By SAMIR S. PATEL
Friday, February 10, 2017
In 1951, the BBC recorded three melodies—“God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood"—generated by mathematician Alan Turing's pioneering Mark II computer. It is the earliest known recording of computer music. Researchers recently analyzed and processed the recording, which includes the voices of people in the room, to restore the original sound of this founding artifact of the age of digital music.
To read in-depth about the recording, go to "Digging up Digital Music."
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Thursday, February 02, 2017
Originally published in the November/December 2006 issue
In Talbot County, Eastern Shore, State of Maryland, near Easton, the county town, there is a small district of country, thinly populated, and remarkable for nothing that I know of more than for the worn-out, sandy, desert-like appearance of its soil, the general dilapidation of its farms and fences, the indigent and spiritless character of its inhabitants, and the prevalence of ague and fever. It was in this dull, flat, and unthrifty district or neighborhood, bordered by the Choptank river, among the laziest and muddiest of streams surrounded by a white population of the lowest order, indolent and drunken to a proverb, and among slaves who, in point of ignorance and indolence, were fully in accord with their surroundings, that I, without any fault of my own, was born, and spent the first years of my childhood. —FREDERICK DOUGLASS, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)
Under the boughs of a huge tulip poplar, buried among clumps of roots and piles of oyster shells, is the brick foundation of a building, a remnant of a once-thriving slave community. For 18 months in the early nineteenth century, it was home to a young Frederick Douglass, the future African-American statesman, diplomat, orator, and author. Here, at the age of seven or eight, a shoeless, pantless, precocious Douglass first saw whippings and petty cruelties. Here, he first realized he was a slave. “A lot of the horror that comes through his autobiographies is grounded in those months that he was there,” says James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York who is working on a book about Douglass’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln. The modest excavation at Wye House Farm, a 350-year-old estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has yielded sherds, buttons, pipe stems, beads, and precious knowledge about everyday slave life, and is allowing the descendants of that slave community, many of whom live in the nearby rural African-American town of Unionville, to reclaim a lost cultural hertiage.
A team of archaeologists and students started digging here in 2005 after archaeologist Lisa Kraus proposed the dig, on the basis of Douglass’s descriptions of the site, to Mark Leone, director of the urban archaeology field school at the University of Maryland. Before beginning the excavation, Leone approached St. Stephen’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, the social and religious center of Unionville, to ask what the people of the community wanted to learn from the archaeology. “You should ask the people who think it’s their heritage what they want to know about it,” Leone says. “The answers automatically dissolve the difference between then and now.” This, he adds, is the heart of social archaeology, working with descendant communities and understanding that the past and present inform one another. The people of Unionville wanted to know about slave spirituality, what remained of African life, how the owner of the slaves did or did not support freedom, and how slaves found the strength to survive. They are questions a single dig is unlikely to answer, but they have opened an avenue of dialogue between the archaeologists and the people to whom their work matters most.
A sharp, fetid smell wafts off the nearby cove, where swarms of insects form a halo over still water. Leone, a tall, fair anthropologist who has spent his career studying class and race in the historical landscape of Annapolis, speaks slowly and deliberately. “What we have discovered is there’s archaeology everywhere,” he says, as a team of students profile and photograph the site under the tulip poplar behind him. “We’ve only scratched the surface.” Waving his hand across the rolling landscape bordered by the cove on one side and a farm road on the other, he explains that it was once all part of a slave community buzzing with activity.
Leone and Kraus, a graduate student at the University of Texas, have for the last two field seasons led this dig, which is on the grounds of a grand plantation that has been, and still is, privately owned by one family—the Lloyds, one of the founding families of Maryland. The team so far has uncovered three structures packed with domestic and commercial artifacts of slave life, and they expect to find more next season.
Mary Tilghman, the Lloyd family matriarch and eleventh-generation descendant of Edward Lloyd, who settled the property in the 1660s, receives guests in the well-appointed, hunting-themed south parlor of the estate’s late Georgian mansion, just a hundred yards or so from the dig site. Tilghman, a proper yet lively woman of 87, dressed in a long khaki skirt and collared blouse, has piercing blue eyes and pale skin like creased parchment. She taps her aluminum cane on the hardwood floor as she speaks. “I think it’s fascinating and I think seeing something, rather than assuming something was there, that’s intriguing, This is probably a very foreign culture to a great many people.”
Tilghman, who rides around the estate on a golf cart with bundles of dried flowers tied to the back, doesn’t live in this mansion, but in a smaller building known as the Captain’s house, named for Captain Aaron Anthony, the farm manager who actually owned the young Douglass and is believed to have been his biological father. Tilghman clearly doesn’t condone the slavery practiced by her ancestors and their employees, but she doesn’t feel the need to apologize for it either. Yet even though she is a private woman, she has opened her property to archaeologists, reporters, and descendants of the slaves her family once owned. “She could have refused quite gracefully and no one would have thought any the worse of her,” says Kraus. “[The Lloyds] have contributed hugely to the founding of the country and the ideas that it’s based on, but at the same time there’s this—it’s not even a skeleton in the closet, it’s on the lawn, right there.”
This site is distinguished from other slave community excavations by an embarrassment of primary sources. In addition to Douglass’s detailed descriptions of slave life, in the 1960s architectural historian Henry Chandlee Forman drew maps of the estate himself or traced them from disintegrating maps in the family archives. There are also aerial photographs from the 1930s and 400 boxes of Lloyd family archives, which include both business documents and personal letters and diaries, stored at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Most importantly, there is a very rare commodity, the people of Wye House Farm and Unionville and their family lore and memories of childhood. “You play these primary sources off of each other,” says Leone, comparing, for example, the aerial photographs with Forman’s maps and Tilghman’s childhood recollections. At the farm’s height in the mid-1800s, the Lloyds may have owned more than a thousand slaves spread across dozens of corn, tobacco, and livestock farms in the area and beyond. In a single transaction in 1830, according to the archives, they spent $24,000 on 72 slaves.
