Mothballing Heritage: Closing the Georgia State Archives

Historical archaeologists have long recognized that some of the most compelling biographical and historical tales can be told about prosaic folks, and we understand that many of those people who we think we know best have complicated and even challenging biographies.  Imagine the complex accounts of American life that could be spun around the life stories of Jimmy Carter, Ty Cobb, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Button Gwinnett, Fanny Kemble, Margaret Mitchell, James Ogelthorpe, Ma Rainey, Otis Redding, and Alice Walker.  That seemingly random assortment of people includes the mother of the blues, an American President, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a reviled gangster, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Their common link is that they spent most of their lives in Georgia, the last of the original 13 colonies, one of the seven original Confederate States, and one of the centers of the civil rights movement.  Now imagine that the historical records of Georgia spanning nearly three centuries, including the details of all these famous figures and countless more people, were suddenly removed from the community’s reach.  This is in fact the quite startling threat that now faces archaeologists, genealogists, and historians who were shocked when the Georgia Secretary of State announced that the State Archives would lay off seven of its 10 full-time employees on November 1st and discontinue public hours.  In his September 13th press release announcing the closing, Secretary of State Brian Kemp (whose office administers the Archives) somewhat awkwardly and optimistically admitted that appointments to access the Archives “could be limited based on the schedule of the remaining employees.”  Should this proposal be approved, Georgia will be the only state in the country with such restrictive access to state archival records, effectively closing one of the nation’s first State Archives (opened in 1918) and balancing a $732,626 budget reduction entirely on the state’s archives budget.  Anybody wanting access to such records will be required to arrange an appointment amongst a flood of genealogists following new leads, neighbors documenting property lines, lawyers tracing historical precedents, and archaeologists researching sites throughout the state and region.

Kemp indicated in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the “Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) instructed my office to reduce our budget by 3 percent ($732,626) for the coming year,” outlining the fiscal realities that face many archives, cultural institutions, and arts organizations facing a quite difficult financial climate.  In September, 2010 the Archives had gone from a five-day week to a three-day week as a cost-cutting move, and it eventually moved to being open only on Fridays and Saturdays before the recent decision to close the facility.  After November 1st the remaining archives’ employees will be responsible for nearly every dimension of archival maintenance in an operation Kemp indicated is currently “unsustainable,” ranging from monitoring air conditioning in the building (leased for $2.7 million each year) to entering new material into storage to administering patrons visiting the archives on appointments.  Kemp acknowledged that this move essentially “mothballed” the state’s archives and reduced the staff to only monitoring the most critical state documents.  Since the State Archives received 14,624 reference questions in 2010, we can reasonably assume that even the three most energetic archivists in the world cannot manage even a modest trickle of those requests and the state will essentially provide no access to public records.

The news that the Archive would now be open only by appointment was greeted with a flood of complaints by a vast range of constituencies who use the Archives.  At a somewhat ironically timed signing for a proclamation marking Georgia Archives Month on September 19th, a back-tracking Governor Nathan Deal awkwardly indicated that “We’re still working on our budget proposals right now,” he said, “but the archives will stay open.”  Kemp cautioned afterwards, though, that “the governor did not tell him about his pledge before it was made. `If he funds it to keep it open, that’d be great,’ said Kemp.  The secretary explained Deal would have to `tell me we weren’t going to have to come up with a $733,000 cut’ in order to fulfill the promise to keep the archives’ doors open.”

This would be an exceptional loss for Georgia and the nation alike, and it risks taking fiscal sobriety to an exceptionally draconian level.  Archivists have pointed out that Georgia law does actually legally require the state to make all public records “open for a personal inspection by any citizen of this state at a reasonable time and place, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen.”  Yet at an ethical level, archives make governmental processes transparent and accountable to citizens, so they are not merely research institutions.  Such a move essentially risks writing a whole state out of the nation’s historical narrative.  Such archives are not simply the province of a handful of scholars and genealogists; instead, a vast range of citizens documenting property transactions, legal actions, and community historical details consult the state’s archival resources.

A facebook page Georgians Against Closing State Archives has over 3200 followers today and includes links to Georgia state officials for those of us who can stress how important such resources are to myriad community scholars; an online petition has been posted on; and the Friends of Georgia Archives and History have followed the discussion closely.  In the wake of the stunning cuts at Parks Canada and similar discussions throughout the country if not internationally, it is important for historical archaeologists and community scholars to register the profound consequence of such resources to all of us within and outside Georgia alike.  It is impossible to interpret the nation’s narrative if we remove one whole state and countless people’s stories from the historical record, so this risks being a profound loss for all of us who respect heritage.

