[Click here for the the first part of the story: Road to Rudabanya]
“In Euclidean plane geometry, a square is a regular quadrilateral. This means that it has four equal sides and four equal right angles. […] In spherical geometry, a square is a polygon whose edges are great circle arcs of equal distance, which meet at equal angles. The angles of such a square are larger than a right angle. […] In hyperbolic geometry, squares with right angles do not exist. Rather, they have angles of less than right angles. Larger squares have smaller angles.”
“I can tell you’ve done this before. You take good care of your square,” said Big Dave. With his tobacco voice and worn eyes, there was something about Big Dave that imposed respect, like an oversized lobster thrown back at sea. Wrinkles grew across his face like a leafless willow tree, scabs and memories quietly sitting side by side on its branches. At 70, he wore them with pride. In the field he was a towering sight, a gentle giant with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, hammering away at the gray marl in meditative silence. I didn’t take his compliments lightly.
It took me some time to understand that there is more to excavating than digging oneself into a hole. I used to work too fast, like I couldn’t wait to get to the bottom. In previous excavations I had even broken a few Paleolithic stone artifacts and missed large prehistoric rhinoceros molars under the clumsy strokes of my hurried tool. This time I wanted to put five years of practiced patience to the test. Sentences like follow the slope, keep it even and clean your square, all too familiar to budding archaeologists, ran like mantras in my head while I hit the screwdriver against the solid clay.
The site lay under the Hungarian sky like an open wound, a dozen or so bodies picking at it with sharp objects, like a pack of tiny rodents gnawing away at a carcass. From the inside, the pit looked like a multilayered podium, slumped backs sitting at different heights, labouring busily over their squares. In this overcrowded hole, bodies contorted under the pressure of invading limbs and heads from neighbouring squares, unable to be contained inside their one-by-one meter space. In the field, days moved to the sound of this human jigsaw puzzle reshuffling itself again and again on the muddy Rudabánya floor.
Apart from the trees and a turquoise lake shimmering seductively in the distance, which our acclimatised eyes barely noticed anymore, the site was remarkably unspectacular. It was easy to forget we were knee-deep in one of the most important sites in the paleoanthropological world. We were standing on the birthplace (or rather deathplace) of ‘Rudi’ and ‘Gabi’ (Rudapithecus hungaricus), two famous 10 million-year-old creatures and the closest things to the proverbial missing link between African great apes and humans.
Kneeling inside my square, like an inmate in a Japanese prison cell, my hands made their way down the earth’s skin, while my mind slowly escaped into the tiny crevices of the floor beneath my feet. Fieldwork has a way of warping time, of bending it into strange shapes you never knew it could have. It has a way of telescopically zooming into parts of yourself there aren’t any names for, like some overly curious surgeon probing in unwelcome parts of your anatomy.
I was momentarily rescued from my thoughts by the find of a partial Rudapithecus humerus, which lay between my square and Arthur’s. Fossils somehow have this remarkable ability to burrow in the most inconvenient of places, either on a complicated corner, on an edge, on a slant between two squares, inside the wall that won’t be excavated until next year. At the end of the season, the eastern wall would be left a veritable mosaic of fossils, sandwiched between multicoloured layers of dirt, bones of all sizes poking from mother earth’s epidermis like toothpicks. Most will never be rescued from their deathbeds.
Surrounded by clumps of strange teenage bodies, my mind recoiled unto itself. Days in the field were lived in silent introspection, interrupted only by the sound of sediment being shoveled away, the sound of rubble hitting an empty bucket, a metal tool hitting a rock, a hand swiftly swatting away a mosquito, a gust of wind, a bird. Mornings were spent under the spell of the 6:30 am wake-up call, stuck in that twilight space between an unnursed hangover and a coffee craving. The first break is at noon. No point in wondering about the time, there is always a disappointing distance between now and a break.
When a fossil is found, the human cloth breaks into a dozen uncoordinated pieces. Like a family of prairie dogs, heads peer up from the ground, a dozen pairs of inquisitive eyes turning to the location from where ‘is this something?’ is being uttered. No, it’s nothing, most of the time it’s nothing. A heap of dirty overheated bodies with bizarre tan-lines return to their labour, their unquestioning hands working the ground beneath them. There is a pause here and there; a pair of traveling eyes considers the menacing puddle accumulating on the plastic tarp hanging from above.
