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common ground

Ruins and Renewal
Summer/Fall 1998, vol. 3(2/3)

Online Archive

*  Envisioning the Past

(photo) Lloyd Masayumptewa, member of the ruins stabilization crew at Wupatki National Monument.

"Ethnic identity is accompanied by ethnic stigmatization, and the [ruins of the] Basque hotels, set within the larger building community that is the West, are reminders of the both the region's cultural diversity and cultural divisions. "

Thomas Carter

by Francis P. McManamon

Seeing is believing, says the old proverb. In this regard, much of the archeological record challenges public interpretation because it is difficult to see or, in many cases, not visible at all. Take a group of sites at Fort Hill in Eastham, Massachusetts. The area, which lies within Cape Cod National Seashore, was examined by the Park Service as part of an archeological inventory project. The sites there encompass thousands of years of human activity; yet, as one walks the trails or looks out from the hilltop, there are no visible clues. To envision the past, one must know about the archeological deposits within the top two or three feet of soil.

I see a detailed picture as I stroll. I see where ancient inhabitants discarded trash, where they mended stone tools, prepared food, sat discussing everyday matters. I see grass- and reed-covered wigwams, round and oval, spread lightly over the landscape, not tightly clustered or encircled by a stockade. The images that come to mind reflect my understanding of the archeological record. Other visitors will not be able to imagine the past as I can. That is why visual interpretation is so important, and why archeologists should focus more attention on it.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Drawings, paintings, or animation—when informed by accurate scientific interpretation—can cut through jargon and technical detail, providing quickly understandable images of the past. National Geographic has long been a leader with this kind of interpretation. Its October 1991 issue, "1491, America Before Columbus" used art extensively to interpret traditional histories and archeological sites from central New York to the coast of Washington State. In its web site "Ancient Architects of the Mississippi" (www.nps.gov/archeology/feature/feature.html), the Park Service used artistic interpretations from Cahokia State Park, the NPS Southeast Archeological Center (www.nps.gov/seac/), and other sources. These kinds of informed images—the result of close collaboration between artist and technical expert—have become regular fare in the information graphics of newspapers and magazines.

The depiction of vanished architecture has long benefitted from such collaborations, especially at classical sites where architects and archeologists have worked side by side. In North America, architecture or its remnants have often served as the focus for archeological investigations. Thomas Jefferson excavated an Indian mound; the earthen architecture of the Midwest and Southeast fostered debate and a variety of investigations throughout the 1800s. In the Southwest at the turn of the century, it was the architecture of the cliff dwellers that excited public and scholarly interest. Even early efforts in historic period archeology focused on recovering information about structures at places like Jamestown and Fort Necessity. Interpreting architectural remains involves looking at construction sequences, structure design, and room functions, among other topics. More commonly than with sites lacking such remains, artistic reconstructions come into play.

This is increasingly so with the advent of 3-D computer modeling, which has caused an explosion of digital reconstructions. These images, showing the original appearance of an ancient structure or complex, are often key to effective interpretation for the nonspecialist. Not unexpectedly, most are of classical sites, where the recording of ancient buildings has always played a major role. The new digital Museum of Reconstructions (www.reconstructions.org/mission.html) is an example. At this site, viewers can see the reconstruction as well as the scholarly sources. Although there are few examples in the United States, the Earthworks project—sponsored by the Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites at the University of Cincinnati—is working on an animated flyover of Ohio's Newark Earthworks. Hopefully, more attention to North American sites will develop.

The ability to create these reconstructions does raise concerns about artistic license. Which elements of site organization and building detail are based on sound data and which arise from the imagination of the artist? Technical excellence does not ensure verity, as one can see from the recent Disney films Pocahontas and Hercules. As these tools proliferate, the archeologist's role in the picture grows rather than fades.