Semester reflection Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project

As a student in Dr. Sarah M. Rowe’s Fall 2017 Anthropology 6385 class, I have had the opportunity to be involved in some very interesting community engagement fieldwork with the Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project. The focus of our study is the public cemetery found within the confines of the property that also holds the Hillcrest (private), Brushwood (historic) and Restlawn (African American) cemeteries at the corner of Schunior Road and Expressway 281 in Edinburg. Maintained by Hidalgo County, this portion of the cemetery grounds is marked by several white posts and contain roughly ¼ of the total acreage at this location.

The function of this cemetery since its inception in 1913 has been to bury the indigent and transient population. Dr. Rowe has explained to the class that there are several other cemeteries in the US that are characterized as “potters fields” or “paupers’ cemeteries” but that many of them had fallen into disuse by the time this particular one was initiated. Most burials have ceased in this field back in the 1990s but there is plenty of activity here as loving family members continue to visit their deceased relatives. As our class has progressed throughout the semester with data collection, mapping and other fieldwork, we have encountered several family members which caused the project to become more personal to us. In an effort to show respect to those buried there, the decision was made to no longer refer to this cemetery as place for the unfortunate, so we move forward with more positive connotations and refer to it as a “public” cemetery.

One of the characteristics of this cemetery is the vast array of headstones that can be found marking the graves. It has been explained to us that when the county buried someone in these grounds, the funeral home would provide a simple name plate; small and made of metal with a paper nametag attached. As you can imagine, many of the nameplates still exist but the paper nametags have since disappeared. Although there are some that are legible, the reason that we can read many of the names on the gravesites is because there have been improvements to many of the grave markers. These improvements include a traditional granite, engraved headstone; most likely erected after several years once the family could afford to buy one. However, there are many makeshift headstones, made by hand, that adorn several sites. Some are crosses made of painted wood. Some are made of metal or rod iron; also in the shape of a crucifix. Others are cement headstones; either carved or painted with the name and birth/death dates of the deceased. Many times the information has been painted or stenciled onto the headstone but after years of exposure, the paint has worn away and the names and dates are unreadable. Many of the creative headstones are ones that represent children. One of the most touching creations was in the shape of a baby’s crib. There is another grave where a toy truck is encased in glass with several other smaller toy cars scattered around. Offerings such a plastic flowers are very common along with other interesting items such as ‘pez’ dispensers, key rings with turtles or dolphins on them and scattered sea shells. Some graves appear to be visited often and others completely abandoned.

Aside from the hands-on fieldwork that we experienced, we had a few class periods with presentations from outside professionals with related experience. One of Professor Rowe’s colleagues from California is working on a similar cemetery project; although much further along than ours at this moment. All special lectures for the class pertained to various aspects of Public Archaeology and were very relevant to the work we did in class. Some of us had found offerings at some of the graves where small balls of twine were hung from a nearby tree with some wax or rag figures as well. Dr. Severando Hinojosa, one of Dr. Rowe’s Anthropology colleagues spoke to our class to help give us a better idea of what these types of offerings could represent. Also relevant to the work at hand, the reading assignments introduced us to the multiple ways to engage local communities by conducting public archaeology projects such as ours. I felt that the assigned articles were very interesting as they tied to the writing assignments with specific relevance to our project.

I believe that we are on a good, solid path with this Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project. Dr. Rowe has followed the proper protocol since she sparked this idea. She has gone through the appropriate university channels in order to start the project and has worked with all the relevant city and county offices in order to initiate community support. One of the things that we did accomplish during the semester was to place a numbered flag at each grave. We discovered that there are more grave sites in this cemetery than initially estimated. Approximately 1,020 graves sites have been flagged and it is my understanding that we’ve recorded data for 300 of them. The program that Dr. Rowe set up to compile the data that we all are inputting is very simple to use. We all can access it on our cell phones and can record all pertinent data right there at the graveside.

Another special event that benefitted our class was the arrival of canine forensic dogs for a visit to our class in November. Adele Morris and Lynne Engelbert who are Historical Human Remains Detection Specialists in Santa Clara, California brought their service dogs Jasper and Piper to the cemetery to search for unmarked graves. The dogs identified over fifteen possible gravesites. They had given a lecture the previous day about their jobs at the Institute for Canine Forensics and spent the next morning with us in the field.

