Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

Too Historic To Fail

Have you had an opportunity to read the latest chapter in the depressing Carter’s Grove saga?

Carter’s Grove, for those beyond the Mid-Atlantic, is a mid-18th-century James River plantation house that is also the site of Martin’s Hundred, one of the settlements attacked by the Powhatan in 1622 and discovered and excavated by Ivor Noël Hume. The property was owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CW) and operated as one of the Foundation’s ticketed sites until 2003, when poor visitation numbers led to its closure.

In 2006, Carter’s Grove was sold by CW to Halsey Minor, an internet technology entrepreneur, for more than $15 million; CW held the note. Minor has since stopped paying the mortgage and declared bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure. The case is now in United States Bankruptcy Court in Norfolk.

Carter’s Grove. Photo via Flickr user roger4336 via Creative Commons License.

The Washington Post recently ran a story about the situation. The comments are fascinating (as only comments in the digital age can be). Most people mock Halsey Minor, mercilessly so, blaming him for what is happening to Carter’s Grove and looking forward to his pending comeuppance from the bankruptcy court judge.

A fair number, however, blame CW. Jtrice12 wrote that CW “should be ashamed for selling the place to someone with no expertise in historical preservation… They’ll never get another penny of my money.” “Astoundingly poor management,” concurred Doctor_Dru. CW “sold off Carter’s Grove instead of fulfilling [its] core mission,” PBrown448 declared, and so “off with the [CW] trustees[’] heads!”

The Carter’s Grove situation reveals the challenges facing organizations everywhere which manage historic sites. It also reveals how the challenge of sustainability extends beyond historic houses to archaeological properties (like Martin’s Hundred) and to the reconstructions / replicas often built to re-imagine these places on the landscape. Typically, reconstructions and other types of archaeological site interpretation can still require an infrastructure that includes not just visitor amenities but the expertise of archaeologists and educators. These are not inexpensive propositions.

Joan Poor, an environmental economist, has convinced me that cultural economics is an under-utilized tool for informed decision-making about the investment in and sustainability of historic properties. Cultural economics is concerned with the application of economic analysis to, among other things, the heritage and cultural industries (Towse 2010; see also the Journal of Cultural Economics). Poor believes that a public archaeology would not only benefit from a perspective rooted in cultural economics, but demands it.

Poor’s research in southern Maryland focuses on the analysis of historic sites as public goods, and just how much people are willing to pay to support them. Using the methods of cultural and natural resources economics, Poor works to establish values for historic and preservation attributes which cannot be measured in the private market. She has found that most people are indeed willing to support historic sites through tax dollars as well as through visitation (Poor and Smith 2004).

This willingness, however, has its limits. Poor suggests that site managers can find these limits through economic analysis and then develop realistic plans for the management of historic properties, including, if necessary, the conversion of a public good into a private good, such as selling a historic house.

Poor also argues that willingness-to-pay is not some forever fixed number, and that knowing the public’s limits can lead to the development of longer-term strategies for educating the public and, ultimately, increasing willingness-to-pay.

Unlike standing structures, archaeological sites don’t often need new roofs, paint jobs, or insurance. Still, there are real infrastructural costs for their preservation, accessibility, and interpretation. Cultural economics may provide yet another measure for determining the sustainability of various strategies for managing archaeological sites.

I have been thinking about Poor’s comments a lot lately because I am getting the sense that the rotten economy is masking a larger transformation in the public’s attitudes and support of historic preservation, especially archaeological sites. On the one hand, many surveys suggest that the public has never been more aware of and supportive of archaeology (see, for example, Ramos and Duganne 2000); on the other, a number of archaeology programs are on the chopping block, from museums to universities to government (none more draconian than what has been proposed for Parks Canada [read the SHA response to these cuts]). It’s not clear whether these proposed cuts reflect cost-saving measures or something else altogether. An analysis based in cultural economics might help tease out issues of a recession-induced inability to pay versus a declining willingness-to-pay.

Are there lessons we can take away from the Carter’s Grove debacle? Are we entering a new phase in the public support of archaeology? How can archaeological projects (a term used here broadly) be sustainable projects?

I am grateful to Dr. Joan Poor, Provost, Truman State University, for introducing me to the importance of cultural economics and inviting my participation in her project at Point Lookout State Park near Scotland, Maryland.

  • Ramos, Maria, and David Duganne
  • Poor, P. Joan, and Jamie Smith
    • 2004  Travel Cost Analysis of a Cultural Heritage Site: The Case of Historic St. Mary’s City.  Journal of Cultural Economics 28:217-229.
  • Towse, Ruth
    • 2010   A Textbook of Cultural Economics. Cambridge University Press.

