RVA Archaeology Goes to Washington

SHA_LogoOn January 8th, 2016, RVA Archaeology hosted a session at the annual conference for the Society of Historical Archaeology (SHA) in Washington, DC. The SHA was established in 1968 and has become the “largest organization in the world dedicated to the archaeological study of the modern world” (Veit, A Brief History). Archaeologists from within and outside of academia came together to share and discuss the latest innovations and research in the archaeology of historic era sites. We were excited to be a part of this larger conference and to have the opportunity to share what was going on Richmond. The session was titled, “Digging the River City: Past, Present, and Future,” and where possible the papers shared in this session are included in the links below.

IMG_2286.JPGBruce Terrell (at left), an archaeologist with the Maritime Heritage Program in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and Lyle Browning, President of the cultural resource management firm Browning & Associates, Ltd., both presented on the incredible archaeological potential of the James River. The river has long been the central hub of transportation, commerce, and industry in Richmond. Both Terrell and Browning demonstrated that the city needs to consider the historical importance of the river, and not just its natural beauty, when developing the Richmond’s riverfront. According to Browning, over 400 archaeological sites have been identified in the river, from fishing weirs, quarries, bridges, mills, and sunken boats!

Dan Mouer, Ph.D., the former director of the now defunct Archaeological Research Center at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), provided a retrospective exploration of important moments in Richmond’s archaeological past. In answering the question of whether archaeology matters in Richmond, Mouer pointed to all the research presented in the session saying, “Today’s session should make it abundantly clear that archaeology has contributed substantially to a vigorous, long-overdue public conversation about the meaning and significance of the city’s racially charged past – a past that has been buried physically, culturally, and psychologically, but which influences all of us who live there in the present.” Mouer argued that this previous research indicates the need to do more archaeology and that Richmond was still a long way off from developing “a program to preserve, study and interpret a fuller story of the city’s history.”

Matthew Laird, historian and principal investigator at the James River Institute for Archaeology, re-visited the excavations of Lumpkin’s Jail and discussed the Richmond Speaks public process to determine how to commemorate this important site. Laird spoke of the incredible power and passion that surrounds this key archaeological site. In thinking about both the previous excavations and current debates concerning the site’s commemoration, Laird discussed the challenge of creating a program that had the scale and depth “great enough to express the magnitude of the historical injustice and suffering which characterized not just one place, but an entire city district.”IMG_2290.JPG

Jolene Smith, of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Ellen Chapman, Ph.D. Candidate at the College of William and Mary, presented their preliminary work on using Graphic Information Systems (GIS) to explore trends in Richmond’s archaeological landscape over time. Their paper suggests the start of a larger project that would be a helpful tool for the City of Richmond to develop in a way that is sensitive and respectful to its archaeological resources. They hope that “Having archaeological and historical information more readily accessible to construction managers may allow for more informed city development decisions.”

Ellen Chapman also presented a paper that explored city perspectives on human remains and burial grounds. Discussing the African Burial Ground, the East Marshall Street Well remains, and the bodies excavated from the Virginia State Penitentiary, she describes how the disrespect evident in these situations reflect the broader racial inequality of the city. Chapman writes that unfortunately some “archaeological sites and human remains have remained incomplete or untouched for decades before the investment of considerable community time and protest to lobby city officials and execute activist actions. In some cases, the wider archaeological community has taken awhile to respond to growing community concerns regarding perceptions of disrespect towards the people and communities represented by these remains.”

Terry Brock, senior research archaeologists and Montpelier, and Kim Allen, cultural anthropologist and founding member of RVA Archaeology, talked of the birth of RVA Archaeology. They were able to share the vision and hopes for “a collaborative group made up concerned citizens and local archaeologists” that can lead “to a new future for archaeology in the City of Richmond.”

Finally, Ana Edwards, the chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project and a member of the Defenders of Freedom, Justice, and Equality provided a moving paper that highlighted the inequalities represented within Richmond’s historic landscape. Edwards made a call to arms for specialists and community activists to join together to discuss the aspects of Richmond’s history that have long laid buried. She wrote, “By giving priority to historic discovery and preservation, to places steeped in both pain and resistance, we face our worst and best selves.”

Our session ended with comments from Dr. Ruth Trocolli, city archaeologist for the District of Columbia, and Dr. Paul Mullins of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Trocolli noted that Washington, D.C. faces many of the same challenges as Richmond. She challenged archaeologists in RVA to take a multi-scalar approach that included activism from both inside and outside of the city government. Mullins, a native of Richmond, said that Richmond was at risk of becoming another sad example where city developers paint complex and controversial places as banal and mundane (parking lots and empty buildings) so that they can sacrifice these places to consumerist pipe-dreams (stadiums and hotels) that continue to silence and hide uncomfortable histories. Please check out Mullin’s recent blogpost about Richmond’s archaeology based on the session.

Overall, it was a great session with wonderful feedback! We will keep you informed as more information from this session comes available.