Having enthusiastically started blogging with the title ‘Have we got history’ 2 weeks ago I was metaphorically knocked off my perch with the news of the Canterbury earthquake. I often wonder at the relative ‘luxurious’ nature of my profession as I scan the front section of the morning paper, and for the last 2 weeks, more than ever this is something that I have been reflecting, and now write.
In heritage and archaeology we are so often concerned with past populations and cultures, not the ones that live now. What has become more apparent to me, for the first time in my own cultural reality, that I have been watching the formation of our history.
Not only will this latest cataclysmic event trigger change on a social and cultural level above ground, its imprint or scar will also be indelibly etched into the ground below us. Be it change on a geological, geographical or archaeological scale, the evidence that the quake occurred, and changed lives and the environment will remain.
Archaeology is most often concerned with the outer most metres of the earth and often referred to as the anthropogenic zone. In describing soil or burial deposits you might see in my reports; ‘Anthropogenic activity was observed’. This is to indicate to others that the formation of the deposit, layer or soil being interpreted is the result of or been affected by human activity. It is a term that can also be used by geologists, ecologists, botanists to name a few.
At its simplest, an archaeologist can only observe and record what is left behind in the anthropogenic zone after the people have left, the buildings have gone out of use, the landscape has been modified or the environment changed. Quite literally our evidence of activity is recovered, sampled or tested after the dust has well and truly settled.
The more I have watched the tv coverage of Christchurch and its outlying areas; watched the faces of the people, the destruction of the homes and built heritage, the cracks in the ground and services, the fallen rock and debris; the more it strikes me that I am witnessing the creation of New Zealand’s history.
On a professional level it has struck me that I have excavated situations like this dating 100 years, 1000 years, 7000 years ago.
This is the evidence that has been dug, trowelled, brushed, sampled and lifted,
This is the evidence that has been discussed, analysed and interpreted,
This is the evidence that has been packaged, secured, conserved and displayed.
This is evidence that always deserves the uttermost respect of the archaeologist, scientist, curator, politician, teacher, student who’s path it crosses…now or generations from now.
This is evidence reflecting real people, landscape or environments, often facing change, transition, fear or sadness.
Not always negative, it can be the evidence of everyday life, people going to work, caring for their home, their loved ones, and festivities.
This is the evidence of people, populations and environments incorporating change into their lives, living life.
The layers and layers within the earth’s anthropogenic zone demonstrate time and time again the cycle of life continues.
That human nature is resilient.
So for me one of the greatest lessons I have reminded myself of is that of humanity, and also that archaeologists do have an important role to play in society.
As a scientist I may:
· Observe and record populations and their material culture.
· Assess and analyse landscapes and environments with the tools available to science and technology.
· Produce quantitative and qualitative data.
· Work within a research or project strategy with an aim and with conclusions.
· View the past through a microscope at a molecular level.
· Watch interested and at times detached, in the way buildings fall, how bodies lie, and the condition in which they survive.
But as a person,
I may be revealing, at times for the first time for a very long time, the last snap shot of a person’s life. I am exposing, some times preserving, what they had with them, what they ate, what they were doing, how they were feeling.
This happens in all cultures. This is how history and the layers of history are made. The events of people’s lives laid down at times gradually, and at times intense and sudden. These are preserved in the ground beneath us, and these, as the Cantabrian quakes are, part of the ongoing cycle New Zealand’s history.
As archaeologists we need to remember that we are handling the memories and treasures of real people who lived real lives.
As for the question, have we got history…we have been watching New Zealand’s history in the making.