During the Civil War, some local slaves enlisted in the Union Army, and their owners were compensated $300 each. Upon returning from the war, many of these newly freed men returned to the places that they knew. When 18 soldiers from this area—many of whom are thought to have come from Wye House Farm—returned, an abolitionist Quaker named Cowgill offered them a reasonable lease on land and the town of Unionville was founded. Just down the road from the farm, Unionville today is a poor but tidy rural town of single-family homes. The tightly knit and proud community is centered around St. Stephen’s and its adjoining graveyard, where the 18 soldiers are interred. Some of the names on the gravestones—Roberts, Demby, Bailey (Douglass’s birthname)—appear on the Lloyd’s slave rolls. Douglass even mentioned one, “Uncle” Isaac Copper, by name. Today, as in Douglass’s day, old money and rural poverty, divided along racial lines, sit side-by-side.
Then here were a great many houses, human habitations full of the mysteries of life at every stage of it. There was the little red house up the road, occupied by Mr. Seveir, the overseer; a little nearer to my old master’s stood a long, low, rough building literally alive with slaves of all ages, sexes, conditions, sizes, and colors. This was called the long quarter. Perched upon a hill east of our house, was a tall dilapidated old brick building, the architectural dimensions of which proclaimed its creation for a different purpose, now occupied by slaves, in a similar manner to the long quarters. Besides these, there were numerous other slave houses and huts, scattered around in the neighborhood, every nook and corner of which, were completely occupied. —FREDERICK DOUGLASS
The bustling slave community was located on the estate’s “long green,” an area nearly a mile long and 300 feet across at its widest point, and which runs along a farm road between the mansion and the cove. In Douglass’s time, it accounted for much of the business of the farm, such as carpentry and metalwork conducted by skilled slaves who lived here. The red overseer’s house that Douglass described still stands, even though swaths of the long green have since been tilled and incorporated into fields of soy and corn.
The excavation team, which included three African-American students in the 2006 season, sought to understand how the buildings there were used and the specifics of slave life, such as trade and skilled labor. The crew used shovel tests and maps to identify the likely spot, in an untouched portion of the long green, of a two-story slave quarters described by both Douglass and Forman, only to find that it was already occupied by the tulip poplar—six feet in diameter and fifty feet tall. With insects whapping against their faces and clothes and surprisingly large lizards scuttling underfoot, the team spent the summer cutting through and digging around a dense network of roots to uncover a brick foundation full of domestic artifacts, including sherds of heavy ceramics and porcelains, a spoon, a thimble, beads, a knife blade, and hundreds of bones from domestic animals, including pigs, cows, and chickens, and wild animals, including rabbits, deer, turtles, and fish. The area had never been plowed, so despite the roots the site was largely intact.
“We have a history of African-American life that has this amazing time depth,” says Kraus. “Archaeology really gives us information about their day-to-day practices.” For example, pottery finds suggest that the slaves of Wye House Farm did not have access to a market or make ceramics themselves—most of what they used was passed down from the Lloyds. Other items, such as beads, buttons, and decorations, were probably not passed down and may have come, by night and by canoe, from a secret, prohibited trade network with other slave communities. Even though the slaves were worked almost constantly, and getting caught would have resulted in a beating from an overseer, they took great risks to build lives beyond the fields. “I don’t think that’s really been documented before,” says Kraus. With further analysis of the artifacts and where they were found, she hopes to discover how slave life may have changed over the decades that the site was occupied.
With the maps and further poking around, the team also found a large foundation overgrown with vines and poison ivy next to the water line. Tilghman remembered this structure from her childhood as a corn crib, while Forman described it as a carpenter’s workshop. The structure was likely repurposed many times; it included chunks of sturdy eighteenth-century English brown stoneware alongside animal bones, confirming that it may have been a work building for carpenters and suggesting that skilled slaves here likely lived in the same places that they worked. A third structure, which does not appear on Forman’s map, may have been a makeshift dwelling or lean-to, and yielded hundreds of hand-wrought nails and a posthole. They have also found, throughout the dig sites, broken tools, parts of carriages, and what appears to be a hitching post. Under the tree, the team also found and quickly reburied a more than 2,000-year-old Native American grave, and there are probably more like it.
With the three structures, the archaeologists began to piece together the bustling green Douglass described. “Everything, to a detail, appears to be exactly what he said it was,” says Kraus, citing the presence of workshops, smaller unmapped huts or lean-tos, and crowded dwellings occupied over many years, side-by-side and all within sight of the master’s and overseer’s houses.
It was a little nation by itself, having its own language, its own rules, regulations, and customs. The troubles and controversies arising here were not settled by the civil power of the State. The overseer was the important dignitary. He was generally accuser, judge, jury, advocate, and executioner. The criminal was always dumb—and no slave was allowed to testify, other than against his brother slave. —FREDERICK DOUGLASS
To the people of Unionville, the finds at Wye House Farm, while not spectacular, are a tangible link with a past that is much discussed but largely forgotten, one that lingers in unheard African-American voices and the modest homes of Unionville. “It’s an exploration of the history of modern social issues,” says Kraus. “It doesn’t make people comfortable and happy, but they are interested.”
