Amy Shapiro: Week 3, A Day in the Life of a Field School

This week I’d like to describe some normal activities of a field school, and particularly our own.

First, the scene: in the Fossil Park, the students stay in two bunk houses each with two bedrooms. The bedrooms have beds with mattresses and heaters (!) and not much else. The instructors have their own house, which (or so Chris Campisano surmises) used to be the railway conductor’s office for the park with the same setup (but no heaters) plus a small bathroom.

Near the students’ houses is the kitchen—the center of our camp and around which most of our meetings revolve. We open the kitchen at 7 am, which was still dark until a few days ago, but now the sun is just starting to rise then. First thing is hot water boiling for coffee and tea, and then breakfast, which we get ourselves and should include at least one rusk, a South African delicacy that is a cross between a biscotti and a large crouton and should be dunked in coffee or tea. If we’ll be out all day, we make our lunches to bring, normally sandwiches, fruit, and snacks.

Bontebok and Eland at West Coast National Park

Bontebok and Eland at West Coast National Park

Excavation starts at 8 am at the site, so we walk over by 7:45 through beautiful misty fynbos, careful to be on the lookout for steenbok (small African antelope) that frequent the area. “Tea time” is at 10:30 am, when we break for a snack (but unfortunately no tea). Lunch is at 1 pm, which we eat at the site or back at camp if we’re working a half-day. The students have been working on their projects this week so half-days have been the norm. We have the luxury of a staff member, Catherine, who cooks dinner for us and does our dishes, so we have little work to do at meal times. Catherine spoils us with delicious home cooked dinners and dessert once a week (she is famous for her lemon meringue pie). She also puts the kitchen together, often bringing a bouquet of fresh herbs and peppers and always setting the table in a new and interesting way: one night silverware will be wrapped in napkins, the next night displayed in an artistic fan shape on the table.

As you can see, we don’t have to “rough it” too much at this field school, but it’s often still the little things that are very influential or interesting. Food is a topic of conversation even in a field school like ours where we eat often and very well; students constantly discuss what and where they want to eat, what’s for dinner, etc. In every field school there is also a treat that everyone goes crazy for: at Hadar, this was Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut spread), and here it is “Double Delights,” a type of cookie made with two coconut cookies sandwiched with chocolate. We’ve stopped buying every other type of “cookie” (here they call them biscuits) since Double Delights are in high demand.

Student Taylor Hoffman with rock art at Eland’s Bay Cave

Student Taylor Hoffman with rock art at Eland’s Bay Cave

Although this typical schedule has been the norm, we’ve taken some field trips, most recently to Eland’s Bay Cave north along the coast, which is a human archaeological site with cave paintings. Jenna, our TA from UCT, described research that suggests that the painted hands on the wall, the size of 10- to 13-year-old children, may have been placed on the cave wall as part of an initiation ritual. We also went to the West Coast National Park to see fauna, learn about fynbos, and see the start of the spring flower season. This trip was our first time seeing lots of large game, including eland, bontebok, kudu, wildebeest, gemsbok, and bat-eared foxes.

students in jeep

Students ready to head out to the dunes to survey for fossils at Elandsfontein

We have also just started our fieldwork at Elandsfontein, a Middle Pleistocene site just south of Langebaanweg, with Dr. Dave Braun of University of Cape Town. We’re only doing a few days of survey and collection, but the students are really enjoying the change of pace from sitting in a square all day at the excavation to getting to walk around and find really big, well-preserved fossils. Next week I’ll write more about that work, as well as the students’ final projects, and then it’s off to Kruger for safari!

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2 Responses to Amy Shapiro: Week 3, A Day in the Life of a Field School

  1. don johanson says:

    Hi Amy et al., you are making me very envious. There is nothing like the routine of an expedition and the friendships that develop. I always think somewhere out there is something interesting to discover, a thought that has motivated me for years.

    South Africa is one of my very favorite places and now that I am having my early morning coffee I would love to have a rusk or two.

    Thanks for these updates and especially the photos.

    I hope you are all aware that Curtis and Zeray will have a particularly interesting announcement next Thursday…so stand by. Have a great weekend. Don

  2. Pete Saucier says:

    Dear Amy,

    This is another terrifically fun report to read. The noted presence of a small bathroom in the instructor residence makes one wonder about student accommodations in that regard.

    Chris Campisano is pretty good at surmising, in my observation, so I think you can run with the “conductor’s office” tale without disclaimers.

    Yours, Pete

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