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– “As archaeological digs go, we think we’ve hit paydirt with this one.”
Professor Nadine Cullen smiled to signify an air of satisfaction, gesturing theatrically for the camera. The sweep of her arm arced around a compact area of earthworks, its surface subdivided by walkways, the plots pitted with hillocks, hollows and holes. But her enforced casualness, and language of enthusiasm, stuck in the craw.
She’d been picking up tips on dramatic effect from a training tutorial that made the grandest of claims about transforming antediluvian academics into media starlets. The most digestible content to be sourced during a last minute, late-night, wine-fuelled, web trawl. And it showed.
The crew stood on, shifting from foot to foot, trying to ignore the gathering chill. Her fourth take so far, in failing light and with the onshore wind stiffening. Conditions to test the patience of the oldest of pros.
– “Fossil!” the soundman muttered sourly under the crashing of waves along the shoreline. “Had my fill of boffins years back.”
Mental rehearsal seemed worse than useless. Before each new effort, thunderous wordles billowed up, raining down phrases on Nadine’s half-formed thoughts. Only the previous day, delivering her presentation for the Earth@5000 symposium she’d been entirely unruffled. Among colleagues, she was on easy street. Known knowns and all that. But an unexpected interview, under the bright lights? That was something different altogether.
– “Try and relax,” soothed the reporter, while an assistant pinned down the collar of his jacket to prevent it flapping wildly against the mic. Why the production team hadn’t gone for a geo-viz’ed graphic of the site, he just couldn’t figure. Even an unmanned fly-over, if they were so insistent on having real-life footage. Quick and dirty surely would’ve done the trick? The place was creeping him out. Seriously weird.
– “One more shot at it. Just tell us what really matters here Nadine, and why.”
– “To hell with it,” she seethed.
Against her better judgment and years of habit, Nadine decided to go rogue.
Talking off the top of the head had never been her thing. Seriously old school, she wouldn’t be torn from a prepared script. And the no-suits at EdTechx didn’t take kindly to obstinacy. There had been ‘invitations’ to attend a ReLearn bootcamp on Changing Delivery Standards; which went without reply. Veiled threats followed, the most recent intimating the possibility of redeployment. When pre-recording her weekly iNote, Nadine could sense the sneering judgment of the awaiting @HomeLearning class. As if the finished footage somehow rendered visible the garland of notes, cues and prompts she still insisted on pinning around the touch-and-tag tutorial screen. Determinedly behind the times, what was keeping Professor Cullen afloat was the fact that she knew her Former World science so very well.
– “A true enigma this place. That’s what it is.”
She liked the sound of that for starters.
– “What we have here is a place of mass burial: by humans, of animals.”
Easy does it. The shorter the better. Communicate a sense of wonder.
– “Other lives”.
She intoned the words gravely. Then paused. The boom mike operator leaned forward instinctively. Nadine turned to face the camera direct.
– “Alien to us, and yet strangely familiar. We’re trying to unpick this puzzle, using what we uncover, as a record of existence.”
The reporter smiled encouragingly, nodding his assent. Slants of pale evening sunlight broke through the cloud-base, illuminating the headland above, catching the profile of chins, noses and brows below. "Golden hour," they call it in the business, where the play of shadow throws everything into stark relief. Suddenly, quite miraculously, she was on a roll.
– “They were animal lovers. We know that from the grave goods. Plastics were popular. Recycled household objects. But stone carvings are plentiful too. More and more of these miniature effigies are being excavated each day. Fairly crude examples of art. Cartoonish, would be one way of describing them. Sentimentalithic is the more technical term we like to use.”
“And they were ritualists these people. Making appeals for the souls of the dear departed. But it was a highly species-selective culture. Commemorating domesticants, exclusively; canines and felines, predominantly. Plenty of small rodent remains here too. The odd fish and fowl specimen. This was once a "pet cemetery" so-called. The memorable choice of placename would be ironic, if it wasn’t so tragic. We know they made this site during the planet’s sixth mass extinction event. Thousands of species disappeared for good. Curiously enough it was the loss of companion animals that appears to have mattered most to them. On the basis of the evidence, it’s very hard to fathom what principles their belief system was founded on.”
Clock-watching, the huddle was buffeted by a heftier gust. Nadine saw the anxious gesture to keep rolling, and needed no second invitation.
– “But the chief difficulty we archaeologists face, as always, is accurately fixing a date to a place. The surviving tombstone inscriptions are what make this site unique, and so significant historically. They fix it exactly: late first, early second millennium.”
Take a deep breath: here comes the science.
– “You see we can’t actually carbon date any of this stuff, either artifacts or mortal remains. The emissions caused by the calamitous burning of fossil fuels, coal and oil chiefly, mean that this something like this,”
She paused briefly, picking up a small porcelain figurine of a curled-up cat that lay at her feet.
– “Well this has the same radiocarbon date as the new weather-proof jacket that you’re wearing today. The accepted measurement technique is completely blown. Basically, the ancients’ failure to reduce emissions means that today we deal only in, well, what you might call: ‘bad dates’. Everything appears as old, or as new, as everything else. It’s timeless, all of it: only in the wrong way. The impact is quite profound if you stop and think about it. A connection between past and present inhabitants forever lost.”
– “And cut! We’ll call it a day there I think. You really found your feet there.”
Seconds after the signal to wrap, the crew was bent double. Transformed into a blur of unclipping, stuffing and packing. There would need to be cuts, of course. Night-work for editing and post-production.
– “Felt like you got under the skin of the story.”
Shamanic moment over, Nadine’s ornery professorial self fussed its way back into the scene.
– “Do you think you might find a way to get a mention in for the funding agency?”
– “That’s a level of detail we don’t normally deal with. Not to camera anyway. Capsular news can’t cope with research councils. ShowTime can embed any partner details in the optional extras. Of course, there’d be significant associated costs you do understand.”