Diversity and Anti-Racism in the Society for Historical Archaeology

The epilogue of Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800 is a disarming and profoundly thoughtful account of his experience of life across the color line and how it informed his scholarly career.  Ferguson’s book is justifiably heralded as one of historical archaeology’s most important contributions to the scholarship of African cultural persistence in the face of captivity, yet we risk overlooking the provocative epilogue that situates such scholarship in Ferguson’s own experience and in broader historical archaeology.  Uncommon Ground’s succinct epilogue provides an important statement about the politics of historical archaeologies conducted across and along lines of difference, and a discussion about those politics can contribute to an increasingly rich and reflective scholarship and diverse archaeological community.

Ferguson’s epilogue relates a story of him and a boyhood friend watching an African-American railroad “gang” laying rails in a sweltering 1949 summer.  An elder member of the group lorded over the workers, singing in a “rich, melodious voice” in time with hammers driving the rail, an experience that left the two boys “spellbound and envious.”  That fascination and envy with African America has often been felt by many White people who have been equally spellbound if mystified by a rich culture that has persisted with strength, creativity, and dignity in the face of profound injustice.  Many White historical archaeologists—myself included–have devoted much of our scholarship to illuminating African America’s centrality in American life because we share Ferguson’s humility in the face of the African-American experience, respect for this rich heritage, and conscious complicity in a half-millennium of anti-Black racism.

Ferguson acknowledges that he and his friend “heard and felt that workday performance in ignorance,” largely because they “had few black acquaintances and no black friends.”  When his friend addressed the singer with a racist epithet, the boys were soundly rebuked and felt “rejected and confused.”  Ferguson admits that through his “teenage years the alienation continued, and I alternately and somewhat arbitrarily enjoyed, scorned, and admired `colored people’ without ever knowing a single African American.”

That concession of fascination and admiration in conflict with apprehension and confusion is an exceptionally rare scholarly acknowledgement of the complications of life lived along and across color lines (compare Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s June 2012 SHA Blog for a similar example from an African diasporan perspective).  Ferguson found himself in the midst of the South during the Civil Rights movement, and he recognized his White neighbors “struggled to rationalize away the guilt of imposing or accepting an inequality so familiar that most had never perceived it as unjust.”  He acknowledges that he “came to see that the movement was reinforcing justice and compassion as basic American values,” and he began to comprehend that a deep-seated cultural heritage “beyond the eye and mind of the white majority” fueled the Civil Rights movement and rested at the heart of American heritage.

That recognition that racism was silently situated at the heart of American life and aspired to efface diasporan heritage provides an articulate coda underscoring the political significance of Ferguson’s study.  Historical archaeologists have produced an enormous volume of illuminating, reflective, and even activist scholarship on the African diasporan experience and life along the color line for which we can feel justifiably proud.  Nevertheless, Ferguson’s revelatory honesty is the sort of politics that we rarely see in print, and while many of us can honestly claim good works in our own local projects they often do not become public knowledge or accepted disciplinary practice, and they are not especially clearly stated as our common philosophical and sociopolitical interests.

Our pride in a rich African diasporan archaeology or our disciplinary attention to historical social complexity should not blind us to the need to ask difficult questions about diversity in contemporary historical archaeology, and SHA has the opportunity to lead a challenging and transformative discussion about the ways in which equity, privilege, and race shape every dimension of our lives, scholarship, and practice.  We have collectively done an astounding amount of good research and community outreach, but we need to articulate that work in ways that acknowledge disciplinary inequalities; we should situate SHA in conscious opposition to structural inequalities in broader society; and we must continue to develop concrete mechanisms to make SHA a welcoming professional home for a broad range of members whose voices can shape archaeology and impact the communities in which we live.  A historical archaeology practiced by a rich range of scholars that assertively examine global diversity is simply good scholarship that is true to a breadth of experiences and systemic inequalities throughout the world over 500 years.