The hands-on opportunities experienced by the students in our class were abounding. It was clear that Dr. Rowe had spent quite a lot of time in preparation to launch this class and was ready to give us quite an education. We learned how to use the total survey station and have mapped the perimeter of the cemetery as well as several of the gravesites within. The Kobo Toolbox App that was initiated for our project was so easy to use and enabled us to gather data and upload photos immediately on site. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Walter Diaz had visited with us in the field and was very impressed by what we were accomplishing. He was inspired by potential further social science research using the data we were collecting. As mentioned in previous blogs, perhaps we can add to our knowledge by conducting oral history interviews of family members to learn a bit more about the deceased. Perhaps we can investigate death records and try to determine the causes of death; especially for the infants and small children. Census data might also prove useful. There are plenty of possibilities and the students will be able to create some hypotheses once all of the visible gravesites have been recorded. Clearly there is more work to do and Dr. Diaz gave the green-light for this class to continue into the next semester. Enrollment filled up quickly as word spread about this great opportunity to earn credit in a community engagement, experiential learning environment.

Site Interpretation and the Ability to Generate Accessibility and Interest

Uzi Baram’s multidisciplinary study was an effort to locate remains of a southern Florida community of formerly enslaved Africans along the Manatee River. As is true with many regions throughout the US, urbanization and development encroaches and often buries potential archaeological sites forever; covering them with macadam and cement. Baram’s project began as a true community organization effort in social justice where “members of local communities were asked for their input into the research agenda” of the project (14). The project initiators further enticed community participation by giving “public lectures, screening a video, and creating teaching materials” in order to gain usable input from community members; particularly descendants of those escaped slaves referred to as ‘maroons’ (14). The challenge here is that by the very nature of this ‘maroon’ community, their desire to be hidden from society makes is difficult to identify exactly where to look. This is why it was important to engage the community on many levels with the hopes that descendants would come forward and offer valid direction that would result in uncovering a special, hidden history.

As Baram’s project progressed, it was understood that it was important to educate the community so that they could appreciate the local heritage, the importance to preserve it, and recognize that there is power within the community to work together toward a common goal; albeit through the inspiration of a strong community organizer such as Saul Alinsky. Although the archaeologist(s) is an important part of the project, one must recognize that there are other valid aspects that present themselves, such as the pursuit of social justice. As we move toward solidifying the social justice aspect of our Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project, what we can learn from this article is that we will need to do more than just inform the management of the cemetery about our intentions and ask permission to conduct our research. We are still in the early stages of this project which entail mapping the site and recording all pertinent data per each individual burial site. All of this is being done in order to interpret the site through the analysis of the data collected. The attention that we’ve received during our days in the field at the cemetery has been positive as we’ve interacted with several family members of the deceased. The county offices have received some positive feedback from the community and have agreed to support our effort into the coming spring semester. But still, we need more interaction.

In order to get the community more involved, we’ll have to embark on some interactive events to get to know the interested public better. We can follow the mixed methods approach used by the Rosewood Heritage Project in Florida. Although that project reflects what they call a ‘dark tourism’ site “where tragedy or death is the primary aspect of a place’s history” (62) our project in comparison could benefit from ideas for additional data collection. Perhaps we could embark on an oral history collection effort in order to get a better idea of what life was like during certain decades that are more numerously represented throughout the different sections of this public cemetery. We have already been able to note that there are several children who are buried there and perhaps that can be narrowed down to a particular decade? Oral history interviews could reveal certain socio-political climate issues that may assist in helping our students hypothesize and eventually prove theories with regard to the background and social status of those buried in this potter’s field. The Rosewood Heritage Project also includes a census database as well as weather observations throughout time. A regional census review targeting the decade where we determine a greater number of burials occurred would help us come to some conclusions. Part of the database can be dedicated to “cause of death” as well. Especially where small children and babies are concerned, perhaps we can identify common causes and issues present during corresponding time frames?

