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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Archaeology and Historical Preservation

The field of Historical Preservation is in many ways an offshoot of Archaeology. Archaeology was certainly one of the early inspirations, but as Historical Preservation developed, it created its own methods and grew apart from Archaeology. In dealing with the preservation of ruins, we have in some ways returned to this kinship, and have been keeping archaeological practice in mind when thinking about preservation.

When archaeologists excavate, one of the primary concerns is to record the provenience of each artifact discovered. It is of vital importance to know the stratum of each item, as stratigraphy is the key to understanding a site and the only way to understand which items were contemporary with each other.
There are two main types of techniques for excavating, which allow the archaeologists to go layer-by-layer. The first creates deep cuts but retains sample berms that reveal the stratification, and the second peals back one layer at a time. One of the most common methods is the box grid, which:
"seeks to satisfy both vertical and horizontal requirements by retaining intact baulks of earth between squares of the grid so that different layers can be traced and correlated across the site in the vertical profiles. " (Renfrew and Bahn, Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practices, 108)
Essentially, a part of the site is set aside to help give archaeologists a method and model with which to piece together history.

A similar archaeological method relates to what percentage of a site gets excavated. Today it is widely recognized that an excavation should only dig a percentage of a site, leaving some area intact for future explorers. This ensures that in the future, when new and more precise methods will undoubtedly exist, enough of the site will exist for investigators to use these new methods.

When it comes to Historical Preservation, we believe these practices point to another potential model. Preservationists most often seek to return a building to a certain time period, which in a sense destroys the historicity of the building. Rather than knowing precisely what is original, we have a mix-up of new and old. We think that it should be common practice to leave portions of a building untouched, in a way preserving it's true state without contamination. Then if a future person wants to know the original paint color of the building, or plaster, or wall section, it is still around to be found. Alternatively, part of a building can be renovated, while another part can be left to continue its natural decay.

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