[Image courtesy of Flickr user roger4336 via Creative Commons License]

A Mixed Methods Approach to Digital Heritage in Rosewood, Florida

The use of digital technologies for cultural heritage work is a rapidly expanding field of research and engagement (Kalay et al 2007). The array of digital techniques presents a bewildering array of possibilities for the heritage professional. The Virtual Rosewood Research Project (VRRP) presents one approach employing multiple technologies for public outreach allowing researchers to present, manage, and disseminate both tangible and intangible heritage. In this post, I discuss the use of archaeological visualization and digital storytelling for collaborative purposes in Rosewood, Florida.

The use of virtual world environments to represent archaeological contexts encompasses hundreds of projects around the world and plans for a peer-reviewed multimedia journal are in the works (Bawaya 2010). Early work in the 1990s focused on creating images and video representing prehistoric and monumental sites. In the last decade research has moved towards visualization, or inferring complete contexts from the incomplete data recovered during archaeological research (Barcelo 2002).

Digital storytelling has its roots in a series of workshops in Los Angeles during the early 1990s (Lambert 2009). These workshops proved so successful that a Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) was created shortly thereafter and remains the national center for working with digital media to tell personal stories (Lambert 2009:1-10). The impulse to share personal lives continues to characterize digital storytelling.

The Development and Destruction of Rosewood

Rosewood was settled in the mid-nineteenth century by a diverse group of people, and experienced rapid economic growth following the Civil War. Rosewood’s population was majority African American by the early twentieth century. By 1910, Rosewood’s population was eclipsed by the neighboring community of Sumner following the construction of a large sawmill complex approximately one mile west of Rosewood.

On New Year’s Day 1923, a white woman in Sumner fabricated a black assailant to hide her extramarital affair with a white man. A white mob formed and headed for Rosewood, encountering the home of Sam Carter. They interrogated Carter by hanging him from a tree by the neck, and when it seemed the mob might release him, a man leveled his gun at Carter’s face and ended the day with Carter’s lynching.

Two days later, whites in Sumner heard (or fabricated) rumors that the black assailant was with Sylvester Carrier. Carrier’s distrust of whites was well-known and before the night was out, two whites lay dead on his doorstep after attempting to set fire to his family’s home. By the sixth of January three other blacks had been brutally murdered and the white mob, now numbering in the hundreds, began the systematic burning of every black-owned home and building in Rosewood. A train was brought through town during this time to pick up women and children, who were hiding in the nearby swamps following the gun battle at the Carrier home. The train took dozens of families to towns like Otter Creek, Archer, and Gainesville where descendants live to this day.

Image of Rosewood’s Destruction (Literary Digest – January 4, 1923)

My decision to investigate digital heritage was motivated by specific questions posed to me by descendants of Rosewood’s community. These began with deceptively simple questions such as “can you show me where my grandfather’s house was located?” These early engagements ranged towards more complex conversations centering on the exploration of new methods for “getting our story” to wider and younger audiences.

Workflow for Creating Virtual Rosewood

The first step in visualizing Rosewood involved reconstructing property boundaries by reviewing thousands of historic deeds in the local courthouse. There are no maps, directories, or other information about Rosewood’s spatial layout. Therefore, geographic information systems (GIS) were used to reconstruct the metes and bounds on hundreds of historic deeds dating between 1870 and 1930. Historic census, aerial photographs, oral histories, and preliminary archaeological investigations were added to the GIS. The resulting dataset  provides the spatial template for the virtual world environment.

Virtual Reconstruction of Carter Home & Blacksmith Shop

High cost and lack of training has, until recently, limited the use of 3D programs for archaeological visualization. Companies are creating educational licensing programs. For instance, Autodesk, the parent company for 3DS Max and AutoCAD, began offering free educational licenses in 2010 at their educational site. The structures were created using 3DS Max and are available as a virtual world environment via a web-based format developed with a game engine. Game engines are used to create video games, and are increasingly used by archaeologists to create interactive virtual world environments of archaeological contexts (Rua and Alvito 2011). Unity 3D was used to export the 3DS Max models to the web. The result is two-plus square miles of virtual land, which re-creates the spatial layout of Rosewood as it existed in 1922. Interpretive signs throughout the virtual world environment tell the story of Rosewood’s development and destruction.

Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life

In addition to the web-based virtual world environment, a Virtual Rosewood museum is available in the popular online world of Second Life. The basic design is that of a repurposed, historic building converted to a local history museum. Visitors explore the history of Rosewood through museum-like displays. The Virtual Rosewood Museum continues to attract students, educators, and the general public. In December 2011 I led a two-hour tour to the Virtual Pioneers, a group of educators who regularly meet in Second Life to explore the intersection of online worlds and social justice education.

Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life

Visitors to the Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life can also watch a 25 minute video exploring Rosewood’s history, which is also available at the VRRP website.

Digital Storytelling and Rosewood’s Heritage

Digital stories can be created with relatively little investment and freely delivered using the internet, making research immediately accessible to more people. The VRRP includes a 26 minute digital documentary (link) exploring the development and destruction of Rosewood, the lives of those who survived through oral histories, and an exploration of the various methods used to document the town.

A particularly touching moment in the documentary occurs when Robie Mortin describes meeting her father for the first time following the 1923 race riot. Mortin’s father recognized early on how the accusation of rape might turn into large scale violence. He sent Robie, who was seven at the time, to a nearby town with her older sister. After hearing about the destruction of Rosewood days later, and failing to meet their father, the two girls assumed the worst. They eventually made their way to Miami working as migrant laborers. Robie Mortin shares what happened one morning when she went to a newly constructed church.

There was a ditch that separated Riviera Beach from the black neighborhood. There was a bridge across it, and there was a Hearst Chapel AME Church there. They had built that church right on our side of the ditch. So, we, my sister and I, went to church, and would you believe our daddy was there, and we didn’t know where he was, hadn’t seen him in months. We didn’t even know he was still alive, and there he was in the front of that church.” – Robie Mortin (2009)

The author conducting oral history interview with Robie Mortin

The ability of digital storytelling to share touching moments like these with a wide audience is an important aspect of social justice education. Robie Mortin’s words, delivered in her soft, ninety-four year-old voice, touch the viewer in an unmistakable way. The emotional impact of her story demonstrates the trials, and in this one example, happy surprises which make a life scared by trauma bearable.

Discussion and Concluding Thoughts

The creation of a website for my research into Rosewood’s past – including a data warehouse with census records and oral history transcripts -  has led to many unexpected engagements. This includes journalists, interested members of the public, and members of Rosewood’s multifaceted descendant communities. While the newspaper articles bring increased traffic to the VRRP website, it is the other engagements which demonstrate the collaborative potentials of new media for heritage. For instance, one property owner in the area where Rosewood was located contacted me after watching the digital documentary. His property is home to the African American cemetery in operation during Rosewood’s occupation. While allowing descendants to visit their ancestors’ graves, he has kept the property closed to academics after previous researchers  misrepresented his involvement in their projects. At present, myself and Dr. James Davidson of the University of Florida are documenting the property and its value to various descendant communities.

Documenting Rosewood’s African American Cemetery

The creation of new media represents a pedagogical toolkit. The new forms of knowledge produced by the synthesis between historical research and new media accomplish a number of things. It highlights the experiences of descendants and other interested parties, provides tools for critically engaging with history and media, and offers researchers new techniques for crafting the way historical knowledge is accessed and interpreted by others. In many ways, new media offers a new set of tools, ones not found in the master’s house (Lourde 1984:110-113) and potentially very liberating. New media is a constellation of approaches and technologies not regulated by gatekeepers and tradition – although certainly in dialogue with them. Obvious and sizable obstacles to full participation include the manifestation of a digital divide as well as the (re)inscription of negative identity politics (Nakamura 2008) within virtual spaces. Only time will tell if this optimistic viewpoint will produce transformative fruit or if mass standardization will assert itself and crush individual creativity and expression. I have chosen to be optimistic, and hope that the Virtual Rosewood Research Site motivates others to do the same.

References Cited

  • Barcelo, Juan A.
    • 2002    Virtual Archaeology and Artificial Intelligence. In Virtual Archaeology, Franco Nicolucci, editor, pp. 21-28. ArchaeoPress, Oxford.
  • Baway, Michael
    • 2010    Virtual Archaeologists Recreate Parts of Ancient Worlds. Science 327(5962):140-1.
  • Kalay, Yehuda E., Thomas Kvan, and Janice Affleck
    • 2007    New Media and Cultural Heritage. Routledge, New York.
  • Lambert, Joe
    • 2009    Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community. Digital Diner Press, Berkeley, CA.
  • Lourde, Audre
    • 1984    Sister Outsider: Essay and Speeches. Crossing Press, Freedom, CA.