Certainly many of the first archaeologists who gathered in 1967 to form the SHA were focused on British colonial heritage and the spread of European cultures and materiality in the New World.  Questions about globalization and social diversity gradually trickled into the research questions and discussion: Charles Fairbanks, for instance, soon led archaeologists into African diasporan archaeologies, and James Deetz profoundly shaped the discipline by advocating archaeological attention to the many peoples ideologically forgotten in historical narratives.  Many of us continue to justifiably focus on colonial European subjects, but that work is inevitably enriched by a rigorous and reflective focus on diversity, just as archaeologists examining race need to push beyond archaeologies of African America.  For instance, there is the potential to do an exceptionally interesting historical archaeology of race among White consumers who often embrace—and routinely evade—the privileges of White subjectivity.  This attention to social diversity certainly does not discard all the illuminating historical archaeologies of colonial European contexts, but scholarship revolving around race, patriarchy, classism, sexuality, or ethnicity can be embedded into many archaeological studies that sometimes are conceived by us as being somehow “outside” diversity.  The “questions that count” in contemporary historical archaeology simply must address diversity to be rigorous and challenging scholarship.  The weight of such scholarship can have profound effects on how many of our neighbors view our collective heritage and in turn how they view contemporary lines of difference, so confronting disciplinary and SHA inequalities and embracing diversity among membership and in our scholarship are important missions for SHA.

SHA has underscored its commitment to equity and diversity in the last year, with the ambition of being an increasingly diverse membership that provides a welcoming professional home for a wide range of scholars.  One step in this process was my participation in a People’s Institute Undoing Racism workshop in Washington, D.C. in July.  Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Chair Florie Bugarin attended the workshop with me and about 40 people who worked for a variety of non-profits and community organizations as well as neighborhood folks from Washington.  This is quite a different group than virtually any scholarly conference, classroom, or excavation site, but in many ways it would be a familiar and illuminating discussion for the many historical archaeologists who conduct community archaeologies and are committed to engaged scholarship—often across color lines and power divisions.

Many historical archaeologists have given thought to the complications of scholarly/community partnerships, but we have not often considered how racism shapes such relationships or how White scholars exercise privilege without even recognizing it as such.  A 2011 SHA Newsletter piece by Michael Nassaney and Cheryl LaRoche, for instance, discussed the persistent impression of racism on American life and the ways it and White privilege inevitably have an impression on historic archaeology practice and the very organization of SHA itself.  Anna Agbe-Davies joined this conversation in the Spring 2012 Newsletter, arguing that Nassaney and LaRoche’s column underscores the need to encourage both organizational change in SHA and individual good works—for instance, as we transform structural inequalities vested in organizations like SHA, we can individually take small but consequential steps like those often-invisible trips to local elementary schools, the energy devoted to championing equity in our local institutions, and all of our voices advocating for an archaeology that reveals the historic roots of inequality.  The People’s Institute experience framed a larger discussion about how power is vested in organizations like SHA, how a broad range of members with different degrees of access and power are served by SHA, and how all of our members can secure genuine agency and grow professionally within SHA.

These discussions have led to a series of initiatives that are intended to make our mostly unspoken disciplinary and SHA commitment to diversity concrete and increasingly part of our structural practice.

  1. One of the first steps was a diversity training course at the June, 2012 SHA Board Meeting.  That training session provided an all-day experience for the Board and the GMAC Chair to begin discussing the specifics of what diversity actually means in the context of historical archaeology and SHA; what are our expectations for what a diverse membership does for the discipline; and how can we make diversity a structural dimension of all historical archaeology and SHA practice, and not simply a research niche.  I and Florie Bugarin then attended the People’s Institute Workshop a month later.  These discussions are simply beginning to move all of our disparate thoughts into collective space, but they seem an essential prelude to developing any genuine initiatives.
  2. At the June Board meeting two Minority Travel Scholarship Awards also were approved by the Board, and they will defray travel costs for two students attending the Leicester conference in January 2013.
  3. The Board agreed in June that President-Elect and Ethics Committee Chair Charlie Ewen will direct a revision of the Ethics Statement that will include an SHA Statement on Sexual Harassment, Gender Equity, Antiracism and LGTB Inclusivity.
  4. Directed by Membership Committee Chair Barbara Heath, a member’s survey will be conducted in 2013 to secure demographic data more recent and somewhat more focused on dimensions of diversity than the 2008 Member’s Needs Report.

