Under the hot sun of a Saturday afternoon in Goree, Senegal, Raina Croff GRD ’05 crouched in the dirt. She held a dental instrument while Cris Koortzen, her second-in-command, maneuvered the sawed off handle of a spoon. With these makeshift tools, they picked at the earth that had hidden their discovery for at least 100 years. Just this morning, it had emerged, a gray, knotted cord, uncovered by one of their assistants, Yaya, as he bulldozed through the earth with his trowel. It looked like a root, but the pile of bones they had uncovered beside it suggested otherwise. Today was supposed to be a day off after a week of work, but, for historical archeologists on a Fulbright Scholarship, the discovery of a human skeleton has a way of rearranging priorities.

“You guys are going to laugh at us if this turns out to be a root,” Raina said to me and Barrie, my fellow volunteer. The two of us were sitting within the red and white striped tape that marked off the dig, part of the crew. This morning we too had been down digging in the dirt, but now we could only watch, barely a step removed from the gawking tourists behind us.

As a study abroad student in Dakar, I had been in this position before — hung between the ignorance of a tourist and the knowledge of a local, neither completely lost nor entirely comfortable. The tourists didn’t notice the tension of the scene they were watching — but I was waiting for a revelation — about this artifact, about this island, about my life in West Africa.

Raina couldn’t stand it anymore. She had to know. If this were a skeleton, it would be a major find. She needed to test the earth, to distinguish calcium from root, and she knew one way how: to taste it. Only bone would stick to the end of her tongue.

She glanced around to make sure both tourists and locals were well away from the site, and then licked a chip of the gray, flaky substance. We waited.

Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a 15 minute ferry ride off the coast of Dakar, one of West Africa’s few thriving cities. To the tourists who flock here, the island is known for only one thing: a door at the end of a dark hallway that opens westward onto the bright and endless expanse of ocean. This is the “Door of No Return,” at the Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves.

For years, Goree was a clearinghouse for slaves, where hundreds of Africans were herded in chains onto ships bound for the Americas. The museum at the Maison des Esclaves perfectly expresses the two levels in this drama. From the black shadows of the basement, sweeping white staircases lead to the open floor above. The top level of the bright, airy house was once the domicile of the slave traders. The dark rooms below served as dungeons for human “merchandise.”

The moving story beckons presidents, popes and movie stars to the photo-op island. Gift shop photos capture these luminaries standing at the edge of the same dark hallway, solemn and teary-eyed. But the story they hear, the tourist story, is not what won Raina the Fulbright that brought her here.

Although still a “toubab,” a foreigner, Raina has, through her work, returned again and again to Dakar. A pioneering student of Dakar’s study abroad programs, she has returned almost every year afterwards, visiting and working, excavating at Goree. Now a Ph.D candidate in Yale’s anthropology department, she returned on a Fulbright Scholarship to head her own team and project. Even without the infrastructure of today’s study abroad programs, she has emerged on the other side of cultural rift that I, as a new student, found myself dangling above.

“Just wait until you see the layers,” Raina said, as we approached the site for the first time. “All the beautiful colors.” She stepped across the tape and crouched by a shallow rectangle of earth. The team had started digging three weeks before and had already opened up two spots of ground. They had been lucky so far. The deeper hole, a square two meters by two meters, revealed the right angle of a crumbling stone wall, the corner of a house that had been hiding just beneath the earth’s surface. The ground between the striped tape dividers yielded beads, European pottery and, in these newest layers, older, local pottery. Bits of fish bones, metal, shells and seeds, which would help the team date each layer, also emerged.

Peering down, I could barely distinguish the “vivid” layers of the walls, let alone spot a dirt-encrusted artifact. The entire site seemed one mess of brownish, vague gradations.

The Goree that interests Raina has more than the two layers on display at the Maison des Esclaves. Besides slaves and masters, it includes the “signares,” the African mistress-wives of the white slave traders, as well as a population of slaves that lived permanently on the island. The village of Bambaras (a word designating a Malian ethnic group, as well as slaves in general), the site of Raina’s dig, was home to the domestic slaves who served in the mansions of the slavers. Many masters were white men, but most Europeans who worked on Goree eventually returned to France, leaving their houses, and their slaves, to their signare mistresses. These beautiful women, often of mixed blood, became powerful symbols of African wealth and power. Today, Raina’s acquaintances on Goree sometimes call her signare, as a gesture of respect that she’s not entirely comfortable with.

As we arranged our tools, an old man dressed in bright robes stopped by to chat with Raina in the local language. He crouched down, leaning on his carved walking stick and looked intently into the site. Last week, he had crossed over to help them dig. He smiled as Cris handed me a brush and I began to clear off dirt.

