Native American Astronomy: Skidi Pawnee

Long before the invention of GPS or compasses, people already starts their journey. How? Instead of looking into the screen, they look up into the night sky seeking for answers from these eternal light beeds. In fact, before anyone understand what stars are, people had already formed their own belief about them. In North America, aboriginal tribes have different views on the meaning of stars. Some believe that the night sky has spiritual significance, and some believe that twinkling objects have similar human characteristics. Astronomy played an important role in the early native American culture; it was even the basis of governance and agricultural practice. The study of stars has also led tribes to theorize about the origin of life in the universe.

Skidi, a band of Pawnee people who originated from Luop River in Nebraska, believes that their people are descended from the stars, and the huts in each village are arranged according to a certain pattern, reflecting the special star group above.A ring of stars in the night sky is called by the Skidi band of Pawnee Indians as “The Council of Chiefs.” According to the Pawnee, this circle represents their style of governance, that is, important decisions and problems are decided by a circle formed by the elders. This sign is also essential to the way Pawnee people interact socialy and their religious beliefs. They use stars to set up agricultural models and reflect their social values. The Council of chiefs is linked to their “master star,” now known as Polaris, representing their main god Tirawahat. Meanwhile, it is shown that their lodges are often built in a style with an opening on the top, which helps to move the smoke out of the fire inside, allows the “Council” stars to be seen clearly even when indoor, and symbolizes the Council of the chieftain constellation.. Today, these stars are called the Corona Borealis.

Figure 1 – Skidi-Style Lodge

Below is a piece of tanned elk skin which represented the star patterns that are essential to the tribe. At first glance, the chart seems simple, but it contains many aspects of the sky. Warm orange Twilight hues at both ends may indicate east-west direction. The little star in the middle represents the Milky way, and skidi regards it as the passage of the dead and the road they have taken. It divides the sky in two.

Figure 2 – The Skidi Pawnee star chart (Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago)

The star chart was a sacred object, which gives us knowledge about the sky and important traditions passed down generation to generation. While in the archaeology perspective, the artifact also provide us with abundant information on how were past Native Americans valuing some stars more than others. Because individual stars and clusters are important symbols, we should not be hypercritical about whether the layout exactly matches what we see in the sky; it is the meaning and function behind these stars that matters more.



Further Readings:

Anthony F. Aveni – Native American Astronomy

Sally A. Kitt – Cahokia: Cosmic Landscape Architecture


King, Bob

2012 Seeing Stars The American Indian Way. Astro Bob. Feb 1, 2012., accessed November 23, 2019

Winston, Grady

2012 Astronomy and Mythology in Native American Culture. Legends of America. Dec, 2012., accessed November 23, 2019



Figure 1:

Figure 2:

The Inca Trail Pilgrimage

      The famous Inca site of Machu Picchu attracts thousands of visitors every day. People come from all over the world, eager to see the postcard images of the gorgeous city in person. Whether by train, bus or foot, the journey to Machu Picchu can be considered a modern-day pilgrimage. In fact, there is much evidence that Machu Picchu has been a pilgrimage site since it’s creation. The Inca Trail, still heavily trafficked today by hikers and tourists, provided a spiritual journey for Incas as they walked toward Machu Picchu.

      Between the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, there are plenty of routes that would have been easier to build or walk than the Inca Trail. However, the difficulty of the trail and its closeness to mountains such as Veronica and Salkantay, suggest this trail was designed for religious purposes and special occasions (Cardinal 2017). Incas valued mountains as very holy places and have undertaken religious ceremonies and human sacrifices on mountaintops such as at Mount Llullaillaco (Reinhard and Ceruti 2010). Passing by massive mountains on the Incan pilgrimage was most likely an intentional spiritual decision. Religious ceremonies could have taken place at many of the archaeological sites on the route. Easier routes to Machu Picchu existed but were probably used for nonreligious purposes such as transporting llamas or goods. 

Figure 1: Runkuraqay was a resting point along the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu

      Along the historical journey, some archaeological sites, like Runkuraqay (Figure 1), were resting points for travelers. Another spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage was walking through the Inti Punku (Figure 2), also known as the sun gate. Inti Punku is considered the gateway into Machu Picchu and walking through it offers the first view of the city. Once at the city itself, Incas might have participated in religious ceremonies at temples such as the Temple of the Sun, where Viracocha, the Incan sun god was worshipped (Lathrop 2019).

