Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Archaeology bridges gap between modern people, past cultures

Source: The Columbus Dispatch


What is the value of archaeology? Why should anyone care about the broken bits and pieces of past lives scattered across the landscape?

Paul Minnis, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, asked several colleagues this question. Their answers were published in the Society for American Archaeology's November newsletter.

One of the best answers was provided by Barbara Little, who edited a recent book on the public benefits of archaeology. She wrote: "Our history is an anchor, a vantage point and a library. Archaeology is the tool for expanding that history."

William Faulkner once said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." This speaks to the enduring power of the past for informing and enriching our lives.

Yet, as Little also observed, the power of the past can be abused as a weapon.

In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist statues and other relics in acts of archaeological terrorism. In a story broadcast last month on National Public Radio, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported that Afghanistan's National Museum in Kabul was hit by rockets and pillaged by looters. Much of what was left was smashed by the Taliban.

Now, however, museum staff members are working hard to rebuild this national treasure. They cut an inscription into a marble post in front of the building to express their faith in the sustaining power of their past: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."

Rory Stewart, who directs a nonprofit group working with the museum, told Sarhaddi Nelson that the key to success was getting ordinary Afghans to reconnect with their heritage.

In Ohio, during the 18 th and early 19 th centuries, European-American settlers destroyed many of the monuments erected by ancient American Indian cultures. The farmers and town-builders of that era simply didn?t acknowledge the earthen mounds and enclosures as part of a heritage they had any obligation to preserve or understand.

Since then, several decades of archaeological investigation have added the achievements of indigenous cultures to our expanded view of Ohio's history. Archaeological parks preserve many important sites, and museums display the artifacts made and used by hundreds of generations of Ohioans.

These special places allow us to reconnect with our heritage, which did not begin in 1803, 1776 or even 1492. It began with the original discovery of Ohio by the first Americans more than 14,000 years ago.

Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society.

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