The classic image of the archeologist painstakingly chipping stone and brushing dust off a bone glorifies the reality of an even less dramatic tedium. The very way the dirt varies can aid in the final analysis, but while the artifacts can be washed, dated and examined later, the layers themselves are progressively destroyed, and they must be categorized, enumerated and recorded in stacks and stacks of forms twice a day. Cris chuckled as I began tentatively scratching through the dirt with a trowel. “Is the work what you expected?” she asked.

Raina came over grinning and showed off a dusty prize, a carved, centimeter-long mouthpiece of a pipe that had been pulled from another site. My original scrapings turned up nothing, but I grew bolder and overturned dirt with vigor. I hit something — a spot of black charcoal three or four millimeters wide, evidence, I was sure, of the innermost struggles of the daily lives of slaves. I scraped gently around the spot, trying not to crack it, while waving Cris over. “I found something,” I said.

Cris laughed and told me to dig right through it. It was nothing more than the routine evidence of a grilled meal.

Discouraged and sun burnt, I realized my unjustified excitement was proving disconcertingly familiar. Like the rest of my life in West Africa, my foray into archeology consisted of a series of discoveries whose value I only briefly enjoyed. The delicious onion and lemon sauce, yassa, that I savored during my first meal turned out to be one of three standard lunch dishes. The Muslim call to prayer that wafted into my window at 6:30 each morning, which I regarded as a unique enjoyment, was nothing more than a nuisance to my Christian host family.

Unlike Raina, who quickly sifted treasures from the detritus, every routine speck of daily life still seemed an important discovery to me. My 18-page “cultural handbook,” based on years of study abroad experience and given to me by my program, could not teach me the confidence Raina seemed to have in sorting through her dig and through Senegalese life. I still blundered hopelessly into fragile situations, like tourist traps. The explanations offered there came in only two varieties: dos and don’ts. “If you bring anything into your house,” the book warned, “expect to share. Senegalese families share everything.” Yet, as my friends and I discovered, it wasn’t that simple. Putting personal food in the fridge was forbidden, but everyone hoarded their own set of batteries to use in the few appliances around the house. Whatever I had been expecting to discover in Dakar, all I had was a two-layer, black and white narrative, and a bunch of ambiguous fragments, as jumbled as the artifacts I was gathering into bags.

When, late that afternoon, we had laid out piles of artifacts, washed and dried, Raina picked up certain pieces of pottery like they were the most valuable crystals. Even if they seemed insignificant, when gathered together, Raina would be able to craft a larger picture out of them, just as she had created her life in Senegal. It didn’t matter if she figured out how everything fit together yet. This was only the beginning of the dig: there would be time later to tease out the details. In the days I was there, she was happy and relieved just to have started digging, after slogging through a first month of logistical hassles — arranging ferry passes, hiring a cook, buying supplies in Dakar, applying for permits — all infinitely complicated by the organizational hang-ups that seem to plague almost everything in Senegalese life.

On the final morning, before Raina had taken a second round of photographs, she instructed me to spray the walls of the site with water. Thin, distinct strips appeared: brownish-red, dusty brown, and thick yellow, each representing a different era. They divided Goree’s history, not only into two layers of master and slaves, but into a continuum, neither perfectly clear, or perfectly straight. As the sun rose higher and hotter, a growing audience of tourists gathered, insisting on clearing their throats and asking in Parisian-accented French what we were doing. They were satisfied with the obvious: this was an archeological dig and we were finding beads, pottery, bits of metal. They smiled, watched blankly for a few seconds, and moved on, to be replaced soon by another group. No one noticed the layers that even now in the sunlight stood out, clear and distinct. Nor did they notice Raina and Cris’s excitement as they scraped around what could be their most important discovery yet.

Barrie, Cris and I all looked at Raina. She stuck out her tongue, the tiny grey chip perched on the end.

“It sticks!” she said.

When I left Goree on the ferry that evening along with the tourists, Raina couldn’t tell me if the skeleton was human or not. As I waited on the dock, the wind blew, cold at 70 degrees. I looked around and realized I was shivering along with the Senegalese, while the tourists, fresh from frigid Europe, stood around in shorts. As the boat pulled away from the island, I saw, from the outside, the door at the end of the passageway in the Maison des Esclaves. Lodged in the yellow wall of the house, it looked like one of the charcoal smudges in the ground I had thought meant so much.

A week later, Raina delivered the final verdict on the bone discovery — it was an animal, not a human skeleton. It didn’t matter. Raina kept digging.

Back in Dakar, I returned to my own discoveries in daily life — the citywide obsession with a French-dubbed Argentinean soap opera, a delicious bakery, a university class that actually met. Some days, the harder days, I wondered still why I had ever chosen to study here. I wondered if, when Raina had first come here, she had known that Dakar would become such a huge part of her career and her life, or if, like me, it had seemed like one more random excavation or incongruous artifact. At least, I knew, it didn’t matter if I could tell my whole story, how all the pieces would fit together in the end. I had just gotten here. I was still down in the dirt, digging things up.