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FF Sparks (Casual)

Politics and Archaeology

I don't usually post political things, but I'm going to post something about archaeology in the current political climate. As many of my friends know, I was majoring in archaeology when I dropped out of college to do engineering, and I'm still a member of the Archaeological Institute of America. Now, I admit my archaeological interests lie in classical (Greco-Roman), Egyptian (Dynastic and Ptolemaic), and Mesoamerican history; I tend to read the reports on those sort of digs with much more enthusiasm and interest than more recent archaeology, such as civil war battlefields. Normally I get more up-in-arms about things like cocaine smugglers and guerillas taking over Teyuna in Columbia and using archaeological sites as a base of operations.

So a recent report really stunned and surprised me, and I'm going to write up my thoughts on it.



America's historical battlefields are vanishing, and our government doesn't really seem to care.

This is, I will grant you, not a new problem; it was 1993 when a Congressional report cataloged 10,500 Civil War battle sites, and labeled 384 of them as 'principal sites.' The principal sites were the decisive, historical battles, and the report recommended $90 million to purchase those sites and preserve them as parks, warning that if we did not, fully two-thirds of the battlefields might be lost to development.

To put that funding in perspective, keep in mind that the Civil War movie Cold Mountain cost $50 million to make. And national historical parks generally benefit the local economy; even a lesser known park like Kentucky's Mill Springs with only 4,300 annual visitors, the revenue is still enough to pay for four full-time employees out of the revenue, additionally bringing in $83,000 in local business revenue and generating $25,000 in tax revenues. And large historical military site like Gettysburg National Military Park, with 1.6 million visitors per year, has enough to support 2,653 full-time employees, generates $52.2 million in local business income, and $17 in tax revenues.

Unfortunately, remaining portions of the historical battlefields have often been sold to developers. Morris Island, South Carolina, where the assault on Fort Wagner by the all African-American 54th Massachusetts regiment occurred -- the story portrayed in the film Glory -- is slated to become the site of twenty luxury mansions, which will be built on a site which includes the ruins of the fort itself, which will be demolished. Chancellorsville, Virginia, where "Stonewall" Jackson was mortally wounded, is currently being sought by a developer who wants to build atop the battlefield. Glendale, Virginia, where Lee nearly broke the Union military line, is already under development as a housing complex. These are merely a few of the recent casualties.

Some are even worse; in Mansfield, Louisiana, where Richard Taylor captured the Red River Valley for the Confederacy, has already had much of the battlefield torn up and used for strip mining for coal. When local civil war historians ask for artifacts found during mining to be preserved, the electric company who mines there defends their mining as 'responsible and wholly beneficial,' on the grounds that it keeps down the cost of electric power in the region and provides local employment.

Now, this development isn't wholly the Federal government's fault; local governments often make the final decisions on whether or not to protect these sites. And surely the Federal government has done a lot to preserve those sites! After all, Congress said back in 1993 that with only $90 million, they could preserve the most important sites, right?

The funding never came through entirely, though during the Clinton administration, there were handouts for preservation of these sites to the tune of $20 million. But of recent, the cutbacks in the Bush administration have terminated funding for many things. Fredericksburg has had the funds for maintaining historic masonry buildings cut, and despite half a million visitors per year has had the staff paid from federal funds cut from seventeen to two. Gettsyburg itself has had 75% of its federal funding cut, including the funds for preserving the historical military archives there.

Elaine Sevy, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, says that though there is a longstanding maintenance backlog, "we do live in a post-9/11 world. We are in a wartime situation right now, and budgets are tight throughout the Federal government." This same spokeswoman also states that National Park Service budgets have been increased each year since Bush took office, a statement which the National Park Service's own published numbers disagree with; the published numbers show that 85% of national parks have had their budgets cut in the past year alone.

Now, I make no secret of the fact that I'm not fond of the Bush administration; the erosion of our personal rights distresses me. But personal rights can be restored, and records of the past cannot; when the military archives at Gettsyburg deteriorate, for instance, they are gone forever.

When our government is supposedly out there fighting to defend our way of life, I'd expect a little more respect for the legacy of those who fought and died to establish those ways of life.

Comments

Well said.
It's an unhappy situation, and one I don't like, myself; I've been to Chancellorsville, where my husband and many other history buffs like him greatly enjoyed exploring the site and picturing the events as they unfolded there. To think the area might be destroyed for development is sickening.

I immediately remembered that $87 billion in aid that Bush sent overseas - so much of that could be used for the parks - but then I had to pause. People without food, shelter, clothing and education need the money more than a patch of land where once blood was spilled. History is history; and sometimes, you simply have to move on.
What bothers me isn't the overseas aid; while I still think a lot of that is lining corporate pockets, I completely agree that the living should take precedence over the dead.

So, fine, let some of the parks go. But when we /are/ sending $87 billion overseas, when we're racking up these huge deficits, and then you realize that the federal budget allocated to preserving those battlefields from development is /$500,000/ -- yes, that's right, HALF A MILLION -- you have to wonder if they couldn't have found another $500k or so somewhere in the billions being spent, at least.