Figure 2: The Sun Gate was the final portal into the city

      The modern-day pilgrimage on the classic Inca trail is very much marketed towards tourists and is a large source of income for many tour agencies in Peru. Everyone hiking the Inca Trail is required to travel with a guide and to buy a permit. Permits are expensive and need to be bought far in advance, as they are limited to 500 a day to reduce overcrowding of the trail (Whitman 2019). Nonetheless, people try to relive and reimagine the past treks made by spiritual Inca travelers as they hike for four days, ending with the entrance through the sun gate and descending into Machu Picchu. People today will spend much less time at the actual site of Machu Picchu than they spend getting there. Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail remains a popular and important pilgrimage site today, just as it was in the 15th and 16th centuries for the Inca.


Reference List

Cardinal, Nicholle.                                                                                                                                2017 The History of the Inca Trail. Electronic Document,, accessed November 22, 2019.

  Reinhard, Johan and Ceruti, Maria Constanza.                                                                             2010 Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains: A Study of the World’s Highest Archaeological Sites. Electronic Document,, accessed November 22, 2019.

 Lathrop, Jessica M.                                                                                                                      2019 Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu: History and Facts. Electronic          Document,, accessed November 22, 2019.

Whitman, Mark.                                                                                                                           2019 Inca Trail Availability and Permits. Electronic Document,, accessed November 22, 2019.


Figure 1:

The Inca Trail (Camino Inka): Day Three, Part I (Pacamayo to Qunchamarka)

Figure 2:

Further Readings

On the extended Inca Road System:

Tourism impact on Machu Picchu:

Intentional Impermanence: Excavating the 1893 World’s Fair

Three hundred miles northeast of the ancient city of Cahokia, another urban archaeological site at Chicago’s south side Jackson Park marks a historical turning point eight centuries later. But whereas great effort and resources went into maintaining Cahokia’s mounds for generations, the “White City” fairgrounds of the 1893 World’s Fair were designed to be spectacular but ultimately temporary and subject to demolishment, reflecting the increasing consumerism of a developing industrial Gilded Age America. Catering to over twelve million tourists who visited the fair, the board of architects under Daniel Burnham sought to design and build a magnificent city in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts design as cheaply as possible, balancing expected opulence and expensive infrastructure (including 56 miles of sewers and an electrical system powering over 90,000 lights) with financial constraints (Graff 2011:222; Graff 2012).

In order to achieve this, they used “staff”, a plaster mixture containing jute fibers and horsehair whose particular recipe is often attributed to the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Also appropriately known as “counterfeit marble”, it was the ideal material for the imitative gilding of finishes and facades on the main buildings of the White City. Over 50 large fragments of these plaster columns, urns, and volutes were uncovered in a 1.5 meter deep trench (likely a utility or builder’s trench) in a 2008 archaeological excavation at Jackson Park led by Dr. Rebecca Graff, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College. These fragments (Fig. 1) were positively identified as part of the fair’s Ohio Building based on comparisons with historical photos (Graff 2012).

Figure 1. Staff fragments discovered in Graff’s 2008 excavation of the former grounds of the Ohio Building. Photograph by R. Graff.

The Ohio Building (Fig. 2) was built to the scale of a grand home or small hotel in a neocolonial style, based on historical documentation. Like many of the state buildings, the Ohio Building was intended to showcase local materials in the design, including terracotta roof tiles found in association with the staff fragments. However, it also functioned as a temporary “pseudo-domestic space” in which tourists could reorient themselves in a space evocative of home when the novelty and excitement of the fair proved overwhelming, as evidenced by associated artifacts like porcelain fragments, pipe stems, and glass cruet tops from bottles of oil and vinegar (Graff 2011:228-229).

Figure 2. The facade of the Ohio Building at the “White City” of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Photographer unknown.

The archaeological significance of the 1893 fairgrounds has been roped into recent local controversy over the planned construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (TCLF 2018). A 2017 Illinois State Archaeological Survey on the proposed site found 9,841 artifacts, but state officials say these don’t provide sufficiently significant new knowledge to challenge construction on the basis of the National Historic Preservation Act (Kamin 2018). But regardless, the archaeological evidence of this urban tourism provides insight into a changing American society at the turn of the century as it shifted to a mindset characterized by cheap mass-production and consumerism.

Additional information on the 1893 World’s Fair or concerns over the Obama Center.


