Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Pamunkey Project

So I wrote an update last week, albeit possibly not a very interesting one, which I now can't post. I'm having some technical difficulties in accessing it to finish it. I have two computers (a four year old Macbook and a secondhand Dell Mini), running two different operating systems, which you'd think would be really convenient for a lot of things. Sometimes, when they both work, it even is. But a lot of the time it's just twice the trouble. I'm not even that bad with technology, just super unlucky. (Okay, I occasionally do something idiotic, but not this time.) Anyway, that post is back on the back burner while I figure out what happened to it and whether I can get it back. I'm going to finish this one instead.

Back in July, I had the good fortune of accompanying the field crew to the Pamunkey Indian Reservation on an outing arranged for the benefit of the students in the William & Mary/Colonial Williamsburg summer field school. It was an exciting opportunity for me personally because I'm interested in Native American history in general and because I wrote two extensive research papers last semester about relations between the first English settlers at Jamestown and the local Indians, including the Pamunkey. It was an especially exciting opportunity, for everyone who went, because one member of the field crew and one of the field school TAs are both members of the tribe; the latter is also the director of the museum on the reservation, and they're both very connected to their Pamunkey identity and were eager to share their history and culture with their students and coworkers.

There's a certain level of abstraction and disconnect involved when white people try to learn about Indian issues. Even if that barrier is an unconscious one, or even if it's one you recognize and consciously try to get around, it's still there. So I think it's a really powerful thing to be able to connect those issues with people you've worked with, people you've had a drink with in the pub. And, from the other side, I think it's a really powerful thing to go beyond just working or talking with someone with a different set of experiences from yours and actually get to see a little slice of their world. Either way you look at it, it really brings things home in a way that can be hard to accomplish otherwise.

(Did you know that Indians weren't allowed to attend public schools until the 1960s?!)

Also, a lot of people seem to be unaware that there are still American Indians in the eastern states, let alone reservations. Perhaps they're vaguely aware of some small reservations in New England or upstate New York, but not much else. They assume that the local Indians all died out or were driven west centuries ago. I blame this at least partly on our school system. I know that my own education was woefully lacking in Native American history. I remember learning about them in the context of early exploration and the wars of the eighteenth century, and I remember learning about the Trail of Tears and about the Indian Wars out West in the late nineteenth century—Geronimo and the Apache, Chief Joseph, "Custer's Last Stand" (ugh) against the Lakota and others. But there were many gaps, historical and cultural, and many details left out or glossed over. As far as my immediate surroundings were concerned... I remember learning in third or fourth grade about the pre-European-settlement inhabitants of the area where I grew up: They were the Lenape, and they were missionized and sometimes educated by the Moravian settlers, and treaties were made with them (sometimes unfairly) by colonial leaders. After the eighteenth century, all Native Americans sort of dropped out of the picture of Pennsylvania history. I learned much later that many, perhaps most, had gone west to the Ohio Valley and eventually to Oklahoma, where the Delaware reservation is today. Only as an adult did I discover that they are not gone, nor have they ever been; the tribe has neither state nor federal recognition in the region it originally inhabited, but many people remained after the migrations west, often concealing their Native identities and passing down their traditions in secret.

The history of the Pamunkey people is just as fascinating. (I wonder if it's also just as much a mystery to locals. It wouldn't surprise me, but the existence of the reservation and the presence that Virginia's Indians have in regional culture and politics might give them some advantage of visibility that the Delaware have lacked in most of their original homeland.) Their reservation is one of two in the state, on land they chose in accordance with what I imagine is one of the earliest such treaties in the U.S. (1677), and the tribe still, to this day, pays annual tribute to the governor of Virginia as stipulated by that treaty—so no one can ever accuse them of not keeping their end of the agreement.

