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Seattle should dig into its past

Archeologists work along a portion of the state's Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. Credit: Greg Phipps/Washington State Department of Transportation

Note: The following was presented to the Seattle City Council on Nov. 22, 2010 as part of a briefing on the “Implications of Archaeology within Construction Sites in Seattle.” My co-presenters were preservation consultant Art Skolnik and archaeologist Robert Weaver, who elaborated on what could be found under Seattle and the need for additional legal protections for urban archaeological sites. My emphasis was on what I see as the benefits of archaeological discovery, and how other cities have embraced it as a tool for recovering heritage, evolving a sense of place, and shaping public policy.

As a writer interested in history I am of course fascinated by how history is perceived. In Seattle, history is often invisible. The recent controversy over the Museum of History and Industry’s funding shows that the city council is very aware of the importance of enhancing public awareness of local heritage; that keeping our history alive and in front of the public takes commitment.

But there are a number of significant challenges. One is that many people come to Seattle viewing it much as the original explorers of this continent did: as a blank slate, a place to construct a future in a place without history. Seattle, some believe, is too young to have a real history, let alone one to be honored.

Second, heritage advocates have made some divisions that have siloed history into categories like “historic preservation” and “archaeology,” and more generally “cultural resources.” Historic preservation, it was explained to me, is concerned only with what one finds above the ground, archaeology below.

If you take the Underground Tour in Pioneer Square, you can see how false this division is. What was above is now below; while archaeology isn’t always about buried architecture, architecture is inevitably the archaeology of the future, leaving its footprints, ruins, and foundations for our descendants to puzzle over. The two are linked by time, intention, and our ways of studying the past.

On the plus side, despite a general sense that most “history” happened back east in New York or Boston or Philadelphia, local history is a hugely popular topic. When I cover historic preservation and archaeology at Crosscut, I get tremendous reader response, whether it’s a forgotten bomb shelter under I-5, a Spanish shipwreck on the Oregon Coast, or a controversy over Northwest Native American bones. More than half of my most-popular top 20 stories on Crosscut this year were about history; that’s more than 100,000 readers, and that’s the tip of one website’s iceberg.

Earlier this year, I did a series of stories on what might lie under Seattle as two, simultaneous mega-projects move forward: the 520 expansion at Montlake and the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. Problematic as they are, both projects offer unprecedented opportunities to learn more about Seattle’s past. There are others. The north parking lot of Qwest Field is slated for development, and the city is undertaking a redevelopment of the waterfront, a major repository of our past, including the debris from Henry Yesler’s sawmill. 

But I was surprised to learn that the city has no staff archaeologist or standing committee of experts who review or bird-dog our archaeological heritage, who can help direct research or assess and shape how we hope to learn more about the history beneath us. We have a City Landmarks office that facilitates the process of above-ground historic preservation of man-made objects, from bridges to buildings to murals and even a sewer trestle in the Arboretum. There is nothing comparable for archaeology.

Given the kinds of major projects being undertaken, and given the ongoing likelihood that as Seattle grows and evolves, more digging, tunneling, building, and ground disturbance will offer new opportunities, I urge the council to consider ways to support our most hidden heritage, by ensuring that Seattle has its own representation at the table when project plans are made and evaluated, that the city has the capacity to help design or direct archaeological studies that might help us learn about ourselves and share this with the public. In short, a public archaeology advocate.

Public, urban and industrial archaeology are growing fields and can inform public policy. Archaeological methods have been used to investigate homeless camps in Bristol England to learn more about populations of the dispossessed that have often lived in one place for generations, as in Seattle’s greenbelt “Jungle.” Such investigations can provide demographic, cultural and behavioral data critical to understanding ways to create a more socially just city.

Seattle has a very special opportunity now to look for projects that can tell us more with statistical analysis and DNA tests. It is about more than digging up artifacts for museums, but about a broader, deeper cultural understanding of the city and how it was shaped. It’s about data that informs us, it’s about public engagement.

Cities are tricky archaeological landscapes. I’m not advocating that we dig it up for the fun of it; but that when we dig, we should have a Seattle-driven plan and oversight to ensure that opportunities are maximized, and that we share both the results and process with the public. Many cities have archaeology programs and digs open to the public and use them to promote community awareness, ethnic, neighborhood and civic pride, and tourism. They range from an archaeology street lab in Philadelphia to hosting excavations for school kids at San Francisco’s Presidio to the public excavation of an historic brewery in Baltimore, where they even got the mayor to wear a pith helmet to promote public archaeology. For the record, I think every member of the city council and the mayor should have pith helmets to go along with their bike helmets. (Note: City council president Richard Conlin proudly stated that he is already the owner of a pith helmet. Excellent!)

Urban archaeology has an advantage in having a built-in audience. I would love, for example, to see a publicly visible, ongoing dig in Pioneer Square, SoDo, or the Waterfront where people can watch archaeologists and investigators at work. It would be an excellent way to engage the public in the process of discovery and the shaping of place, not to mention a model civic behavior: a city of curious, engaged people as eager to cultivate heritage as they are their neighborhood pea patches.

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