Archaeology is Anthropology or It is Nothing

Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) memorably wrote that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” and thereby laid the groundwork for a generation or more of archeological work. I am reminded today that this maxim has great force, but not always in the way it was intended. The Survey (by which I mean half a dozen or more of us, current and former, from stations around the state) has been working with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Arkansas Archeological Society, Delta Cultural Center, and dozens of people in Helena-West Helena, Poplar Bluff, and many other towns around east Arkansas, plus people in Chicago, Atlanta, and elsewhere to locate a small battlefield lost to official history. We’re spiraling in on the site, and today was yet one more step closer to it, thanks to a great lunch meeting. That’s not why I’m taking this moment to reflect, though.

Willey and Phillips said that archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing because they felt that the aims of archaeology should be anthropological, and geared towards answering questions about humans, culture, and society. We should do archaeology to do [cultural] anthropology on the past. Working in historical archaeology, though, particularly on recent(ish) sites, often happens because we bring the interviewing techniques of the cultural anthropologist to the table. Without the connections to the living community (without anthropology), our work proceeds at a snail’s pace, if at all. Without these connections to the community, work simply does not progress. Without anthropology, archaeology is nothing… as it never gets anywhere fast.

Of course, Phillips knew this well, as his foundational work Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 relied heavily on talking with local farmers and others about where they were finding artifacts and where they saw mounds. As was the case then, so it is today that we progress in consultation with non-archaeologists. Arkansas has always been great for this. Let’s hope Arkansans remain so willing to be a part of the process.

References

Phillips, Philip, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin. 1951. Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947. Peabody Museum Papers, vol. 25. Harvard University, Cambridge

Willey, Gordon and Philip Phillips (1958) Method and Theory in American Archeology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Conflict Archaeology in North America: The Grand Challenges

So, it’s been a while since I posted anything here, but I was asked to contribute to the Blog Carnival (#blogarch), so here we go. There may not be candy, but at least there aren’t clowns.

Other contributors have defined their area of expertise on which to comment. See Lisa-Marie Shillito on geoarchaeology, Lucy Shipley on Etruscan archaeology and Alice Gorman on space age archaeology. I’m writing about conflict archaeology in North America, as that’s what I know best… but it immediately opens up some challenges. So, let’s start there.

What is This Thing?

When reading works on the archaeology of groups-of-people-doing-violent-things-to-other-groups-of-people, you are presented with a multitude of ways to describe this focus. We see the archaeology of warfare, conflict archaeology, archaeology of violence, archaeology of trauma, combat archaeology, battlefield archaeology, military sites archaeology, and a host of others. Some of these were run up a flag pole once, and no one saluted, so they didn’t stick. Amongst those that remain, pre-contact specialists seem to like to talk about the “archaeology of war” (see Arkush and Allen 2006; Rice and LeBlanc 2001), which post-contact archaeologists use along with “military sites archaeology” and, increasingly, “conflict archaeology.” “Conflict archaeology” appears in Europe associated commonly with modern and ongoing conflicts (see Saunders), and contrasted with “battlefield archaeology” of pre-modern conflicts… otherwise known as that which conflict archaeology in North America focuses on. This jumble of words is both confusing and makes it difficult to centralize discussion into fruitful cross-disciplinary collaborations.

This is a really grand challenge in that we should be collaborating. Pre-contact studies work well with landscape and regional-level data for site distribution and recognizing the archaeologically-recognizable long-term effect of warfare and conflict on societies. Post-contact archaeologists need to do better with this, as our interest to study conflict must go far beyond the battlefield and look at the cumulative effect of warfare on post-contact societies, something we have not done well (though, with great hubris, I might point you towards my dissertation [Drexler 2013]). This is not to mean only looking at U.S. society (which is a massive need), but on post-contact indigenous societies as well. In this last, I mean not just sites where there are recognizable traces of fighting, but site location, as well. I live and work in southwest Arkansas, where we have a handful of Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee sites. The only reason for their being is their connection to both white-Indian and intratribal conflicts in the 19th century. The movements of people as connected to conflict (mapped to capitalism, colonialism, and modernity) should be better-served within our scholarship.

Looking forward from the very violent 19th and 20th centuries, we can and must connect conflict archaeology to studies of modern warfare, as the former presages and gives foundation to the latter. The technology of war has changed, but the structures that support it, the philosophies that drive it, and the ends to which it has been put have not changed that dramatically in the post-contact era.