References –

The Cultural Landscape Foundation                                                                                2018  More Concerns About the Obama Center as Archaeological Report on Jackson Park Faces New Scrutiny. Electronic document,, accessed November 17, 2019.

Graff, Rebecca S.                                                                                                            2011  Being Toured While Digging Tourism: Excavating the Familiar at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 15(2):222-235.

Graff, Rebecca S.                                                                                                            2012  Dream City, Plaster City: Worlds’ Fairs and the Gilding of American Material Culture. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 16(4):696-716.

Kamin, Blair                                                                                                                      2018  Artifacts from 1893 World’s Fair found beneath Obama center site, but report signals construction won’t be blocked. Chicago Tribune 25 March. Chicago.

The Newberry                                                                                                                  2018  The Vanishing City: Excavating the World’s Fair (A Lecture by Rebecca Graff). Electronic document,, accessed November 17.

The Arctic Territory: Ownership of Once Unexplored Land

The Arctic is an unique haven for archaeologists. The freezing temperatures have been a wonder allowing countless artifacts to remain pristinely intact in nearly 180,000 archaeological sites (Markham 2018). Unfortunately, rises in global temperature have begun to have a significant effect on the Arctic climate leading to what could be irreparable damage to its archaeological sites. While melting ice changing the landscape is one factor threatening Arctic archaeology, the fact that new land is now opening up present another danger. As these previously untouchable land becomes increasingly available, many countries have expressed an interest in the once unattainable natural resources of the land. This has created a conflict of interest between the desire to attempt to preserve the history of the Arctic and the interest in the valuable resources now accessible within the Arctic. However, before nations can decide what to do in the Arctic the question of who owns the Arctic must be answered first.

Similar to other previously inaccessible areas such as space, the idea of who has right to the land in the Arctic is a relatively new concept dating back about 100 years. One of the first claims to Arctic can be traced back to explorer Robert E. Peary. On his first successful trip to the North Pole, Peary left a note in a bottle declaring U.S. sovereignty over the region. Though the claim remained unrecognized by any nation including the U.S., his expedition did trigger a response from Canada who in 1925 passed a law effectively claiming sovereignty over a section of the Arctic. (Millstein 2016). Internationally, the biggest agreement so far on how much of the Arctic each nation has a right to is indirectly determined by the Convention of the Law on the Sea (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS specifies that members have exclusive rights to water-based natural resources within 200 miles of their coasts. Despite not being specifically aimed at the Arctic, the treaty has applied some precedent on ownership of Arctic waters.

Map showing the different land claims to Arctic made by nations as of 2015 (Courtesy of Durham University)

Currently, eight nations lay claim to Arctic lands: The U.S., Canada, Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland. Studies revealing large amounts of natural gas and oil being hidden inside the territory have sparked an abrupt interest dubbed ‘scramble for the Arctic’ or more sensationally ‘the new Cold War’ (Bryce 2019). This title seems unfitting given the current history of territorial claims for Arctic. No country seems to have made much leeway in acquiring Arctic Territory. For example, Hans Island, an uninhabitable island in between Greenland and Canada, has been one of the few sources of ‘dispute’. In 1984, Canadian troops put a Canadian flag and some whiskey. A week later, it was replaced with a Danish flag and brandy leading to over 20 years of sporadic banter between the two countries. Though it is unclear who will have ownership of the Arctic in the future, for now the history of this territorial dispute is one lacking resolution, conflict, and major consequence.

Beer label of beer made in collaboration of a brewery from Canada and Denmark showing an air of levity in the Hans Island dispute. (Sherbrooke Liquor and Ugly Duck Brewing)

Further Reading :

Timeline of Arctic Territory Claims and Disputes –

Arctic Archaeology and the Threat it Faces from Ice Melting –

References –

Markham, Adam                                                                                                           2018 Rapid Warming is Creating a Crisis for Arctic Archaeology. Union of Concerned Scientists, June 29, 2018., accessed November 10, 2019

Millstein, Seth                                                                                                                       2016 Who owns the Arctic? And who doesn’t?. Timeline. November 28, 2016., accessed November 10, 2019

Bryce, Emma                                                                                                                       2019 Who Owns the Arctic?. Live Science, October 2019., accessed November 10, 2019

The Cross Bronx Expressway and the Ruination of the Bronx

The Cross Bronx Expressway is known as one of the most congested roadways in all of the U.S. Some might not know, however, of the displacement and destruction it created. Study into the expressway raises more questions about how great of an impact it has had on the social and economic problems in the Bronx leading up to today (Ploschnitzki 2017).


