Elizabeth S. Chilton: Public-minded archaeology, as practiced at UMass, thinks beyond monetary value
AMHERST — I write in response to a recent editorial (“Native artifacts should be public treasures,” July 4) and articles by Kathleen McKiernan (“Deerfield farmer wants UMass to return ‘several thousand’ Indian relics,” July 1, and “Deerfield panel adopts dig policy,” July 8). I would like to provide some clarity on the work that archaeologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have conducted over the past several decades.
Most of the archaeology at UMass falls into the category of “cultural resource management archaeology” — that is, compliance archaeology conducted in advance of construction projects in compliance with state and federal Laws and regulations. Faculty also conduct archaeological research and offer archaeological field schools through our Division of Continuing Education, which are open to all, often enrolling teachers, international students, UMass students and students from across the country.
All of the archaeology conducted by UMass archaeologists in Massachusetts operates under permits issued by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Serving as the curation facility for specimens excavated under permit from the commission, UMass is responsible for both the physical safety and preservation of the specimens, as well as access for research, education, and public outreach.
The research from the Pine Hill site in Deerfield was the topic of my doctoral dissertation (1996) and has been published in numerous venues. I and other UMass archaeologists have made dozens of public presentations in Deerfield about the results of our work, and we typically have an open lab in Historic Deerfield during our field schools so that the public can learn about our work.
All faculty in the Department of Anthropology and at UMass in general take our educational, research, and public outreach mission very seriously. Over the years we have worked with the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Historic Deerfield Inc. on interpretive displays concerning Native American and Euro-American history in the Connecticut Valley.
It was only very recently, through a letter from state Rep. Stephen Kulik, that UMass became aware that the Yazwinski family would like the “artifacts returned so that many of them can be displayed at the Deerfield Town Office.”
I think it is important to emphasize that UMass’ role in this matter is strictly that of a caretaker, and it has no property interest in the artifacts recovered from the Pine Hill property. As such, UMass looks forward to assisting Kulik in facilitating the proper disposition of the artifacts in question.
Both an article and the editorial refer to the potential monetary value of the archaeological collections. As a professional archaeologist, I do not regard artifacts in terms of monetary value, and doing so would violate both state and national codes of ethics. To me their value lies in what they can tell us about the past. In this case, most of the artifacts that were excavated consist of flakes from stone tool-making and ancient food remains (charred plant remains and small animal bone fragments) and are not the kind of museum-quality artifacts that previous articles might bring to mind.
The real value of the artifacts comes from the context — their relationship to one another (as recorded in our notes and maps) and their meanings in the present.
Finally, the editorial makes reference to our responsibility to contemporary Native American tribes. The contemporary impacts and implications of knowledge about the past — the uses, abuses and erasures of certain pasts — are at the forefront of my own work, and the work of all of the archaeologists at UMass.
As director of the Center for Heritage & Society, I have made this the main subject of most of my recent scholarship. Also, for the past 10 years I have been co-directing another archaeology project in Deerfield that has foregrounded the importance of non-academic stakeholders in the creation of knowledge about the past and in the identification and preservation of archaeological sites.
For that project we have kept in close contact with the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, which is comprised of native representatives from the Commonwealth to represent the collective interests of Native American descendant communities. The commission had representatives present at some of our excavations and we have shared all research designs and reports with both that group and the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
My colleagues and I take our role as public scholars and educators very seriously. We are dedicated to creating new knowledge about the past, involving a wide variety of stakeholders in the creation of knowledge, curating archaeological collections responsibly, and disseminating that knowledge as broadly as possible.
I am very supportive of the recent passing of the Deerfield Historical Commission’s Accountability Policy and applaud the town for taking such a strong interest in managing its historical resources.
I hope the town continues to strengthen the management of its historical resources by expanding the policy to include private individuals conducting archaeology in the town and thereby ensuring that the highest standards for archaeology work are utilized and the specimens discovered preserved for future generations.
Elizabeth S. Chilton is a professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Heritage & Society at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.