Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Archaeology is Always Destructive

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The axiom about archaeology is true enough. But in this case it has led to what some note as a troubling conundrum. Imagine the discovery of traces of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. Without question - a site worth uncovering, dissecting, and cataloging. But what if archeologists had to destroy the remnants of some Confederate earthworks to get at it? That is precisely what is happening. The traces of Confederate Fort Pocahontas sit directly on top of and next to the early settlement's Fort James, an enclosure originally encompassing a little over an acre.

Sites related to two central episodes in American history are thus in conflict. According to an article in the Washington Post, "because much of the original fort is buried underneath a Confederate earthwork...these discoveries forced a painful historical and archaeological trade-off. To reveal James Fort, nearly half of Fort Pocahontas has been removed. In the process, invaluable traces of America’s founding have been discovered right next to remains from the Civil War. 'It’s probably the only place you would have a story like that,' says Colin Campbell, president of Colonial Williamsburg, citing the conjunction of two pivotal moments in U.S. history. 'I think it’s absolutely fascinating.'"

In the process of cutting away the Civil War fort, archeologists have unearthed a number of valuable discoveries, such as a remarkably preserved bomb proof, complete with period log supports and sandbags. And, the site is being digitally mapped in 3-D, so it is not completely lost - sort of.

Archeologists based the decision to remove the Confederate fort on its relative insignificance during the war. And, quite obviously, the profound significance of what lies beneath it. While I am generally opposed to destroying any of the few remaining Civil War sites that have not already succumbed to strip malls and other unsightly suburban sprawl, in this case I will side with the Jamestown archeologists. As they say, they are not just digging arbitrarily, and I believe their cause worthwhile in the overall scheme of things. What are your thoughts?




  1. The Confederates should have obtained the necessary archeological clearance if they did not want their fort removed.

  2. Thanks for highlighting this story.

    It's absolutely true that excavation, by definition, destroys the site being studied. That's why archaeologists get so upset about pot-hunters and folks who dig up battlefield relics -- not because they want those things to remain in the earth, necessarily, but because in some cases removing them in that way is more damaging both to the artifacts, and especially to the knowledge to be gained from them, than leaving them where they are until someone ten, twenty, or fifty years from now can come back and do the job correctly.

    Professional archaeologists are keenly aware of this, and I suspect were badly frustrated at the prospect of having to destroy one site in order to access another, more significant, site beneath it. It seems like they made the right call, but it's a hard one to make, regardless.

  3. Seems like whatever is "first" is always prioritized in preservation decisions. People think the stuff at the bottom is the most glamorous. The problem is that if we don't save some of these earthen features now, in the future there will be a big hole in our cultural knowledge where they should be. And #3d mapping is no substitute for being able to walk around someplace and smell it, hear it, absorb some of the psychology of the event, etc. But that's the nature of cultural resource management and I suspect if they didn't dig they'd lose some funding. But you'd think they'd at least leave a section intact huh?

  4. This is an unfortunate coincidence. Ultimately, though, it seems likely that we'll learn more from the colonial site than we would from the Civil War site. It's hard to argue with this decision.