Digging in a Sand Box: Truffles and a Turd

Not every experience with the dig team at the Adams farm is worth in-depth reporting. All of it is fascinating for the participant but because the pace of archaeology is slow by nature – measuring, re-measuring, charting, and then more measuring – “events” are few and far between. Yesterday the pace was interrupted by a few definitively non archaeological events and a fascinating sideshow.

Our team was working in the woods under the comforting shade of a stately oak tree. We uncovered a thousand year old scatter of Woodland pottery and a small symmetrical fire pit. The pottery consisted of finely cord-marked body sherds evenly distributed over a single layer. Even though they appeared to be the remains of a single shattered pot, they represented a number of vessels (thus deflating our dreams of assembling the mass into one single museum quality piece).  The fire pit, shaped like a deep cereal bowl, contained a scatter of charcoal, a nut shell, a few chunks of pottery, and a nice flint flake. Under Dr. Mohney’s direction we bagged the remaining soil from the feature into a gallon sized ziplock labeled “FLOAT”. This soil will be subjected to a flotation procedure where water is used to separate tiny pieces of organic material.

One of the class members brought along her family’s collection of points for Dr. Mohney to examine. Among the dozens of projectile points laid out on the truck hood was a gem – not a mineralogical gem but an archaeological gem.  A rare Fluted point – a thin masterpiece made of dark mottled flint – represents the first period of human occupation in the Great Lakes some 10-12,000 years ago (they are the oldest points found in the New World). Thinning flakes, taken out of the point’s base, are the fluting features which probably aided in attaching these projectile points to an atlatl spear shaft.

 

Although we can’t completely rule out the possibility, we don’t expect to find a fluted point at this site but…..  Once, an especially vindictive archaeologist snuck one of these (a replica, of course) into a sifting screen and then proceeded to chew out a lazy student for not noticing it. Cruel, but funny. I took several pictures of the above-mentioned fluted point (see above) if only to document it and insure that if it shows up in our screen we will be able to identify it!

Something odd did show up in one of the screens during the dig. It wasn’t a fake point but instead a bumpy yellowish item which broke up into several smaller, though sizable, pieces. We gathered round and unfortunately I was asked what it might be. After looking it over, touching it, and smelling a broken portion my little grey cells tentatively declared it a Truffle (see below and here). Never having seen a truffle before (or knowing whether they are even found this side of the pond), I was on thin ice and wished for a pig to wander by to provide some confirmation.

Fortunately my suspicion turned out and my pseudo-intelligence streak continued.  Truffles are underground fungi in which the fruiting body has no stem and the spore bearing surfaces are encased. They grow in a freeform style. There are many species of Truffles in the world and the black French variety can command thousands of dollars per pound (one 3 ½ pound example sold for $330,000). Most other varieties are not nearly that precious and many aren’t even that tasty.  Mine was probably a White Truffle.

Another mystery item turned up in yet another screen that elicited another “what is it?” call out. Before I reveal the final answer let me just say that a red herring was involved in this affair. A crayfish was uncovered along with the same shovelful that brought up this lump of somethingness. “Yes,” the students working that square, “that crayfish was in with that weird green stuff.”  I, assuming that the crayfish was of the burrowing variety, also assumed that the “weird green stuff” was associated with his now destroyed burrow. That was the red herring aspect: if it was a crayfish it must have been in a burrow at the time.

I probed and poked at the greenish blob which looked like, and had the texture of, a blob of bleached avocado paste that had been rolled in the sand. There were a few fragments of green leaves mixed in. It definitely did not smell of avocado, however. It was musty with strong hints of poopiness but this seemed natural if it was accumulated crayfish poop. That was my first diagnosis: crayfish poop accumulated in a crayfish burrow.

How wrong I was. It took a while before I finally put two and two together and came up with five (which is the number of minutes I wanted to scrub my hands with industrial disinfectant after coming to this realization). The crayfish was a burrowing crayfish alright but the avocado paste was actually cat poop.

At some time over the weekend a cat, with a bad case of the runs, came along and used the nice sandy archaeological pit for his potty. Our crayfish was probably bumbling along later that night, fell into the partially excavated pit and, discovering that he could not escape, resorted to eating the blob of deliciousness as prison food (Hey, this stuff tastes like sh..).

The crayfish and his meal came up in one of the first shovelfuls of the day and prompted several minutes of fingering, sniffing, and photo taking. I later examined one of my detailed documentary shots of the mystery blob and it clearly shows that the thing has dozens of long hairs sticking to it. I did not see those when I was handling it.

I have spent the last 24 hours washing my hands and trying to recall if the students operating that particular crayfish pit showed any signs of giggling or snickering eye contact during the course of my fecal examination.

Like life, an archaeological screen can turn up a truffle, a treasure, or a turd depending on any given day.

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