Monday, April 4, 2016

Anomalies Accumulate, Storm Clouds Congregate

Them Bones, 47-49, 60-63

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Back in the 1929 storyline, some new crew members arrive at the mounds. Their leader, Dr. Jameson, is “the color of dust” (48) – light brown eyes, hat, and clothes. He examines the horse bones and cartridge that Bessie and Kincaid discovered, suggests the former might have appeared in a very late Mississippian site, but then concludes the whole anomaly is “a hoax” (48). Despite his limited imagination and dusty appearance, Jameson appears in this chapter to add some color and tension. He says he'll need a drink, which reminds readers that Prohibition is underway and strong drink hard to come by; he reminds Bessie of his “role model,” Roy Andrews, which lets Waldrop mention Andrews's famous fossil dinosaur eggs and evoke the theme of extinction; and he establishes a time limit on the excavation, noting it has been raining upriver for two days. The mounds are on the floodplain, and everyone still remembers the great Flood of '27.

The weather becomes more ominous when we rejoin Bessie and company later in the day, a hot and humid day with clouds piling up to the north. Work has resumed at the site, and Washington and the other diggers have started a “test trench” projecting into the base of the large mound. Bessie sketches the excavation, drawing a grid over the landscape while the work crew reifies that grid with trenches “straight as a ruler” (61). She reflects how long it took the Coles-Creek-era Mississippians to build the mounds, digging up dirt with hoes and carrying it in baskets. Even in discussing the twentieth century Waldrop never lets us stray too far from the past.

Kincaid, Jamison, and Bessie pause late in the day for water. The digging crew have begun a new trench while other workers sift dirt through screens. The male archaeologists have found no signs of an intrusion or other anomalies. Bessie, who has been able to take in the larger picture, has spotted a new peculiarity: the large compound mound consists of two different kinds of dirt, which means that the base was built at one time and the conical second level at another. That, and the horse bones and cartridge in the small mound, and the anomalous siting of the two mounds on the plain rather than the nearby bluff, deepen the mystery.

And the tension mounts as well when, at chapter's end, a wind blows through the camp, accompanied by the sound of thunder. Bessie and the workers are relieved, but the readers realize they shouldn't be – a storm is coming. Good for Waldrop for taking what might have been a dusty archaeological procedural and adding a bit of external drama to it. Though there's already enough mystery in the mounds to create dramatic tension: who or what built the later section of the larger mound, and whose horse was that anyway?

Coming next: We meet the Great Old One, and perhaps a river manatee or two.

Image above is of Roy Chapman Andrews, ca. 1925, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.