At lunch, I studied the lake below me while biting into a pista-covered hardboiled egg. I eyed it suspiciously, that copper-filled lake with its false blue-green promises. Exploited for centuries for its various metals and lignite, Rudabánya is now an exhausted, troubled and poverty-stricken land that gets its name from bánya, Hungarian for ‘mine’ and ruda, Russian for ‘ore’. The lake smiled at me like a hypocrite, concealing its evil secrets under a blanket of opalescent temptation. It was a remnant of a man-exploited world, men who had dug a hole and left, leaving behind a fistula of poisonous liquid that now had nowhere to go. I threw my leftovers in the bushes and turned my back to the lake nonchalantly, leaving it to play its tricks on others.
I locked my body back in place on my quadrilateral island. Taking shelter from unbearable teenage conversations with my headphones, I was left with the loudness of my emotions battling each other to pieces inside my chest. Grief, anger, doubt, insecurity and self-pity claimed me as their home, like naked crustaceans searching for a shell on foreign sea floor. There too was an evil lake inside of me, with poison pooling without escape. Feelings of abandonment, betrayal and loss weaved their webs inside of me, sad thoughts spun around and around, pulling me down into an infinity loop of melancholy.
Oui, l’enfer ce sont les autres, mais l’enfer c’est moi aussi.
It hadn’t always been like this. An eternity ago, the landscape had once smiled and flourished in the absence of man. Is this something? Yes, it’s something. Sometimes there is something. An Agriotherium femur, a deciduous Anapithecus canine, a Rudapithecus phalanx, a turtle shell, date pits, micromammal long bones, Chalicotherium something, a beaver other, pig this, squirrel that. As days went by, a picture of a lost world, where we now stood in knee-deep. It had not been the darkest before our dawn.
Rudabánya belongs to a time when the Carpathian Basin was covered with a shallow sea that covered large areas of today’s Hungary, in the late Cenozoic. Its shores were bordered by swampy forests, at a time when the weather was milder and more humid than today. The layers we now explored belonged to the Miocene, spanning from 24 to 5 million years ago, a period that saw the end of the connection between Eurasia and Africa, which allowed the hominoids in each continent to separate and follow their own independent paths. On one side the pongids evolved in Asia, and on the other the panids and hominoids in Africa, leading eventually to mankind.
Today, there is disagreement about the break-up point between the ape lineages, some believe the separation to have happened in Africa, where others believe it to have taken place Eurasia. David Begun, a wrinkleless-yet-just-as-intimidating man who led the National Geographic funded field season, champions the theory that the ancestors of African apes evolved in Eurasia. Whatever the version of events, it was this now half-eaten land that our Hungarian hominoid once called home.
A mix of black and sepia-toned rubble piled inside my bucket. I had reached the bottom of the black and red clay, both fossil-dense layers. Ahead of me, the quasi-barren ocean of hard grey marl awaited. Some days I envied those in the clays, delicately picking tiny secrets out of the ground with their oddly shaped dental tools. Some squares were so rich they were given names like the rice crispy square (a compact block of micromammal remains), or the graveyard square (whose complicated conglomerate of large carnivoran bones looked like the site of a massacre.). The grey marl, however, was a different game. It was a game of persistence, perseverance and patience. Easily overcome by discouragement and frustration, those of us serving sentences in these squares were under daily reminders from the more experienced that some of the better preserved and most important fossils had come out of this very soil.
By the end of the day, after hours spent in introspective confinement, the physical and mental landscapes collapsed into one another, like cartoon figures in a children’s pop-up book. No matter how much you follow the slope, keep it even or clean you square, it’s never up to you what the ground decides to yield. It all felt like a colossal metaphor for my life. The ground below me was showing me my faults, like a jester’s mocking finger demanding I connect the dots. I worked like I felt, as if for fear of losing I didn’t give enough before, and in name of the same fear, I was now afraid of letting go.
Back at the house, a circle of mangled bodies huddled over a fire after dinner. I sat in silence dodging the giggles and friendly complicities being exchanged around me, falling deeper and deeper under the hypnotic spell of the flames now dancing like possessed tribesmen inside the fire-pit. I contemplated the starless sky while my guts digested an unpalatable lesson: accepting that sometimes the biggest find, is not finding anything at all. Big Dave sat to the side, his ghostly presence watching over the crowd like a shepherd. He handed me a beer.
“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”