Friday, February 1, 2008

When What Seems Ordinary, Isn't by Herpreet Singh

From Country Roads Magazine, February 2008

here are moments when history/ passes you so close/ you can smell its breath/ you can reach your hand out/and touch it on its flank,” reads a stanza in Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.”

The poem reflects on our proximity to historical events and matter, and particularly, it draws attention to our inability to recognize seemingly ordinary moments as significant until the moments have passed. In other words, hindsight is 20/20.

Certainly, historians stitch together timelines, geographical paths and even cultural norms of a period by evaluating written records, but it is the distinct work of archaeologists, once history is made, to physically locate even the most pedestrian objects and to further draw out the historical relevance that underlies those objects.

If historians narrate what happened in the past, archaeologists seek tangible evidence that confirms, or potentially negates, historical narrative. More importantly, in uncovering physical links to the past, Louisiana Division of Archaeology’s southeast regional archaeologist Dr. Rob Mann explains that archaeologists “tell us a different kind of history—what general life was like,
how people lived, food they ate, how they got along with different cultures.”

In an LSU Union leisure class Mann will begin teaching this month, it is literally the everyday artifacts of living—utensils, ceramics, food remains—which he will show students how to unearth and evaluate in order to pinpoint the exact location of the eighteenth century Canary Islander settlement Galveztown. Not only will laymen gain a hands-on opportunity to learn the ins and outs of an archaeological dig, they will be contributing to real research.

Located in Ascension Parish at the confluence of Bayou Manchac and the Amite River, Mann explains that the hardships Canary Islanders faced in the 1779 Spanish-founded community are well documented. However, no excavation has ever taken place to confirm the sites of the Galveztown village, cemetery and fort. Initially created by the Spanish to protect their territory from the British who occupied land on the other side of Bayou Manchac, Galveztown was not only doomed from the start, but it virtually disappeared after a mere twenty-year existence.

Unable to convince their own countrymen to colonize the site, the Spanish enlisted destitute Canary Islanders with few options to migrate to the territory. In January of 1779, fourteen Canary Islander families settled the village. The fifty-five members of these families arrived by traveling through New Orleans, then across Lake Pontchartrain and finally, up the Amite River to Bayou Manchac. By April of the same year, over four hundred Canary Islanders were living in Galveztown.

Mann says that initially the Spanish were good at setting up the Canary Islanders. It is also known that, over time, the colonists were continually writing letters to the Spanish to complain that they were short on supplies. When the British were no longer a threat to the territory, it became expensive for Spain to continue supporting the colony.

Challenging living conditions and increasing reluctance on the part of the Spaniards to supply Galveztown caused it to dissipate. By 1798, only a hundred colonists remained. According to Mann, “By 1804 the village was on decline… By 1820, there was nothing recognizable as a settlement out there.” A historical marker placed by estimation sometime during the early twentieth century is the only visible contemporary indication of the ghost-settlement.

Yet, there is living evidence elsewhere of the Canary Islanders—the Lombardos, Pinos, Rousmans, Landrys, Martins, Hernandezes, Diazes, Bruns and others who inhabited Galveztown. In the face of destructive hurricanes, annually flooding crops and a smallpox epidemic that killed children in droves, the remaining inhabitants migrated to land granted by the Spanish. There, they settled into still-thriving Spanish Town, Baton Rouge’s first neighborhood.

The class will focus specifically on the location of the village and everyday life in it. Mann hopes he and his students will uncover remains of Canary Islander homes. It is known that these structures were wooden and thirty-two by sixteen feet in dimension. Mann will also instruct students in the search for items including glass bottles, religious paraphernalia that demonstrate the Canary Islanders’ conversion to Catholicism and beads that may have been traded with Native Americans—commonplace matter that illuminates day-to-day life with surprising intricacy.

Mann says that because it is known the residents were short on supplies, “we would hope to find out if they were having to eat local game, turtles, hunting evidence.” One goal will be to find evidence of the hardships that have been documented. “Might we find British goods that would demonstrate a black market trade with the Brits on other side of Bayou Manchac?” Mann asks, suggesting that these discoveries will not only answer questions about how the colonists survived, but that they will also demonstrate how the Canary Islanders interacted with other cultures.

The leisure class, which Mann hopes to continue over subsequent semesters, is the first of its kind to be offered through the LSU Union. Mann is giving the course as part of his work with The Louisiana Division of Archaeology. The state office, which exists within the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, in a joint program with state universities, employs a regional archaeologist at each of five partner universities. These regional archaeologists conduct research particular to their personal interests and to the region in which they work. Partner universities are the University of Louisiana Monroe, Northwestern State University in Nachitoches, University of Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana State University and most recently, the University of New Orleans.

Mann’s area of expertise is the French colonial period of Louisiana archaeology. As a regional archaeologist, he conducts research, performs public outreach, responds to calls from the public who know of archaeological sites. He also assists public agencies in getting sites excavated and documented.

Most often, when excavations are scheduled and volunteers are needed, Mann says he will seek volunteers through the Louisiana Archaeological Society, a group comprised of people who have a strong interest and some background in archaeology, but who are not professional archaeologists. The leisure class is being offered as one way to pique the interests of people who may have no prior background in archaeology.

In addition to conducting the first excavation at Galveztown, beginning this fall, Mann will do work in a Point Coupee Parish French settlement. He will also research some plantation sites on the west bank of the Mississippi River where a private property owner has asked for a survey of a nineteenth century home.

All of the research conducted by Mann and the other regional archaeologists for the state is housed with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, which acts as the gatekeeper for archaeological findings. The division has produced projects that impact how we understand Louisiana history. For instance, the division has played a key role in protecting Poverty Point, a large prehistoric Native American settlement located outside of Monroe in Epps, Louisiana.
Poverty Point has since been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, of which, there are only 871 in the world.

The division has also been prominently involved with the creation of a Louisiana Indian mounds trail which will include a driving map of over seven hundred Native American mounds in northeast and central Louisiana. This project, conducted by a collaborative group of archaeologists, is still underway.

Asked why archaeology is a relevant method to understand history, Mann says, “Most human history is only accessible through archaeology … Historians domain is typically the written record that they compile into written history. Archaeologists deal with material culture primarily, what people left behind … It’s the only way we have access to what life was like before there was written language.”

Of archaeological excavations Mann says, “There are lots of clues in soil about what we’re finding or not finding. Color, texture, these things give many different meanings. Students will become detectives and note-takers. It is a physical pursuit. You dig, shovel, strain soil; but it’s also a mental pursuit. Without this kind of thought process, you’re only treasure hunting.”

LINK TO STORY: When What Seems Ordinary, Isn't

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