When Robert Moses decided to build the Cross Bronx Expressway in the late ‘40s, he was trying to erase and deny the cultural significance and vibrancy of areas such as East Tremont that were to be demolished. The documentary series New York: A Documentary Film explores the disconnect between the actuality of Bronx neighborhoods and how Moses presented them. East Tremont, for instance, was a low-income area but was self-sustaining both culturally and materially (Burns 2001). Moses, however, presented the area as if little were going on and that he would have little trouble displacing residents (Burns 2001). Upon receiving criticism and protest from those in threat of displacement, Moses says in an interview, “New York has too many critics, we ought to get rid of some of them” (Burns 2001).

Cross Bronx Expressway., under construction at 176th St. & Southern Blvd

Quite literally, Moses got rid of his critics by displacing more than 1,500 families to build the 7-mile expressway (Sedensky 2001). The massive trench created during construction (Figure 1) is the result of the destruction of Bronx homes. Though Moses could have built along another route that would have displaced far fewer residents and cost much less money (Ploschnitzki 2017), his massive project was a showing of power in the face of displaced residents. The ruination of these homes created immense grief for displaced residents, who could now do nothing to stop Robert Moses.

South Bronx, 1980

Anthropologists and critics argue about how much affect the expressway had on the Bronx’s turmoil in the 1970s and ‘80’s, but it is significant to consider. The expressway acts as a boundary that solidifies the cultural and economic differences of the north and south Bronx. As a direct result of the expressway, those that could move out did, while living conditions were worsened and drugs and violence rose in the South Bronx. This likely accelerated the economic turmoil known as the burning of the Bronx (Figure 2), whereby landlords burned down South Bronx apartments for profit and left much of the Bronx in ruin. Vivian Vázquez, who grew up in South Bronx in the ‘70s, explains that “What people learn on the outside is that the people in the Bronx burnt it; that it was us who destroyed our community” (Ricciulli 2019). In this instance, corrupt politics hide from public blame, which can be framed on the community itself.


Study into the South Bronx shows a history of neglect of immigrant, Jewish, and African American residents. The Bronx is also an example of how immense political power (in the form of Robert Moses and otherwise) can use ruination to disenfranchise low-income residents.





Ploschnitzki, Patrick

    2017   Robert Moses, the Construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and its impact on the    Bronx. University of Arizona. December 11, 2017.

   Accessed November 9, 2019.


Burns, Ric

    2001   New York: A Documentary Film. “The City and the World.” PBS. October 1, 2001.

Accessed November 10, 2019


Ricciulli, Valeria

2019   In the 1970s the Bronx was burning, but some residents were rebuilding. Curbed. May 3, 2019.

Accessed November 10, 2019.


Sedensky, Matt

2001   Decades Later, Doing the Cross Bronx Expressway Right. The New York TImes. October 7, 2001.


Accessed November 10, 2019.




Figure 1

Figure 2 



Further Reading

Fires in the Bronx and what caused them:

Why The Bronx Really Burned

A deeper dive into the South Bronx by the New York Times: 

Costs and benefits of the Expressway:

The Cross-Bronx Expressway: was it worth it?

Flint’s Ongoing Water Story: Competing Interests in the Fifth Ward


In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan began sourcing its water from the Flint River, a decision that would result in life changing impacts for many of the city’s residents. Ensuing reports of declining water quality revealed that it was heavily contaminated with lead and other toxins(CNN Library 2019). Since then, the city and the state have been working to replace all lead and galvanized pipelines. Despite the urgency of this undertaking, work has been drastically slowed in the Fifth Ward, a location that incidentally has the highest percentage of lead pipes and the highest levels of poverty in the city (Figure 1) (Ahmad 2019a; Maher 2016). 

Figure 1: Heat map showing the concentration of safe copper lines and unsafe lead or galvanized lines in the city. Ward 5 shows the highest concentration of dangerous lines(Ahmad 2019a)

This delay in action is not unfounded. In January 2008, construction of basements in Ward 5 uncovered human remains and artifacts revealing a Native American burial ground. In 2017, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan Department of Environment took measures to ensure that, thereafter, all service line excavations would involve an on-site archaeologist(Ahmad 2019a). This agreement to enforce professional oversight was signed by the state, the city, and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan(Figure 2) who controls the remains of several indigenous groups including the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa(Fonger 2019; Indian Country 2009).