That's the thing. It's something that doesn't cost a lot to preserve, but does cost a great deal in the future if we lose it. And what bothers me is that the federal government is trumpeting their support for all these grand ideals of the past, but not showing any respect to how those ideals were established.

It'd be one thing if they simply said, outright, 'we can keep some of these grounds, and we recognize that the ones we're giving up we're losing not only history but remaining artifacts and even bodies of soldiers which were buried on the battlefields, but we need to move on; we simply don't have the money.' It'd be sad, it'd still make my archaeologist/historian's heart ache, but I could understand it.

But instead, they salute and wrap themselves in the flag, and then cut the budget here, while running up the biggest deficit ever in order to spend /billions/ on all kinds of other things. And THAT bugs me rather a lot.
I only wonder how hard it would be to raise the necessary monies and purchase the lands, then hand them over to cities and counties in "public trust" as a parkland/battlefield site. After all, so many parks have had their origins in such a way, especially out here.

And then the government (either state, local, or national, whichever would apply) would be somewhat forced into having some form of upkeep for these areas.

But then again, I can't rightly say that I'd be able to do very well at fundraising for such a venture. I'd be more likely to be able to raise funds for Native American stuff, based off of the people who I regularly come in contact with. Civil War locations... nah, they wouldn't go for it.
As sad as the state of Native American archaeology used to be -- and I know most of the nations had little love for archaeologists, and with reason -- that's one place I can say there HAVE been improvements over the past ten years. The new National Museum of the American Indian is really something, especially as they've made an amazing effort to keep everything displayed in ways that the nations approve of. Medicine pouches are raised above head level where appropriate, masks which must 'breathe' are in cases with paper sidings so that they can, and so on.
Oh, I'll grant that there have been improvements over the last ten years in Native-oriented archaeology. In many cases out here, when development turns up some bones, local tribespeople end up being contacted to bring a tribal historian on-site and to help determine what needs to be done with remains. Local museums have been quite welcoming of comments on how things are displayed (i.e. the masks which must breathe, or traditional Plains catlinite pipes which should have the bowl of the pipe removed when not in use), and that museum... oh, gads, do I wish I could get out to the new National Museum.

But like any form of archaeology, even this faces its problems. Hell, there's still grave robbers and pottery shard hunters and idiots who destroy ancient cave paintings. The only way to control that sort of situation is either to purchase the land that the site(s) lay on and remove it totally from public access, or to purchase the site and block off access to specific areas. Unfortunately, there still isn't money for that, either... no more than there is for the Civil War battlefields and staging areas. Which sucks.

I wish I were a better fundraiser. I'd collect cash and become the Jane Appleseed of public historical parkland!
True, but the grave-hunter sorts are no longer funded by museums, at least. Now it's just the ones who collect stuff to sell to collectors on the black market, for the most part.
I am reminded of the Spider Robinson story Melancholy Elephants. We can only preserve so many memories, so much land. Eventually it is time to take only the lesson and move on.

A battlefield can be reconstructed, or simply remembered in books, on film, with signage and maps and such. Freedom, once lost, is far less easily restored. I think perhaps that battle is more important now.

Besides, this, right here, is the next important battlefield. The Internet. There'll be no preserving this, not in the usual sense. The servers on which these words are stored will change over time. But the words themselves - the important part - will remain.

I could probably argue the economics of it as well, if I wanted.... but right here, right now? I think the philosophy carries the day. I for one am too busy fighting the war to keep what little freedom I still have, and maybe perhaps get what we've lost restored, to worry all that much about Gettysburg... a place which, if you truly understand Lincoln's legacy, was not a victory for the cause of freedom in the first place.
I somehow missed this comment earlier.

There's a difference between 'preserving all things' and 'preserving some things.' I don't want all the Civil War sites preserved, but I'd really like to see a little better care given to the ones we /are/ supposedly preserving, or perhaps a few of the really vital ones saved.

I disagree with the philosophy that we can say 'we've preserved enough human history, no more!' That's the same sort of policy which says, 'Well, we have enough national parks, let's go drill oil fields in Alaska!" or "We really don't need that entire national park, let's put condos into Yellowstone." No. No, no, a thousand times no.

Certainly, I can see a picture of the temple at Daitokuji, but that doesn't compare with being able to walk in it. Certainly, I can see a picture of the Grand Castillo, the famous pyramid which dominates Chichen Itza in the Yucatan... but that pales in comparison to being able to go there and see it. Both of those, I've done. I imagine the same is true for the Coliseum or the Parthenon.

Shall we say 'enough, no more' and get rid of them? Use the land for other things, take the lesson and move on? And if not... who makes the decision what is worth preserving? Are the Coliseum and Parthenon more valuable simply because they're older? Would a Civil War site, two thousand years from now, be comparitively as important? And if it would, why simply give up on preserving all of them now, and let them all go away?