I believe that if we can somehow get to know something about the people who are buried in the Hidalgo County Public Cemetery, it will create more meaning on a personal level to those of us (Anthropology students – future Anthropologists and Archaeologists) participating in this project. Attention to projects such as this are more creatively (and perhaps more vehemently) interpreted when a face or a story can be put to the name on (in this case) the headstone. Our professor, Dr. Rowe and some of our students were out at the cemetery on November 2nd this year in an effort to cross paths with visitors to the graves. Our students have already suggested having an annual event at the cemetery during Dia de los Muertos going forward in an effort to meet more family members of those buried there. Especially now that the new Disney movie “Coco” has debuted, more positive attention can be paid to the colorful, cultural tradition of “offertas” and “altars” that are celebrated by a majority of folks throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

Applicability of Digital Techniques to the Hidalgo County Paupers’ Cemetery Project

As probably the only student in this class that has adult memory before the digital age, I am typically slow to comprehend and apply new technology as it presents itself in various formats. When I got my first retail/office job in the 1980s, I became familiar with telex machines used for long distance communication. Prior to that, I had experience using electric typewriters and calculators. Then the fax machine came along. Desktop computers followed and eventually, digital cameras. With the rapid evolution of technological innovations, researchers are capable of recording their findings and presenting them through sophisticated and modern methods where not much is left to interpretation. Kevin Garstki compares the practice of creating digital 3D representations of archaeological artifacts and how it should be compared to a time when the advent of digital photography took over the field. Imagine this time-saving technology that archaeologists could use in the field with introduction of the digital camera! The ability to take a seemingly endless stream of photos of all findings from every possible angle must have been very exciting! As with all new technology, digital cameras and their memory cards were quite an investment. Garstki’s argues that 3D “digital artifact modeling will become as indispensable to archaeology as traditional photography.” (728) I agree with his comments with regard to the fact that a “reproduction cannot stand in for the original.” (729) He is also concerned with authenticity of a replica and one’s ability to interact with an object recreated by 3D imaging/printing. Although the items replicated can be very close (size, form, function), it is impossible to create the same object density, surface finish and perhaps exact color. It does, however, give the observer who is not present on site of the artifact’s discovery the capability of experiencing an object or collection of objects so that further research and discussion can be had. I imagine that the more accurate the technology is with regard to reproduction authenticity, the more expensive the machinery (and software) is and at this time, a pitfall to its use in our project could be the cost (prohibitive) and lack of trained personnel.

With regard to our project, we have been introduced to 3D scanning but have not had the opportunity to use it in the field. As we gather our data throughout this potter’s field, we notice that there is no consistency with the headstones with regard to type, size, shape, etc. There are several headstones that are broken or missing pieces. Alternately, there are gravesites that are not representative of a headstone whatsoever. We recorded one last week that was in the shape of a baby’s crib. Many markers are handmade and others are traditional carved headstones. It is possible that with 3D scanning, we can recreate a broken headstone by filling in the missing pieces. At this stage, we should continue our focus on digital media in order to gain attention and attract potential project participants.

Chiara Bonacchi discusses multiple avenues of digital media in her article such as the use of social media (facebook), audio or video podcasts, smartphone apps, blogs, vlogs, etc. She also talks about crowd sourcing (citizens asked to help with the recording and digitization), where those citizens who chose to participate could assist with the analysis and interpretation of data. Our efforts to be transparent to the community began with our presentation to the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and the launch of the Hidalgo County Paupers’ Cemetery Project website. During the days when the class is out collecting data at the cemetery, we welcome the opportunities for ‘crowd sourcing’ as we interact with family members who are visiting gravesites of their loved one(s). This collaboration will get us closer to understanding just who is buried in the cemetery and why are they in a paupers’ field instead of a conventional cemetery. At some level, we are looking for contributory participation as well on behalf of all funeral homes in the area. We have taken note on some of the gravesites markers that reflect the burial was taken care of by funeral homes such as Skinner-Silva (Edinburg), Kreidler (McAllen) and Guerra (Weslaco/EdCouch). Perhaps we can find more info and fill in the blanks (missing dates of birth/death, etc.) with visits to these businesses?

