A Voice for Archeology II: Is there a Future for the Past? (1971)
Following the publication of Stewards of the Past (see accompanying essay in this series), Bob McGimsey, Hester Davis, and colleagues across the nation determined that their campaign to foster a public sense of ownership of knowledge about the past needed to be expanded across a strategic series of venues. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) attracted an extensive national membership comprised of both professional scholars and private citizens possessing well-developed interests in the stories archeological sites and artifacts can tell. Archaeology, the AIA’s widely read magazine, was identified as one such venue. In a 1971 special issue devoted to New World archeology, Hester contributed a landmark essay titled “Is there a FUTURE for the PAST?”
It is worth revisiting this article, given its status as one of the rare examples of archeological writing for a popular audience that resonates an enduring message.
The article begins by making an important point: though many sites throughout the New World have lasted for thousands of years so far, both the pace and the technology of landscape modification are seriously impacting prospects that remaining sites will last much longer. One example after another is offered to support this contention. Hester goes on to link the conservation of archeological resources to wider preservation concerns, but makes an important distinction:
“All the action about which the conservationists are so voluble today, are just as destructive to the non-renewable archaeological resources as they are to the natural portions of the environment, except the destruction of archaeological resources is more permanent. You can’t grow a new Indian site” (Davis 1971: 301).
Next, Hester briefly reviews Federal legislation enacted to support the preservation of our nation’s heritage resources. She cogently observes that while these acts provide a helpful framework for preservation efforts, implementation has historically fallen short, and such shortcomings can only be overcome through vigorous public action:
“Despite these encouraging signs, the federal government and state governments have not demonstrated adequate active leadership in preserving the past; archaeologists have been wringing their hands, and the public has not been informed of what is happening. Action must be taken in all these areas, or there will be no future for the past. To be truly effective any action must actively involve the public; for they control the land and the legislatures.” (305)
A third major point is discussed: site destruction is rampant, and there will never be enough professionally trained archeologists to salvage what information can be saved. Public action must provide necessary assistance. But even here, liabilities persist: without adequate training, the activities of many collectors can be equally destructive. This can only be alleviated by dedicated commitments to training on the part of the professional community:
“The ones in these latter cases who are really to blame are the knowledgeable archaeologists, be they professional or amateur, who have made no effort to make others aware that archaeology is more than digging in the ground; that without the observations and written information about the relationships of artifacts to soil features, to structural features, and to each other, the artifacts themselves are nothing.” (306)
The article closes with an important challenge:
“The ideal of a basic knowledge of cultural change and adaptation throughout the history of human occupation in the New World… is still not impossible if we act NOW. By tomorrow yesterday will be gone.”
Davis, Hester A.
1971 Is there a FUTURE for the PAST? Archaeology Vol. 24, No.4 (Oct. 1971), pp. 300-306.
The Arkansas Archeological Survey celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017. Our mission to study and conserve the state's archeological heritage and to communicate our knowledge to the public was established by the Arkansas legislature with passage of Act 39 in 1967. In honor of that occasion, we are posting weekly “Historic Moments” to share memories of some of our most interesting accomplishments and experiences.