Consequences of Involving Archaeology in Contemporary Community Issues

 Linda Derry
Alabama Historical Commission

My story starts about ten years ago when, after a hard day at work, I sat down in my easy chair and began to page through the latest issue of American Antiquity.  I found myself drawn to an article by Ian Hodder entitled “Interpretive Archaeology,” because it seemed to have real implications for my work.  As an employee of my state’s historic preservation office, I had recently been given the task of acquiring, preserving and interpreting a very large archaeological site.  Early in the process, however, I had become frustrated by the woefully inadequate budget set aside to accomplish this task.   Clearly, I had to garner additional support from outside my agency.  In order to do this successfully, I was learning how to listen, understand, and accommodate a variety of community voices.   So, naturally,  Hodder’s vision of an interpretive archaeology as an active “doing” archaeology that got involved in contemporary issues seemed like a very pragmatic instrument that could be used to gain support in the community in which I lived and worked.

Inspired by Hodder’s words, I set upon the task of finding ways that the living community surrounding the site could actually benefit from archaeological interpretations.  In this paper, I will briefly outline my first attempts to make archaeology truly meaningful and useful to a diverse community.  Then I will summarize the consequences or results of these actions - that is - how, in each case, did the archaeological project benefit from its engagement in a dialogue that lead to contemporary change.   Like many other archaeologists of my generation, I was afraid, at first, to abandon my detached scientific standing, and I worried endlessly about the consequences of allowing my archaeological data to be used to support one side over another in community issues.  Happily, in each case described below, involvement in community issues resulted in positive support for the archaeological resource.



Background Information

Cahawba was once a wealthy antebellum town located in central Alabama’s cotton belt.  It was carved out of the wilderness to be Alabama’s first state capital in 1819, and the legislature met there from 1820 - 1826. After a flood in 1865, the town was abandoned.  Today it’s a place of picturesque ruins and an important archaeological site, located in rural Alabama.   The archaeological site / district (1 Ds 32) encompasses nearly 1000 acres.  Unfortunately, this site is still divided into hundreds of half acre lots making the acquisition of the site complicated and expensive.

Example #1, African-Americans

            Cahawba’s population during the historic period was always at least 65% African American, and ten years ago, I, like many historical archaeologists, was interested in studying  pre-emancipation archaeology.  The rural Black community surrounding my site supported the development of a park, but they didn’t visit our excavations, and, unlike the white descendants,  they were disinclined to share their family histories with me.   In fact, they often verbalized the idea that slavery was just too painful a topic to consider.   When a Black politician wrote an editorial in the local paper stating that no public funds should be spent on historic sites built or maintained by slave labor (Varner 1993:4), I became completely demoralized.    Apparently, most of the Black community considered antebellum history “somebody else’s heritage” and saw “their” history as starting with the 1965 voting rights march in nearby Selma.

So, I reluctantly abandoned my academic research goals and started to listen to the needs of my community.  At that time, Black activists were leading a boycott of the public schools in nearby Selma because they felt that “tracking” was resulting in segregation within the schools (Smothers 1990:5D).   Several of my older African - American volunteers had actually been teachers in segregated schools and were always advocating more activities for children at the park.   So, with their help, we turned away from pre-emancipation archaeology to the “above-ground archaeology” of segregated schools.   An abandoned one room school house built by Black tenant farmers was located on top our archaeological site.  Despite the fact that this school had closed its doors as late as 1953, almost no written records of this public school existed, not even a list of graduates. We worked with middle school children from a Selma public school to record and transcribe oral histories about this segregated school.   People, who could just never find enough time to talk with me, spent hours discussing their memories with these children.  The students transcribed their interviews and also photographed and measured the physical remains of the school.  

The results were astonishing for both the kids and our staff.   The details of this project appear in a 1997 issue of the Journal of Historical Archaeology (Derry 1997:18-26).   To summarize for the purposes of this presentation, I can say simply that the school children gained a perspective on contemporary issues, and I gained something too:  standing in the African-American community.  After the project with the students ended, people began to trust me with family stories more dear to my initial research interests, pre-emancipation history.  Descendants began to share these older stories and even began to provide some faces of color for our exhibits.   With the communities help we created an interpretive tour through a slave cemetery and even began to market Cahawba as a Black Heritage site.    The operator of a Black Heritage tour bus company headquartered in Birmingham called to say that each and every time she brings a tour bus full of African-Americans to the Selma area, they tour all the famous voting rights sites, but inevitably, on the bus ride home, all her customers ever want to talk about is the slave cemetery tour at our archaeological site.  She then offered to write support letters to legislators to generate more public funds for our work.   Recently we did receive funds to restore some slave quarters at Cahawba.  Surprisingly, this funding came from the very group of   Black politicians that had earlier advocated spending no public money on slave built sites.