In the museum on the reservation, I learned about something awesome which I had somehow never heard of: the Pamunkey project, which was a large-scale undertaking in experimental archaeology in the 1970s. I had trouble looking up any more details about it, but from what I've gathered it sounds like basically, a group of researchers went out into the woods for a period of time and did their best to live the way the ancestors of today's Pamunkey people would have been living just before the English arrived in the early seventeenth century. They made their own tools and pottery and used them to build shelters and hunt and cook game, among other things. The best part, to me, is that the experiment was/is two-fold. First was the figuring-out of traditional technology, both making and using, and as a bonus creating objects that could later be displayed in the Pamunkey museum, filling in gaps where there are no surviving artifacts or only damaged ones, and second is the part where the site(s?) where the researchers lived and worked and built their shelters can be left alone for a hundred years and then excavated. Looking at what happens to a known and documented site in that time will help future archaeologists make sense of actual Woodland-Period sites. Brilliant. It's a control sample for archaeology! And it's like some kind of recursive time capsule, which is just plain awesome.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Rational Thought vs. The Media

Because I prefer National Geographic News to listening to various idiots argue about the economy, here are two short and interesting articles about the archaeology of Pre-Columbian Peru:

The first one (here) is actually a week old now, but as we've learned already, I run behind the times. Anyhow, it seems last week was the 100-year anniversary of the first excavations at Machu Picchu after its "discovery" by American historian/archaeologist Hiram Bingham (a senator AND possible inspiration for Indiana Jones, if you weren't aware). Bingham's work at the site is credited with bringing it into public focus and causing it to become the famous tourist destination it is today, and has also resulted in repatriation issues between the Peruvian government and Yale University, where most of the artifacts and remains from those early excavations wound up. Interesting stuff. The NatGeo piece linked above presents a sort of mini history on the theories about Machu Picchu's purpose, the most credible at the moment being that it functioned as a retreat for Inca royalty, a highly symbolic religious site, or some combination of the two.

This is where the whole "tolerance for ambiguity" comes in—most likely, no one is ever actually going to know why Machu Picchu exists or who lived there. There's always going to be more than one possible explanation, and which if any of them is correct is anybody's guess. Interpreting archaeological evidence is often like putting together one of those puzzles with the flat-edged pieces, where you can match up groups of pieces in an assortment of ways, but there's only one way to fit all of them together at once. In archaeology, you're missing a few pieces, so you can put together all the ones that are left, but usually in more than one way, and you can't ever be sure whether you've got it right or not.

Speaking of which...

The second article at hand went up on Thursday and is about a recent discovery of a pre-Inca tomb.

Basically, the grave of an important person was uncovered at a site that has previously yielded evidence of human sacrifice. Cool. Said important person was buried with grave goods that included big copper knives. Also cool. Big knives are apparently common in noble graves from this culture—they're a status symbol.

And yet the article's headline, the topic sentence, the photo caption, and various phrasing used throughout the article consistently claims that this person was an "executioner" or a "sacrificer". Sometimes there's a subtle qualifier like "so-and-so suggests", but other times the article here straight-up states that the grave belongs to someone who ritually killed people, as if it's a known fact.

Kids... this is what we call CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE.

He's buried with knives at a place where women were sacrificed. Nothing about this proves that he was the sacrificer. The knives alone aren't even very good evidence to support that theory given that they're not an uncommon type of grave good for the time and place. It's an intriguing interpretation, and certainly not impossible, but it's not the only interpretation and probably not even the most likely one. National Geographic latched onto it because it will get people's attention and cause them to click on links. Maybe that's not inherently bad or wrong, but there's a way of presenting something like this that's balanced and not misleading, and then there's... well, the way they did it. If you want to inform the public, by all means do so, but draw a clear line between fact and speculation. Your interpretation of the evidence is merely that, and it really bothers me when a generally respected source like National Geographic fails to make that clear and instead gives into sensationalism.