Which brings me to another issue. How many books on archaeology and capitalism, modernity, etc. are out there? A lot, right? How many of them treat warfare and conflict as an integral part of their interpretive strategy? Yep, that’s right, it’s just about none of them. The best that we might hope for at present is a nod to Saitta’s work on the Ludlow Massacre, where the links between conflict and capitalism are undeniable. This must change for American archaeology to do its job right, and it may fall to conflict archaeologists to lead on this. To do that, we need the expansive understanding of conflict and its role that comes from working with pre-contact studies, modern conflict studies, sociological work on militarism and the military, grand histories, and cultural anthropologists working on conflict.

Call of Duty: Trowel Edition

But, of course, there are barriers to getting to that point. One of the other grand challenges, and one that creates a hurdle, is dealing with militarism and its opponents within anthropology. I have to go into anecdotal data here, but when I mention that I do conflict archaeology to someone else, I get one of two replies. Amongst the general public, I tend to get a lot of enthusiasm and a recitation of their or their family’s connection to the war under study.  As the descendant of two German-American Yankees living and working in southern Arkansas, discussions of the Civil War often get weird. More important to this post, however, is the response I get from academics. It tends to be some form of rejection or revulsion, basically that “war-is-icky.”

I get that it is not palatable, but the fellow-traveler to this response is the patronizing air of superiority or maturity that comes with it. To not be into warfare and conflict is to be either cleaner or more balanced of an individual. Conversations often lead to the intimation that I, personally, am really excited about war and fighting (spoiler: I’m not… thank you, Quakerism), and that what I do is some kind of academic equivalent of one of the host of ultra-violent war-based video games, such as the Call of Duty series.

This comes from two things, one of which we cannot control. The uncontrollable end is that anthropology turned pretty hard against warfare in the 1960s and created a stigma against research that has been a brake on the development of conflict research. This has received a jolt in the past decade with the (quite justified) concerns about Human Terrain Teams and other engagements between anthropologists and the military. Yet, to study something is not to endorse it, and shutting off interest weakens the ability of scholars to critique and amend, if that’s your thing. That’s not really something we can deal with right now (though in the long term…).

The other contributing factor, however, is something that comes out of our present state of research. We are getting very good at focusing on single sites (usually, single battlefields). But, until we get to synthetic understandings of conflict-making and do better at drawing links between warfare, one the one hand, and capitalism, gender, race, modernity, and the other topics that lie at the heart of post-contact archaeology in North America, we are not going to dispel the illusion that we are not war-obsessed wanna-be soldiers. Viewing it from the inside, I will tell you that this area of research is far from being the archaeological equivalent of the Call of Duty video game series, but we are fighting a perception that feels very, very real.

So, who cares if we look like we’re playing soldier? I do, for one, because that’s not how I see what I do. The larger concern is that the Call of Duty conflict archaeology is not one that will encourage diversity within the research community. The SAA was 36% female back in 1994, and SEAC’s recent survey of its membership found that 71% of archaeology students are female. Looking at the conflict sessions at recent conferences, it’s a pretty masculine room. We are fortunate in having a number of female archaeologists doing very good and important work within the research area (look up work by Michelle Sivilich or Allison Young, for instance), but the disparity is marked. Does anyone want to even get into race? It’s always a nearly-exclusively white room, which is not necessarily that different from the rest of post-conflict archaeology in the U.S., but it’s still a thing. I think this is tied to a kind of deeply culturally-ingrained kind of violent masculinity associated with making war in the U.S. that is brought heavily into conflict archaeology by a focus on battlefield research.

Structuring Conflict Archaeology

The final grand challenge facing us is… who’s going to teach and guide this field? The places in the U.S. where one could go to get training in conflict archaeology were never numerous, but we’re losing them quickly. The places where we could go consisted significantly of the University of Nebraska (home of Doug Scott, of Little Bighorn fame, and some others), East Carolina (Larry Babits), Temple (Dave Orr), and South Carolina (Steve Smith). Of these, Scott and Babits have retired, and Orr and Smith are getting there. What academic program is poised to take this up now? Heidelberg College has a nice program with Dave Bush, but it lacks a grad program. A lot of the more active members of the younger crowd within the field are working in CRM or some agency or other. While they are producing good work, it doesn’t produce the next group of students, who need to be schooled in doing conflict archaeology. Conflict research is not simply historical archaeology with different documents. It requires a lot of specific areas of expertise that arise best from an institution who is willing to make conflict research its thing. We’re a handful of retirements away from not having that in the U.S., and that’s a terrible thing. Compare this to the UK, where the University of Glasgow has a program steeped in conflict research that is producing students trained in the field. A number of other schools in the UK teach conflict archaeology, even if they don’t make it their focus. We have no analog here.

