A metallurgist from Scio spends two weeks on a paleontology expedition in a French cave
Deep in a cave in southwest France lies an ancient, fragile skull, all that remains of a prehistoric horse.
Craig Eucken of Scio was there when it was uncovered. Now, he can't wait to find out what happened to it.
Eucken, 53, spent July 4-18 in that cave this summer, helping researchers uncover fragments of Neanderthal life from the Paleolithic Age.
It was all part of an expedition with an organization called the Earthwatch Institute, which gives laypeople an opportunity to work alongside scientists and researchers on projects all over the world.
Eucken does a lot of traveling already, through his job as Wah Chang's representative for a nuclear fuel industry research group. But at a conference a few years ago, he found himself listening with envy to a Bay Area engineer with General Electric who was casually mentioning trips to the Serengeti and the Gobi Desert.
Eucken figured he wouldn't mind a trip to the Gobi Desert himself. So he looked into the organization the engineer told him about.
He liked the mission of the group, which is to promote a sustainable environment. He researched the various opportunities — counting sea turtles in Costa Rica, surveying coral reefs in Jamaica, monitoring cheetahs in Namibia — and decided on the archaeological dig in Roc de Marsal.
A chance to see France
Eucken, a metallurgist, never had a particular interest in the Stone Age, or in anthropology in general. However, he does love France.
"I like to travel a little bit," he said. "So I'm looking at this list of projects scheduled for 2005, and I see France's Stone Age. I like France. They have good food there. What it said was, we're going to be excavating this Neanderthal cave, and it also said accommodations were these Egyptian expedition tents, and they were providing meals."
From what Eucken had read about Earthwatch projects, quite often, project members were on their own for food or had to prepare meals for the other members.
"So I'm saying to myself, gee, I could learn something about paleontology and so on, especially if they have a French cook who's providing meals for me," he said, laughing. "I could go for this."
The timing was also perfect, Eucken said, because his wife and grown children were to be at a family reunion in Minnesota. "They had something to do and didn't feel like they were being left behind."
It cost about $2,200, plus travel, for the two-week trip, Eucken said. Project costs vary. He also ended up renting a car, which earned him the group's "What a Guy" award, since not enough transportation was available for all the Earthwatch members.
The cave where Eucken's group gathered is in the Perigord Province. Nine Earthwatch volunteers worked there with about 15 students from the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Harold Dibble. The excavation started in summer 2004.
The researchers' goal is to use the uncovered artifacts to better understand the behavior of Neanderthals, Eucken said. "Maybe that tells us something about why they died out."
Eucken stayed in a canvas expedition tent near a farmhouse, which had toilets and showers.
Every day, the group would leave for the cave at about 8:30 a.m. and spend the day using hand trowels, dental picks and small, soft brushes to excavate their particular square. That work was alternated with washing, labeling and screen-sorting the various finds in the farmhouse lab.
Volunteers received a crash course in paleontology the first day — "a whole two hours of it," Eucken quipped — but the jobs were easy to learn. He did a lot of the "wet screening" work, in which bags of sediment were dumped onto screens for sorting.
The research group usually would return to the farmhouse about 5:30 p.m., have a shower, and scavenge in the communal refrigerator for a beer — which cost the equivalent of about 35 cents, Eucken said. (Being France, he noted, the red wine was free.)
The cook, it turned out, was indeed a professional. However, she was Swiss, not French, and worked as a caterer in the Philadelphia area, Eucken said with a sigh.
Still, the food was good, he said, and he was able to sample the local cuisine during periodic excursions to surrounding areas. One trip, he said, brought them to the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, where the remains of a Neanderthal child are preserved. The remains were found in "our" cave, he said, during a brief excavation in the 1960s.
Eager to return
Eucken never found much more than bone shards and flakes from stone tools in his own excavation square, although he carefully bagged each one for the research team. In the square next to his, however, a researcher uncovered the skull of a horse, probably the remains of a Neanderthal meal.
Museum preservationists warned the group to cover the find with plaster so it wouldn't shatter when removed. Eucken's trip, however, ended before he could see that happen.
It was a hard moment, Eucken said, having to walk away. His eyes still mist over when he thinks about it.
"The opportunity to see something that hasn't been seen for 30,000 years ... ." he said, his voice trailing off. "I've never touched 30,000-year-old bones before.
"I'm hoping that they didn't get the whole thing finished this year, 'cause I'm very eager to go back and do it again next year."