ANC2002.36 was found on Christmas Day in the shadow of the Deir Sitt Damiana Coptic Church in southern Egypt. Our excavation crew had grumbled that morning about the injustice of working on the holiday, but by lunch- time we had all made the pilgrimage to the grave at the far end of the cemetery, to gawk at our macabre Christmas present. At the bottom of a rectangular pit, pressed against a white limestone cobble floor, was a tiny pair of legs and feet. The knees were bent and facing to the left, as though the body had been carefully arranged to rest on its side nearly five thousand years before. Above the dirt-stained left femur were stacks of white ivory bracelets, once meant for slight wrists now missing. The entire upper body seemed to have vanished, as though by some strange magic. Together, the remaining bones and ornaments were an elegant still life, striking in its stark composition, beautiful even in that vast Pharaonic cemetery full of elite dead and their prized possessions for the afterlife.
The archaeologists were ecstatic, their excited voices signaling the rarity of their discovery. The excavations that season had already yielded the sacrificed bodies of three women and a man, each solemnly laid out in a grave with translucent alabaster vessels, or pottery inscribed with the king’s name, or amber-colored carnelian beads. But why murder a child? Had it been strangled or drugged? Was it a boy or a girl? The archaeologists began the slow, painstaking task of charting the coordinates of each bone fragment, each bracelet, capturing every detail in digital photographs and pencil drawings on graph paper. By the end of the day, ANC2002.36 could be understood in two dimensions, flattened and made legible. At dusk, the body was covered with a white shroud of Tyvek — a strange sort of tucking in — meant to shelter it not from childhood nightmares but from the caprices of the sun and wind. The edges of the cloth were weighted with lines of sand, a way of ensuring that the remains would still be there for us the next day.
I am a conservator, not an archaeologist. I preserve objects, things, the fragments of past lives that archaeologists uncover during excavation. I clean objects of their burial dirt and accretions, reassemble vessels and sculptures from their puzzle pieces, conserve the pigments on painted objects’ surfaces so that they can come alive again and be recognized and known. But my tools, brushes, and adhesives are useless for the dead. While archaeologists and physical anthropologists work to reconstruct the lives that these bones once lived and lost, conservators have no power to remake bodies and render them whole again. But the child’s femur, tibia, and fibula were broken in several places, and the archaeologists asked whether I could bandage those breaks and remove the bones intact. How could I not oblige, even if those delicate legs and feet were at their most graceful lying in the ground?
In the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the deep and narrow grave grew familiar. I would leave the upper world, with its toiling workmen, relentless wind, and views of the high desert looming in the far distance, to descend into a world bounded by four mud-plaster walls, anchored by the child’s legs and bracelets. Often there were two of us in that space, performing a slow-moving dance as we awkwardly shifted our suddenly overgrown bodies on sandbags to avoid bone fragments and pottery. The most comfortable position I could find was one of odd obeisance, kneeling at the child’s feet to perform my strange preparations. Over the course of days, I laid slivers of tissue paper across the jagged breaks in the bones and fixed them in place like invisible bandages. Sometimes the bone drew the wet tissue to itself, desperate, or so I imagined, for some little comfort; but at other times, the tissue refused to hold, as if the bone were rejecting that final indignity by those who had disturbed it. We lifted the legs out of the tomb on New Year’s Eve, transferring them from the floor to a tray prepared with soft foam for the mile-long journey to the excavation workrooms. Most of my bandages held, but a few sprang apart, unwilling to abet our transgression.
On New Year’s afternoon, I made my final descent into the grave, to retrieve the child’s ivory bracelets. Cracked and broken into hundreds of fragments, they seemed forlorn and hopeless without the crooked legs that had kept them company for nearly five millennia. I remember thinking that I was getting sentimental — as if bracelets could feel mournful! I ascribed it to staying up so late the night before, or the emotional weight of beginning a new year in the Egyptian desert far from home, or the accumulated exhaustion of a long excavation season. But even in the conservation workroom, the bracelets continued to shatter, fracturing into smaller and smaller pieces with every attempt to rejoin them. I could explain this rationally; from the moment the earth offered up the bracelets on Christmas Day, the humidity and sun and wind had begun damaging the ivory. But I could not assuage my frustration, my guilt. At night I would close my eyes and see ivory fragments breaking, joining, and breaking again. By day, in my workroom filled with so many objects waiting to be mended, I was drawn again and again to the bracelets. Only five of twenty-five could be reformed.
At the end of the excavation season, we performed the final rites of separation. The assemblages and accretions of history so carefully dug and pried apart by hand trowels and brushes were sorted into labeled Ziploc bags and firmly sealed shut. In one workroom, the child’s body was subdivided and packed; even the toe bones were wrenched apart and classified. In the next room, I filled bag after bag with pieces of ivory, small and precious like a child’s milk teeth, hoping that they might one day become bracelets again, knowing that they might not. We placed the body and bracelets in the dark, dusty storeroom. They sat on different shelves, separated by other boxes of tagged bodies divorced from their numbered objects, once meant to protect and comfort them in the afterlife. We drove away from the excavation house in a cloud of dust, passing the vast cemetery and, in the distance, the place where the child had lain alone with its talismans. After a turn in the dirt road, the white domes of the house disappeared, and ANC2002.36, left behind, entered a new kind of exile, awaiting our return another year.