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COMMUNITIES Riverside life in a local town

Fifteen hundred years ago, people set up camps alongside a river and into the woods. They stayed there a few months, maybe longer, until the seasons or the food or their minds changed and then they moved on. For many years they returned to the same spot, building homes on flat places, playing games, making food. They left layers of stone chips and animal bones, and even caches of supplies.

Two hundred years ago the landscape was quite changed as new immigrants set up farms and towns. Now a mill stood along the riverbank. The mill and its miller drew in neighbors to sell their grain, to buy flour or meal, or to talk about politics. The complex was alive even after business hours. Over time the mill’s significant role in local life and economy was reflected in the expanding footprints of its buildings.

Twenty years ago the landscape was far more developed. Rows of town homes sheltered people who commuted to work far away. Residents gathered their food from the grocery store and drank municipal water. Yet much of what took place along the riverbank would have been familiar to people from hundreds or thousands of years before. People gathered there to fish, play, for political rallies, and for special events.

Archeological investigations reveal the sites and artifacts suggestive of a sense of community. Although the materials and people may change, the common goal of working and living together is shared even today.

Case Studies

(photo) Community members work on an excavation. (CAP, Binghamton University)
Sometimes it seems as if archeology magically makes things appear where nothing was before. What was open, vacant land is transformed into a 13th-century North American village with longhouses, over 130 hearths, ovens, and storage pits. This was a great place to live, but it's also prime land for the topsoil mines that will erase the traces of its ancient and historic past. Sometimes, bringing in the community can help develop a sense of place and meaning of archeological heritage in the present.   more +

Sometimes it is also true that archeology has magical powers to inspire the public to care about the past. This is what the Community Archaeology Program at Binghamton University in New York seeks to do. Its participants, ranging in age from 15 to over 70, fill the positions of volunteers, students, teachers, and interns. Together, and with outreach from CAP archeologists, they learn the importance of preserving archeological sites and their relevance in modern life.

Archeology’s magic gets the public excited about the past, and engages them in wanting to preserve it. Community archeology encourages public to participate and to care so that future generations can also benefit from what the past has to say.

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(photo) Visitors to the Indian Mounds Pool point at decorative motifs from the artwork of local Indians. (Paul A. Shackel)
The town of Quincy, Illinois has had a history of social life around a local swimming pool for decades. A recent renovation incorporated archeological design elements from nearby Indian Mounds Park. The new pool is a community-based (and funded) collaboration between the Quincy Park District, Friends of Indian Mounds Park and Pool, and the Quincy Museum with assistance from the Illinois State Museum.  more +

The design of the new swimming pool incorporates elements from past communities of the region. An amazing scenic vista of the Mississippi River … Illinois’ first residents of 12,000 years ago. … images of the “Adams Pot” and ancient cultures… these are some of the ways that archeology underscores the history of community in Quincy. But archeology also emphasizes the pool as a community-building, safe social space for local families.

From the choice of representative motifs for the pool building’s decorative tiles to local artists’ contributions of work inspired by the mission of the project and the site, the Quincy Pool exemplifies using archeology to encourage civic awareness and pride in the heritage of a community.


(photo) White Mountain Apaches explore the past through its material remains. (University of Arizona)
A community's past can sometimes help lead the way to its future. The heritage program of the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona weaves its archeological resources into programs addressing community needs. Archeological resources help residents to educate their children, create a healthier community, attract visitors, and foster employment.  more +

The White Mountain Apache have worked with Bureau of Indian Affairs archeologists to develop a management plan for their archeological resources. This plan aims to balance Euroamerican-authored accounts of local history with perspectives derived from oral tradition. The strategy boosts not only community pride, but also tribal revenues from Fort Apache that are put to work for the reservation community.

The program has provided the White Mountain Apache with tools for working together and with people from outside the tribe on emotionally sensitive issues in a constructive way. The Cultural Advisory Board meets to clarify issues and in the process reaffirms the deep concerns of many White Mountain Apaches with the protection of their heritage and of the need to reach into Apache history and culture for guidance and principles useful in addressing contemporary problems.

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(photo) Artifacts from the Chinatown project in San Jose. (Past Perfect, Inc.)
The archeological story of the Woolen Mills Chinatown puts the people and communities who today live in San Jose, California on a path toward learning together about the effects of history. As archeological investigations found, many different communities have lived along the Guadalupe river for thousands of years. Their stories help people today talk about their concerns.  more +

During the 19th century, Chinese residents of San Jose faced constant derision and cultural prejudice. The local Chinese population was burned out of their homes on the site of the present-day Fairmont Hotel in 1887. Many of the people, mostly single men, moved closer to the Woolen Mills, where they also worked. Despite hardship, the people of Woolen Mills created a place to live and work, play, talk, and feel safe.

From ceramics and building footprints, combined with the words and documents that influenced life at Woolen Mills, archeology reveals building blocks for the modern Chinese American communities of San Jose to talk about the past. Archeologists shared their work with the Chinese American community, working in particular with the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project (CHCP) to involve locals in the new discoveries of what was thought to be lost.

Students, volunteers, and adults worked together to uncover the past, and in the process engaged in dialogue to form a new sense of San Jose—past and present.

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(photo) Etched stone found at the Tse-whit-zenh excavation.
Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members see the discovery of the ancient village of Tse-whit-zenh as both a blessing and a curse. Modern descendants are saddened to disturb their ancestors in graves. Yet the glimpse into how they lived and the chance to touch parts of their history has rejeuvenated the local community's sense of identity and connection to the past.  more +

The Tse-whit-zenh village was inadvertently discovered during construction on the Port Angeles waterfront. Work was stopped on construction, and among those hired to excavate the site were local descendants of the Tse-whit-zenh community. The excavation brought tribal members face-to-face with their history. Working side by side, archeologists and Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members have excavated burials, remains of buildings, and evidence of community life dating back at least 2,700 years.

Many see a cultural revival happening as a result of the excavation of Tse-whit-zenh. The Lower Elwha share their archeological experiences of archeology with other tribes and the public in language classes, public-school curriculum and community presentations. Descendants learned to make tools and objects like their ancestors did, rediscovered lost cultural practices and traditions, and gained a more intimate understanding of how their people may have suffered. Some of the excavators talk about feeling closer to their history and heritage, and a link to their identity and culture. The end of the Tse-whit-zenh project, too, is a blessing and a curse, for while it cost hundreds of jobs, its effects are sure to inspire the community.

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