The great poet W. H. Auden sums it up nicely (from "Archaeology"): "Knowledge may have its purposes,/ but guessing is always/ more fun than knowing."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Out Of That Random Rubble

I have been doing a really poor job of updating this thing. It's a little surprising given the time I have spent on things like, say, playing Sporcle, but it's also not at all surprising considering my history of following through on things. I'm working on some stuff, but I'm afraid nothing is complete enough to be upload-worthy at the present moment. Plus my computer's throwing a fit about something and it's taken two hours and a forced restart for me to be able to post this.

At any rate, I wanted to share this wonderful poem by Katha Pollitt: “Archaeology”:

You knew the odds on failure from the start
that morning you first saw or thought you saw,
beneath the heatstruck plains of a second-rate country
the outline of buried cities. A thousand to one
you'd turn up nothing more than the rubbish heap
of a poor Near Eastern backwater:
a few chipped beads,
splinters of glass and pottery, broken tablets
whose secret lore, laboriously deciphered,
would prove to be only a collection of ancient grocery lists.
Still, the train moved away from the station without you.
How many lives ago
was that? How many choices?
Now that you've got your bushelful of shards
do you say, give me back my years
or wrap yourself in the distant
glitter of desert stars,
telling yourself it was foolish after all
to have dreamed of uncovering
some fluent vessel, the bronze head of a god?
Pack up your fragments. Let the simoom
flatten the digging site. Now come
the passionate midnights in the museum basement
when out of that random rubble you'll invent
the dusty market smelling of sheep and spices,
streets, palmy gardens, courtyards set with wells
to which, in the blue of evening, one by one
come strong veiled women, bearing their perfect jars.

To me, that's what archaeology is all about. I guess deep down we all dream of temples and tombs and... whatever the equivalent would be in American historical archaeology. But the more ubiquitous debris of everyday life is just as, if not more, enticing. I see the tourists come through CW and get excited about seeing a glass bottle or a couple of cow bones. Those things are exciting to archaeologists, too (They are to me, at least; I suppose I'm too young to speak for those a bit more jaded), but not just on the surface. They're also exciting to archaeologists because sometimes when we look at them, we see so much more. That's why I wanted to become an archaeologist instead of a historian—because I want to understand the everyday, the things too mundane and too obvious in their day to make it into the history books. We are not permitted to time travel, so we dig. And then we imagine.

On a personal note, I am still in Williamsburg, but I've switched over to doing lab work now, helping sort and process the artifacts that have been brought in. It's fine, but I won't lie: As nice as it is to sleep in another half hour and work at a table in an air-conditioned building, it's a bit of a letdown after five weeks in the field. As Kent Flannery famously wrote, “archaeology is... the most fun you can have with your pants on.”

It's good to see the whole process, though. I think all aspiring archaeologists should have to experience all aspects of archaeology at some point, and although I occasionally allude to my field school's many flaws, I will say that that's one thing it did very well, making sure all its students got to work on everything at least once. Lab work can be boring and lonely compared to excavation, and it's not for everyone, but I appreciate it. Not just because it's a break from manual labor, but because it's refreshing to see some of the results of all the sweat and bruises and shower drains clogged with dirt. I love the moment of discovery when someone pulls something awesome—an intact bottle, the bowl of a pipe, a gleaming jawbone—out of a hole in the ground, and I love being able to see the soil features coming to light underneath my trowel, to see how things are laid out and how they fit together in person instead of trying to make sense of the photos and maps later on. But it's in the lab where you can really see the scope of the artifacts recovered—bags and drawers and piles full of them!—and where you can finally examine them without the dirt and sift through the soil samples for tiny treasures like beads and pins and fish scales, things you'd never spot in the field no matter how careful you were or how sharp your eyes. Finding a padlock in the flotation machine (which I haven't, but which happened to someone here a few weeks ago) may not be quite as dramatic as picking it up from the place it hit the ground two hundred years ago, but I don't think it's inherently any less exciting.

Okay, maybe I'm trying to convince myself a little bit here.