Just days after the dig ended for 2006, the team presented their finds to the people of Unionville at the Roberts family reunion, an annual event that draws hundreds of Unionvillians from here and around the country. According to William Roberts, a self-professed “poor county boy” from Unionville who is now president and CEO of Verizon Maryland, as many as 60 percent of the people at the reunion are likely to have ancestors who worked at Wye House Farm. In the domestic remains of his ancestors, Roberts says, he found strength. “So many people today do so little with so much, and they did so much with so little,” he says. “If we’ve overcome this, there’s no excuse for us not being able to overcome anything today.” His 16-year-old niece, Ariel Roberts-Brown, found beauty. “When you find a little button or a little bead that perhaps was a necklace, you learn that something mattered to them,” she says.
“It was like someone recognizing that we existed then,” says Harriette Lowery, who grew up in Unionville and returned to live there when her grandparents passed away. “It was almost like touching them.”
The people of Unionville may not have found the answers to their questions about Africa and spirituality (although those questions were answered to some extent in Annapolis, where Leone found spirit caches, collections of beads, crystals, and pins buried nears hearths and doorways, but this interaction, says Kraus, is central to the project. “I think archaeology runs on public interest,” she says.
According to Kraus, this social archaeology is about reclaiming a history and carrying on Douglass’s legacy. “Frederick Douglass’s project was to enfranchise the disenfranchised,” she says. “He’s part of a tradition of black scholarship that’s been overlooked by archaeologists doing African-American archaeology.” Even if Douglass at times exaggerated the brutality of slave life in Maryland, as some including Tilghman, Leone, and many scholars surmise, he was providing a voice to the voiceless. Social archaeology can do the same thing. Through a story of slavery and cruelty, Douglass provided a discourse on freedom; archaeology, by bringing free African Americans in direct contact with their enslaved ancestors, can help reclaim the trials of slave life as sources of strength.
“The more it is open to us, the more we can heal from it,” says Lowery.
Later in life, when Douglass was well-known and widely respected, he returned by steamer to Wye House Farm as a free man. As he was entertained by a Lloyd family descendant, he saw, in the same place he knew as a child, a dramatically different world.
I found the buildings, which gave it the appearance of a village, nearly all standing, and I was astonished to find that I had carried their appearance and location so accurately in my mind during so many years. . . . From this we were invited to what was called by the slaves the Great House—the mansion of the Lloyds, and were helped to chairs upon its stately veranda, where we could have a full view of its garden, with its broad walks, hedged with box and adorned with fruit trees and flowers of almost every variety. A more tranquil and tranquilizing scene I have seldom met in this or any other country. —FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Samir S. Patel is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Thursday, December 01, 2016
The two hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, might be the most heavily documented and studied in history. There are eight official investigations, from a Naval Court of Inquiry to a Joint Congressional Committee, reams of records, and enough books, oral histories, documentaries, and feature films to fill a library. Yet there are still things that can be learned about the morning when 350 Japanese warplanes killed 2,403 Americans, wounded another 1,104, and sank or severely damaged 21 ships in a coordinated attack on military sites around Oahu, Hawaii.
A number of factors have obscured details—big and small—from that day. For example, the surprise of the attack complicated eyewitness accounts. Secrecy shrouded the active war effort on both sides. And, in the aftermath, the United States rushed to rebuild its naval power in the Pacific with the greatest maritime salvage project in history, which returned all but three of the damaged ships to service. This effort begins to explain why there are few archaeological sites directly tied to December 7.
In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completed the first database of submerged cultural resources in the main Hawaiian Islands. Of 2,114 entries, just five come from the attack: two battleships in the harbor, two Japanese submarines in deep water, and a lone American seaplane. All were spared salvage—and in some cases discovery—for decades by some combination of depth, damage, and respect for the dead.
For the United States, Pearl Harbor stands alongside Yorktown, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and other iconic battlefields as a crucible of American identity. But it is different in both its freshness in memory and its inaccessibility, since most of the surviving remnants lie underwater, within active military installations, or both. It was 40 years before the underwater sites became the subject of archaeological inquiry. “We’re gaining a much more detailed understanding of the battlefield and all of its nuances,” says James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, who has been directly involved in several of the archaeological projects at Pearl Harbor. “Seventy-five years on, the view is far more comprehensive and three-dimensional, not just in terms of the major events, but also individual experiences.”
Today there are very few survivors of the attack, and fewer each year. The sites discussed here will soon be the only primary sources about an event that changed the course of the twentieth century. They are being studied not out of historical curiosity, but to ensure their stewardship for the future.
By KAREN COATES
Monday, December 12, 2016
Editor's Note: Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue
I’m following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang Province. We’re inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.
Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a “secret war” against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze—and to archaeologists.
The jars are huge, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing 14 tons. Most are carved of sandstone, others of granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Some are round, others angular, and a few have disks that appear to be lids. Tools and human remains found inside and around the jars suggest their use and manufacture spanned centuries. The bulk of material dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800, and additional carbon dates are expected this summer.
Archaeologists are certain the Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites—but it is one with more questions than answers.
French archaeologist Madeleine Colani pioneered research in Xieng Khouang in the 1930s. She found jars with cremated human remains and a nearby cave with burned bones and ash. Colani speculated the cave was a crematorium, the jars were mortuary vessels, and the fields were ancient cemeteries. Today, more than 2,000 jars have been identified across the province.