Example #2, Environmental Activists

Last year, I helped concerned environmentalists and our county government use archaeological evidence to achieve their goals.  When the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that Alabama's Department of Environmental Management begin managing river pollution on a basin-wide approach rather than by just monitoring individual polluters in isolation, the state created a Cahaba River Management Plan Steering Committee.  And although the Cahaba River runs through five counties, they only appointed members from the two counties that contain Alabama's largest city, Birmingham.  The three counties downstream from this city, protested having no voice in the matter.  They pointed out that most of the river lay in their counties, that they all suffered from pollution floating down stream from Birmingham, and that excluding them was inconsistent with the mandated basin-wide approach.    Basically, their pleas were ignored and a member of the steering committee bluntly told them that representatives from their poor rural communities just could not offer any expertise to the group.  (Down-stream folk translated this as: “you bubbas just go on back to the “sticks”)  Needless to say, this only motivated the lower counties to continue to push for representation (Selma Times Journal (STJ) 1998:4).

I found a way to help them.  The archaeological site of Cahawba, is nearly surrounded by the last big bend in the Cahaba River, right before it enters the larger Alabama River, and I had some data that all the "experts" in Birmingham couldn't replicate.  In Alabama, official flood data has only been recorded since the turn of the century, but through archaeological work I have been able to project flood levels back to the arrival of the first American settlers and correlate rising flood levels to the increasing effect of settlement and poor conservation practices. 

How did I do this?  Well, I started my research in the historic documents.  I found first hand accounts of the various historic floods at Cahawba and paid particular attention to words like "the water rose up to the window sills of Mrs. Campbell Tavern."  Then I tracked down deeds and early 19th century newspaper advertisements to help locate Mrs. Campbell's lot.  Then the foundations were located through archaeology.  I used survey equipment to record elevations on topographic maps.  Putting all this information together, I was able to reconstruct several floods over time.    All of sudden, the lower counties had something Birmingham’s experts did not have, “time depth.”    This processual information was useful both to water quantity and quality sub-committees and earned a voting seat on the committee for the manager of the Dallas County Commission.  (And since all actions taken by the planning committee had to pass by consensus vote, this was a major achievement.)

By allowing my archaeological interpretations to be used in this contemporary issue, I was able to build some very strong relationships with environmental groups and agencies concerned with the health of our river.  This has lead to some partnerships that allowed me to apply for and receive grants for park development and outdoor education programs that stress the interface between archaeology and the environment.


Example #3, State Recognized Tribes

Another example of using archaeological interpretation to open a dialogue and effect change has to do with Alabama's Indian Affairs Commission.     In the early 19th century, the federal government forced Alabama's American Indians to move west on the Trail of Tears.   Many of Alabama’s native people, chose to resist this forced march because they wanted to stay in their beloved homeland.  They accomplished this by hiding their identities or tribal affiliations.    Today, the descendants of these people are struggling to regain what was taken from them, to relearn the old ways, to assert their Indian ancestry and to claim tribal status.   This is why, despite controversy, in addition to one federally recognized tribe, Alabama has six state recognized tribes.  These people resent the fact that their ancestors were forced to chose between home and their traditions, but because of the sacrifice made by their ancestors to remain in Alabama, they are very passionate about their state and the contributions their people made to its history.

1998 was officially the "Year of the Indian in Alabama" and I offered a meeting room at Cahawba to the Year of the Indian planning committee.  Despite a growing riff between Indian people and archaeologists they agreed to come and I offered the group a tour of the site during their lunch break.   On this tour I showed the group how archaeology has provided a new interpretation of Alabama first capital.    Alabama’s history books explained away a semi-circular street in the center of the town as a functional “afterthought” (Brantley 1976:65). Archaeology proved that it actually predated the town, and was, in fact, not a street at all, but a moat dug by 16th century Indians around a large palisaded village.  Apparently, Alabama’s first governor reused this relic ditch to outline the grounds of the capitol.  Furthermore, the grandest vista in town, down one extra-wide center street, would have culminated in Alabama’s statehouse - a statehouse sitting atop a ceremonial Indian mound.  The white settlers, who were actively pushing Alabama’s native people out of their way and laying claim to their tribal land, must of appreciated the symbolic import of this visual presentation  (Derry, 2000 ).

 Needless to say, the tribal representatives took this new interpretation to their hearts because it allowed them to reclaim a little bit of Alabama’s history.   This led to a more respectful relationship with the Indian Affairs Commission and their chairman became an important part of our archaeological education program for fourth through seventh grade students.   A member of the MOWA Choctaw tribe, she teamed with archaeologists to teach archaeological ethics and conservation to classroom teachers statewide and has even co-authored with me a chapter for an Alabama archaeology handbook (Driskell etal ;2000 ).   Also, this archaeological programming was advertised right along-side tribal powwows in Year of the Indian promotional materials (Alabama Indian Affairs Commission 1997).