A lot of field techs are field techs because they vastly prefer the sweat and the dirt to the repetitive tedium of the lab. I don't think I had ever been more aware that I'm one of them until I'd spent several days in the lab here picking through thousands of miniscule fragments of brick and bone and shell and glass and wanting to scream. I still don't believe I hate lab work unilaterally, because I've definitely had enjoyable experiences, too, but I had a very hard time with this particular transition. It's been good in some ways, though—I've enjoyed learning how to do flotation, and everyone seems to be in awe of my ability to spot teeny tiny beads among all the bits and pieces (to which I say, “Er... my mom makes costume jewelry. I've been looking at little glass beads my whole life.”). The other day I found four or five of them still strung on a bit of corroded copper wire, which really was very exciting.

I am trying very hard to remember that poem and that usually it is after the digging is done that we can begin to put all the pieces together and make sense of what we've found.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On The Irony of Archaeology, Or, Jimmy Knight and the Trenches of Despair

“The nice thing about Colonial Williamsburg,” someone told me during my first week as an intern, “is you always know who to blame.”

Well, not always, but often. More often than at many other sites that have been disturbed at some point in the recent, or even not-so-recent, past. That's because in CW, we, the researchers, are sometimes to blame.

On my second or third day on-site, I was introduced to the “Jimmy trench”, as it's commonly referred to by Williamsburg archaeologists. It's also often called simply “a Jimmy”. There's not just one of them, though. They're everywhere. Hundreds of them, cutting across nearly every part of the colonial area. They appear now as relatively narrow dark stripes in the soil, with very straight edges (clearly man-made), where they were dug and then filled in later with dirt that didn't necessarily match what was around it. They may vary a little in width and somewhat more in depth, but, as I understand it, there's no mistaking them. Excavating them takes extra time, can be awkward if they're particularly deep, and is rather dull work compared to some of what's there to be excavated besides the Jimmies.

So what is a Jimmy? In the 1930s/40s, when restoration work at Colonial Williamsburg was first underway, the foundation's architectural historians faced the challenge of determining exactly where the buildings indicated on eighteenth century maps had been located on the ground, not to mention how big they were, which direction they faced, and various other details that become necessary when trying to recreate something exactly as it once was.

And if one wants to locate the buried foundations of hundreds of structures spread across a large swath of land, what's the most efficient way to go about it?

According to James Knight, the architectural historian for whom the Jimmies are not-so-affectionately nicknamed, by systematically digging parallel trenches, so many feet apart, across every plot of land in the area in question.

They served their purpose: It's very unusual nowadays to uncover the foundation of an unknown building in CW. Nearly all that exist were found and recorded decades ago, even if, for whatever reason, it was decided not to reconstruct that particular building. Unfortunately, what Jimmy's trenches also did was disturb everything in them. They cut through other features that Jimmy and his crews weren't interested in, and any artifacts in them, dug up and dumped back in, are now completely out of context. They may or may not be anywhere near their original resting places or other artifacts with which they were once associated, and all time periods are jumbled up together. The Jimmies can tell modern archaeologists very little aside from where Jimmy (under whose name are now lumped all the men who ever did the actual digging for him) was. Which was everywhere.

Hooray: Wanton destruction in the name of research. It's a common theme in early “archaeology”, when people were singlemindedly looking for one thing, be it Pre-columbian treasures or just colonial-era building foundations, and completely disregarded everything else, never imagining that the other information they were obliterating might be useful to future researchers.

To be fair, Jimmies did far less damage than some other methods would have; at least the area between them remains more or less untouched, except where there are other trenches for utility lines and sewer pipes—and those we would have to contend with anyway. The Jimmy trench may be the bane of the CW archaeologist, but as irritating modern features go, they're relatively benign. Nonetheless, I was still reminded of the tale I heard in Belize about an “archaeologist” in the discipline's early days who went around dynamiting the tops off of Maya pyramids in an effort to get at the treasures inside. I saw one of those disfigured temples at Xunantunich—not a pretty sight, either literally or in terms of what it represents. In the olden days (also known as the early decades of the twentieth century...), archaeologists really were somewhat like Indiana Jones: looters and treasure-hunters, not systematic researchers.

