A Logan Museum Mystery Solved
There they’ve been for 85 years: animal bones from archaeological sites in Algeria, sitting in Logan Museum drawers and boxes. The bones have enigmatic markings on them—“12-3M” and “AB-ATM” and a dozen other cryptic labels.
Those codes don’t match any cataloging system the museum has used, so the bones were ignored for decades, their provenience (i.e., where they were found) a mystery. Beloit College students and staff excavated these bones, plus thousands of stone artifacts, during the Logan Museum’s North African research program from 1925 through 1930. (See the September 20, 2015 Museum Mondays for the museum’s new exhibit on the initial expedition, and see the September 29, 2014 Museum Mondays about a book on the subsequent years’ work.) If only we could figure out what those inked numbers mean…
And then, last year, as museum director Bill Green hunkered down amid the collections, preparing projects for his Environmental Archaeology class, a light-bulb moment occurred. Of course! “AB” stands for Ali Bacha, the site assistant curator Alonzo Pond (1918) excavated in 1927! “12” represents Site 12, which Pond and the students dug in 1930. And so on: “25” and “51” simply indicate Sites 25 and 51. The numbers and letters that follow the site designations stand for specific trenches and depth levels: at Site 12, “3M” means Trench M, level 3. At Ali Bacha, “ATM” stands for the “Aurignacian transition to Mousterian” level, those terms indicating Paleolithic cultures Pond identified at various depths.
Bill’s eureka moment fittingly occurred in the storage area that is designated the museum’s George L. Collie Paleolithic Studies Center. Collie was the college’s dean and museum’s curator in the early 20th century and a strong proponent of archaeological fieldwork. Curatorial activity in the Collie Room, as we call it, is supported in part by the Alonzo and Dorothy Pond Memorial Fund. Alonzo of course was the museum’s field director in Algeria, and Dorothy was the expedition camp manager.
But back to the bones, now that Bill knew where they came from, he set up a series of labs in which students identified well over 700 bones by element and, where possible, family and genus. Students assessed the “schlep effect,” that is, the differential representation of elements based on field dressing of large game animals, in which hunters leave most bones near the kill site and bring back (schlep) only those elements associated with quantities of easily transportable meat. Lower limb bones are plentiful at campsites and villages because they served as handles by which entire legs would be carried or dragged back home.
And these were big animals. Aurochs (extinct cattle) and wild asses (now nearly extinct) are represented, along with gazelles and a variety of other mammals. They’re in pretty good shape, considering they range from about 8,000 to 15,000 years in age. They can now help us understand ancient hunting patterns and environments in parts of North Africa that have undergone substantial environmental change in the millennia since the sites were occupied.
So, hats off to Alonzo and Dorothy Pond and their crew of Beloit students who excavated these bones and labeled them carefully, and here’s to never giving up when faced with labels that seem to make no sense. Some day, the fog will lift and the answer will appear.