That's the part which bugs me. Having to make a decision to let some of our history go for progress, that's normal. But taking the approach of 'enough, no more, the cultural climate is no longer right to support this, it's time to take the lesson and move on...' That, that I greatly disagree with; it's precisely the attitude that's irritating me, 'we can't preserve all this, the money should go to war and the land to development, it's time to move on.' No.

(Anonymous)

I question your commitment to Engineering, each thing we keep from the past impeeds our future constuction. I you don't desire future devlopment you need to get back to the bones.
First of all, I'll note that I have the strength of belief to attach my name to my statements, rather than hiding behind anonymity. Sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes I'm right, but at least I'm willing to attach my name to the things I say. I find it difficult to take someone seriously who will only state their opinion on the condition that they don't have to claim it as their own.

That said, I'll respond once anyway to try and get my thoughts down more clearly; I'm not certain I really came across properly in the post.

Secondly, c'mon, one or two typos are normal enough -- I can see 'impeeds' instead of 'impedes' -- but 'constuction' and 'devlopment'? There's a built-in spell-checker for LJ posts if you really need it.

Now, your statement seems to be an absolute. 'Each thing we keep from the past impedes our future construction'? I suppose this means you think we should knock down the Coliseum in Rome, or raze the Parthenon in Athens? Actually, let's knock down the White House -- it's been around more than a century, after all! -- and build something smaller there, put a parking lot in where the West Wing used to be. The president doesn't need a whole office to himself; cubicles are the wave of the future!

Yes, I'm being facetious there, but the argument that 'anything old can be gotten rid of to make way for something new' can be carried to extremes. There's such a thing as /too much/ preservation, yes. Don't get me wrong on that. But there's also such a thing as /not enough/.

Is it possible to take environmentalism too far? Perhaps... but on the other hand, it's an insane amount of hubris on our part to assume we can balance an ecosystem better than God could; I'd like to keep some of Yellowstone National Park as a park, thank you, rather than turning it all into parking lots and assuming everything will be fine. We've seen how logging near water causes embankments to crumble, which has clogged streams and killed fish populations; that effects progress, too, if we kill off entire foodsources. Should we stop logging? No. Should we log responsibly? Absolutely.

The same is true with conservationism. The past /does/ have things to offer us to move forward; we have an imperfect view of what has happened in the past, and things like being able to study the migrations of ancient tribes of humans allows a greater understanding of genetic drift and inheritance, which aids the study of genetics... which, frankly, I consider to be progress, if you want to take things from a purely scientific standpoint.

So, there's how I can reconcile conservation with science.

But you overlook another very important part of the human condition -- the soul. Human beings, at least many of them, want to know where they came from on a personal level. I've had a number of friends who were adopted, and they want to know what blood it is that flows in their veins... to feel a connection to the past. So they go out and try to find their parents, to learn their family histories.

The same is true of nations. As an American, I take /pride/ in my past. I don't want to live in it endlessly -- it's good to move forward -- but neither do I want to lose sight of the things which /did/ happen, or the ability to go to those places and learn more about it. Our history is much shorter than many nations out there -- European nations whose histories stretch back to ancient times, things like that -- and so we have the ability to preserve bits of that history for future generations.

Ancient Rome believed in progress (to some extent) but also in traditions. This is why, two thousand years on, we still have the Coliseum, and we still know some about those who walked those streets so many years ago. Maybe in two thousand years, the Civil War will be forgotten, or the World Trade Center, but I don't see a need to wipe out all remaining physical reminders of either.

There's such a thing as blind conservationism for the sake of conservation itself, and ignoring common sense. But there's also such a thing as blind progress, developing and constructing just for the sake of doing that... and ignoring the costs.

(Anonymous)

Ancient Rome

I don't think you understand what happend to Rome. Plot population vs. year and see why nothing new needed to replace the Coliseum for 1900 years. Also take a look at what it replaced, when Rome was vital change was constant.

Here's a couple of numbers for you analytic side.
80 Colosseum inaugurated by Titus. Population near 1,000,000
1425 Rome's population is about 20,000.

Re: Ancient Rome

Happened. If you're going to take the time to go out and get numbers to try and launch anonymous attacks on people's opinions, at least take the time to spell properly. Maybe if you spelled properly, you'd take enough pride in your comments that you don't hide behind anonymity. C'mon, what are you afraid of? ;)

Regardless, I'll point out that Rome's population /now/ is much higher, and your point earlier was that, quote, 'each thing we keep from the past impedes our future' -- well, the Coliseum is from our past, so it's impeding Rome's future now, right, because it's kept? If you speak in absolutes, don't expect me not to shoot them down with extreme examples. :)

That said, I've got better things to do than argue with someone who cowers in the shadows, afraid to actually accept responsibility for their comments. If you want an actual conversation, use your actual account; Steph's right, anonymity just encourages people to be trolls and snipe from the shadows.