These archaeological treasures sit in one of the world’s poorest regions. That’s why Van Den Bergh, a UNESCO consultant from the Hong Kong–based Archaeological Assessments, is here. She hopes to turn the Plain of Jars into a UNESCO World Heritage site. The UNESCO-Lao Project to Safeguard the Plain of Jars aims not only to protect the vessels but to rehabilitate this remote province by clearing bombs, restoring agricultural lands, and promoting tourism.
A specialist in geoarchaeology with a decade of experience in Asia, Van Den Bergh has worked in Laos on six-week stints for four years now. In conjunction with the Lao government and a geographer from Bangkok, the project includes training Laotians to recover, record, and store archaeological material; create a precise map of the jar fields; and identify key areas for preservation and tourism development. The project also enlists local villagers to help with these tasks and involves the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organization hired to remove explosives from the most popular jar sites.
Some dub the Plain of Jars “the world’s most dangerous archaeological site,” and Van Den Bergh readily agrees. While archaeologists occasionally encounter UXO in war-torn countries and military testing grounds around the world, perhaps no archaeological site is as contaminated as the Plain of Jars. Two archaeologists conducted limited excavations in the 1990s without incident, “but that’s just luck,” Van Den Bergh says. “I’ve come home from surveying and thought, I’m happy to be getting into the car and coming home.”
My husband, Jerry, and I first visited Xieng Khouang in 1998. Back then, the capital, Phonsavan, was a Wild West sort of town with a main street of mud, on-again off-again water, and equally unreliable electricity. You could count on three fingers the tourists arriving each day. We stayed at a dimly lit guesthouse with a lobby full of bomb casings, mortar shells, grenades, and guns. Back then, we knew UXO still polluted the ground. But we didn’t know the jar sites remained riddled with bombs or that UXO continued to kill villagers every week in Xieng Khouang. And we didn’t know our guesthouse displayed four live bombs. (No worries now, MAG removed them.) When we arrive in Phonsavan this time, it’s still a dusty cow town, but the nights are ablaze with fluorescence, cheap restaurants and guest houses line the streets, and tourists from all over the world fill them.
Van Den Bergh drives us half an hour outside town, over a bone-rattling road, to a wooden house where MAG bases its operations. There, we meet Stuart Broome, the jovial ex-military man from Australia who heads the clearance team. The staff, about two dozen strong, are celebrating. Beer is flowing, music is thumping. A week ahead of schedule, they’ve just finished clearing Jar Sites 1, 2, and 3, the most popular tourist stops, each within a 45-minute drive of Phonsavan. Visitors now can safely explore those sites, provided they stick within MAG’s red-and-white concrete markers.
“Tourists come unaware of how dangerous Xieng Khouang is,” Van Den Bergh says. The jars have attracted travelers as long as Laos has, but many recent visitors never knew they were crossing contaminated land. Some local guides mistakenly told their guests all was safe and clear long before it was. Here, the ordnance problem isn’t visible, as it is in neighboring Cambodia, where land mines have left thousands of amputees. If UXO blows, “it’ll just kill you,” Broome says. No limbs lost, no person left. Nothing to illustrate the danger.
There is no reliable tally of UXO victims, but experts hear of at least one a week. They admit that’s probably low. Broome tells us of 11 accidents the week before we meet, “that we know of.” There were four two weeks before that, “that we know of.” But later we learn of eight more, for a total of 12. “That we know of” is an oft-used qualifier here.
MAG’s clearance records are staggering: Since work started in July 2004, the team has successfully removed and destroyed 127 pieces of UXO, cleared six acres, visually searched 55 acres, and found 31,814 pieces of scrap metal. And that’s just Site 1.
Finding explosives—using a variety of metal detectors covering 15-inch to seven-foot swathes—is a scrupulous task. Workers move back and forth, up and down a grid of red-rope lanes, detectors in hand. Each signal is marked with a red chip, and each chip is investigated by a technician with a shovel. They always dig down and toward the source, starting half a foot back. “We don’t dig on top,” Broome explains, “because that could cause UXO to blow.” UXO that is safe to move is stored until each Friday, when MAG detonates the entire week’s cache.
“It’s really similar, archaeology and bomb disposal,” Van Den Bergh wryly explains. When MAG clears a site, all the scrap metal is plopped in a bucket. Broome is first to peek at the findings, and Van Den Bergh’s quick to follow. Both are curious about the bucket, because its contents can tell a story about the site, either through bomb fragments or metal artifacts.
Broome and I examine the bucket one morning: a projectile fragment, cartridge cases, barbed wire, cans. I pick up a piece. “It’s a cartridge case from a recoilless rifle,” he says. He ogles an aluminum bit. “I think it’s part of a rocket motor.” It was all found in the parking lot at Site 3.
One bright Saturday, Van Den Bergh leads us through Site 1, pointing to hundreds of jars, scattered over parched grasslands and rolling hills just outside of town. A few cows graze through the area. Western tourists trundle downhill, ignoring the MAG markers; Laotian kids scramble uphill, doing the same. It will take time for people to learn.
We walk from jar to jar, each in small clusters. Van Den Bergh only has permission to survey on site. “All our excavations are connected to the MAG excavations,” she explains. “We don’t have permission to excavate for research.” She suspects the ground below our feet is rife with archaeological information—perhaps tools, burial urns, bones, or charcoal that could more precisely pin a date or offer conclusions on the historical background of the site. But Van Den Bergh is here solely to help prepare the sites for nomination for World Heritage status—taking inventory, mapping the jars, and creating a database. Working with MAG provided a bonus, the chance to see below the surface. “While they dig, we collect the information,” she says.