It's worth noting that not only was this a broader phenomenon than the raiding of ancient ruins, but here in Williamsburg, destruction took place even before the first limited archaeology could be undertaken. The restoration and reconstruction of Williamsburg's historic area to an approximation of its 1770s appearance did not take place on land that had gone unused in the intervening century and a half, and required that nearly all of the more recent buildings be torn down. Many of these were also historic buildings, dating from as far back as the early nineteenth century, but didn't make the cut because of the focus on recreating colonial-era Williamsburg.

I'm not going to pass judgment on this, but I think it's worth knowing and bearing in mind, along with the other facts of how the landscape and layout of the town were altered by the restoration. I think the question it raises about when and how something becomes a part of history, even if it obscures or comes into conflict with an earlier part of history (What do you save? Where do you draw the line? Who gets to decide?), is worth thinking about, and it's something I'll probably return to in the future. The bottom line is that the past is not some static entity. Time does not happen in easily defined stages, succeeding one another neatly with abrupt, simultaneous change. It's an overlapping jumble of many people's many actions in many times. It's a rare site indeed where anyone can try to turn back the clock to an earlier time without undoing what's happened since. The eradication of nineteenth-century Williamsburg, as well as the Jimmy Knight trenches and the clay-filled ravines that plague our excavations, is as much a part of the story of Williamsburg as the eighteenth-century material we're actually looking for.

Restoration often springs from archaeology; archaeology often results in restoration. They are linked by the sharing of information, but also by their inherent destructiveness. It's been said in many ways by many people cleverer than I—archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike—but archaeology is almost unique among academic disciplines because it inevitably destroys the very things it studies. True, archaeology can lead to restoration or reconstruction, but to do so it must undo decades or centuries or even millennia of change. Or, in some cases, it must destroy things that have survived on their own for all that time, untouched. An excavation can never be repeated; once you dig something up, it's impossible to put it back exactly as it was. And it's just as impossible to record or keep or preserve everything you find—but then no one who comes after you will have the opportunity, either.

This is something every archaeologist must come to terms with, and the sooner the better. It's difficult for many of us. People like me become archaeologists because we want to understand and preserve what we can of the past, and it's a tough day when we first realize what excavation actually entails beyond the chance to hold some centuries-old artifact in our hands. (I have not forgotten how I felt the first time I was made aware that on certain sites, under certain circumstances, the backhoe can be a legitimate excavation tool, and it wasn't pleasant.) We may be the first to see what we've uncovered in hundreds or thousands of years, but we are also the last ever, no matter what, to see it in context and as intact as it will ever be again. And then we must undo it, to shuttle its artifacts off to a shelf in some lab, to see what's underneath it in the next layer, and finally to rebury the ravaged site once more. A handful of sites will be preserved and protected, perhaps even at least partially reconstructed based on what we've found, so that others can see what remains, or what might have been once upon a time. But we have undone everything before us, and we can't repair it again, no matter how much it teaches us. And anything we've missed, whether because the tools or methods to study it don't exist [yet?] or because we just didn't think it was important, is lost forever.

As I said, it's something all archaeologists learn to accept, or they wouldn't continue to pursue a career (or even a hobby) in archaeology. But privately, I've wondered for a while now if that's secretly a part of why archaeologists have such a reputation for being heavy drinkers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Well, we're in the business of faking it, aren't we?"

Fair warning, this post might be a work in progress, because it's long and I don't really feel like editing it further at the moment.

And again, the “these are my own observations and not necessarily anyone else's” disclaimer.