Finally, we are going to have to roll out a specialist group; some kind of association for conflict archaeology. Not only for promoting and developing the field, but to represent our collective voice to colleagues and the public. Regarding the public, the birth, growth, and refusal to die of metal detecting shows, such as Nazi War Diggers, should push us to create such an association. While I applaud the SAA’s condemnation of the resurrection of NWD, a professional organization dedicated to conflict studies would carry a different and valuable kind of impact in the fight to have the people and sites associated with past conflicts treated with dignity, instead of some treasure trove.

So, that’s my take on what conflict archaeology in North America is facing in the coming decades. It’s my view, based on about 15 years working in this area. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, but we’ve got a long road ahead.

Finding Wallace’s Ferry: It’s all written down, isn’t it?

One of the banes of the historical archaeologist is the belief that their work is simple because it’s all in the documents. We’ve literally written books about how much the historical record misses, particularly if you’re not white, male, and rich. The belief that it’s all in the documents holds particularly true for conflict sites, as they seem unusually-well reported, given the Sturm und Drang of the event associated with the site. That doesn’t hold true, either, frankly. The search for the site of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry illustrates this well. We’ve got very little in the way of documentation from the Confederate side, and the Union side is mostly reported in the reports of white officers, with no known memoirs or letters from the men who fought in it.

There are other frustrations that crop up. One is frequently encountered when working with historic maps. We know that the Action at Wallace’s Ferry took place along the road leading from Helena to Little Rock. We’ve done enough fieldwork out there to know that the “Old Little Rock Road,” as it is known today, is not the alignment of the Little Rock Road at the time of the battle. I’ve been working with historic maps, trying to reconstruct the path of the road as a means of finding the battlefield. Currently, I’ve got ten maps dating as early as the original General Land Office maps, which were drawn in 1818 and 1820, and as late as 1935. These all show ostensibly the same road, but have vastly different interpretations of where that road lay. Observe…

SAU58_WallacesFerry

I deliberately removed the scale and geographic reference points to keep possible site locations obscure, but the map you see covers about five miles north-to-south, so not only are there a lot of different routes, they are all over the place. All of these alignments were drawn from maps that have township lines on them, allowing them to be georeferenced with some surety. There are some chronological shifts, particularly in the 1830s-1840s compared to the 1890s-1930s, but no one map before the 1935 Arkansas Highway map really seems to capture the route well.

This makes the process of locating search areas for an engagement that supposedly took place along the Little Rock Road a lot less cut-and-dried than one would expect. This is why the first two attempts to locate the battlefield didn’t achieve their aim (they weren’t without important scientific gains, however). However, with the aid of archaeological fieldwork and additional historical research, the third time should do it.

Day of Archaeology 2014: I took the day off

So, today is the Day of Archaeology, a day in which archaeologists write about their day in hopes of telling people what their/our lives are like. I’ve done these for the past two years, so I though I’d contribute this year, too. Trouble is, if we’re talking about what I did today… it wasn’t archaeology.

Well, I wasn’t digging… or report-writing… or processing artifacts. I wasn’t doing any of these because I was steam-cleaning carpets.

This is, actually, archaeologically-related, carpet-cleaning, though. Let me explain. My boss recently took a transfer to our office up in Fayetteville [Arkansas… that should be obvious since I work for the Arkansas Archeological Survey]. He leaves behind many friends and colleagues as well as a charming 1930s Craftsman house, which I’ll be renting for a while. My wife and I spent the day doing the carpets and other work in preparation for moving in. It’ll be a nice place, and it has a certain historical continuity, as my boss’s predecessor, Dr. Frank Schambach, owned it at one point, so it’ll have three archaeological occupants in a row. While that’s vaguely archaeologically-inflected, that’s not the point I want to make.

The point I want to make is that today is illustrative of the professional nomadism that archaeology demands of its practitioners. It’s a fun job, don’t get me wrong, but it’s basically impossible to be an archaeologist and stay at home… in many senses. Mostly, no one stays near their home town. Frank Schambach was from upstate New York. Jamie Brandon, the oft-mentioned and recently-departed boss, is from Eva, Tennessee. My colleagues in-state are from Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan (plus a few other places). My grad school (in Virginia and Nebraska) colleagues are from Texas, Florida, South Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, etc. There were a tiny handful who were from the state where we worked or studied, and they had to make a deliberate effort to stay home, as they were all talented people who could have gone elsewhere.

