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.

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