Also, in case anyone out there is interested in the official/technical version of the project I'm involved with right now, or if you just want to know details about stuff I may not know or just don't get into here, here is Colonial Williamsburg's website for the Armoury Project. The blog seems to be more about the reconstruction work than the archaeology, and I don't think either of the webcams currently has any of the excavation work in the frame (although at least one of them has in the past and might again at some point), but it's interesting nonetheless.

Anyway. Williamsburg is a small city that sometimes feels more like a very concentrated suburb. It's a city of quaint neighborhoods full of tiny little houses, of untold numbers of hotels for tourists and apartment complexes for college students and poorly paid service-sector employees, of more shopping centers and restaurants than anyone needs in one place. It's a city of clapboards and picket fences, of unfathomable street layouts, of Southern heat and abrupt coastal rainstorms that are quick to flood its many low-lying roads, and of astonishing variety in gas prices from one street to the next. I love it. I hate it. I want to stay here forever, and I don't understand why anyone finds it so appealing. I'm not sure anymore whether the contradictions are in the city itself or in me. Or both.

But speaking of contradictions, I do know one thing: Colonial Williamsburg is an interesting place. Part nonprofit museum and part vacation-business corporation; part historic downtown area and part semi-falsified reconstruction (read: part window to the past and part hilariously misleading facade); part lovely (and loving) venue for learning and reflection and part corny and vapid entertainment center. Many cities have historic districts, and many of them are tourist attractions or host special events, and many of them are preserved and/or reconstructed to some extent, or at least have rules about how things have to look. None that I've ever seen takes it to the same level as Williamsburg.

Among other things, I've been really struck by the geographical scale of Colonial Williamsburg. Even all my years of reading and the intense discussion, accompanied by a not-so-flattering monograph about a study of CW's operations ca. 1990, in my historical memory seminar this past semester did not fully prepare me for the size of the place. It's literally a town within a town. It goes on for blocks. It takes me close to a good fifteen minutes to walk the length of Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street of the historic area, and that's without stopping or entering buildings or exploring side streets, of which there are many. And I walk somewhat fast, too.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably mention that this is not actually the first time I've seen Colonial Williamsburg in person. We did the whole family vacation thing over Thanksgiving break when I was in fifth grade, which pretty much made my life at the time, but about which I barely remember anything now. For all intents and purposes, I saw it all—historic area and city at large—with entirely fresh eyes when I first arrived here two weeks ago. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in the end, but it certainly means that I do not, and never will, have a baseline perception of CW through the eyes of a tourist and casual history buff. I am behind the scenes, maybe even behind behind-the-scenes, and even when I'm not, if I wander through on a Saturday morning, for example, then my perception is still colored, if not by that, then at the very least by my training as an academic historian, with a critical eye towards presentation and interpretation as much as factual accuracy.

I ran into a woman in colonial garb at the grocery store after work the other day, and had to turn away before she saw me laughing—not at her, just at the ridiculousness of the situation. I'm told you stop noticing things like that if you live here long enough, but for me, right now, it's still jarring.

A lot of it is jarring, actually. I've been around theatrical productions enough that having a conversation with the costumed blacksmith, who takes an active interest in the archaeology going on, or with one of the first-person interpreters* who comes over on a break to see what we're up to, didn't strike me as that strange. On the other hand, the first time I saw a contingent of Redcoats marching down the street, it got my attention in a much bigger way. Each day at lunchtime, I and two others on the field crew get soft-serve ice cream from a tavern outbuilding where two people dressed as 18th-century colonists operate 21st-century soda fountains in an air-conditioned shed. The whole juxtaposition of 21st-century tourism, vacationers wandering haphazardly around, with this elegant facsimile of a colonial city, where there are also people who dress and talk as if they actually belong there, is very unsettling to me. I like for things to be ordered and realistic and in their right place. I like the idea of time travel, but the anarchic feel of CW's faux time travel gets to me. And although it's fun (and funny) to be on the inside and able to see what's behind the curtain, so to speak, it's also a little bizarre.