Figure 2: Members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe surveying the site of a burial ground in 2008(Fonger 2019).

Despite efforts to preserve this archaeological site, city contractors were found disregarding the conditions of the agreement this past summer. Twenty-nine separate addresses were excavated without an archaeologist before a state inspector was able to halt operations. By this time, it is likely that crews came across numerous artifacts and human remains. In June, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy issued a letter to the Flint Public Works director in regards to this malpractice, and the project was again dramatically slowed(Fonger 2019).

By further delaying the pipe replacement of the Fifth Ward, the dire situations of the residents were only exasperated. In September, only 105 out of 550 homes that were believed to have unsafe lines were dug(Ahmad 2019b). This ward is in desperate need of clean water(Figure 3), and it is evident that the process of getting clean water is being compromised by the presence of earlier inhabitants. That said, it would be wholly unethical to barrel through the remains of the native people that considered the land of the Fifth Ward their home first. These people and their living descendants are nothing less than allies. In 2016, it was, in fact, indigenous tribes who were among the first to hold water ceremonies as a form of support for the city(Peeples 2016). 

Figure 3: Contaminated water has had a disproportionate effect on Flint’s poorest community in Ward 5(Maher 2016)

With contractors and many residents in favor of the fastest solution and indigenous groups and supporting organizations in favor of the respectful solution, there are clearly competing interests at play. The history of one people cannot be prioritized over that of another. This, however, seems to be the theme of many political water stories. From New York City to Flint, issues pertaining to water rights and water infrastructure always call into consideration the histories of those forgotten. Thus, no matter where or when, there will forever remain an ongoing story of water and conflict. 


Ahmad, Zahra

2019  Flint water-line replacement on hold in area where high chance of finding lead lines. MLive, January 29, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019.

Ahmad, Zahra

2019  Flint misses ‘self-imposed’ deadline for replacing lead service lines. MLive, September 4, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019.

CNN Library

2019  Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts. CNN, July 2, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019. 

Fonger, Ron 

2019  State wants to know if Flint dug up human remains in Native American burial area. MLive, June 21, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019.

Indian Country News 

2009  Excavation begins on Native American burial site in Flint, Michigan. Indian Country News, August, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019.

Maher, Kris

2016  Flint’s Poorest Area Is at Center of Crisis. The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019.

Peeples, Kila 

2016  Native Americans held a water ceremony in Flint. 25News, April 16,2016., accessed November 9, 2019. 

Additional Reading 

Native American Tribes & the Indian History in Flint, Michigan:

Flint’s Children Suffer in Class After Years of Drinking the Lead-Poisoned Water:

Flint Michigan History and Early North American Indians:


What Roman Aqueducts Can Reveal

The Roman Aqueducts were symbols of great power and innovation at the height of the Roman Empire. Constant access to fresh, potable water for such a large number of people had never been seen at this scale and was the result of highly complex and methodical planning and construction that has fascinated archaeologists and historians. 

The discovery of these aqueducts provides archaeologists with far more details on the amount of water Romas required for their day to day activities, including drinking and cooking but also large lavish baths and fountains enjoyed by the wealthier members of society. By analysing the differences in Aqueducts built a different time periods we can see how building methods evolved, such as the difference between the Aqua Traiana and Acqua Paola aqueducts. These two ducts were built centuries apart with the Traiana being created in 109 C.E. and the Paola beginning construction in the early 1600s; but they intersected in many areas due to their common water source. (Cartwright 2012, Taylor 2012) Researchers have found that diagonal brickwork and opus signinum cement, typical components of 2nd century Roman building, are present in certain areas of the Acqua Paola, providing evidence that the ancient Aqua Traiana system served as the base for the newer aqueduct of the 16th century.  (Taylor 2012) 

Image 1: The interior of the Aqua Traiana Aqueduct

The Aqueducts were sources of enormous pride for Romans, in fact they were often used to compare Rome to other famous societies, as civil engineer Frontinus once said in a treatise, “With such an array of indispensable structures carrying so much water, compare, if you will, the idle Pyramids or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks!” (Rodà 2016) The elaborate decorations and grandiose architecture of the external sections of many of these aqueducts indicates that while they were important sources of water for the city, they also stood as public testaments to Roman ingenuity.  

