The Closet of Mysteries
By Chris Epenshade
I was directing an excavation in south-central Puerto Rico. I was staying in the Hotel Melía, just off the square in Ponce. It was a nice, older hotel, and it was a half-block from the best ice cream shop on the island and a block from one of the best bakeries. The Melía had a gourmet restaurant and a nice, quiet bar. I remember that on my 50th birthday, being away from home, I decided I needed a rum and coke. I mentioned to the bartender that it was my 50th, and he said that couldn’t be right, I didn’t look that old. Okay, almost certainly he was working for a tip, but it was one of the many reasons I liked the Melía.
As part of our research, we were going to screen the recovered stone artifacts with Luminol to see if they had been exposed to blood. This was basically the same process as seen on CSI. There are various environmental factors that can create false positives, so you always need to test the site soils as well. This presented a bit of a challenge because the US Department of Agriculture frowned on you taking dirt from Puerto Rico to the mainland US. The solution was to test the soils on-island.
You may be aware the Luminol reactions can be hard to see, so the screening is best done in the dark. I was lucky to have had a large closet in my room at the Melía, so I laid down a trash bag, put out small piles of dirt from various site contexts, and put down a couple of pennies, which will glow if the Luminol is working. I closed the blinds, turned out the lights, took the spray bottle into the closet, and closed the closet door. Now, it is a little difficult to know exactly where you are spraying a mist in the dark, and I wanted to make sure I covered all of the dirt samples. I must have been extra, extra careful because I ended up spraying the entire floor and much of the back wall of the closet.
The dirt did not react. The pennies did, but it was a bit difficult to see because of the significant glow coming off the floor and back wall of the closet. I was not certain what exactly had happened in that closet, but a lot of biological material was dispersed (or it may have been a false positive on cleaning solutions), and it was probably better that I not know as I had to stay in that room for three more weeks. I never worked up the nerve to ask the owner if there was something I should know about my room. I simply avoided the closet for the remainder of my stay.
As archaeologists, we know the past is all around us. More so in some rooms than in others.
Chris Espenshade is a Senior Technical Advisor with New South Associates and has more than 37 years of experience in CRM. In 2019, he began creative writing and landed a side gig as an outdoors columnist for a weekly paper. For a more epic tale, please see https://underwoodpress.com/truechili/2019/06/01/jackrabbit-soup-by-chris-espenshade/