Mixed Messages

Standing lonely in its black cardboard slipcase to the right of the monitor on my cluttered mahogany desk is the Folio Society edition of what may well be late American scribe Ambrose Bierce’s finest literary contribution, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” which came into play this week.

Hopelessly mired of late in the greasy mud of archaeology, anthropology and prehistory, I decided on a whim to search for Bierce’s definition of those three words and went 0-for-3. Damn! Undeterred, I took a shot at the word history and — Yes! — there it was: “An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.” Above it was Bierce’s succinct definition of historian as “a broad-gauge gossip.” That’s what I love about that old Civil War vet who wandered off to the Mexican Revolution and vanished. He can keep you grounded, cautious to look before leaping, careful to employ humility in debate. But, still, this disconnect between amateur and professional archaeologists, anthropologists and local historians is starting to gnaw away at me. Why can’t these people of good intentions combine their expertise and energy toward cooperative discovery? Must the professionals insist upon leaning toward threadbare official policy and stances, even those that have twisted the truth for centuries? It’s mind-boggling, not to mention counter-productive. Shouldn’t scholars with gilt-framed degrees behind their desks know better, even if they did earn these fancy documents from some online five and dime?

So what exactly is it that I’m tugging at, you ask? OK. Again, those sacred landscapes, natural altars worshiped by ancient New England aborigines, primitive people who were no different than contemporaries in Asia or Africa, South America or East Bum Chuck. Fact is that they all had to explain phenomena beyond human capabilities while understanding their universe — the sun, the moon, the stars and the four related seasons they depended upon for hunting, gathering and survival under a holistic world view. How difficult is that to comprehend? You’d think quite difficult when exploring some of the petty disputes between card-carrying archaeologists and what they refer to, perhaps pejoratively, as “avocational” researchers. It’s interesting. First you’re discussing stone tools, rock shelters and ritualistic landscapes. Then, before you know what hits you, it’s off the rails to theories about pre-Columbian Culdee Monks, Celts, Norsemen, Northern Africans and Portuguese sailors here on our shore. I guess it’s not unimaginable but why must we try to attribute these mysterious stone structures to foreigners and space aliens? Why couldn’t Native Americans have built amazing stone structures similar to those made contemporaneously in faraway lands? The biggest problem as I see it is that since the very beginning, the goal of colonial historians, many of them clergymen, was to erase all North American history that occurred before European ships dropped anchor. And from what I’ve seen in recent months, state and federal officials are still locked into that flawed historical perception.

What sent me tumbling back down this steep ravine of inquiry was a quick revisit to the book that got my hunt started: “Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization.” Monday, I traveled through central Vermont’s familiar White River Valley along Route 89 to deliver grandsons Jordan and Arie home. Around Bethel I remarked to my wife how, similar to our own Pioneer Valley, the manageable hills lent themselves to ritualistic landscapes. The next day I decided to reread “Manitou” Chapter 1 about the site in that area known as “Calendar One.” I had forgotten the exact town but knew we were right in the neighborhood when I spoke to my wife on the road, the peaks of Killington and Ascutney looming in the distant south. So, after running the dogs through invigorating, wind-swept cold Tuesday, I took a hot shower, sat down to read and came away all stirred up. Isn’t it interesting how you often gain new perspective from rereadings? This was an example. Despite what the widow of one of “Manitou’s” authors had in front of my own hot fireplace hinted about her husband and his partner butting heads with official archaeologists who routinely dismissed their theories and speculations, I hadn’t focused on that angle my first time through their book. I was at the time more interested in concepts than bureaucratic obstacles. Then, on my second reading — Bingo! — there it was in bold black and white. After spending countless hours exploring and excavating the site, not to mention poring over primary records and oral traditions pertaining to it, “amateur” archaeologist Byron E. Dix alerted the proper authorities to his findings and, you guessed it, a team of top regional experts visited it and concluded, yeeee-up, that a subterranean stone chamber, hilltop stone rows, a notched standing stone, and other related features were all the work of 18th and 19th century settlers.

Hmmmm?

Most disturbing to me, personally, is what I view as the intentional institutional erasure of ancient history that is and has been going on much closer to home for centuries, with a noticeable recent surge related to development. A man who sat in my front parlor a couple of weeks ago to discuss the buried indigenous history underfoot here in the upper Pioneer Valley brought with him an overstuffed loose-leaf binder of letters between him and state and town officials. His goal is simple and altruistic. He wants to preserve crucial archaeological sites and study them before they are destroyed. Asked how long it had taken him to accumulate such an impressive stack of correspondence, probably 10 inches thick, he answered, “Oh, this is all from the past year about one site (in a northern Franklin County town I won’t name).” And that is just one site and one “avocational” researcher. There are other sites and other researchers, two of whom have also paid me a visit to discuss what they perceive to be state-sanctioned destruction of precious sites. Well, that is if you value Paleo, Archaic and Woodland  artifacts as precious. These folks claim that despite being paid favorable lip service, this is not and has not been the case with state archaeologists, who the people I’ve spoken to view as friends of development. To back up this charge, these passionate folks point to nearby sites that have been rubber-stamped to approval, places like Six Flags in Agawam, WMECO in West Springfield and Walmart in Greenfield. Another site likely soon to be in conservationists’ cross-hairs is a potential downtown Springfield casino on a site they’ll probably want explored before flushing yet another invaluable Connecticut Valley historical site down the toilet, carting away artifacts, maybe even human remains, in dump-truck loads of dirt.

There’s no denying that this is a difficult dilemma. You can’t put a halt to all riverside Pioneer Valley development in an effort to protect potential archaeological sites. That’s unrealistic. But we can’t just say that it’s too late now, either, that there has already been way too much destruction to ever piece it all back together. How can the archaeological watchdogs not be scrambling at every turn to recover whatever they can, document it, collect artifacts, inventory everything and move forward.

Despite what the history books tell you, the United States did not start at Roanoke and Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. No, the fact is that indigenous human beings were here to greet and in some cases ensure survival of those first settlers. Shouldn’t we be committed to learning as much as possible about the lost civilization that existed here before Columbus?

To me, the answer is yes. I think I’m a minority. Sad, because history does matter — all of it.

Old Ambrose Bierce, the fightn’ man who never feared truth or hate mail, understood. He condemned the messengers.

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