As the snow falls this February, I am well into my year serving at the Heritage Program at the Monongahela National Forest. The Heritage Program oversees archaeology and historic preservation on over 921,000 acres of public forest land.
When I tell people about my time here, the first question I get asked is “what are you digging up?” I usually smile and say that while we do come across fascinating evidence of past people’s lives, most of our work involves protecting this unique non-renewable resource. Ironically, excavating a site also destroys it! So, while we do get our hands dirty, current practice highlights conservation, which often means leaving things in place. So much in archaeology is about context: while projectile points (“arrowheads”) found on the surface of the ground may be evidence of ancient people’s craftsmanship, most information comes from methodical excavation of undisturbed sites, and in looking for patterns in the region as a whole.
Anytime the ground surface might be disturbed on the Monongahela – say for a new trail, campsite, timber sale, or proposed pipeline - the area must be surveyed for evidence of human presence. During the warm months, we trek along roads and rivers and trails. We search out, monitor, and work to protect sites, and decide which historic structures are salvageable and which will be left to return to the elements. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Although many West Virginians have heard that this region was never home to settlements before the arrival of Europeans, that is not borne out by the evidence that is all around us if we know where to look - or perhaps more importantly, whom to ask. Native American communities were collectively pushed out of this region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that is why no federally-recognized tribes are based in what is now West Virginia. However, today there is a renewed relationship between these tribes and the government, as represented by federal agencies like the Forest Service. To date, fourteen tribes have expressed an interest in the Monongahela as part of their ancestral territory, and they are actively consulted on matters relating to heritage work.
When looking at an artifact, I never get over the idea that the last person who touched it might have lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. That sense of connection drives home the immense responsibility we have to be good stewards for the future, and I feel privileged to be part of the process.