Wye House Plantation Environment: Culture and Perspective

View to the Wye River

View to the Wye River. Source: Katie Hutchinson

I tried my best to appreciate everything that the Wye House Plantation has to offer in the short amount of time I was given to do so. The perspective that I created moving through this space was fluid. The first impression was the beauty of the open spaces, trees and river. The second impression after reading Fredrick Douglass was that this space represented horrific deeds of the American past. And finally bringing the space to the present for archaeologists, this space does not accommodate our agenda to find African American culture.

I am always fascinated with being outdoors, especially when I have the honor of being immersed in the profound beauty of the space that is the Wye plantation. When I first came here, what I noticed and appreciated immediately was that it felt as though oxygen is widely available from the big beautiful trees. The trees are not invasive because there are wide-open spaces for one to embrace the vastness of the world. The scene is completed with the serene and calming river.

Rhino beetle interrupting excavations

Rhino beetle interrupting excavations. Source: Katie Hutchinson

This perspective slightly changed after becoming more familiar with the less romanticized environment. Since we are on the long green, it is not the main point of interests that would be shown to other guests to represent the grandiosity of the plantation. And although this area is controlled, nature still reminds us that it does not accommodate to the culture of archaeologists. Our lunch has been accompanied by the graceful presence of a 3-4 foot long black snake, we have been nearly eaten alive by Jumanji sized mosquitos, and other creatures have accompanied us on our digs, like lizards and this rhino beetle. Our 5X5 test units usually have large roots running through them along with large plump earthworms, cicadas, and other ground life. Rain has interrupted our digs on more than three occasions.

Again my appreciation for the plantation changed after reading Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass, where I learned about the horrors of what happened on this plantation within the life span of our nation. The beauty of the place was still there, but it had been corrupted in my mind by slavery. The same river that I thought was so beautiful was also where a slave was shot in the head for refusing to receive his whipping. The conditions, which the slaves lived, as described by Fredrick Douglass were with brutality and atrocious violence. The beatings were a hovering and real threat for the slaves that lived on the long green. This created a new perspective of the landscape, and my appreciation for the beauty was also met with a deeply sunken heart. How could this space have been used in such a cruel way and how is it that it can easily be forgotten? Most importantly, there is a change in how I viewed the land after having been reminded of the realities of slavery.

In order to find out more about the culture of these very slaves, we have to use the scientific method to carefully and methodologically destroy what ever I inside of our 5X5 test unit. Archaeologists relationship with landscape is very interesting because the environment does not agree with our agenda as archaeologists. The worms and ground animals are not meant to be troweled through, unearthed and pressed through a metal screen, and the life line roots of the tree that provides us shade is not meant to be severed. Archaeologists have a particular weather condition that they need in order to do good excavation and that is no rain. Archaeologists do not like to have their units flooded. It is not ideal for us to trowel through muddy dirt that slightly compromises our ability to track the color and texture of different layers. It also compromises the integrity of our perfectly straight cut walls. Archaeologists have a particular way they move through the space of the Wye Plantation.

This last realization might sound mundane until the implications are examined. Archaeologists have a culture and an agenda. Our purpose is to find out more about the past in the most efficient ways by leaving minimal footprints on the environment and attempting to recognize our biases while doing so. This is an ambitious purpose, which is often met with resistance from the environment. If anybody thinks that archaeology is only about the material culture one finds in the ground, they would be missing a key part of identifying the past in the present; they would be missing changing and fluid impressions and perspective.

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