In fact, the jars have not been studied much. “Archaeologically, Laos is almost terra incognita,” writes Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, the country’s only certified archaeologist and one of few to have excavated the jars. He, like Van Den Bergh, relies heavily on Colani, who documented her findings in two massive volumes titled The Megaliths of Upper Laos. Seventy years later, they remain the primary source on the jars.
The Plain of Jars seems to coincide with the Khorat Plateau in Thailand and the North Cachar Hills of India, where jar burials have also been found. These were transformative times, some 2,000 years ago, of agricultural advancement, metal manufacturing, religious expansion, widening Asian trade routes, and the societal precursors to urbanization. Colani speculated the Plain of Jars lay at an important intersection of trade routes that stretched, perhaps, from India to Vietnam.
She found beads and bronze and iron tools. The cave she discovered on Site 1 has blackened walls and two chimney openings that signaled to her that bodies had been cremated here before placement inside the jars.
Japanese archaeologist Eiji Nitta excavated some of the jars in 1994, and Thongsa followed a couple of years later. Both found burial pits containing human bones among the jars, and both concluded the sites were used for secondary burials. Van Den Bergh wonders about the archaeological discoveries over time: Colani found burned bones; Thongsa and Nitta found unburned. Did they stem from different periods? Were they halfhearted cremations? It seems the deceased was either buried or put in a stone jar for defleshing. Then the bones were either cremated or placed directly into an urn and buried. But questions nag her. Nitta found an urn with human bones and teeth beneath a jar at Site 1. It looked to him like tenth-century pottery from the Khmer Empire, and he concluded the stone jar directly above this urn could be no older than that. If so, that would make the jar 1,000 years younger than previously thought. Van Den Bergh doesn’t dispute this date but thinks the jar sites were occupied and used over many centuries.
Nitta, who returned to Japan, has sent his reports to Van Den Bergh—but she has not been able to reach him since. She has spoken with Thongsa several times, but he now studies in Australia and their work at the jars has yet to coincide. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) Furthermore, many of Colani’s artifacts have disappeared from Laos over the years. So Van Den Bergh plugs along with what she has.
She questions villagers, hoping they’ll know something about the jars. But they always return to the same legend of an ancient king named Khun Cheung, an epic battle against an evil enemy, and a grand victory celebrated with copious quantities of alcohol some 1,500 years ago. The jars, they say, stored tons of lao lao, a hammering rice whiskey still enjoyed today.
Van Den Bergh doesn’t discount this theory. Like any good Belgian, she likes her beer. When people die in Belgium, “it always involves lots of drinking,” she says. “So I can understand lots and lots of lao lao on a grave site.” (Though she doubts the jars were fermenters.)
As we continue touring Site 1, she points toward a zigzag of war-era trenches, to the bottoms of bomb craters where villagers dig for scrap metal, to a cavity in the hillside once used as a tank position.
She points to broken jars, a cause of consternation. They’ve been bombed and looted. Cows rub them, tourists climb them, trees straddle them. Villagers fashion the jars into water troughs or knife sharpeners. “Between the war, cattle, people, and trees, we are losing a lot,” she says. The weaker the jars get, the quicker they topple.
So she has a few plans. A bamboo fence will enclose some of the jars to deter cows, but she doesn’t want an overly restrictive situation. After all, part of the charm is that people can walk freely among the jars. But the cows must go, and so must some of the trees. “People come up here and picnic,” she says. “It’s just not acceptable.... We don’t want people to stay on site. We just want them to visit.”
In fact, Van Den Bergh wants more visitors. About 9,000 traveled to Site 1 last year from all over the world, but only a third of those reached Site 2, and fewer yet Site 3, which lies farther outside town. Van Den Bergh hopes tourism can spur the local agrarian economy, which affords most people less than a dollar each day. Site 1 is run by the government, but at other sites surrounding villages get half of the 7,000-kip (70-cent) entrance fees. Van Den Bergh hopes new jar sites will open soon, though “they’re not safe, of course.” They haven’t been cleared of UXO. Funding for MAG’s role in the project ended with clearance for Sites 1, 2 and 3.
Van Den Bergh’s is a shoestring operation, evident as soon as we enter her office. It sits on the second floor of a wooden building, a rustic work room with a back half stocked with shelves and metal trunks. Her face brightens as she reveals her treasures, collected from various sites, packed in plastic bags and acid-free paper: pottery sherds, a stone adze, a bugle (presumably French or Chinese, left in a war-era trench), a small Buddha, six metal knives, and tools made of flaky white stone.
Then she beckons to the back, smiling: “Our pride and joy!” There, wrapped gingerly in Ace bandages and foam, packed in wooden crates, are two urns found in a Site 1 trench dug during UXO clearance. They’re about two feet tall, brown, and coated in resin, and they look like bombs—which is what Van Den Bergh was told when she took one to the hospital for x-rays. They also resemble the urn Nitta found with bones. Van Den Bergh’s pots are stuffed with soil, too fragile to empty, but the x-rays revealed a possible bone fragment inside. Someday, she’ll figure a way to get at the contents.
But she doesn’t have the money right now. UNESCO is paying $275,000 for the project, but that includes overhead and fund-raising costs. Only about half that amount reaches Van Den Bergh in the field.
A few years back, project members started going village to village asking, Do you have jars? If so, they could attract tourists and money. Van Den Bergh still crisscrosses the province, greeting villagers and sitting for hours on wooden floors in homes on stilts. She is accompanied by government officials, and the meetings require exhaustive explanations: what the jars mean to archaeology, why tourists are interested, how tourism might help villagers. The jars are valuable relics, she explains, and UNESCO hopes to protect them as World Heritage—a status afforded to few.
