It’s been quiet on the AiA Blog these past couple months, but not for a lack of activity outside of the digital world. This past Saturday, Ben Skolnik and I accompanied Dr. Leone to a community gathering for The Hill Project in Easton, Maryland. The project—which focuses on “the Hill” neighborhood in Easton, which may well be the oldest documented African-American neighborhood in the United States—brings together the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, Historic Easton, ethnographers from Morgan State, and archaeologists from the University of Maryland. The project organizers invited their fellow community members to bring their photographs and memories of the Hill, and allowed the various partnerships of the project to explain how they could contribute to the revitalization and rediscovery of this historic neighborhood.
As archaeologists, we don’t only work with the distant past or speak for the long dead. There are descendant communities in the present who feel a strong connection to their heritage, and sometimes it is the goal of archaeology to serve these communities, to answer their questions about the past using the artifacts that we find. It was obvious from the speakers and conversations in the room Saturday that there is already a vibrant community for the Hill. Everyone nodded knowingly and smiled at the mentions of particular people, places, and activities that took place on the Hill within their living memory. What is the role of archaeology, then? With the objects we uncover, we are able to go beyond living memory and reawaken a shared history that extends over many generations. In talking to the audience, Dr. Leone emphasized that the objects are themselves uninteresting; it’s what we do with them that counts.
The purpose of the gathering was to begin a conversation that will result in a story. It starts with bringing together the experts on the Hill—the community members—and asking them what they know and what they would like to know. In the back of the room, there were sheets of paper with the surnames of families from the Hill, and anyone who had information was invited to share their knowledge about who these people were. The story of the Hill includes whites, blacks, Quakers, and those who live and grew up there and connects to a larger, national story. Many of the people that I talked to emphasized how excited and surprised they were at how “big” this story really was. Archaeology in Annapolis archaeologists will play their part in the formation of the story through the excavation of the home of a “buffalo soldier”—an African American who fought against the Native Americans after the Civil War—this summer after our annual field school ends.
It was fantastic to see the success and enthusiasm of the community organizing this weekend, and we are deeply grateful to the people of Easton for welcoming us to their home and into this project.