Sunday 14 March 2010

Alabama Cultural Desert is "Going to be Real Pretty"

Down in Alabama preservationists have a problem, a landmark earthwork which they want to preserve is not on public land, and the landowner (the city council) does not care about such things as heritage, so the landowner can bulldoze it and basically nobody can do anything to stop it (Campbell Robertson 'When Scholarship and Tribal Heritage Face Off Against Commerce' New York Times March 12th 2010). In Oxford Alabama overlooking a shopping centre with stores like "Dress Barn" and "MaggieMoo’s Ice Cream" is a large steep-sided hill. On top of the hill is a prehistoric mound of unknown purpose.

The mound had been sampled by an excavation by Harry O. Holstein of nearby Jacksonville State University. He had concluded that the mound had been was constructed more than a thousand years ago, and in 2003 he recorded it in a state archaeological registry. The city later commissioned a study of the stone mound by a contractor, Robert A. Clouse of the Office of Archaeological Research at the University of Alabama, which had received 67000$ to carry out the survey. This concluded that the mound was artificial, of unknown purpose, but the report concluded that the site was not likely to be archaeologically significant, "given that few artifacts and no human remains had been found". The city therefore felt it had a green light to flatten the site.

Last June an excavator started removing soil from the hill on which the mound lies; the city was planning the construction of a "Sam’s Club" nearby and intended to use earth from the hill for the area where the store would stand. The council intends to flatten the hill, and put a restaurant there, or a hotel, or maybe a health clinic. The mayor, Leon Smith, the mayor of Oxford since 1984, was as yet undecided. In any case, he said, “It’s going to be real pretty”. He is not too bothered about the "Indian mound" on the hill says Smith who claims to be half American Indian (though he is unsure of what tribe).

Harry Holstein however campaigned to save the site, the issue for weeks was on the front page of The Anniston Star, the local newspaper, as well as the subject of protests, a petition, a Twitter campaign and a Facebook group (the Google search "Oxford Alabama mound" has some 160000 hits). The bad publicity made further excavation of the hill impossible last summer. The city obtained soil for the landfill for the Sam’s Club site elsewhere.
But in late January, at an Oxford City Council meeting, Dr. Clouse disclosed the findings of a follow-up report. That study, which many had not known about, was performed in July in the full heat of the controversy. In it, Dr. Clouse’s conclusions could hardly have changed more drastically. “It does not appear,” he wrote in the second report, “that this stone mound was constructed by human activity.” Archaeologists around the state were surprised and angered. “The consensus of my colleagues,” said Cary Oakley, who held Dr. Clouse’s current position for 28 years, “is that this particular evaluation is seriously flawed”. Keith Little of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, who has visited the mound, suggested that the word “consensus” was not strong enough. “I’ve been an archaeologist in Alabama since the 1970s,” he said. “And I’ve never seen archaeologists so united on one subject”. Worse, he said, the stone mound was apparently demolished during Dr. Clouse’s examination, making any further study impossible. Dr. Clouse, in an e-mail message, declined to discuss the issue.

This was not the first time that there has been conflict between development and earthwork preservation in Oxford. Holstein says that the city had levelled the remnants of an ancient, Indian-built earthen mound to make room for a planned sports complex.
“It is gone, all of it,” Dr. Holstein said, standing in what appears to be a relatively flat, grassy field. No, it is not gone, Mayor Smith said, but simply cannot be seen unless someone knows exactly where to look.
(actually the point is about earthwork sites Mr Smith, is that they are visible on the surface).

How glad I am that I do not live in a deliberately created cultural desert like Oxford, Alabama. Perhaps it is attitudes like this that explain why US collectors are so blithe about the destruction of archaeological sites in foreign lands to supply the objects they want to buy and sell. It may come as a surprise to them that not every community in the world bulldozes every standing ancient earthwork to make way for shopping centres.
Photo: the people say "no" to the mangling of the mound at Oxford Alabama. The developers here in the US however will most likely walk all over the rights and needs of the members of the local community whose heritage this is in the same way as US collectors walk all over the rights and needs of those whose stolen heritage they stash away in their back-bedroom cabinets and dining-room showcases.

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