Even though they may have grown up in one place, most of these folks have been all over the States, if not the world, getting educated and doing fieldwork.

This professional nomadism has several effects. First, yes, we get to see a lot of the world, which is good in an ad-hoc anthropological sense, in that most folks have a measure of lived experience in different regional trends. Having been to school in everything from sturdy small towns in the Midwest to effete east coast colonial capitols, and now living in small rural towns in the South, I’ve seen a lot of different ways American communities operate, and met a lot of people with very different outlooks on the world. Being the scion of Philadelphians and Iowans, raised in Texas, Norway, and Colorado, and married into a family of Minnesotans, this builds on my own upbringing.

In a less-positive sense, though, most of my colleagues and I are perpetual outsiders to the communities in which we live, brought in to offer our skills and experience to communities in which we rarely have a lived connection to. This basically requires us to have to construct lives de novo in our new homes, building circles of friends and figuring out local politics and culture(s). We often have to do this every few years, particularly in grad school, as constant moves require hitting the reset button. Over time, our closest friends wind up being other archaeologists, whom we may only see once a year, but we see them at least once a year, unlike local friends in towns we move away from. It’s a weirdly isolating kind of existence in some ways. When you factor in that the time on the road takes you away from any spouse or significant other, things get lonelier. I at least get to see my wife when I get home. I have colleagues who, due to career demands, live apart from their spouses. Like, the he’s-in-Arkansas-and-she’s-in-Florida kind of living apart.

So, cleaning carpets in my boss’s former house is an index of the fact that he has made yet another move. His departure means that we’ll be hiring a replacement, which may well entail someone else pulling up stakes and starting a new life in Magnolia. It begins again, perhaps.

I admit that this is a fairly common experience in academia, though in seems like archaeologists are particularly subject to this kind of itinerant lifestyle given the crappy job market at any time but particularly since 2008, and the fact that our data is out there, not in a test tube. I offer this not to bemoan the lifestyle. I chose it and my wife has very obligingly gone along with it, and I wouldn’t trade the friends I’ve gained through it for any in the world. Still, there’s a bit of high lonesome that the prospective archaeologist should be aware is out there…

Browsing the 56th

I’m spending the evening going through the service records of the members of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry, some of which participated in the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, Phillips County, Arkansas, on July 26, 1864. I’m working at tracking down this engagement, and am attempting to identify the U.S. combat deaths attributed to the engagement. I’ve got all but five, so far. Just looking through the thing, a few basic observations pop out.

  1. How did ANYONE survive this regiment? Between the multiple drownings, the smorgasbord of diseases that beset the unit during its service at Helena, and the massive cholera epidemic that struck it in August, 1866, it seems like more than half of the men who joined it didn’t make it out alive.
  2. The 1866 cholera epidemic is interesting in its own right. There’s a monument to the unit and its endurance of the outbreak at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Based on the pattern of deaths, though, it seems like men started dying of cholera while still in Helena (some of the first deaths are listed as there, and not aboard a vessel), then the Army loaded the regiment onto several steamers (the Continental, Luminary, and Belle appear repeatedly) to sail them up to St. Louis. Being crowded onto those steamers in August must have helped spread the disease.
  3. The 56th was raised primarily in Missouri, mostly around St. Louis. A lot of the men list counties or cities around St. Louis as their place of nativity, though there are a sizeable number of native Virginians represented as well. Herein we may be seeing the effect of the 2nd Great Migration, wherein millions of enslaved African Americans were forced to move from plantations on the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River Valley to serve on farms there.
  4. It is really quite fascinating to see how many U.S. soldiers had claims documents included in their personnel files. I don’t mean that THEY were claiming things, but rather that others were claiming THEM as property. The U.S. had a process for compensating loyal Southern whites for former slaves now in service to the U.S. Army, and those forms remain with the soldiers’ permanent records.
  5. Few to none of the men of the 56th, though they were primarily former slaves, had “slave” or “servant” entered for their prewar occupation. Most were classed as “farmer” or “laborer,” codes that would have been applied with equal frequency to white soldiers in other regiments.
  6. There aren’t many deserters in this unit. A few men departed soon after joining, and a few men left in August, 1866 (in the midst of a cholera outbreak… I’m inclined to let them slide a bit on this one), but all-in-all, they mostly stayed put in spite of the adversities of serving in Helena (or “Hell-in-Arkansas,” as it was known).
  7. Captain Charles S. Kincaid of Company D was kicked out of the service roughly three weeks after Wallace’s Ferry. I’m wondering, based on the timing, if he did something ignominious that morning that got him shuffled out of the unit.