Villagers usually don’t think much of the jars—they’re just rocks in the backyard. But once they get the idea that the jars are really important, they start talking about “new” jars. They had always been there, but no one realized they mattered.
We attend one of these meetings, in Na Xaytong village, an hour’s drive from Phonsavan. Chan Mootee, an elder, says the villagers here attribute healing qualities to the jars, and they pour jar water over the heads of ill children. Many years ago, he says, village monks rolled a jar to the temple for use as a water basin. But many people quickly grew sick, so the monks returned the jar to its original site.
When all the stories have been told, we gather for a feast of cabbage soup, boiled chicken, green-papaya salad, and a tray of fried innards in congealed duck blood—which we forgo. But what comes next, no one can avoid: the lao lao. Round and round the room it goes, several sherry glasses of firewater offered in an ancient tradition of hospitality and celebration.
That meeting is a prelude to a long hike to a survey site near a Hmong village called Ban Phakeo—a place with many jars but little in the way of tourism development. It’s a half-hour trudge downhill until the trail crosses a rickety bamboo bridge and makes a sharp upward turn. We see miles of blue-green mountains in hot haze. “I’m not tired,” Van Den Bergh pants, after another 90 minutes hiking through the sweltering jungle. “I’m just dead.”
Ban Phakeo is a collection of wooden homes, most with earthen floors, thatch roofs, and cluster-bomb casings for planters and feed troughs. The one-room schoolhouse has a bell made from bomb scrap, and the walls are decked with posters showing kids proper behavior around UXO: Don’t stake your buffalo to the ground; tie it to a tree instead. Never touch UXO. Tell an adult if you see something suspicious.
Farther uphill, another half an hour away, there are nearly 400 jars toppled in the forest, covered in mosaics of green and white lichens. The team quickly gets to business, stretching a tape measure from jar to jar, numbering, measuring, and photographing details. We spend two days among these ancient vessels, and the team works diligently amid scrub brush and trees, avoiding thoughts of UXO. Nothing here has been cleared.
It’s amazing, these jars sitting in the woods, on a windy hill. I catch Van Den Bergh in a moment of reflection, and she offers a pensive sigh. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” It is, really, the only imaginable comment. The beauty of these magnificent jars is indisputable; their value to archaeology is certain. These things are known. But for now, little else about the jars is.
Karen Coates is author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War. See more of her work at www.redcoates.net.
By MARION BLACKBURN
Tuesday, April 05, 2016
Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave Old Nation. Women cry and made sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much.
—A Cherokee account from The Oklahoman, 1929, cited by John Ehle in Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, 1988
It’s easy to miss this subtle groove, covered in pine straw and vines, worn in the ground of eastern Tennessee. In the summer of 1838, about 13,000 Cherokee walked this path from their homes in the Appalachian Mountains to a new, government-mandated homeland in Oklahoma. They traveled over land and water and were held in military camps along the way. Unlike other settlers heading west, who saw in America’s open expanses the hope of a new life, the Cherokee traveled with a military escort. They left behind highly coveted land that was, even as they walked, being divided up among white land speculators.
The Trail of Tears was a journey of some 900 miles that took approximately nine months to complete. After they were rounded up from their villages and homes, the Cherokee were assembled in large internment camps, where some waited for weeks before heading out in waves of approximately 1,000, following different paths, depending on the season.
As many as 4,000 died along the way from dehydration, tuberculosis, whooping cough, and other hardships— by some accounts, a dozen or more were buried at each stop. Some escaped along the way and were caught and returned to the march like criminals. Still others refused to leave, hiding out in the mountains, joining others on small farms where, stripped of tribal connections and burdened with unclear legal status, they faced an uncertain future.
Despite all our historical knowledge of the forced removal, there has been little study of the archaeology of the trail, the internment camps along the way, and the farms that sheltered those who stayed behind. The military forts that held the Cherokee in crowded, unsanitary conditions have been largely consumed by development or otherwise lost. The homesteads back East, where resistors lived under constant threat of arrest, went undocumented. Buildings, roads, farms, and floods have claimed almost all of these sites. In addition to a lack of material evidence, there has long been an uneasy, even contentious, relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists. Through neglect and distrust, this sad chapter has been at risk of fading from collective memory, taking with it any chance to understand the relationships between refugees and soldiers, and cultural information about the Cherokee themselves—what they carried, how they traveled, why they died.
That now stands to change. In eastern Tennessee, archaeologists are excavating the site of Fort Armistead, a U.S. Army encampment that served as a holding area and one of the first stops for North Carolina Cherokee on their forced journey west. Hidden deep in Cherokee National Forest, the site has managed to escape the damage or destruction that has visited nearly every other significant trace of the trail and camps.
Fort Armistead lodged as many as 3,000 Cherokee over several months in 1838. Today, the site sits on about four acres of a mountaintop clearing. It consists of foundation blocks, collapsed piles of chimney stones, trash pits, and window glass—plus an enigmatic stone pipe—all settled gently into the ground, covered by only a thin layer of dirt, leaves, straw, and moss. For four weeks in the summer of 2011, archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, held the fourth field season at the site. The same archaeologists also have been conducting excavations about 35 miles east, across the North Carolina border, at the sites of long-forgotten homesteads where fugitive Cherokee found refuge and community.
“Any [Cherokee] who came from North Carolina came through here,” says archaeologist Brett Riggs, an adjunct associate professor at UNC, of the Fort Armistead site. “We have an archaeological site and records that speak directly to it.”
