Summer 1970 – my introduction to field archaeology. I had a newly minted B.A. degree in my hand and no practical experience, yet here I was, one of a crew of four (Gil, Bob, Don and me – yes, I was the only female), traveling around the province of Saskatchewan, testing and evaluating sites.
I saw more of the province that summer than I had seen in my previous twenty-three years growing up there. We traveled most of its length and breadth. We tromped through badlands and ravines, and across pastures and sand hills and cultivated fields; we threaded our way through forests and bush. We excavated at campsites and bison kill sites (at one, I fell into a deep looter’s hole and found myself up to my armpits in stinging nettles). We found sites worthy of further work and others that were nothing at all. We camped in farmers’ back yards, in abandoned buildings and sometimes even in real campsites. I learned the difference between real artifacts and rocks that only look like artifacts (sorry, sir, it’s not an artifact just because it “fits the hand real good.”).
We met marvelous people who invited us into their homes, who shared meals and stories and laughter with us. We met others who could most generously be described as “interesting.”
And I had to face down a long-standing fear.
We were walking across a pasture – probably looking for tipi rings – when Bob scurried off, zig-zagging through the grass. When he stood up, he held – a snake! A grass snake, he called it. Opheodrys vernalis, if you really want to know. Green as the grass it had been sliding through. The three guys admired it, thought it a beauty. Then Bob walked over to me and dangled the writhing snake in my face. “Want to hold it?”
Hold that image for a moment while I digress.
I hated snakes. They were icky. Slimy. Disgusting. In grade school, the boys took great delight in chasing us girls with any garter snake that made the mistake of slithering through the school yard. Of course, we ran away shrieking as only girls do when chased by boys wielding snakes. And now, here I was being asked to hold one? Yuck! No way!
But another thought screamed through my brain simultaneously. I had worked with these three guys long enough to know that, if I refused, if I did the “girly” thing and screamed, they would forever harass me with snakes. I’d find snakes in my tent. I’d find snakes in my sleeping bag. There would be no respite.
I took a deep breath, put on a brave face and held out my hand. “Sure.”
What a surprise! The snake wasn’t cold and slimy. It was warm and dry. Its strong muscles flexed as it twisted and turned. Its pretty green scales glinted in the summer sun. It was quite harmless. I decided snakes weren’t that icky. Or slimy. Or disgusting.
Good thing I faced down that fear because the next summer we began excavations at a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post that was only a few miles south of a garter snake hibernaculum. But that’s a story for another time.
Why do we fear, or at least hate, snakes? There’s a term for it – ophidiophobia. Even Indiana Jones, every archaeologist’s hero, suffered from it. Yes, it’s wise to avoid those that are poisonous or constrictors, but the harmless ones? The garter snakes and green snakes? The bull snakes? The ones who are a threat only if you are a mouse or a rat or a gopher or a cricket?
Is it some primeval memory? Is it because they slither and slide rather than walk and stride? Because they hide in dark places? Because they remind us of dragons and other monsters? Because we – Christians, anyway – have been indoctrinated by the story of the evil, duplicitous serpent sweet-talking Eve into eating from the Forbidden Tree?
No one has a definitive answer but there seems to be concensus that it is hard-wired into our brains, in particular a region called the pulvinar. Researchers found that those neurons respond strongly to snake-like images. Children who have never seen a snake have the same neurological response as those who have seen snakes. Even our primate relatives have the same “Yikes! Danger!” response.
Perhaps it all relates back to our ancient primate ancestors of some 60 million years ago, a time when that ancestral population still lived in trees where, horror of horrors, snakes also lived. And hunted. For unwary ancestral primates.
Some people think snakes make the greatest pets – I’m not one of those. But neither do I fear snakes any longer. At least, not the harmless ones.
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