Social Justice and the Hidalgo County Pauper’s Cemetery Project

Settlement patterns throughout the past 250 years in the Rio Grande Valley have proven to result in the displacement of people of prior communities. When José de Escandón arrived along the banks of the Rio Grande in the mid-1700s with his bands of Spanish colonial settlers to claim the land for the King of Spain, Native American peoples who occupied the region were either displaced or had to assimilate into the life-ways of the new arrivals. One hundred years later, as a result of the American victory in the war with Mexico, ‘Anglo’, or white/non-Hispanic settlers embarked upon the opportunity to acquire a lot of land for little money. At first, many of the newcomers would marry into the Tejano or Mexican-Texan community in order to accumulate wealth and function successfully in the local business community, but eventually, many Anglo settlers would attempt to marginalize the local population by taking over large portions of land that was lost by the heirs of the original Spanish land grantees. With the turn of the 20th century and the installation of the railroad to the Rio Grande Valley, more and more Anglo Americans arrived; attracted to the promise of guaranteed success in farming in the ‘Magic Valley’.

As towns began to emerge along the railroad tracks that ran between Harlingen and Mission, marginalization of the local Hispanic communities became more evident. With land developers building Anglo communities that contained larger lots on the south side of the railroad tracks, the Hispanic population was displaced to smaller lots on the north side of the tracks. Even though the Anglo population was technically the minority population in terms of numbers, somehow they had the power to dictate exactly where the Hispanics could not go to school, where they could not shop and where they could not socialize. So, with each new wave of settlers that has chosen to move to the Rio Grande Valley, displacement of the previous population has occurred. However, fast forward another 100 years to the mid-20th century and you will see a movement of leadership in the Rio Grande Valley shift as Hispanic leaders such as Hector P. Garcia founder of the American G.I. Forum, Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza and the Civil Rights movement, and especially in municipal politics where there were several mayors emerged in towns throughout the Valley with Hispanic surnames (e.g., Alfonso Ramirez elected 1st Hispanic mayor of Edinburg in 1963).

I apologize for the long introduction about my theory of marginalization throughout Rio Grande Valley history but I feel it is important to identify trends. The question this week asks us about forms of marginalization or inequality with regard to the HCPCP. The theories at work here are that those who are buried in this Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery are either from the indigent or low income population, or had no family to claim them at their time of death. In a sense, marginalized because either no one could pay or no one cared. Was this potter’s field initiated in an effort to segregate and marginalize? According to research done for Cemeteries of Texas, this cemetery was appropriated in December of 1913 by the Edinburg Cemetery Association via trustees James H. Edwards, Washington Barton and Plutarco de la Viña. Burials took place in this cemetery between 1913 and 1990. The property as a whole contains four cemeteries. The Restlawn section of the cemetery is the most segregated portion; located in the far, north-westernmost point of the grounds. Mirroring a point in time in Edinburg where schools were segregated as White only, Mexican, and Black, the cemetery system within the Hidalgo County seat appears to be no different.

In the Mullins article, he refers to marginalized communities found on college campuses with respect to archaeological civic engagement projects and urban renewal (92). The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is one of the largest and most recognized Hispanic-serving institutions in the country. I would like to think that the Hispanic community is not marginalized within the walls of this institution nor within the communities at large. As promoted in Shackel’s article, HCPCP is following along the same effort to ‘foster dialogue’ that examines the inequities of society with hopes to bring about a social consciousness (243). We are following this directive by making an effort to engage the local citizens in the scope of this project simply by initiating it. We are examining, recording and analyzing the make-up of this cemetery as a whole.

The students in our class have been collecting data on the gravesites within this cemetery and have found a majority of Hispanic surnames among the buried. Should we equate poverty with the term “Hispanic” as a result? What is interesting about the term ‘Hispanic’ is that there is a constant reference to this being a minority group in this country. I think that it is time to stop using the word ‘minority’ with relation to the word ‘Hispanic’. I know one very strong-minded person who is Hispanic and refuses to be referred to as a ‘minority’ because ‘minority’ means ‘less than’ and no one should feel that he/she is less than anybody else. In fact, the Hispanic population has become the majority in our country. Perhaps someday in the future there will be so much blending of the three biological races (as well as multi-cultural blending) that it will be difficult to clearly identify a person as purely Caucasian, Mongolian or Negroid. So, if we as a society continue to produce inequities among biological races, cultural groups, religious groups or socio-economic groups, then we need to practice more acceptance and understanding than prejudice and exclusion. We cannot change the past, but we can chose to behave in a more tolerable and less fearful manner in order to foster positive change.