That said, if you really want to pretend to step back in time in Williamsburg, the secret is to walk into the colonial area super early in the morning. The archaeological field crew arrives at 7:30 (so that we can work before it really heats up for the day, ending earlier than usual in the afternoon). That's an hour or so before the buildings and shops open for tourists, and half an hour before they even close the main roads to anything with a motor, not that there's a lot of traffic other than some police/security cars and maintenance vehicles—and those are allowed through, at least in some places, even during the day when the streets are officially closed. When the streets are empty, except for an earlybird employee in costume here and there, and maybe a jogger or someone walking a dog or two, it's a very different feel from when we leave the site and walk back through town at noon or at the end of the day, when everything is bustling with herds of tourists in shorts and tank tops, carrying maps and shopping bags and typically looking vacant. That's just strange. With no one around, it's a bit like a ghost town—but at least it's a ghost town that doesn't feel like some kind of time warp. Or just fake (even though, depending on how you define “fake,” much of it probably is). As someone argued on our lunch break today, “CW is kind of Twilight Zone-y,” a statement with which I agree wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, before-hours is also a good time to catch costumed employees showing up for work, wearing 18th-century clothes, but walking bikes or carrying backpacks.

And of course, the empty streets are still paved, which makes me giggle a little. Sandy and unmarked, but definitely asphalt. I also caught a guy in costume wearing sneakers the other day. They were black sneakers, and partially concealed, so it was subtle. But not subtle enough you wouldn't notice if you looked at his feet. Sometimes, if you're in the northern half of the colonial area, or even the southern half and just listen carefully, you occasionally hear the unmistakable roar of a freight train passing by on the other side of Lafayette Street, the northern boundary of the historic area. I know for a fact that the perfectly manicured hedges are not trimmed by hand, but with gas-powered lawn equipment, and that the infamous horse poop on the streets is in fact cleaned up now and then—just not while tourists are around to have their experience detracted from. (I guess it's a question of balance. Not enough horse poop and the tourists complain it's inauthentic; too much horse poop and they complain that it's dirty. Never mind the fact that either way, [I strongly suspect] the number of horses here is far below what would actually be representative of the 1770s. Think about that.) If you look closely enough at your surroundings, you can sometimes see the hidden air conditioners in certain windows and the small parking lots concealed behind shrubbery. The archaeological excavation at the armoury complex goes hand in hand with the armoury reconstruction project, and over at the construction-site portion of the site, backhoes and forklifts and dump trucks abound, though they're out of sight of Duke of Gloucester St and possibly far enough from the beaten path that many people don't notice. Those foundations don't get laid by hand, even if much of the rest of the building might be built the old-fashioned way.

One thing I respect and appreciate is that most of the buildings have small plaques on them indicating what they were and/or who owned them in the period to which they've been restored, and these plaques, for the most part, clearly indicate whether the building in question is the restored original or a reconstruction. In general, I take no offense to reconstructions if they're clearly indicated as such and are at least someone's best educated guess as far as accuracy in appearance is concerned. And as for the educated guesses, when research brings up new information that changes the guesses, CW makes changes to the buildings. Right now they're rebuilding the armoury (formerly known as the blacksmith's shop) as a substantial brick building to replace what was essentially a wooden shack in the incarnation that was torn down last fall, because it makes far more sense historically that it would have been something big and sturdy and lasting. (Or so I understand; I don't pretend to have actually read any of the research on this. I assume someone has. It's probably even summarized on the informational signs on-site, at which I haven't looked very closely.)

