archaeologists sometimes don't want to admit this drives them, it sounds perilously close to the visceral pleasure of treasure hunting), the allure of digging a buried site lies in exposing a time capsule, or better yet a sequence that lets us understand how a culture adapted or persisted over time.

This can come with a heavy cost, though. Sites don't grow back, and digging them destroys them. We cannot go back and use the charcoal discarded by generations of archaeologists before radiocarbon dating was invented, and the smart among us now cringe a little, wondering what we're tossing that will condemn us in the eyes of our back-looking progeny. Meanwhile, descendants of the people whose leavings we excavate include may who don't need to wait, digging equals disturbance, disrespect, even desecration. Then there's just the matter of completing the job. Many of the Nu'alolo artifacts were not analyzed and written up for decades; it is way too easy to backfill and move on to the next hole without following through.

But remove the depth, the stratigraphy, the third dimension, and you cannot get to the fourth, the dynamic flow of time. Or at least that's how a lot of archaeologists tend to think. And so maps often tend to be peremptory, schematic, or outright crap. Lacking subtlety, accuracy, precision, intended to dispense with the questions "Where is the site? Where did you dig?"

When my mentor, his beard just starting to grey in those days, taught me the archaic skill of using a plane table, alidade and pencil to make a detailed map appear on paper, he opened my eyes to the potential of a flat rendering to record time. I think I was open to this perspective for a couple of reasons. I'd had this geeky infatuation with two dimensional worlds since tripping across a Scientific American thing before I was able to get close enough to girls to want something more than nerdly pleasure. Later, I ran across the word "palimpsest' and become fascinated with the idea of a surface adorned and written on, erased and marked again, remnants and shadows and faintest traces preserving pasts.

And so my maps try to show chronology. A pit where stone was salvaged from a wall that collapsed long after it was built over that older foundation peeking out. The wall at odd angles that bespeaks a differently oriented occupation, the rough shelter erected from and on the bones of something older and grander. Finding and depicting joints and superpositions that indicate time passing.

UNlike digging, with it's long-lasting obligation to process and curate stuff, the work is mostly up front with maps. You may ink a clean copy, apply labels, digitize, publish, and argue over hat it means for years, but the real work is in walking around and making sure you understand what is going to be drawn. Clearing vegetation for revelation, walking through again and staring until your mind grasps the geography of this place, deciding what points will give you the anchors you need to draw all that lies between, shooting points with single-minded focus, and finally the drawing. I am just superstitious enough to believe that part of the reward of all this time--carefully clearing without altering and pondering the layout while taking a break--is that the site gets to know you, maybe appreciates the attention and reciprocates, revealing some crucial clue. I am just scientific enough to know that different light and conditions, repeated glances and stares, and all the other effects of spending more time on a site add up to a more thorough viewpoint.

Whatever the reasons, the best maps I've done are of places I'd walked before, spots that allowed me to stand there for days. Like the place where I knew the site was sacred, and walked carefully, finally sitting and wondering whether it would be OK to move some of the tumbled stone to get a better view of the solid construction beneath. After that few more minutes of quietly communing with the site, I tentatively turned a stone, revealing a red feather. The Hawaiians all understood this: a gift and granting of the go-ahead to shift rubble and map the structures beneath.

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