Wednesday, September 29, 2010

archaeological landscapes

One of my earliest memories is of running up and down the Miamisburg Mound, near Dayton, Ohio. I have family in the area, and when we visited, we would take a picnic to the park where the mound is located. My cousins and I would run up and down the steps, or roll down the sides of the mound, while the adults sat around and reminisced. On summer afternoons, there were often many families in the park.

If my parents explained the significance of the mound to me, I certainly didn't understand or remember. Many, many years later, I was sitting through a lecture on Midwestern moundbuilders, when the professor started showing pictures of the Miamisburg Mound. I experienced a wrench of cognitive connection, and had a sudden mental image of running down steep steps, in the dappled green shade of what seemed to me, as a child, a veritable forest of trees. Oh, so that's why there'd been a big hill in that park.

Archaeological sites are embedded within a larger landscape, one imbued with meaning, full of economic implications, and environmental diversity on a micro- and macro-scale. All landscapes are contingent, and while archaeological sites write the history of human occupation on that landscape, the sites continue to be a living part of the landscape well after that occupation has ceased. Archaeological sites affect vegetation regimes, they affect local biodiversity. Due to changes in the soil, Archaeological sites can often be identified by the differences in modern vegetation on the site, when compared to nearby areas. In the Amazon, prehistorically created terras pretas continue to be used by modern farmers as agricultural fields, as the soils are much richer than "natural". Archaeological sites are frequently re-used. Obvious examples include ritualistic "power grabs", like building the cathedral of Mexico City over the major Aztec temples, but archaeological sites are often re-used for purely practical reasons, rather than legitimization or socio-religious ones. At Kincaid Mounds site, in southern Illinois, a farmhouse was built on the largest mound during the historic period, to raise it above the frequently flooded ground-level.

As archaeologists, we often ignore the modern (or post-occupation) uses of archaeological sites, or treat them as something to be filtered out during the "real" analysis of the site. At least in the United States, we're often not comfortable with the archaeological landscape. Perhaps this is because few of us are descendants of the initial occupants. We are all too aware that the original meaning of the landscape has not carried down to us, and a current picnic spot may have been a place of great spiritual power to someone in the past. Our culture is also less enamored than many by places we associate with the dead. Unlike many Mexican communities, or Victorian-era Euro-Americans, we do not consider cemeteries to be a place to bring your children, gossip, laugh, eat, and enjoy life.

We miss something, though, as archaeologists and as human beings, when we attempt to wall off archaeological sites, make them into museums, separate them from the living world. Don't get me wrong, we need to protect archaeological sites. We also must understand the needs of communities who may hold some sites sacred. But, where practical, we benefit by embracing the archaeological landscape. Archaeological sites are living entities, long after those who lived in them have ceased to breathe, and as researchers it behooves us to remember the long post-occupation history of our sites, how they were used, re-used, and re-invented. Additionally, our field benefits by bringing more people into the archaeological landscape, by making the past a place where children race up and down mound steps and families picnic on summer afternoons. Archaeology has a fair amount of public support, a "gee whiz" factor largely based on Indiana Jones and Egyptian mummies, but true stewardship of archaeological sites will come only when our past is integrated into our present.

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