Caption: Mongoose fiction. Mongoose fact.
Don’t tell the kids, but archaeology is not as exciting as it seems. Most excavations are uncomfortable and all excavations are tedious. For weeks you work and live intimately with a few dozen colleagues, comprised of your supervisors, peers, and subordinates—a group that inevitably sorts into friends, nemeses, and neutral bodies.
The biggest perils are not Nazis, excessive snakes, or ancient curses; they are boredom and inter-group conflict. We mitigate inter-group conflict by encouraging people to not suck, or to suck so much that everyone else bonds over shared enmity toward this person.
The other threat—boredom—has been alleviated by a multitude of inspired diversions. If you doubt their entertainment value, remember that the participants are isolated, profoundly weary, destitute of privacy, and can’t remember what it’s like to poop solid stool into toilets with seats.
These are my favorite ways we have entertained ourselves in the field (and the list applies to all major categories of fieldwork, including archaeology, biology, ethnography, Earth Sciences, and Advanced Lemur Studies):
1) Trundling– The formal name for projecting a rock from a high place. The high place could be a cliff or a talus slope. The rock could be carbonate, sandstone, granite, really anything hoist and release-able! Trundling has nearly infinite variations, which is why it never gets old. Did you see how far that one rolled!? Get a bigger one! Bigger! Bigger! Okay, that one killed a mountain goat. Game over. Until tomorrow.
2) Catch the Mongoose!- Mongooses… Or is it mongeese? I never know and don’t you dare Google it and kill my wonder! Mongeese are NOT the heroic, cobra-killing, baby-savers portrayed in Rikki Tikki Tavi. They are vicious and villainous, with beady red eyes to prove it.
One afternoon we resolved to catch a mongoose,* and we did it with a scheme so harebrained that it should have only worked in cartoon world. We put white chocolate under a crate and propped one edge of the crate with a pen attached to string. We waited. We waited some more. When a mongoose entered to investigate the chocolate, we pulled the string and caught that mongoose.
Wait. What do you do with a mongoose, seething and snarling in a crate? You walk away and assume the situation will resolve itself.
*I was not actually present for this, but it is verified and legendary.
3) Scandalize the sheltered student- One of my excavations is predominated by students from a small Christian university where everyone signs a pledge to neither drink nor dance during their undergraduate careers. Let’s call it Footloose University.
Some of these students are cool, with refreshing perspectives and reasons for abstaining from activities that defined college for most of us. Others are the most fascinatingly sheltered specimens that I have ever encountered. They were home schooled for 18 years and then transported in a sin-repellant grounds of Footloose University.
It is quite fun to scandalize these students, but it is not as easy as you would think. You can’t just say something like…
“One time I met this guy at a party and an hour later was in his sketchy off-the-highway hotel room, doing coke and giving him a blow job. But don’t worry—he went to Yale and was a friend of a friend, so I’m sure he didn’t have STDs or homicidal tendencies.”
That won’t work. They don’t know the bad meaning of coke. They have never heard the term blowjob or cannot conceptualize the act, even if you explain it with 8th grade health class clarity. Your attempted offense will drift by them, unperceived, as if you had said it in Swahili. They will stare at you blankly and then resume G-rated babble, surveying everyone on their favorite color to wear vs favorite color in general.
You need to tone down the offense, just right, like: “One time I drink so much beer that I threw up.”
4) What Order Would You Murder Everyone Here?!- Once I was on an excavation where the ten-some American students did not mesh—so much so that some of us did not even Friend each other! We naturally developed a self-explanatory thought game called What Order Would You Murder Everyone Here?! I killed Marc first and still would to this day.
5) Get horrifically ill- Look, you’re not going to complain of boredom when you’re writhing with gastrointestinal distress, on a cot, covered in flies. It will feel like someone is punching you from the inside out and some village woman will force you to swallow a substance that in your delusional state seems to be charcoal (and when your mental faculties return is confirmed to be charcoal). In this situation, you’ll complain of imminent death, but not boredom.
6) Drink alcohol. So that’s mostly what we do.