Week 11: Dystopia: Archaeologies of Urban Disaster

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    Kelly M Britt

    The three articles we read for this week, take three different approaches of using archaeology post-disaster. Compare and contrast these approaches and the different types of analysis that can be done with each.

    Blessing Tate

    All the articles, Dawdy (2006), Garazhian and Yazdi (2008), and Bagwell (2009), make a case that, apart from the gradual process, urban settlements and cultures become archaeological frameworks through rapid abandonment, as reflected by natural disasters. The researchers investigate various ways in which natural disasters affect people and how they are responsible for modifying the traditional norms of society and their material reflections. Typically, people are forced to adopt new lifestyles in order to adapt effectively to the modified environment. Accordingly, archaeology can serve as a technique of studying the damage created by natural disasters and to document the altered cultures.
    While the core concept is the same, the authors use different natural disasters to illustrate the significance of modern catastrophes and the material records of the recovery process. Dawdy (2006), reflects on her observation of post-Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans to construct a thesis that taphonomic processes (the formation of the archaeological record) through burial, trash disposal, earthmoving, and landscape modification are critical mediums through which individuals and communities reconstruct themselves after a tragedy. Dawdy also asserts the taphonomic process exposes the relationship between people and their landscape.
    As with Dawdy, Bagwell (2009), explores the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on changing the culture of the people. Accordingly, Bagwell asserts that the destruction created by Hurricane Katrina represents a recordable, archaeological landscape of contemporary history. Apart from discussing the significance of the disaster and the material records of the reclamation process, Bagwell also explains how such historical records can be preserved.

    Jaeden Granger

    Margaret Bagwell’s After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an Archaeology of Hurricane Katrina discusses archaeologists studied how the contemporary landscape of the U.S. Gulf Coast was affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and how it could be avoided in the future. Shannon Lee Dawdy’s The Taphonomy of Disaster and the (Re)Formation of New Orleans discusses the archaeological and ethnographical tackle with a post disaster recovery effort. Omran Garazhian and Leila Papoli Yazdi’s Mortuary Practices in Bam After the Earthquake discusses the research of post-disaster burial style in Iran after an earthquake in December 2003.

    These documents focus on the short-term effects of a major natural disaster in terms of the recovery process to understand the impact they have on different groups of society. They discuss how people deal with the aftermaths. Those who are impacted by the disasters are force to adapt to a new manner of living due to damage to urban or rural areas, and having to find new areas of living that could be alien to them. They also document the taphonomic process of areas affected by natural disasters, and how those affected are influenced immediately after the disaster has passed. The documents differ however, with Bagwell and Dawdy’s articles discusses a post Hurricane Katrina American South, while Yazdi’s document is about a post-earthquake Iran.


    Reflections #11:

    The three articles we read for this week, take three different approaches of using archaeology post-disaster. Compare and contrast these approaches and the different types of analysis that can be done with each.

    The three articles are basically looking at disasters and how parts of society change after the disaster. The author of the first article, “After the Storm: Destruction and Reconstruction,” is Margaret Bagwell, a member of the archaeology department in Bristol, England. It is an analysis of the ruins and artifacts left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. One can analyze not only the ruins themselves but also the significance of the events on an intimate level.  Bagwell is basically saying that you can use archaeology to understand the full significance of a cultural event that is Hurricane Katrina and other such events.  Bagwell used oral histories from several New Orleans communities, including the black community, which described what New Orleans was like before the hurricane.  She also used governmental records and records from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which worked to restore historical sites after the hurricane.  She criticized the efforts of the NGOs because they were not preparing for the next big hurricane but merely restoring what had been lost.  She also used records from organizations, such as FEMA, which were sent in to tear down and repair residential and public space areas.  Basically she is looking at the economics of the reconstruction.

    The drawback to using only oral history to give a picture of pre-hurricane New Orleans is that she might not be able to find representative oral histories for all the communities.  Assessment records, which she used for the post-hurricane data, may be inaccurate or incomplete.  Due to fears of black mold, only non-porous objects were included in the assessment surveys as to what to salvage.  Also people doing the surveys were poorly trained.

    The second article, “Mortuary Practices In Bam After The Earthquake,” by Omran Garazhian And Leila Yazdi, is about how burial practices changed in the Iranian city of Bam after an earthquake in 2003. They surveyed Shi’ah Muslim cemeteries that were at least two hundred years old.  They looked at the materials that the headstones were made of in intervals of two, six and seventeen months after the earthquake. They found that there were differences pre- and post-earthquake.  One reason for some of the change was that many local mortuary stonecarver workshops had closed down due to the earthquake.  Raw stone from outside the city had to be brought used for the stones. Generally, the gravestones had less ornamentation than before. The number of makers marks on the tombstones decreased considerably. There was a switch from traditional headstones to vertical Western style gravestones. After the earthquake, they changed to mechanical carving machines rather than use hand carvers. It appears that the stones were made of less expensive materials and engraving was replaced by painting.  information about the deceased on the stone, although the tradition of including an engraved photo of the deceased (hejleh) on the gravestone continued.

