In downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia there’s a coffee shop—Hyperion Coffee—at the corner of William and Princess Anne Streets. I used to go there often on the weekends when I worked at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Fredvegas is hot in summer, but I still hung on to the tradition of drinking a delicious cup of hot coffee in the morning. Fredericksburg is also a history capitol for the United States. As I walked, sipping my coffee, I imagined the downtown district was what it used to be like to walk the streets of a nineteenth-century town.
Down the street from Hyperion, near 403 William Street, is a weathered sandstone block. It is Fredericksburg’s old slave auction block—the exact spot where African and African American slaves were bought and sold. I took a picture of it in Google Earth and inserted the photo with this blog post. It’s been there for hundreds of years, but its use as the site of slave sales is disputed. Archival documents show, at least occasionally, slaves were sold here even though a proper auction house operated elsewhere in the city. I will never forget how I felt every time I saw that stone block.
Regardless of how consistently it was used for slave sales, the block is an emotional place. It’s well represented in online photographs and dozens of people have photographed, talked about, and pondered this location. It hasn’t been forgotten. This is important because it flies in the face of most of human existence. The majority of the billions of human lives, nearly every single one of our hominin ancestors, slips away into eternity almost completely unnoticed. We rarely leave a single iota of material culture as proof of our existence. Every now and then, human beings do something that leaves a mark on the earth’s surface; an activity or behavior that remains etched in the natural world. There are few places remaining that remind us of the past at all, let alone in the powerful way the slave block of Fredericksburg does.
Archaeology is the craft humans have created that is dedicated to seeking out these rare echoes of past people. As archaeologists, that is why we are here: To tell the story of the past in our own unique way so people of the present can remember.
Archaeology, the Shadow, and the Light
Like all living organisms, people are a unique confluence of energy and matter. And, like all energy, we exist both as a particle and a wave. Human particles come together, manifest societies, and then dissipate. We are here for a brief amount of time and then we are not. The actions we do in life reverberate throughout the rest of humanity and into the future. In this way, waves of our existence fan out through our descendants and throughout our society. Entire human lives traverse the landscape like ghosts making shadows on the ground.
Most of these waves of action will leave no permanent mark on the earth. Think about it. How much is left of your that Halloween candy you ate as a child? What about all those basketball games you played as a youth? Or, that meal you bought your wife for your anniversary five years ago? There’s practically nothing left of any of those activities.
What remains also tends to get erased by subsequent actions. Our childhood neighborhoods, the farms that grew the food our great-grandparents ate, the stone tools our great-to-the-13th-degree-grandparents used to prepare dinner—nearly all of these things are gone. They have been lost to development, erosion, or simply forgotten under layers of sediment. The echo of these activities has gotten so faint that they can barely be heard.
Then, along comes some archaeologists. Mandated by state law, moved by a descendant community, swooping in to save something from erosion, we use our unique, specialized education, skillset, and understanding of the world to collect information—to record what is left of that whispered echo before it goes completely silent. As the ombudsmen of this information, it is our duty to share what we learn with the humans we currently live with and preserve it for those who will inherit this earth.
This is our art and the reason why society lets us exist. Without sharing, archaeology will silently slip into the echoes of the past.
The Power of Archaeology
Have you ever listened to an old song, something your great-great-grandparents used to hear, and noticed emotions that still resonate today? Early 1900s ragtime that makes you want to dance? Sorrowful love ballads that you can relate to? Songs about equality that remind you of #blacklivesmatter? (FYI: There used to be a show on the now defunct East Village Radio called the Ragged Phonograph Program that was full of music recorded between the 1890s and 1930s. You can listen to episodes on the Internet Archive, which I recommend to anyone doing historical archaeology of the turn of the twentieth century. It helps you build perspective of culture back then.)
Recorded music only goes back to about the 1880s with a few recordings earlier than that (wax cylinders made in the 1860s or 1870s). Even though this is comparatively recent history, it is nearly gone. Those old ragtime, vaudeville, jazz, and blues songs were performed by people who are all dead. They might have written down these songs but we almost never hear them sung because our society has changed. Few of us listen to that old stuff anymore. Nevertheless, those songs show us where we have been, what we preferred, and how we performed habitus.
The whispers of the past demonstrate that most of what we face today is rooted in the human condition; the fact that our lives are temporary, acted out on a living earth with an unkind environment, and we are cognizant of those facts. Love, work, parenthood, food, violence, environmental change, pollution, illness, age, death—these are all things that have been with us for tens of millennia. The way we’ve responded in the face of these challenges is what has changed. For the first time in human history, there is a cadre of well-trained researchers dedicated to figuring out how human beings have adapted, what worked, and what didn’t. Also, for the first time in history, we have an expansive communication network that allows us to disseminate this information to people around the world and archive our findings for as long as the server farms stay operational. We can finally share far and wide, but we simply aren’t doing it.
Recording the past in order to tell the world about our findings. This is what archaeologists do. This is why we do it. We don’t do archaeology to get college degrees. It’s not done to publish academic journal articles and CRM reports nobody will read. Money is a tool that we all need to survive in the modern world, but we don’t do archaeology solely to make a profit. Archaeology is a platform we archaeologists can use to channel our curiosity about the past into something that can help people of today.
Cultural resource management archaeology has resulted in the collection of more archaeological data in the last 50 years than in the previous 474 years of Europeans and Africans in the Americas, but this has not translated into a corresponding expansion of information dissemination to the public. Many Americans do not know humans and dinosaurs didn’t exist at the same time. A huge percentage of the adults I meet don’t know the difference between paleontology and archaeology. A shockingly high number of people do not know it is illegal to destroy an archaeological site. These truths suggest we CRMers have not been doing a very good job at fulfilling our social obligation.
The slaves sold on that block in Fredericksburg are dead. The people that bought them are also gone. All of the products they grew on plantations, the tobacco, corn, hogs, cattle, horses, are gone as well. The entire investment in those enterprises; the slaves and the laws that allowed enslavement; their plantation’s yields; the insurance on the slaves, plantation, and other property; the stock investments in the Virginia colony and its subsequent industries; the boats, carts, and vehicles that transported people and products around the world; the people who smoked that tobacco, ate that corn, cooked those hogs; the words spoken and songs sung; everything they felt, thought, cared about, and worked to attain; almost all of the earth’s energy in circulation at that time is all gone. It has dissipated elsewhere, gone into new constellations of matter and energy that exist in the present.
The only thing left of those antebellum activities are some old buildings, a few archaeological features like the slave block, some decayed artifacts, and, perhaps, some animal and human remains. Still, those tangible remains can convey emotion because people today are the same as people were yesterday. We understand because we are human beings. Archaeologists are the only ones looking for those remains with the hope that they can share what they learn with the rest of the world and preserve what little they find for the future. It is the sameness of humanity that allows non-archaeologists to empathize and relate to the data archaeologists collect.
Archaeology is unique. We deduce things through a variety of mediums like music, archival documents, oral history, and measurements collected from the natural world. Combining hard and soft sciences, reading between the lines of what was said and written in the past, this is archaeology. So, archaeologists, please remember why society allows you to exist. It is to amplify the whispers of the past in our own unique way so they can still be heard today. We are here to lead the horses to water…
What do you think? Why are we archaeologists here? Write a comment below or send me an email.
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