In Groningen, in one of the university buildings, hulks the multimillion-euro Accelerator Mass Spectrometer. Hannah was there, this week, working on an archaeological research project. In the bowels of the great monster slowly turns a carousel with some fifty polished metal cartridges. At the tip, each contains a minute amount of graphite. Every 45 minutes or so a new cartridge is subjected to many, many volts of electrical power, disintegrating the graphite molecules and hurtling its component nuclear particles through a massive horseshoe magnet and around the corner into an array of highly delicate sensors. And just as light is bent and separated by a prism into its various colours, so the isotopes of carbon separate from less to more heavy as they pass through the magnetic field. 12C, 13C, and finally 14C. Analysis of the proportions of these isotopes in the graphite sample offers an indication of its age. Cost per sample approximately €350. And that’s where Hannah comes in. The graphite, in this case, had been reduced from bone samples: first leaching away all the calcium and impurities, then by some modern-day alchemy transforming the remaining collagen into the cartridges’ load. The bone samples, in turn, had been harvested on Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria. With her colleagues, before Assad’s days turned sour, Hannah had uncovered graves from well before the time of Abraham. Among others – and now I am more or less getting to the point of this lengthy introduction – the grave of an infant prematurely born. Let’s say it was someone’s daughter. Further analysis of her bones indicated that she had been coaxed into drinking her mother’s milk, and that her struggle for life must have continued for up to two months. And then she died. Nameless to us, she was loved by her mother. That’s one of the things an archaeologist needs to deal with. This little stone-age girl is more than an object of study. She was someone’s baby. By the way she was laid to rest, carefully, comfortably, accompanied by a few ornaments and a little votive bowl: someone cared, tiny as she was. And opening her grave means getting to know her, and through her, her mother, her family, her culture. That she died matters. Just as much as it matters that your little baby lived. Or perhaps died.
Sunday, 23 December 2012
Let's hear it for the babies!
Groningen. Enschede. Dogbo.
In Enschede, starting last week, stands the Glass House, manifestation of ‘3FM Serious Request’. A popular Dutch radio station has hosted this initiative each Christmas for the past decade or so. Each time in a different city, three persons, BN-ers (‘Well-known Netherlanders’) from the entertainment industry, are locked into a glass studio. Visible in all but their most intimate moments to the Christmas-shopping public, unable to partake in pre-Christmas cheer, unable to go home to their loved ones, unable to eat-drink-and-be-merry. From the moment the door is locked behind them until their release on the night before Christmas, they will be there, taking their turn behind the microphones and soliciting donations for aid and development projects. A simple philosophy drives the initiative: Christmas is for giving. Not just to ourselves, for once, but to those who are less fortunate. Each year, ´Serious Request´ touches the hearts of more people, young and old. Millions of euro´s are brought to the Glass House or pledged online. This year, the object of the project is to counter needless deaths of Third World babies. `Let´s hear it for the babies´, is this year´s slogan. Prematurely born, but with every chance of surviving, given the necessary care. Or 2 months old and dehydrating because of diarrhoea, perfectly treatable for less than the price of a can of soda. Or a year old and struggling to gain weight because of ignorance and a wholly inadequate diet. Not everyone’s heart is touched. I read columns and blogs entitled: Why I won’t be giving for A Serious Request. A cynic to the left proclaims: the money would be better spent promoting birth control; overpopulation is what we should be fighting, not the death of babies who will only grow up in unremitting poverty. And a concerned Christian to the right: what humanistic hypocrisy, to be soliciting funds for relief on the one hand, while excluding God from aid programs and promoting abortion on the other. No doubt they’ve both got a point. But at Christmas time and always: when a baby dies it matters.
In Dogbo, babies die. And other babies live. We just spoke to Mariette, and she was very happy to say that little Joyce was doing much, much better. Yes, Mariette: we left the baby in her charge after its release from hospital two weeks ago, and our departure for the Netherlands, where we are spending time with family and friends. Little Joyce was eating and drinking, accepting her medication and her vitamins, and gaining weight by the day. Just this morning her father had re-appeared, shamefaced but relieved as well. He had spoken of the sickness and disappearing of his wife, of his own powerlessness, and of his joy that his baby had survived. Mariette had asked permission to keep the baby with her for the time being. Permission? he had said. It is I who should ask your permission before deciding anything concerning the child. She is with you and your ‘patron’, and now she is alive. It seems we have adopted a baby. I’m not sure what is to become of that, but one thing is certain. She matters.
Let’s hear it for the babies!