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On Doing Archaeology Where It’s Not Wanted

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I’ve wanted to become an archaeologist since before, by all rights, I should have been making any permanent decisions about my future. I think I was 4 or 5. It’s something I love – a complicated mixture of history and science, technology and dirt, people and trash. Part of my interest in it has always been on the data, the sheer love of information that could be gathered by cobbling together fragments of detritus to construct a possibility for what happened in the past. Sometimes that possibility is a well-proven scientific hypothesis, other times it’s more of a credible story. I think there’s room for both, though the masquerading of one as another (generally a story pretending to be Absolute Incontrovertible Truth) is a common frustration of mine. All this just to say that I love archaeological investigations and I think there’s inherent value to understanding archaeological remains.

Since my first excavation in 2003, I have excavated on some sites where there was ambivalence, hostility, or sadness over the archaeological investigations being carried out. In some instances our teams were monitored by Native individuals who did not want their ancestral remains dug up. On one occasion, an urban site was discovered to be the makeshift homes of several homeless individuals, one of whom spent the next three days visiting the site and calling out to us about what had happened to him. Another time I helped excavate contemporary graves that were part of a lawsuit alleging improper burial procedures on the part of the cemetery. And I’ve run frequently into hostility from people in construction or business communities who question the value of archaeology, and from site visitors who are wary of a given project’s emphasis on Native/African-American themes rather than “traditional” histories of great men.

It can be really difficult to be part of a project that I and my colleagues feel provides some benefit to the community, some new exciting revelations, only to be told that the act of producing those revelations felt like a violation to the very communities that might have benefited from it. I’ve often felt defensive or frustrated when confronted by strong emotions or a lack of curiosity about things that I think are important, and my first instinct is sometimes to justify the archaeology or make it more palatable. Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to think about the questions of ownership and community and to make sure that the archaeological work you might be doing is going to benefit non-academics and non-archaeologists in some way. Too often, it’s hard to make the direct argument that a commercial archaeology excavation that is written up in grey literature and filed with the state has had any community impact what-so-ever.

Issues of ownership of the past and community engagement have started to influence how some excavations are conducted, but there remains a divide. While some archaeologists conduct their research while actively pursuing relationships with communities and organizations that have concerns, the business and legal model of commercial mitigation archaeology (cultural resource management) is almost exclusively organized after a decision about the construction has been made, and is left to record the remains slated for destruction. Only in unusual circumstances do these construction projects get altered due to the results of archaeological excavations, and the archaeologists completing these projects usually don’t have a great way of addressing protesters or opponents who remain angry that the work has to be done at all. 

Today I’m thinking towards tomorrow’s symposium, Before It’s Too Late: An Educational Symposium on the History and Archaeology of Shockoe Bottom, which raises questions of what we might find and what a community-led archaeology there would and should look like. This is a great step, and I hope the event is valuable regardless of what happens to baseball in Richmond – it would be a step in the right direction to mitigate the flooding, and to develop that lot in an appropriate manner, and that would also require archaeological mitigation. At the same time, the questions for me about the area are bigger than archaeology currently. And the feeling I get when I imagine working on an excavation prior to baseball in the Bottom is the feeling of crossing a picket line.


Written by diggingellen

March 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

The Shockoe Stadium Plan: Last Night’s Town Hall Meeting

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It’s not going to be a very restful weekend for Richmond city council members, particularly Johnathan Baliles and Charles Samuels. Most councilmembers have not committed to vote either against or the proposed Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium, and the meeting that Baliles and Samuels hosted last night showed a relatively even split between supporters and opponents. On Monday (February 24th) the Council is slated to vote on Resolution Number 2013-R255, which is an expression of City Council’s general support for the plan (it should be noted that a committee has already recommended striking this resolution from the agenda, so it might still not happen Monday night). This vote is the first time that council members will have to publicly announce their support or opposition to the plan. Monday night’s agenda is available online here.

I was at the meeting last night, and spoke in opposition as a new Shockoe Bottom resident who wants more from the space than a small season of baseball (you can see the WTVR CBS 6 video here). Of course, the plan is more than baseball – it includes a hotel, a grocery store, high-end apartments, and a 30 million dollar slavery and heritage museum. But the baseball stadium is why it’s all happening – I wouldn’t mind some of the amenities that are now coming with the stadium, I just don’t think that space is best used for a baseball stadium whose future is uncertain. Baseball is an aging pastime, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether county residents would support and attend a Shockoe stadium, and over the 30 year intended lifespan of the stadium the decline of baseball is likely to continue.

Many of the folks speaking in favor of the stadium are young people, like myself, on the Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Valley neighborhood associations. They see it as a way for Shockoe to diversify into more than just a club and restaurant hub, and I think also express some resistance to the idea that the past use of an area should determine its future use. It’s interesting, though, since very few people would probably suggest building a baseball stadium on a Holocaust concentration camp, or beside a veteran’s cemetery or battlefield park. There are events in our history that are universally acknowledged to be special and sacred (or desecrated) sites where normal activities should be carefully considered. And then there is the response to slave burial grounds, or slave quarters, or historic towns, and the response is so often “we can’t just let the past determine everything we do, we’d have no space to build.” However, unlike with the Holocaust and the Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, there has been comparatively little local and national investment in commemorating and acknowledging the history of slavery in a way that allows that history to continue to be a feature on the landscape. The museum would be an important step forward in that goal, but I don’t like that it’s being used as a carrot to ensure the passage of a fundamentally flawed development plan.

There are a variety of other important aspects to this plan that others have weighed in on recently. My colleague Terry Brock, an archaeologist who just moved to Richmond, wrote an excellent piece about the archaeological process required before any construction will occur. Terry was also at last night’s meeting, and got a tentative confirmation from the City’s CAO Byron Marshall that the planned flood mitigation in the project will require the US Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to approve the project, which will then make the project subject to Section 106 cultural resource mitigation standards. If this is indeed the case, the stadium plan may be subject to a large-scale Phase III excavation of the numerous resources Terry discusses in his blog. Such a mitigation would take millions of dollars and more than a year of excavation, plus additional time and money in artifact analysis, conservation, and curation.

Finally, as I was leaving a developer whose name I didn’t catch gave me a piece of paper with several links about baseball stadium projects in other cities, Baltimore and Ramapo, New York. In these cases, cities have taken on the fixed debt of a stadium with rosy tax revenue increases supposed to offset this debt. When the tax revenue projections turned out to be overly optimistic, the cities have been left on the hook for millions of dollars a year. This is a real concern with the plan, as another real estate developer mentioned to me after the meeting. It is interesting that these individuals were handing out pieces of paper with links and having private conversations instead of speaking publicly in opposition – I wish that Richmonders with these sorts of backgrounds were voicing their concerns more openly, to combat the impression that it’s only a few loud malcontents who oppose the plan. 

I’ll be at Monday night’s meeting of City Council, as long as the resolution remains on the agenda. It will be interesting to see what transpires.


Written by diggingellen

February 20, 2014 at 3:15 pm

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