Rusty American Dream


In 2014, my job was to lead the survey portion of the Preservation Archaeology Field School. There are many things I love about survey, not least of which is the physical act of hiking. But the main thing I enjoy is seeing much of a landscape and the lives of the people who live and lived in and on it—as well as their objects, potential evidence of thoughts, choices, and desires.

Photo by Lewis Borck.

Photo by Lewis Borck.

For me, survey isn’t really about recording archaeology. At its most basic it is, but every object has embedded in it a complicated relationship with those who created, transported, bought, used, reused, reused again, and then discarded it. In a very real way, material objects are the human fingerprints of the past. For example, the shirt that my co-worker is wearing—made in Thailand—is not simply a shirt made in Thailand. It’s an indicator of the loss of American manufacturing jobs, the subsequent slow slide to mediocrity in production prowess, and the associated strangling of blue–collar America; the backbone, muscle, sinew, heart, and soul (and usually brain) of the American powerhouse. It’s also an indicator of dramatically different values placed on an individual’s labor between countries. To survey a landscape is to see these kinds of dramatic changes played out across valleys and mountains. To survey is to see comparable dramatic changes playing out across the relatively shallow depths of time that are separating me and my crew from the groups living in southwestern New Mexico 1,300 to 600 years ago.

Photo by Lewis Borck.

Survey isn’t about simply answering research questions, creating predictive models and priority plans for land managers, or sustainable management of the past in the present for the future. It is all of these and much more. Survey is also a process by which you connect with an entire landscape and the social processes of harmony and discord—and discard—that are embodied within it. You never know what random thing you will find that might reorient your assumptions or, at bare minimum, force you to confront these feelings and delve deep into a sometimes painful pit to understand why a thing that in reality is so insignificant is incredibly potent.

Rusty Car

Photo by Lewis Borck.

Even more intriguing is the often dramatic difference between the material and cultural value of an object. A piece of local sandstone, glue made in Ohio, and two pieces of plastic mass-produced in China serve to confront some of the long-suppressed (or long-overlooked and shrugged off) injustices upon which the West thrived—and still thrives.

Mass Produced Plastic Pieces

Photo by Lewis Borck of found art in southern AZ.

Photo by Lewis Borck.

The American Dream was founded upon much of this crumbly bedrock, and I think that is part of the reason that rusty cars in particular effect me so strongly. They’re not just someone’s particular dead dream wrapped up in oxidized iron and weeds. They’re not just the possible remnants of a family’s day trip with a tedious, or even traumatic, end. They’re not just an American personification of freedom. They’re symbols of what we’ve built and of what we’ve failed to maintain. Of what we’ve been and what we’re becoming. Of what we’ve lost, what we’ve stolen, and what has been stolen from us. Fallen hopes, failed promises, broken treaties, lies, and genocide have oxidized on our cultural landscapes.

On survey, you are occasionally forced to intimately examine your place in the bustle of life. That examination is something that becomes incredibly effective for an archaeologist to undertake, because it forces you to engage with the powerful ideas bound up in even the most mundane objects. Although I know the students came away from fieldwork that year with a firm grasp of the specifics of how and why archaeologists conduct survey fieldwork, I also hope they found themselves reflecting on their relationships with objects. This, in turn, highlights history’s relationship with cultural objects and the importance they have in helping us understand not simply technological change or human environmental interactions, but also the convoluted mosaic of ideas wrapped up in even the most simple tin can or acre of broken ceramic vessels.

Rustic Figurative Sculptures

Photo by Lewis Borck

Archaeology is the science of things, but it’s really nothing without the ideas embedded in those things. When we study things, we study ideas. When we study ideas, we can effect the modern world. That’s what I generally try to teach students.

A version of this post originally appeared on Archaeology Southwest’s blog:https://www.archaeologysouthwest.org/2014/06/13/rusty-american-dream/

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