Historical archaeologists have long embraced an archaeology of peoples who have been structurally silenced and ignored as their experiences are effaced from dominant narratives.  SHA is committed to supporting such work because it is simply good scholarship that is true to our collective heritage, and working to mirror the same diversity in our membership is simply true to contemporary social life.  As Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground epilogue stresses, lived inequalities inevitably shape our scholarship, but we have not often examined how our collective experiences become part of the structural fabric of academic departments, cultural resource management firms, or the SHA itself.  Many of us have had these conversations with colleagues for years on excavation sites, in department meetings, and even in the hallways of SHA conferences, asking ourselves how we can foster reflective transformations in institutions and everyday practice.  We need to keep moving that discussion into our shared disciplinary discourse and make it part of good practice, pressing to ensure that historical archaeology and SHA practice genuine equity in our scholarship and advocacy and welcome a breadth of voices.

Wikifying Historical Archaeology

In February historian William Cronon admitted his deeply rooted skepticism about Wikipedia as a scholarly resource.  Cronon, the President of the American Historical Association, acknowledged he had originally had misgivings about an online resource penned by the masses, and he recognized that he and many other scholars were hard-pressed to see Wikipedia as much more than a shallow and often flawed introduction to a modest range of topics.

Yet this year Cronon was compelled to confess that Wikipedia is now one of the single most comprehensive research sources on the face of the planet, and as I write today it has 3,961,053 articles traversing literally every possible subject from musicians’ biographies to historical events.  The pages are updated almost instantly; current events are updated in nearly real time, and each time an elder musician or movie star draws their last breath their Wikipedia entry appears to be edited before the body has cooled.  Wikipedia includes thoughtful if brief entries on astoundingly specialized topics, including entries on the simulated Nazi invasion of Winnipeg, the Bredon Hill Hoard, or the traditional Icelandic dish of Svio.  Wikipedia’s History Portal is systematically organized by period and culture groups for those seeking broader entry points, and many entries have links to peer-reviewed scholarship.  Nearly any search engine will identify a Wikipedia entry as the very first possibility out of scores of other web pages, and it is among the single most visited web pages in the world.  Strong Wikipedia entries provide a succinct introduction to a subject, reliable background on it, and links to resources containing more detail.  Some subjects are not completely amenable to Wikipedia-style linear outlines, but many of the subjects scholars examine can be very thoughtfully introduced in a Wikipedia entry.

What Cronon recognized is that it is foolish for scholars to ignore such a rich resource, because many people wade into scholarly topics and perspectives through their introductions in Wikipedia pages, and many times we need only a reliable overview of a topic.  When he wrote in February, the American Historical Association—the largest and oldest professional historians organization in the US—had a superficial Wikipedia entry, but now it has a thorough entry that includes an astounding set of links to Wikipedia entries for nearly every single AHA President since 1884, which has included George Bancroft, Woodrow Wilson, C. Vann Woodward, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich among its number.

In February the Society for Historical Archaeology did not even have a Wikipedia page, and we now have a brief entry on which we can build a more thorough introduction to the SHA and historical archaeology.  The historical archaeology entry is likewise exceptionally lackluster from a discipline that has produced so much insight into a half-millennium, and an enormous number of Wikipedia entries could be strengthened by contributions from historical archaeologists and material culture scholars.

Many of the scholars who founded our discipline remain largely invisible on Wikipedia, as well, which is especially disappointing since many of them are still active in SHA, many have former students who could very ably represent the discipline’s first practitioners, and we have some fabulous oral histories with some of the SHA’s founding figures.  There are now entries for a handful of these figures, including Ed Jelks, John Cotter, and J.C. “Pinky” Harrington among others, but certainly many more influential scholars could be introduced to a broader audience through relatively brief Wikipedia entries that would lead students, avocationalists, and even some professionals to the work of these earliest historical archaeologists.  Developing wikipedia entries for all the Harrington Award winners would be a fabulous class project for somebody out there.  Of the 27 winners, virtually none has a respectable wikipedia entry directing readers to each scholar’s work and scholarly importance.

Some archaeological sites have thorough Wikipedia entries, with 36 entries for archaeological sites in Virginia alone, including the sites we would expect like Mount Vernon and Jamestown, but also a few lesser-known but fascinating places like the Falling Creek Ironworks.  Many more entries for historical sites could productively incorporate archaeological analysis of those spaces to balance out the conventional historical pictures or architectural histories that dominant Wikipedia.  Indeed, a vast range of Wikipedia subjects have material culture if not concrete archaeological implications that remain largely unaddressed.

It would not be that hard to make historical archaeological insight a central feature of many more Wikipedia entries.  SHA probably does not need to be intent on coordinating a host of archaeological wiki contributors, but there is good reason for us to take Wikipedia seriously and recognize all the potential it has for historical archaeology and the SHA.