However, I have yet to see or hear anything that makes clear the extent to which the very landscape of Williamsburg was altered in the “restoration” (you'll never hear anyone say “reconstruction΅ in such a general sense, although I think more was rebuilt than was merely restored) of the historic area. And that's something I think I have a right to be bitter about, not just because it's a misleading contradiction of CW's mantra of authenticity, but because I'm currently part of the field crew that spent the last week digging our way through two solid feet of clay that was used to fill in a ravine in the 1930s and bring the ground there up to the same level as everything around it. Apparently, the perfect colonial city was flat. Even if it wasn't.

Like I said, it's interesting. Williamsburg masks the past even as it attempts to bring it back to life. And then it masks the masking. There are layers upon layers (HAHAHA ARCHAEOLOGY PUN) of facades.

* CW's fancy way of saying an actor playing a character, as opposed to others, like some tour guides, who wear a costume to blend in but retain their modern persona.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

An Armchair Archaeologist/Historian Ventures Forth

I've been thinking about starting a blog like this for a while, although I make no promises about sticking with it. I'll try to keep my observations as intelligent and mature as possible, but I make no promises there, either.

My main motives for starting this blog right now are
1) I'm finally/abruptly done with college and [theoretically] have time for hobbies again, and
2) I have commenced my transition into the real/adult world by moving to Williamsburg, VA for an internship with the archaeologists at Colonial Williamsburg.

It's an adventure in more ways than one. Among other things, I've never lived on my own before except while I was in school, which doesn't really count, and although previous fieldwork was a prerequisite for this internship, my previous experience was as a student/slave at a large and somewhat disorganized field school. This is the first time I've felt like a REAL archaeologist, and I've really gotten a kick out of being able to introduce myself to my new roommates and their friends as "an archaeologist" instead of "an archaeology/anthropology/history student".

True, it would be better if I could also say I was getting paid for it, but we've all got to start somewhere. I may be a mere intern, but everyone around me is getting paid. That means there's hope. (… Right?)

Anyway, these first week's of this blog's existence are [again, theoretically] going to be full of what I am seeing and thinking and learning as I dig (literally!) into eighteenth-century Virginia. I'm already behind, as I've been here two weeks already (time flies), but that just means I have a backlog of what I hope are interesting things to impart—things about archaeological fieldwork and historical archaeology in general, but also about historical and archaeological tourism and about Colonial Williamsburg itself.

Having said that, this is probably a good time to reiterate what's written at the bottom of this page, which is that anything I have to say is coming out of my own head unless otherwise noted. I might get information from other people, but any opinions I express about that information are my own. I'm not purporting to speak for anyone else, least of all CW or anyone I work with there. As I've already mentioned, they're not paying me, so any praise I have is genuine, and any criticisms are... well, if they're not paying me, I feel like they can't tell me what not to say, as long as I'm not knowingly revealing anything confidential (which I won't).

Now, if I may be a dork for just a moment, I just want to say that words cannot express how excited I am to be here. It's objectively a great opportunity, but I think maybe it's still a greater opportunity in my head than it is in reality. I have been a history nerd since I can remember, always with a special boner* for colonial-period America, and despite the fact that I am now [theoretically again?] an educated grown woman, it never occurred to me until very recently that there are people, even people who did not grow up on the other side of the country and who are not totally clueless about the world at large, who have never heard of Colonial Williamsburg. This came as a shocking and somewhat appalling discovery for me. Williamsburg has loomed large in my mind for my entire life, and not just because I have family connections to the College of William and Mary. As a historical entity, it's the epitome (or close to it) of English-colonial America; as a modern creation, it's the museum to end all museums.

And you know, we can debate the purposes and responsibilities of museums and of historical scholarship, the meaning and importance of accuracy, the pros and cons and benefits and flaws of reconstruction and of living history all day, but at the end of that day, academic persona and scholarly opinions aside, I am still a geeky ten years old at heart and I still just plain love this shit.*

For anyone from my Historical Memory seminar last semester who's reading this: I totally had an American Girl doll. And it was totally Felicity.

* Okay, I should probably also note that I'm going to try to keep things PG, but sometimes this is going to happen instead. I apologize in advance.