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.

The Montpelier/Minelab Experiment: An Archaeological Metal Detector Training Course

In March 2012, 12 metal detectorists were invited to James Madison’s Montpelier to attend a week-long metal detecting program to learn how archaeologists and the metal detector community can work together to more proactively to preserve sites. In the past, archaeologists and metal detectorists have worked together to make discoveries at battlefields and other historic sites such as the work conducted by Doug Scott at the Little Bighorn and at Manassas National Battlefield under my direction. We entered into this program with a full understanding of how metal detectorists can be employed for archaeological research on historic sites. The goal for this public-outreach program was to establish a rigorous curriculum in which the goals of site sustainability were laid out and metal detectorists were actively engaged and educated about this process. As such, we taught metal detectorists much more than just how metal detectors can be carefully used to recover artifacts at sites, but the why behind the rigorous methodology employed in this process. At the end of the week, we had a dozen metal detectorists who not only understood how site integrity can be attained through the use of metal detectors, but they were devising new techniques for how this process could be improved. In short, they gained an appreciation for archaeology, and the discipline of archaeology gained a new set of allies for what archaeology can offer in regard to discovering history.

An important aspect of this program was all 12 participants were metal detector dealers. As dealers, all participants are respected leaders from across the country who are linked into a network of metal detectorists. Bringing them to a better understanding of the shared goals and values between archaeologists and metal detectorists secures a foothold into the much larger hobby community. What discussions with these dealers revealed was that interest in metal detecting is growing, not shrinking. They all agreed that designing programs that give detectorists an entry into archaeology was essential for a more productive interaction between the two groups. As such, we designed this week-long program as a pilot project to see how this interaction could take place. Instrumental in organizing this group of dealers was Minelab Americas, a leading developer of metal detector technology. Minelab has been involved in several organized efforts to join archaeologists with the metal detector community for public outreach and education.

Participant Ron DeGhetto scans the ground for metal artifacts while staff archaeologist Matt Greer records historic artifacts uncovered in the woods survey.

During this week-long program, metal detector enthusiasts worked side-by-side with archaeologists in discovering sites and recovering information to aid in the interpretation of sites. All the while, detectorists were trained through lectures, readings, and practical exercises on how the systematic use of metal detectors can aide in site preservation. Lectures were carefully tailored to reinforce concepts that metal detectorists would encounter during the hands-on exercises in the field. The evidence for metal detectorists engaging with archaeological concepts was evident in field exercises—metal detector participants used the utmost caution in excavating hits and quickly understood the concept of using a grid to record metal detector finds. In turn, archaeologists experienced how to work with detectorists in a team environment that fostered learning, preservation, and the thrill of discovery. The fieldwork was where these seasoned detectorists saw archaeology providing a whole new approach towards the discovery of historic artifacts.

Metal detector participant Ransom Hundley marking metal detector hits while staff archaeologists Kira Runkle records number of hits per square at the quarter for field slaves.

In the course of the week’s program, the detectorists were exposed to two very different use of metal detectors—the first for site discovery and the second for defining a site. Site discovery took place in wooded portions of the property that had never been systematically surveyed. By gridding the woods into 20 meter squares, each area was carefully scanned with detectors and artifacts sampled. Metal targets were excavated based on protocols such as depth, density, and signal strength. In this survey, archaeologists depended on detectorists’ expertise on reading signals while detectorists communicated the characteristics of the hits to allow archaeologists to determine how to sample. This process allowed some 20 acres to be surveyed in two days, and three sites (two early 19th century slave quarters and one barn/work area) were discovered. In addition, archaeologists and detectorists were able to determine which areas were potentially plowed in the early 19th century based on horse shoes and plow parts.
In the second portion of the program, a known site in an open field was gridded off into 10 foot squares and all signals in each square were marked with skewer sticks. Densities across the site were plotted in this manner and then selective squares were sampled to determine the historic context for the concentrations. In the process, three clusters of hits were deciphered across a  300 ft x 300 ft area that suggested the presence of several house areas within this early 19th century slave settlement. In this exercise, as in the woods, metal detectorists were quick to understand the value of the machine as both a non-invasive remote sensing device and as a tool to quickly locate and define hits that could be sampled without disturbing deep stratigraphy.

Participant Van Boone showing off a t-headed wrought nail found during woods survey.

Throughout the week, both detectorists and archaeologists attended lectures geared towards demystifying the rationale behind field techniques employed during the week’s surveys. Topics such as recovery of information from features was combined with how signal depth could be used to avoid damage to features during survey and how recovery of a wide array of artifacts (including the ubiquitous nail) could aid in the interpretation of sites. Throughout the lectures, emphasis was placed on how metal detecting can actually enhance archaeologists’ ability to preserve site integrity. Participants walked away with not only a better understanding of how particular archaeological methods can benefit from metal detector surveys of a site, but also how care in recovery during metal detecting could enhance the enjoyment of the hobby. Both groups exchanged information on sets of artifacts that were important to each others’ discipline—archaeologists learned more about specific functions of diagnostic metal items in our collection, and metal detectorists came away with a better understanding of the variety and range of nails found at sites. Throughout the process, open dialogue was the main means of sharing information between the two groups—something that does not often happen between archaeologists and metal detectorists. This dialogue allowed us to share with participants how our methods led to data preservation both during survey and excavation of sites.

In the end, the goal of the program was to foster a mutual respect between the staff archaeologists and the metal detector participants. This goal was met through camaraderie built from shared discoveries, learning, and hard work. Metal detectorists left the program with the prospect of seeing how their hobby could be extended into the realm of archaeology, and archaeologists left with an understanding of how the knowledge base and skills held within the metal detecting community could be used for site survey. Telling were the exchanges of gifts between the groups—archaeologists providing metal detectorists with trowels, and metal detectorists bestowing pin pointers (electronic devices used to pinpoint the location of metallic objects in a small hole). The exchange of information, techniques, technology, and skills allowed for open discussion of views that each held of the other and a better sense of common ground between the two groups.

Proof for the success of this outreach program came both during and in the days following the program. Discussion forums featured detectorists writing in about the program, twitter pages were active with questions regarding the program, and several blogs featured the highlights of the expedition. In the days following the program, several dealers featured the highlights of their interaction on their company webpages, with one even donating a percentage of his monthly profits to furthering the preservation of archaeological sites at Montpelier, a donation that will be matched by Minelab Americas. Metal detector participants were encouraged to use the program as an entry point for contacting local archaeologists in their region to offer their services for identification and definition of sites. By learning a common language that archaeologists would understand (gridded systematic survey, sampling, mapping) we hope that these participants will be better able to make contact with archaeologists to offer their services. We hope that this exchange can continue and foster more discussions concerning our common goals to preserve sites and discover information about the past.

Have you, as an archaeologist, used metal detector technology in your survey work? Have you worked with metal detector enthusiasts in conducting these surveys? If so, what types of engagement have you used? What were some of the challenges you faced in establishing such programs, or what hurdles are keeping you from establishing one now?

Interested in developing your own training course? Dr. Reeves has made the Information Packet from his project available online. You can also see the video below that discusses Montpelier’s longtime relationship with metal detector technician, Lance Crosby.