So far, the U.S. casualties I’ve been able to track down are:

  • Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery – CPT Joseph F. Lembke, CPL William Smizer, PVT Robert Jenkins
  • 56th U.S. Colored Infantry – COL William S. Brooks, SURG J.C. Stoddard, (from Co. A) PVT Ambrose Clark, PVT John Woolfork, PVT Charles Woods, 1SG Henry C. Stewart, (from Co. D) PVT Peter Clordy, (from Co. F) SGT John Yaw, PVT Joshua Fowler, +4 more yet to be identified
    • (Co. A) PVT Henry Jones, (Co. D) 1LT Addison Crane and PVT George Wilson, (Co. F) PVT Charles Lawrence all died of their wounds subsequent to the engagement
  • 60th U.S. Colored Infantry – Adjutant Theodor Pratt, (from Co. F) PVT James Bebabean, PVT David Henshaw, and PVT Henry Howard

 

Civil War Sabotage? [No, no it wasn’t]

Tonight, PBS aired a new episode of its show History Detectives. Titled “Civil War Sabotage?” the show focused on the destruction of the S.S. Sultana, a steamship that burned to the waterline on April 27, 1865. Of the 2,000 people crammed onto its deck, 1,800 died. It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ended more lives than did the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Tonight’s show attempted to unpack the disaster, looked for possible sabotage or intrigue that brought about its demise, and even went so far as to attempt to locate the remains of the wreck, which drifted seven miles downriver after the ship caught fire.

There were three major narrative themes that the episode seemed to pivot around. The first was incompetence, particularly on the part of Lt. Col. R.B. Hatch, U.S. Army Quartermaster at Memphis, who overloaded the Sultana while allowing two other steamboats to clear for points upriver without any cargo whatsoever. The overloading of the Sultana meant that when the ship caught fire, many hundreds more were on board to burn up than otherwise would have been. Second, the political connections of Lt. Col. Hatch kept him in his position, despite an earlier court martial for malfeasance and a period of three months in which he was simply away from his post without leave. These connections, which ran all the way to the White House, placed him in the position to manufacture this disaster through his greed and incompetence. Finally, the show explored the possibility that the Sultana was destroyed by a deliberate act of sabotage, perhaps involving a coal-shaped bomb developed by Confederate agents during the war.

Of these, incompetence seems to be the biggest culprit. The Sultana had an issue with its boilers, which placed it at the more-likely-to-explode end of the spectrum for 19th century steamboats, which is, unfortunately, saying something. Those things blew boilers routinely, often with disastrous results. Boiler explosions were horrendous experiences, as the crew of the U.S.S. Mound City discovered when a Confederate shell burst one of its boilers, scalding 82 men to death. Lt. Col. Hatch sent the boat off in such a condition that anyone should have expected it to explode ere it arrived at its destination. One of the more interesting segments of the show involved demonstrating how the rocking of an overloaded Sultana likely caused sloshing of the water in its boilers, hastening their explosion. THAT was cool.

What wasn’t as engaging, frankly, was the manufactured controversy about whether or not Confederate agents deliberately destroyed the Sultana. Yes, there were Confederate agents who were using coal-shaped bombs to blow up steamers during the war, but none of the experts consulted gave much credence to the idea that the Sultana was sabotaged. Well, one did, but she wrote a book on the subject, and her most solid piece of evidence was a drunken boast by a former boat-burner in 1886. It’s far from compelling evidence.

As I was writing the above, I was trying to iron out my feelings on the presentation of the history of the wreck in the show. Something didn’t sit right, but I couldn’t quite place it. What I think is needling at me is that the show spent a huge amount of time talking about the Confederate agents who didn’t blow it up, the incompetent and corrupt quartermaster who set the whole affair up, and the various political links that kept the guy in power, but we learned comparatively little about the people who actually endured the disaster. There was one survivor account mentioned beforehand, and some passing reference to the fact that a lot of those who died were recently released from Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville, the most notorious prison in the war. The real pathos and engagement lies in the people whose lives were cut short or altered by that night, not in the manufacturing of faux controversy about mythical Confederate agents. Why sensationalize everything with conspiracy theories? It wasn’t, really. It was a tragedy bred of ineptitude and greed.