Spindly hardwoods and pines surround the clearing. The archaeologists began their efforts in 2006 at the invitation of USFS officials, who had just purchased the property from private owners. Artifacts have been found throughout the immediate area, but the main digs of the 2011 field season focused on a space at the northern end about the size of two city buses. Exposed cut stones set in powdery soil, chimney blocks, and the remains of fire pits compose what was once the barracks area. Another foundation there probably supported the quartermaster’s residence, and a pit across the site likely served as a powder magazine. “You are right in the footsteps of the Cherokee,” says Quentin Bass, an archaeologist with the USFS. “[Fort Armistead] is the only example of a removal-era fort that essentially hasn’t been disturbed since the soldiers left. It’s the dream for an archaeologist—to find an untouched site to explore and preserve.”
These undisturbed remains of apparently substantial structures suggest that the federal government poured significant staff and resources into the fort during its military occupation. Beyond the barrack foundations, in a sunny opening in the tree cover, is a key public place, the fort’s parade ground. Wide dirt roads lead right and left beyond that, and a gentle slope leads down to a creek.
Fort Armistead was formally established in 1832, ostensibly to protect local Cherokee from gold prospectors. It was the only U.S. outpost in the Cherokee Nation, whose land at that time extended from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee south through Georgia and into Alabama.
The fort was near a corridor that already served as a major source of cultural interaction, where different tribes traded, especially the Cherokee and the Creek (also known as the Muscogee). Cattle and pig rustlers, slave traders heading to South Carolina, gold miners, trappers, and hunters all came through along this route, known as the Unicoi Turnpike. Indeed, soldiers stationed at the fort often appropriated goods (including whiskey) for themselves, Riggs says. For the next several years, the fort was irregularly staffed and maintained.
Prior to the Civil War, trade and land speculation in the South often put businessmen and speculators at odds with Native Americans who occupied the land they coveted. The federal response to this problem was the Indian Removal Act, which passed by a narrow margin in 1830. The law marked a monumental shift for the young nation by officially claiming Native lands for its expanding population and farming needs. The act granted the Natives money and land in the West if they left their homes in the South. To sell the act to the public, the federal government asserted that Native Americans were primitive migrants—hunter-gatherers who would not be able to modernize. It was also cast as a measure to protect Natives from more violent efforts to claim the land on which they lived. However, it clearly overlooked that many tribes throughout the Southeast lived in villages and towns and were adept pastoralists, farmers, and entrepreneurs, with strong spiritual ties to their lands. President Andrew Jackson, a land speculator himself, championed the controversial act and stood to profit from it. In the ensuing decades, the legislation stoked moral outrage that also helped fuel the abolitionist movement.
The Cherokee fought eviction through official channels, eventually winning support for independent status from the U.S. Supreme Court—a decision that prompted Jackson to say, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.” Harassment, uncertainty, and eroding negotiating leverage ultimately fatigued the Cherokee. In 1835, a minority Cherokee group agreed to relocation, or removal, under the terms of the Treaty of New Echota. Deportation might then have seemed a kind of escape. The treaty included $5 million for the tribe, along with compensation for the land and possessions they abandoned.
The Cherokee, which white Americans called one of the Five Civilized Tribes, considered themselves American and wanted to join the growing country as participating members. In 1827, the Cherokee ratified a constitution modeled after the American one. They also assumed some aspects of American culture, in an effort to acculturate and escape the fate they had seen befall other Southeastern tribes, such as the Choctaw, the first tribe to move to the West in 1830, or the Seminoles, who violently resisted removal from Florida.
“The Cherokee were trying to play by American rules,” says archaeologist Lance Greene, who worked with Riggs at UNC and now works at the Fort Armistead dig. “They were forming their own national government. A large part of the population had converted to Christianity. They sang Christian hymns as they were marching. There’s still an image of savage Indians living in tepees, but maybe the Cherokee, more than anybody, made an attempt [to acculturate]. But ultimately it failed.”
Despite the apparent Cherokee desire to join instead of fight, the federal government began a military buildup in preparation for what it assumed would become a long, bloody conflict. As part of this militarization, they reactivated Fort Armistead in 1836 and occupied it with soldiers who marched there from Florida. By the summer of 1838, more than 7,000 federal and state troops were stationed throughout the Cherokee Nation—a remarkably high concentration for America’s nascent military.
“What drove their idea of a protracted conflict in North Carolina was the unanimous opposition to the Treaty of New Echota and strong activism to prevent its ratification, and then to have it annulled,” Riggs says. “There were rumors afoot that there would be a guerilla war in North Carolina. The military was poised for an eventuality that never happened.”
There was no insurgency and little resistance when the military began the roundup of the Cherokee in June and July 1838. Most of them gathered what belongings they could and came together in their town squares or waited for a soldier’s knock on the door (though some did seek refuge in the mountains). Coming together as they accepted their fate became a final act of preservation for their families, communities, and values, Riggs says. “They were trying to promote the cohesion of their group,” he adds. “They were making a political statement, a moral statement. They believed very strongly in the ideals of this country and the moral imperative to treat everybody fairly.”
For Cherokee living in North Carolina, Fort Armistead was the first stop outside their home state. It held as many as 800 to 1,000 for stays of two or three nights. These included not only the Cherokee, but also those traveling with them, including Creek and African Americans, some of them slaves. They continued on to a series of other outposts (there were up to 30 forts or stops along the trail) in Tennessee, including Fort Cass, the main holding site, near present-day Charleston, which was known for its especially unbearable conditions. In summer 1838, when drought made river levels so low that a planned river route became impossible—and heat made an overland course deadly—the march was delayed until fall, leaving thousands of Cherokee to languish there to face disease and death.