Who are the stakeholders in the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery Project?

The articles assigned for this essay written by Agbe-Davies and LaRoche & Blakely discuss the elements of what guided their research and how their hypothetical and theoretical ideas structured and molded their respective projects. It is clear that those two projects displayed similar reasons for embarking on our endeavor that we call the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery Project (HCPCP) but the discussion here will be focused on the stakeholders and what effects they can have on a project such as ours.

The level of community reaction which sparked contentious relationships throughout both the African American Burial Grounds Project (AABGP) in New York City and the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls Project (PWHGP) in Chicago does not quite exist here with the initiation of our project. Even though the AABGP was initiated because of plans for a 34-story office building to be erected above the burial site, what ensued as a result of the discovery of the African American burial ground speaks to what we have been discussing in previous blogs which is how public archaeology almost unavoidably involves multiple aspects of the local community. In these cases, several entities involved themselves in the process; most significant and vocal were the descendants of those in question. Both articles discuss the important role that descendants played in the evolution of these two projects. After four days in the field collecting data and mapping the site at the HCPCP, our experience with any community involvement has been via interaction with relatives of those buried in the cemetery or by those who are at the cemetery for a recent burial who are curious as to what we are doing there.

The stakeholders for the HCPCP are twofold at this time. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as the parent entity to our Anthropology class led by Assistant Professor and Fulbright Scholar Dr. Sara Rowe together represent one of the stakeholders as the designer and initiator of this project. Hidalgo County officials who have blessed this project during a recent council meeting are the other entity in this equation. Represented by Daniel Flores of the Hidalgo County Maintenance Department, the county has provided additional support in the form of drinking water and bathroom facilities while the UTRGV Anthropology students are working at the cemetery. Indirect stakeholders at this time are the family members who come to visit loved ones in the cemetery. It is our hope to utilize the memories of their loved ones who are buried in the cemetery perhaps by conducting oral history interviews to add to the data that we collect for this project. Perhaps as this project progresses, these descendants can take a more active role in our research and become true community partners?

As the project progresses, we begin to identify what communities and or individuals are included and represented in this cemetery. Low income and indigent communities are evident as this location was available to those who could not afford to pay much for a burial. This also could be a place where unclaimed bodies or those who were deceased without families were buried as well. As we have walked the cemetery, collecting data, we have found that there are several infants and young children who are buried there as well. Some of the students who are conducting the research can be considered to be part of the local community as many of them were born and raised in either Edinburg or in Hidalgo County. The professor and some of the other students, although not originally from the area, are very much vested in their interests anthropologically and historically to the region as a whole.

The point at which we are in our research might not indicate that we are ready to determine whether there is a cultural group or groups specifically represented in this cemetery. However, we can say at this time that several of the gravesites we’ve reviewed have Hispanic surnames. To date, we have only recorded data for less than one third of the total burials at this site. We estimate that there are over 700 burials in this cemetery. As time moves along, we can investigate what Agbe-Davis refers to as the importance of “fellowship with the underprivileged members of our community” as a form of civil and social welfare responsibility (579). We have not yet determined whether we have specific sections or eras within this potters’ field, however, throughout the entire cemetery as a whole, we know that there are three other cemeteries within the grounds known as Hillcrest (mainstream population), Brushwood (historic) and Restlawn (African American). That being said, it is possible that we can determine perhaps some racial or socioeconomic status motivation with regard to zoning decisions within the location of this cemetery property.

It is important to recognize other possible community partners as the project moves along. It is clear, based on our interaction with family members of those buried in this [Paupers’] cemetery, that descendants are aware of our project. As we move forward, we can also engage the assistance of the regional center that helps the indigent population. La Union del Publico Entero (LUPE) located on the border of San Juan and Alamo, Texas, is a potential source of information through which we develop a picture of those who have been buried in the cemetery over the years. Perhaps we will discover affiliation with the migrant farm worker community?