Example #4, Genealogists

Genealogy is often referred to as America’s #1 hobby.  So if a historical archaeologist wants to share her work with genealogists, all she has to do is just open the door a bit and genealogists will come pouring in.   To create the historical contexts in which to evaluate archeological resources at Cahawba, I sorted all the historical information I had gathered into family name files.  The reconstructed family biographies in these files attracted genealogists just like flies to honey.

Despite scornful looks from the professional historians in our agency, I try to take time to work with genealogists.  Each week I answer enquiries from descendants.  I charge nothing for my service, but I photocopy all the items about their ancestors in Cahawba’s research files and mail this information to them.  Certainly, this is an added expense for the project, but I am almost always repaid fourfold.    In the return mail, I receive pictures,  portraita, genealogical charts, old diaries and sometimes even family heirlooms.   All of this helps me built better exhibits for the park and also a better community context for archaeological work.   Better yet, I am building a vast, extremely loyal support network for the site.

For example, consider Mr. & Mrs. Lundquist from Minnesota.  Her great grandfather was held captive at Cahawba in a prison for Union Soldiers during the Civil War.   On their visit, they enjoyed viewing the ruins of the prison and hearing about test excavations to verify the location.  After a few repeat visits they realized that no roster of the soldiers held in the prison existed and that I had limited staff time to devote to this research.  Being retired, they volunteered to travel all over the northern United States, at their own expense, looking for regimental histories that record men being captured and sent to Cahawba’s prison.  As of today, they have found over 8000 names.  More prisoners than any historian has suspected.   Mr. Lundquist developed a computer program to store this information and even donated a computer to the project (STJ 1997 ).  In the future, when other prison descendants visit, we will be able to type in their name and generate a fact sheet about their ancestor complete, in some cases, with pictures and personal stories.

Another example relates to one of Cahawba’s Confederate families, the Kirkpatricks.   The Kirkpatrick home was built in the 1850s and burned in 1935.  Today, the only above- ground trace left is a rectangular pattern of dead clover that appears over the buried foundation only if a drought occurs in the springtime.   But, after a site visit, Kirkpatrick descendant Daniel J. Meador decided to write a book about his Cahawba ancestors.  Our research files helped him make his book better.  In return, he decided to donate $70,000 in stock certificates for land acquisition at the park (STJ 1999:A8).   With the help of the Archaeological Conservancy’s stock broker, this money was used to double the size of the archaeological preserve.   For the first time since 1819, more of Cahawba was in public ownership than not.  This made the remaining acquisition plan seem possible.   Armed with this accomplishment, we were able to convince the state legislature to provide over the next five years, enough additional funds to complete acquisition, and to convince the governor to approve the use of the power of eminent domain to facilitate the acquisition.   A plan has been set in motion that will save this important archaeological site.  

In Conclusion

It does seem that making archaeology at Cahawba relevant and useful to a diverse public has been a very positive experience.  One I would certainly recommend to other archaeologists.    Our archaeological data have been used to affect contemporary change, and this engagement in contemporary issues has enabled us to forge strong beneficial partnerships.  These partnerships are helping to save the site and to develop it into an archaeological park in the face of inadequate governmental support.



1997 The Year of the American Indian in Alabama 1998 (brochure). Alabama Indian Affairs Commission, Montgomery.  
1976 Three Capitals, A Book About the First Three Capitals of Alabama: St. Stephens, Huntsville & Cahawba. The University of Alabama Press, University, Alabama.  
1997 Pre-emancipation Archaeology: Does it Play in Selma, Alabama? Journal of the Society for Historical Archaeology 31(3):18-26.  
2000 Southern Town Plans, Story-telling and Historical Archaeology. In Archaeology of Southern Urban Landscapes edited by Amy Young. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.  
2000 Intrigue of the Past: Discovering Archaeology in Alabama. Bureau of Land Management’s Heritage Education Program and Alabama Historical Commission’s Archaeology Division, Montgomery, Alabama..  
1991 . Interpretive Archaeology and Its Role. American Antiquity 56(1):7-18.  
1997 Genealogy Meets Generosity at Cahawba. Selma Times Journal, 22 October.  
1998 Opinion. Cahaba Group Must Open Door for New Members. Selma Times Journal, 28 July: 4.  
1999 Cahawba Gets Gift From Old Friend. Selma Times Journal, 2 May:A8.  
1990 In Pupil ‘Tracks’ Many See a means of Resegregation, New York Times, 18 February: 5D.  
1993 Your Opinion. Restoration of St. James Unneeded. Selma Times Journal, 16 November: 4.