For as much as the presenters seemed to want to draw some scurrilous ties between Lincoln and Lt. Col. Hatch, even suggesting that Lincoln had a hand in generating the disaster, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that politics have kept terrible officers in positions of authority and power in every. major. American. conflict. and continue to do so today. Lincoln’s support for other, more famous officers, such as Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler, or Franz Sigel, cost hundreds of men their lives, and the Sultana disaster, as tragic as it is, was certainly well supplied with precedent. The red strings pinned between Lincoln and Hatch, surrounded by dramatic music, overblew a lamentably mundane fact, that the common soldier pays with his life for the political and economic considerations of government elites.

Archaeologically, this show did have some nice aspects, but some troubling as well. They did manage to find actual factual archaeologists. Their maritime specialists was Steve James, with Panamerican Consultants in Memphis. If you didn’t know him when they mentioned him (I’ll admit I was unfamiliar), when he trotted out that cart with the Bartington twin gradiometers on it, you know he was for real. Profiteers don’t generally sport that kind of instrument. Earlier this week, I had a chat with a colleague about fellow archaeologists and their most recent work. My colleague mentioned that Chet Walker’s new thing involved using drones to document sites. Who else appears on the show? Chet Walker and his drones, of course! Perfect. They generated a nice plot of gradiometer anomalies cast over airphotos. Looked good, and, sure there were some big anomalies that could have been parts of the Sultana.

Here’s the thing, though. All they have are anomalies. Their biggest anomalies might be portions of it, but without excavation, we won’t know. Finding boat hardware and broken iron in an Arkansas bean field (which they did in the show) does not mean you have found the wreck. I’ve worked in enough Arkansas bean, cotton, corn, and other fields to know that you get that kind of stuff everywhere. They found some anomalies, but without testing, they did not find the Sultana. Mr. James was careful to communicate that. Kudos.

The archaeologically-oriented point that was not made, however, is the most troubling. I’ll wind this up by focusing on that. While 1,800 people died in the disaster, not all went down with the ship. Some floated away, some were recovered. However, many were left on the hulk. Wes Cowan even stated that “This is the final resting place for hundreds of Union POWs,” acknowledging that the wreck contains the remains of many who died that night. As such, the Sultana is a shipwreck, and archeological site, and a massive, massive grave. More to the point, it is a massive, massive grave in the state of Arkansas, which means it is protected by the Arkansas Burial Law. While I hope that the show’s focus on the site being under both alluvium and standing water tells most viewers that it is utterly inaccessible, we are potentially one good drought away from it being more easily accessed, which could bring some enterprising individual out there, trying to find the thing. Whether looking for profit or working from some shallowly-considered sense of connection with the past, digging to recover the Sultana not only disturbs the final resting place of many, it also is illegal. I wish that this factor had been made clear in the show, as it would have offset some of the threat to the site created by telling viewers about the existence of maps that show its location and filming the place where they think it is.

As an archeologist who focuses on Civil War sites, I realize it might seem somewhat… squiffy?… to see me object to televising the location of a significant event in Civil War history. Moreover, it’s a big thing in Arkansas’s Civil War history, which I’m generally trying to promote knowledge of (because we get overlooked like nobody else). Yet, here’s the thing. Showing the location of the Sultana is likely going to spark somebody somewhere to go out and find it. A lawyer from Memphis tried doing this back in the 1980s, if you believe Wikipedia. We wouldn’t dream of going and digging into a National Cemetery or a formally laid-out Confederate cemetery, but you can just feel, watching this show, people firing up the trucks to go looking for the wreck site. That the people whose remains lie on the ship still were not buried in a formal cemetery should not deprive them of protection, and the way this show covered the site makes its location less safe.

There is more than enough of interest in the Sultana disaster to have made this a fulfilling hour of television. A friend and I were chatting on Facebook (not this comment blog’s comment feed) about the show, and she made the comment that it seemed like PBS was trying to keep up with the dreck that the Discovery Channel and National Geographic were putting out in the past few years. While this show is still a looooooong way off from Nazi War Diggers and its ilk, there was a lot of needless sensationalizing going on here. It could have been so much better.