Our work will be compiled into a database of information that will identify the “cultural domains” of this community and will assist with further academic research. One of the interesting aspects that we have discovered with the data collected to date is that communities change over time as do some of the burials within this cemetery. When some of the descendants of the deceased have more money to spend, they have returned to make improvements to the gravesite, such as putting a nicer headstone in front of the original (perhaps wooden) structure. The shared characteristics of those buried in the cemetery could lead toward determination of burial sites of a particular ethnic background which would lead to questions that have to do with social justice and perhaps a need for change. Since this potters’ field was no longer used after the 1990s, perhaps that social change already occurred?

Public Archaeology, the PAR approach and project collaboration that responds to public needs

The readings for this week’s assignment consisted of articles written by John H. Jameson, Jr. and Fred L McGhee; two experienced archaeologists with valuable insight into working within the public sector. Their views reflect their depth of experience as public archaeologists and contain many valid points.

Jameson stated that his “colleagues are firmly committed to finding engaging and innovative ways to reach out to national and local communities and involve them in the rich diversity of human experience”. If there ever was a place where a rich diversity of human experience exists, it is here on the North American continent. Just the varied and numerous Native American tribes (each unique and different from each other) that once roamed this territory we know today as the United States is a testament to this idea. When people from the community get involved, the items uncovered help curb the romantic imagination and preconceived notions with solid ideas and actual images, therefore increasing public buy in and personal interest in seeing a project to completion.

Jameson also talked about the “development and expansion of educational archaeology in the 1980s and 1990s” and how entities such as private and public universities have “placed a high priority on establishing and promoting effective education and outreach programs”. This trend was captured here in the Rio Grande Valley during the 1990s by a group called Los Caminos Del Rio. Working in conjunction with the Texas Historical commission and supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this group developed and educational program designed to preserve the history of the Rio Grande Valley along both sides of the Rio Grande. Their goal was to encourage preservation through the creation of a bi-national heritage tourism corridor. Approximately 20 years after that, the CHAPS Program was initiated at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s legacy institution the University of Texas Pan American. The goals of the CHAPS Program reflect many that are followed by public archaeologists. The CHAPS mission is to cover the same 200 mile stretch between Laredo to Brownsville as they help to create archaeologically and historically literate citizens who are aware of their local cultural and natural history and of its importance to the future of the Rio Grande Valley.

Both authors talk about Cultural Resource Management (CRM) and their experiences with public interaction with archaeological projects. Jameson feels that “public archaeology has evolved from a definition synonymous with cultural resource management to a broader scope that included educational archaeology, and other issued which bring us closer to our anthropological roots” (154). As the 19th century and early 20th century represents an era of conservation into history preservation, I see a trend into the 21st century of folks who are interested in embracing their “anthropological roots”. As public archaeology branches out from its more privately run CRM mantra, Jameson discussed trends toward a “broader scope that included educational archaeology, public interpretation of archaeology, and a new era of Native American Archaeology” (154). As we watch present-day TV commercials such as those for services such as and 23 & Me, we see that this idea is motivating people to obtain a clear definition of exactly who they are. This will surely spark a trend of more sympathetic approaches to discovery, interpretation and preservation into presentation, public education and awareness.

McGhee discussed an experience he had with an archaeological project in Houston that pertained to an African American neighborhood called the Fourth Ward and what resulted when the project turned into a public archaeology project. Participatory Action Research (PAR) has three main goals; the most desired (it seems) of which is to achieve social change. The benefits of following this practice is that there are clear “decisional points” in the “research process”. Following these points helps the project achieve results that benefit both the community and the intended research questions.

Our project, the Hidalgo County Paupers Cemetery Project (HCPCP) is designed to develop an understanding of who and/or what type of person is buried in this particular cemetery and why. Our professor, Dr. Sarah Rowe has gone to great lengths to create this project and to lay the foundation via which her students will conduct and gather the data needed for analysis. In accordance with processes that McGhee promotes in his essay, Dr. Rowe has “partnered with communities during the research design and implementation” and will continue during the “analysis phases” as well. She has utilized local officials as advisors and made sure that we are working together for a mutually beneficial outcome.

