Last week I finally made it down the road to Moundville, AL. It’s home to the largest Mississipian settlement in the US, next to Cahokia. It took me nearly three years to go those ten miles, but once I got there, it awakened that part of me that longs to uncover the past with a shovel and a screen. I miss having dirt under my fingernails and a mystery to solve. I even miss the farmer’s tan and the calluses.
Once upon a time, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. The female version, of course–and not that ridiculous Lara Croft in those laughably impractical shorts. I was going to be the
real deal. In my head, this would all be terribly romantic–I’d be traveling all over the world, digging up fragments of pyramids and temples, having red-hot love affairs with dashing scholarly men who liked to get their hands dirty. I’d know a dozen languages. I’d have friends on every continent. I’d discover some missing link, a lost language, a clay tablet that would change history.
This is what played in my head as I sat in my undergraduate lectures in a lovely gothic building with no air conditioning. It’s possible these were heat-related fantasies.
Still starry-eyed and delusional, I went to field school in middle California, which meant unearthing a 18th century Spanish mission site adjacent to an Army base. This of course, meant excavating by day and spending our nights letting the fellas buy us drinks. (Is it too late to thank them?) It was vaguely like that scene in “Raiders,” but without the brawling and the burning.
In the real world, post-graduation, I learned that the closest I was going to get was contract work with groups that called these adventures “cultural resource management.” This
sometimes meant salvage archaeology, as in “Folks, they’re about to build a Wal-Mart here, so let’s open up some pits and recover all we can before they pave it.” I dug test pits in cow pastures all across Tennessee. I surveyed the swamps in South Carolina. Once a farmer threatened to shoot my partner and me, and called the sheriff on us. My clothes were peppered with holes from barbed wire, and my skin was crisscrossed with cuts from the biggest briars I’d ever seen. I learned to shoot pool and differentiate between silt and loam. I turned 23 in the rolling hills of Tennessee, in a grid peppered with chert flakes and arrowheads. My cohorts cut my birthday cake with a trowel.
It wasn’t a bad gig, but it wasn’t like the screenplay I’d written in my head. In this world of contract survey, I learned that land polarized people: there were the corporations that wanted to move in and the communities that wanted to stop them. We were the hoop those business had to jump through: they had to use us to make sure they weren’t destroying “sites of historical significance.” Half the time the landowners didn’t realize that we were really on their side: we hoped to find enough material to make the site relevant enough to stop contstruction. But more often than not, we didn’t find enough material, and when I drove by a given site years or even months later, I could barely recognize it amidst all the concrete.
It saddened me after a while, feeling like I had a hand in the destruction. It seemed my dreams of scholarly adventure were just that: figments of an imagination fueled by Hollywood.
But when I went to Moundville, I was shocked to hear the story of how it had been preserved, how it came to be owned by the University of Alabama. One of the docents told me that in the 1920s, the mounds were covered in cotton. The land was owned by several people, mostly farmers. But one man, Walter Jones, wanted to insure the preservation of this site. So this man, who like everyone else, had lost everything and more in the Depression, developed a pattern that would save this site. He would mortgage his house, use the money to buy a tract of land, and donate it to the University. He did this systematically over the next several years, until he had purchased and donated all of the land that the twenty-six mounds rest upon. I’m always moved by stories like this–stories of people so determined to preserve what is meaningful to them, and the world around them, regardless of the personal sacrifice. I can’t say I sacrificed much by digging in the hot sun and freezing winter, but I did feel like I was–in some small way– fighting the good fight for preservation of history and culture.