Once the Cherokee were moved and soldiers left in 1838, Fort Armistead was abandoned. From the Civil War period through the turn of the century, the site was privately owned, until it was purchased by the USFS in 2005, and archaeological exploration began the next year.
“We poked around and realized that, in fact, the site had never been plowed,” Riggs says, a common fate for many archaeological sites in the Southeast. “Many of the anomalies that we were seeing on the surface, which I thought were small piles pushed up by a bulldozer, were melted chimneys and cellar pits that had been filled in [by settling debris].” Riggs says the site is in “as nearly pristine condition as you find in the East.
“When you start, you are immediately within an archaeological feature. You have to approach it with kid gloves from the outset,” he adds.
The 2011 dig season, which also included Bass and students from Lee University, focused on several large architectural features, primarily the quartermaster’s house and the enlisted-men’s quarters. The foundation stones easily emerged from the surrounding dirt, lying so near the surface that in many cases soil could be removed by vacuum. The archaeologists discovered a surprising solidity and permanence to these structures, suggesting a highly organized and militarized approach to the removal of the Cherokee. In addition, the stone most likely was brought from up to five miles away, indicating extensive manpower was likely needed for the construction.
“The structure was even more substantial than we thought,” Greene says. “It’s almost a solid rock floor. If you have something that heavy, then you’re almost building it as a foundation for a cannon. But they didn’t have that firepower at the camp. They may have overbuilt some of the structures to keep the soldiers occupied. They must have had a stonemason who was skilled enough to do that work. The stone is cut to make very tight joints. They’ve done some fine stone work.”
The seemingly grand military scale of the fort was not necessary to control the Cherokee, the demeanor of whom has been described as subdued and orderly. The fort grounds ordinarily used for drills may instead have served as a sleeping and cooking area for the internees. Direct evidence of Cherokee at the fort—or anywhere along the Trail of Tears for that matter—is vanishingly rare. Yet one find at Fort Armistead not only confirms the Cherokee presence in the area before their removal, but also suggests what sort of artifacts might be unearthed that could help reveal how the Cherokee and the soldiers stationed there interacted.
The broken remains of a carved stone Cherokee pipe were discovered at the site of the soldiers’ barracks. The pipe, which was probably discarded before it was fully carved, was found in a deposit with military regalia that date it to a time before removal. So while it says little about the experience of the Cherokee as they were interned there, it implies that before removal, “you had Cherokees coming in and hanging around the fort,” Riggs says.
“To find evidence of their presence is amazing,” Greene adds. “[The soldiers and Cherokee] are dealing with each other on a face-to-face basis. It brings up those questions, makes you think about what happened on the ground. How could you explain this?”
Other finds in 2011 include ceramics, such as pearl ware, and glass dating the site to the removal period. A faceted blue glass bead, from the 1820s or 1830s, emerged from the foundation stones (and may, in fact, be of Cherokee origin). Also, more than 4,200 distinct metal objects have been documented.
The excavation and study of the site of Fort Armistead is beginning to flesh out the story of those who left. Now, the Cherokee, whose capital is Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma, number some 300,000—comprising the United States’ second largest tribal nation. But the small band of Cherokee who stayed behind left a smaller but still significant legacy in southern Appalachia. It is estimated that about 400 Cherokee remained in North Carolina after the others were removed. They hid in the mountains where, unable to trade publicly, they found ways to survive by cooperating with one another. They often lived together in homesteads, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, which today numbers about 10,000, descends from residents of those homesteads.
In Andrews, North Carolina, just over the border from his work at Fort Armistead, Greene is excavating a farm once owned by John Welch, a Cherokee, and his white wife, Elizabeth. After removal, the state took over their land. John avoided relocation to Oklahoma because of his marriage, and Elizabeth repurchased the farm, where they further defied the Indian Removal Act, Greene says. There, they sheltered about a hundred Cherokee refugees. At the homestead site, Greene has found bones of rabbit, deer, and small game animals, such as songbirds. Among the food traces, there is a notable lack of long bones, which Cherokee often cooked and cracked open for the marrow. Greene says this is a significant cultural marker—the family continued many Cherokee practices. “One of the strongest signs of that is the food remains,” he says.
The Welch settlement and others, perhaps hundreds yet undiscovered, will help explain the different experiences and separate paths of the two groups of Cherokee split by the trauma of removal. “In a broad sense, for all Cherokees, the removal is a watershed event,” Greene says. “It’s tied to the broader tribal history of tragedy and trauma.” It divided the tribe, but also, he suggests, forged the resilience and character of the modern Cherokee.
In 1987, Congress designated the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, about 2,200 miles across nine states. Fort Armistead is on the trail and is a remarkably fragile site. Hidden cameras, motion monitors, and a high-tech security system protect it from looters and unauthorized visitors. Among the visitors allowed at the site are Cherokee from Oklahoma, whose ancestors surely passed through the fort.
For archaeology student Beau Carroll, a Cherokee who grew up in western North Carolina, excavating at the site of Fort Armistead allowed him to experience a deeper connection with his past. He remembers his late great-grandmother telling him of being sent to boarding school, as many Cherokee children were, where she was instructed to follow white American traditions. She cried when she remembered it, he says. Working at the site gave him “an indescribable feeling, a really sad feeling.
“When I’m working, the archaeologist in me gets really excited,” says Carroll. “I forget where I am. But then I take a break and look at that trail, and I can’t believe what happened.”
Marion Blackburn is a freelance writer based in Greenville, NC.