With regard to McGhee’s experience with the Houston project, there were some old and lingering bad feelings with some of the community members that caused conflict within the project as a whole. This can be viewed as a problem with getting the public involved as “memories of an old injustice can surface and individual agendas of outside activists can derail even the best conceptualized research efforts”. I found it fascinating how toward the end of the Fourth Ward Neighborhood project, McGhee was viewed as an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure when his intentions were always sincere and clear and unfortunately this project only continued to become more difficult to complete. So essentially, getting the public involved in this case turned into a negative. We don’t expect that to be the case with the HCPCP. Our efforts are to record the number of burials in this potter’s field, to identify those buried there, and to uncover who they were, where they were from, and why were they buried in this particular field. Once more community members become involved, we hope to obtain oral history interviews and other primary source documents to help us fill our canvas with the names and faces of those who are resting in peace in the Hidalgo County Paupers Cemetery.


Reflection on Public Archaeology

Richardson, Lorna-Jane and Jaime Almansa-Sanchez, “Do you even know what public archaeology is? Trends, theory, practice, ethics”, World Archaeology, Vol 47(2): 14-211.

The authors of this article are having somewhat of a challenge defending the practice of public archaeology through various segments of this piece.  They are quite thorough in listing a wide variety of applications that range from cultural heritage management, indigenous rights, historiography, heritage tourism and education, ethics and popular culture.  A list such as this is quite broad and to the outside reader; seems like a mountain to overcome.  What an inclusive list like this says is that with very little creativity, it is easy for an anthropologist to outline valid reasons for embarking on a public archaeology project.  There seem to be more pros than cons within the world of possibilities.  Always one to pump the positive, it has been my experience that through place-based learning and application, a student and/or community member often has more interest in a project and/or subject matter if he/she can personally relate to it.  One step beyond that would be to say that he/she is more apt to remember and recall the information as well.

The authors also claim that the article will “further extend the debate around the definition and application of public archaeology from a global perspective”.  I found it interesting how they implied that archaeologists seemingly have patience issues with dealing with public community volunteers who are not as thoroughly educated as they are when it comes to archaeological methods.  As an outsider, it appears a bit harsh, but perhaps as I study more, I may just find it to be true.

That being said, it is important to translate opportunities for public archaeological excavations into a project that is relevant to modern world issues.  This needs to be done on multiple levels for multiple reasons.  Since there seems to be a growing interest in public archaeology, the time is now to catch the wave and ride it a far as it goes.  Even though the two approaches “deficit model” and “multiple perspectives model” were outlined clearly, I think the latter is more practical in the 21st century as public interest grows in archeological projects.  They outline three other models of public archaeology that pertain to education, public relations and democracy. One way to gain momentum is to focus on education and the community.  When the opportunity to “enrich lives, enhance cultural heritage, stimulate thought, emotion and creativity” arises, they warn us not to get overexcited and get too many parties involved who have opposite or non-complimentary agendas.  Focus and keep it simple.  Appeal to the public but don’t try to please the entire population.

As the authors continue to describe other models and approaches to this discipline, they mention that there is a “transformative impact on the discipline” when the public is involved in archaeological projects and when “non-experts have access to archeological resources and data” it appears to result in loss of respect by the old guard for the project altogether.  I believe that this should be viewed as a positive trend and that perhaps the “old guard”, if you will, be more receptive to change and advancement in all forms.

One quality a public archaeologist must have is patience.  Identifying, planning, and developing reasonable goals for a project are key.  In other words, don’t rush into anything. In addition, communication among all parties involved is also required in order to guarantee seamless project launch, productivity and completion.  The article often discusses the consequences of that may occur as a result of efforts during a public archaeology project. I fully agree with the author’s comments with regard to embracing the role of a public archaeologist by “engaging people in a positive way and helping them to understand and value the profession and result of the work”. (204)  The fastest way to get a project cancelled is to create conflicts within the community as a result.  The potential outcomes should be outlined so as to highlight the benefits to the community on levels where it will benefit the community as a whole.  Perhaps the uncovering of a site and the excavation of its contents could bring tourism (and therefore tax dollars) to the region?  We are also fighting against time in many areas of the country that are developing at a very rapid rate.  It is important that public archaeology as a discipline grows since soon some potential sites will be buried under macadam and cement; either by a parking lot or a strip mall.  Projects need to be identified and activated before it is too late and they are gone forever.  Since there seems to be a positive upswing in interest in public archaeology, it is important to ride the wave now and create the best options for optimal results that would impress social, political and economic outcomes.