Sunday, February 1, 2009

Archaeology is Controlled Destruction

We destroy history even though we claim to be protecting it. But that's the catch, really, In order to interpret what's in the ground, you have to dig it up. Once you dig it up, it's gone.

This is a concept my cousin-in-law doesn't grasp.

We were at Mom and Dad's yesterday, hanging with Grandma or whatever, when mom's phone rings. She says, "she's right here!" and hands me the phone. Now, listen. No one in my family calls me unless they have a question. Those questions, you guessed it, are usually about "arrowheads" or some rock they found that they think looks like a petrified foot. Generally, I answer those questions. I've had many kids bring rocks to me, "what kind is it?" Well, I'm not a geologist, but I usually just say something so they feel good about themselves. I guess that's what Kurt was looking for when he called to relay this story:

He and a buddy are leasing 40 acres somewhere, you know, farming it. Well, they happened to see this nice rise in the middle of the field. Like,a big bump. So, they got curious and took a bobcat to the thing and found 60 arrowheads! (he tells me) He mentions it's right by the bend of a creek. Then he says they're 3-4 feet down already and asked me how far it will go on. They've found "them stones they grind food on," "black clay stuff." When he asks how far it will go I say, "I'm not telling you."

So, it really sounds like he knows what he's doing, right?

You can imagine what I want to say to him is worse than what I actually say. It goes something like this: You're breaking my heart with every word. I actually want to cry. You've dug down thousands of years and destroyed something beautiful that can never be replaced. I tell him also that he should have reported the site and that what he's doing is probably illegal. I said that I wish he would've told me so we could've documented the place. "We're videotaping and using shovels, going real slow." is his response. Then he asks what I mean by documenting.

I'm really mad at this point and I'm begging him to stop and telling him he has no idea what he's doing. Then I say, "If you find bones, please stop and report it." He says he will. Right. Then he mentions they're at least half way through anyway, so what does it matter?

I'm always amazed at how little people understand. Everyone knows I went to college to be an archaeologist. That's why they ask me questions. That's why you'd think they'd realize that they didn't go to school for that and shouldn't pretend they know how to do it. I've never once pretended to be an accountant, like, sneaking into H and R Block and doing someone's taxes. I've also never sneaked onto a job site and started constructing or laying brick. Why not? Because I don't fucking know how.

Of course everyone is an archaeologist. All you need is a shovel, a case of PBR, and a good buddy with a bobcat. It can't be that hard, right?

How do I get people to understand that archaeology is less about the products, but more about their placement in the soil? Does Kurt really think I dig huge holes and sack up points and that's it? I make maps, take notes, dig in 10 cm controlled levels usually 1x1 metre. It's like finding an antique that's a couple hundred years old, then taking it out and using it as target practice and then burning it in your wood stove.

And again, it all goes back to respect and racism. If there was a tombstone in the middle of the field, you bet you ass they wouldn't have touched the thing. If an old church were there, they wouldn't strip it apart and knock it over. At least, I hope they wouldn't.

Here's another thing to know about archaeologists: we always work for the bad guys. MoDOT wants to blow up a hill, we check first. If there's something there, we take it out so it won't be lost forever. For AMEC, the man made lake is flooding hundreds of sites. We take out that site so it doesn't wash away. Archaeologists, though, would choose to leave sites in the ground. It's the best way to preserve it. If there's a site that's not being adversely affected by anything, leave it where it is. Tell someone to report it to the State Historic Preservation Office. That way, no one will ever bother the thing.

Now, if you stumble across a projectile point lying in your own field, sure, I'll take a look at it and you can keep it.

But if you're ever out digging up a site, don't call me and ask me to "come take a look at it." I will not pat you on the back for finding artifacts with a bobcat and a shovel.

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Writer, teacher, and archaeologist. Contributing essayist in the anthology "Crooked Letter I: Coming Out In the South" from NewSouth Books.