    Other things that changed was the rapid growth of the cemeteries and unusual burial locations, like gardens and boulevards.  This can be accounted for by the sudden increase in the number of dead.

    The article doesn’t really deal with whether the change occurred due to the decrease of resources available to make traditional gravestones or whether it was due to a shift in priorities of the survivors from caring after the dead to surviving and reconstructing their daily lives. One thing that it also doesn’t go into is whether the change is permanent.  One would have to survey the gravestones for a much longer time period to determine permanency.  In this country, such survey time increments are much too small for a proper survey due to the differences of funerary practices among our different religions.  One thing that I find interesting is the way they did the survey.  The authors did it in a very non-invasive way.  They conducted the survey using their knowledge of burial practices. They were able to get most of the information they needed by looking at the graves themselves.

    The third article, “The taphonomy of disaster and the (re)formation of New Orleans,” by Shannon Lee Dawdy, is about how communities bring themselves together after disasters as a social process and how taphonomic processes can be used to analyze it.  She is looking a burial practices in New Orleans during post-Hurricane Katrina and in the reconstruction phase.  She served as a liaison between the office of the Louisiana state archaeologist and FEMA.  She participated in meetings about the planning of post-hurricane restoration.  One part of the plan was “Waste in Place”, where damaged buildings were bulldozed and material buried on the original lot and covered over with clean fill, meaning all the remaining building materials and artifacts inside were kept in the same place they were before the disaster hit.  The author found herself in an interesting position because she became part of the archaeological process.  Future archaeologists digging on the site would find everything left on the site the way the bulldozer teams left it, but not necessarily in the locations within the building where artifacts were actually used. While the archaeologist part of her was interested in the plan, she knew from prior experience that realistically the plan as a basis for reconstruction would be a disastrous failure.  According to the article, the soil in the Louisiana area is still relatively young and still settling, which means that the infill plan would not provide a stable enough base for new buildings.  She mentions how the plan was changed and the abandoned due to public outcry and fears of subsidence and uncontrolled soil contamination, which are very real fears.

    While the above articles give interesting perspectives on how archaeology can be used to affect the understanding of disasters, I don’t think that any one is better than the other.

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    Jared West

    The three articles that were for this week all focused around disaster with 2 of the 3 focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the devastating effects it had on Louisiana.

    The first article that I read was entitled After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an Archaeology of Hurricane Katrina written by Margaret Bagwell. This article talks about the destruction of Katrina onto N’Orleans and the proposed way to “fix it.” In Bagwell’s article states that Katrina is not only a cultural event in American history, but one of the most important events in our history. Bagwell talks about the rehabilitation programs which were initiated by Mississippi and Louisiana and the failure that became of them. 143000 emergency housing were created for the victims who lost their homes, however even 4 years later (when this article was written) the situation was still not fixed. At least 5000 people were still living in emergency homes due to inconsistencies with money in the rebuilding process. One of the best quotes that Bagwell gives is”Linked with the process of reclaiming the communal landscape is the process of reclaiming personal landscapes.”

    The second article that I read entitled The Taphonomy of Disaster and the (Re)Formation of New Orleans written by Shannon Lee Dawdy talked most about the taphonomy of the landscape after Hurricane Katrina. I really enjoyed this article a lot as her main argument was incredibly interesting. She states towards the end of her paper that “Taphonomic approaches to the recovery process exposes the tensions, vulnerabilities, and conflicts that existed before the disaster. Dumbed down Dawdy is essentially saying that these disasters brings to light to issues that were already lit up. She says that for ideological or spiritual tensions more attentions will be brought to religious monuments such as temples. For ecological or economic, the agricultural infrastructure will be the center focus. Her main thesis aside she also speaks about the displacement of African Americans. In her article she talks about a plan that had been proposed, to demolish the already damaged buildings “in seemingly random areas” and mound dirt atop those areas to level out the area and better protect it. Overall I thought her piece was incredibly interesting.

    The last article entitled Morturary Practices in Bam after the earthquake written by Omran Garahaian and Leila Yazdi talks about the burial practices in Bam, a city in Iran. To do so they surveyed gravestones in the cemetery by looking at the materials that were used. The headstones over time switched from being hand carved to machine carved as well as transitioning from traditional headstones to more vertical oriented headstones commonly seen in Western civilizations.

    Kelly M Britt

    Nice work all! Don’t forget to submit PRIOR to class-generally on the Tuesday of the week, unless otherwise indicated.


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