Archaeology can be exciting and even dangerous, maybe not like Indiana Jones, but all archaeologists have their stories. The Meade County Museum has been fortunate to have archeologists visit, like Eriverto “Eddie” Sepeda. Both of our most memorable experiences happened excavating burials. Finding a burial is unlike anything else—awesome and sad, all at once. Dis-interments are only done when graves are going to be destroyed or relocated. Eddie and I have experienced things not fondly remembered, but impossible to forget.
Ghosts of Guam
If you were to mention the word archaeologist in mixed company, you would most likely get a response of either, “Really,” or “Wow, have you found many dinosaur bones?” Most people have a general idea of what archaeologists do from what they have seen on TV or in a movie, and that is the product of creative writers where there is only a grain of truth, as to what being an archaeologist, entails. In 2003 I was fortunate to meet and marry a beautiful woman who was a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, who at the time was stationed in San Angelo Texas, where we met. A month later she received orders from the commanding officer to report to her next duty station on the Island of Guam. Since neither of us had been to that part of the world, we happily agreed; although, had I known the flight would take 18 hours, I might have reconsidered. On the island, I decided to go in search of work.
I figured the quickest way for me to find employment was to look through Guam’s phone book and see what type of employment was available for an enterprising young man like myself. As I grabbed the book off the table, it slipped through my hand landing on the floor. When I reached down to pick it up the initials M. A. R. S. were plainly visible on one of the pages. Upon closer inspection I saw that the word M.A.R.S. actually stood for Micronesian Archaeological Research Services. I called the number.
The lady who answered the phone was friendly and polite and asked me if I had any experience in archaeology. I told her I could recite all the Indiana Jones movies word for word and had my own bullwhip. She laughed, most archaeologists have a good sense of humor, and she told me to come to the office tomorrow morning, for an interview. When I arrived the next morning, the door was opened by a tiny gray-haired lady with bright blue eyes, who said, “My you are a big one.” The office was run by two ladies, Ms. Rozz and Ms. Kell. They both lived on the island for over 30 years, 20 in archaeology, and they had just gotten a one-week contract from the Guam power and light Company. The project was located in thick jungles of southern Guam, surveying a two-mile path designated for a trench, for a power line to be placed underground.
The job involved someone, me, hacking a trail through the jungle with a machete so the M.A.R.S. ladies could walk behind me slowly looking for artifacts and human remains. Since Guam was involved in the 1941 war with Japan, finding human remains was likely. One of the reasons I was hired besides being big, was because of my experience with military explosives, having spent four years in the Marines as a Combat Engineer, I was familiar with all manner of things that could explode, and pretty much ruin your day.
A week after I completed the project with M.A.R.S., the phone rang and I had been recommended to another company doing a burial removal project on Tumon beach where a large Japanese Company was to build a 4-star hotel. After several weeks of training, learning how to carefully and respectfully handle human remains, I was allowed to work unsupervised. After removing several bodies all of which were adults and subadults, I one day came across one that made me stop in my tracks and consider my own mortality.
On Guam the lowest level of soil is a white sterile sand in which nothing living or dead should exist. Upon or in it, nothing is found. One warm drizzling day having just finished boxing up the remains of an adult female, I saw a few meters to my left the sterile soil level but slightly discolored. I kneeled down and saw a sight that instantly put a stranglehold on my heart. There, on the discolored sand were the tiny skeletal remains of a baby, no bigger than the length of a football. He was facing the interior of the island, as if looking for his family, his tiny mouth open, as if crying for help.
Adult remains are, emotionally, more-easy to handle, because they have lived long enough to have made their choices in life whether they were good or bad, and to hopefully learn from them; this child, had not been allowed to take his first step on his way to understanding life.
Guam is known for its sudden and vicious monsoon wind and rain. The heavy rain can destroy anything in sand that isn’t tarp covered. It began to rain. I called for a tarp, but the other workers were busy covering their burials. I was left alone with my baby, watching the rain destroying the delicate bones. I bent down and covered the baby as best I could, using my body as an umbrella. I made the decision to make a mad dash to the truck and get a protective tarp, but as I looked down at the child one last time, to my horror, a raindrop hitting the bone completely shattered it. I hunkered down over the body, my face mere inches away, I realized the remains were slowly being destroyed and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I scooped up sand and bone and held it to my chest in an embrace as his parents would have, only to see the sand and bone slip through my fingers in the rain. I wept for the child I could not save. I walked back to camp, turning once to look one last time where I seemed to have spent a lifetime kneeling. For a millisecond, I thought I saw a dark man and woman standing, the woman cradling a baby in her arms.
When I made it back to the main camp, water logged with wind blown sand in my eyes, my crew-chief asked what it was that was so important for me to get so waterlogged? The only answer I could give was, “Something tiny and precious, something beautiful and loved, is now gone, but never forgotten.”