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.

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