22 February 2023

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

'Mowgli' (front row, with a red scarf)

It was the 15th of September, 1989. The first day of school for a lot of kids. The school was in Obârșia de Câmp, a commune (the lowest administrative subdivision in Romania) located in Mehedinti Mehedinți County, Oltenia.

They were all in uniform. The teacher called out their names, having informed them that they would have to say something about themselves.


Andreea did not respond. No one knew her. The teacher did, though. She called out the name again, perhaps thinking that Andreea was a bit shy. Andreea did not respond the second time either.

So the teacher addressed her directly: ‘Aren’t you Andreea-Olguta Lica Jessen?’

‘I am Mowgli, the Greatest Archeologist!’

Everyone laughed. The teacher had gone up to her mother and confirmed the girl’s identity and reported back, ‘You ARE Andrea-Olguta Lica Jessen!’  ‘No, my name is Mowgli the Greatest Archaeologist,’ she had insisted. And eventually, when the truth was fully comprehended, she had simply told her mother, ‘I don’t like it. Why did you give it to me?’

But Mowgli? Archaeologist? The greatest archaeologist?

Apparently, her mother, a doctor, had loved to dress her up in white. The idea of clean, nice children appealed to her, as it is the case with all mothers. Andreea, unfortunately, was a wild child. She loved climbing trees. She hated combing her hair. She loved to dig.

’I was a pig,’ she says even now, quite proudly. But that wasn’t it. She had honestly thought she was black. She hadn’t seen anyone darker than herself. The other kids got red from the sun, but she got tanned quite fast. She was dark, in her mind and in the eyes of her family. Darker than her sisters, anyway. Dark enough to earn the name ‘Mowgli,’ which she embraced with pride. And that’s what all the kids in the neighbourhood called her.

They had moved to her maternal grandparents’ place in Obârșia de Câmp when she was very small and that’s where she picked up archaeology.

‘My Grandma, Alexandra, read stories to me. Grandpa, Dumeta Lica, hated reading children’s stories. He found them silly. He was a linguist but wasn’t allowed to practice and so he became a teacher. He was fascinated by archaeology. He had a lot of books and he taught me to read. He read to me from the Almanac. The two of them had a competition going. They wanted to see who I listened to more. They soon realized that I was getting bored with princes and princesses.  I mean, Snow White — is it legal for a woman to live with seven men in a house?  The stories I liked were about Egypt, about real people and real lives.  I got so much into it I thought I could become an archaeologist.

‘So, by the time I was four, since I was the only one in the neighbourhood who could read, I became the boss of all the kids,' she said. She duly turned them all into archaeologists.

‘We were digging the whole time. My best friend was the shovel. We dug up everything including flower beds. And when my mother came home she would find the flowers destroyed. But I always felt there was something to be found, something to be dug out. And we did find treasures such as shoes, spoons and coins.’

One day they had got into an old, abandoned house. The owner had died and since he didn’t have any relatives, the property was officially owned by the state. For ‘Mowgli’ it was a ruin and she was convinced that pirates must have been there. So she got everyone excited about what they may find. And they did find money in a hole under the bed. That’s not surprising, she said, because ‘in Romania people hide things all the time.’

The young team of archaeologists led by Mowgli were faced with a dilemma. Should they inform the police? Should they contact the museum. They decided to share the loot. Only Mowgli the Greatest Archaeologist knew about money because only she could read. ‘One is high, it is for winners,’ she had said, keeping the coins that had ’10’ on them for herself. Quite an enterprising archaeologist was Mowgli!

She was quite serious about archaeology though. She even had a place to keep all her treasures, a small cabin in the garden. The most prized possession was a German helmet they had dug up. I fascinated her so much that she had, at the time, been determined to go to Germany because, she figured, there was bound to be more helmets in that country.

It all ended when Mowgli was 14 when she saw a documentary on archaeologists. She learned about projects being rejected and realised that she didn’t like the idea of brushing stuff off for hours. She remembered a dig at some Viking village which had taken almost three years. Too long.  She had been shocked. She just didn’t have that kind of patience. Mowgli became a linguist, like her grandfather who had once told her while helping her understand a book about the development of Ibero-Romance languages, ‘One day not only would i be able to understand but will write books like that.’ 

There’s a Mowgli in all of us. And we used to be the greatest archaeologists, explorers, mountain-climbers, scientists, writers, dancers, jugglers and clowns. Some of us still are and it's a good thing. Some are not and that's not bad either. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road