Image 2: An elaborate Aqueduct at Pont du Gard, France

Roman aqueducts transformed Roman culture in a plethora of ways, but one of the most important was how waste was dealt with. Before aqueducts all waste was primarily dumped in the street, but as water systems became more and more intricate, public latrines became commonplace, where waste was pumped into massive sewers with water from the aqueducts. (Gill 2018) Although water was available to everyone in Rome, it was generally only the wealthiest who had running water in their homes, generally coming from a lead pipe connected to an aqueduct. Archaeologists have found that many of these pipes have specific inscriptions or designs on them to prove that they were legally installed- indicating the widespread presence of illegal Aqueduct tapping. (Rodà 2016)

Image 3: A water pipe with an inscription on it indicating the legality of its manufacture and installment.

Water is known as a necessity for human life, but it is often forgotten how influential water is in so many facets of so many different cultures. Much of Roman society was built around their aqueduct system, and it carried as much symbolic meaning as it did functional purpose. Much can be revealed about a society’s culture and structure by studying how it gets its water. 


This website provides a short history of water and health systems in Ancient Societies 

This video shows the processes of finding and documenting the remains of the Aqua Traiana Aqueduct-

This writing is a translation of Sextus Julius Frontinus’s, a water commissioner in the first century A.D., account of Rome’s water system-



        Cartwright, Mark. “Aqueduct.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 9 Nov. 2019,

        Gill, N.S. “Ancient Rome’s Futuristic Water Systems.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 1 Sept. 2018,

        Richter/GTRES, Juergen, et al. “Aqueducts: Quenching Rome’s Thirst.” National Geographic, 15 Nov. 2016,

        Taylor, Rabun. “Rome’s Lost Aqueduct.” Rome’s Lost Aqueduct – Archaeology Magazine Archive, Apr. 2012,



Image 1: 

Image 2: 

Image 3: 


Ruination In Havana

Havana, Cuba is an unsettling mix of old buildings crumbling to the ground, residents still inside, and a Carribian get-away for the foreign tourist. On the waterfront, Havana boasts a beautiful historic district, “Old Havana”, but stray far from the main streets and plazas and you will find yourself surrounded by neglected buildings. The ruination of these buildings tells the story of a government with limited money that chooses to prioritize the city’s appeal to foreigners above its safety for locals.

Old Havana is the historic district of Havana and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 (Perrottet 2018). Since then it has received funding from outside sources and support from the Cuban government. Restorations of historical architecture (Figure 1) have won Havana officials dozens of international awards (Eaton and Lewin 2018) and brought tourists flocking to the city. Cubans benefit from the economic boost brought by the tourism industry, but those economic gains fail to offset the hardship of many families’ deteriorating residences.

Figure 1. Part of the beautifuly restored Old Havana, the Plaza de San Francisco. Photograph from Planet Ware.

In the ongoing restoration process of Old Havana, many people feel left behind. In 2012, about 7 percent of housing in Havana had been declared uninhabitable and 7 in 10 buildings needed major repairs (Rainsford 2012). Even when residences are repaired many families are displaced, since the government does not allow as many households back into the buildings as were crowded in previously (Perrottet 2018). Government programs work to rectify the housing crisis that has many people living in buildings that could collapse any day (Figure 2), but they are not addressing the problem fast enough. According to USA Today, “3,856 partial or total building collapses were reported in Havana from 2000 to 2013, not including 2010 and 2011 when no records were kept” (Eaton and Lewin 2018). These collapses stand in stark contrast to the beautiful historic architecture Havana officials work to preserve. The Cuban government is short on money and has to prioritize projects. Their priorities are clear; Havana is quite literally collapsing while a historic district for foreign tourists grows.

Figure 2. People continue to live in the crumbling buildings in Havana, Cuba. Photograph from Translating Cuba.

Allowing for or requiring destruction of “certain people and places, often in the name of humanitarian work” (Beisaw 2017) is a political process known as ruination. The humanitarian effort of preserving a UNESCO World Heritage site comes at a price and the people who die because they cannot leave the buildings their government has condemned are paying it. Looking at the ruination of Havana reveals a rift between the Cuban government and its people. The government has the authority to choose what will be restored and what will be left to decay. So far it has chosen to restore the tourist epicenter that brings in new-comers, and leave the people already living in Havana to fend for themselves. Ruination shows power and where that power lies. Cuban officials hold the power in Havana, and the citizens of Havana see the evidence of it every day in the ruination of their home.



Beisaw, April M.
2017 Ruined by the Thirst for Urban Prosperity: Contemporary Archaeology of City Water Systems. In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski. Oxford Press. pp. 132-148.

Eaton, Tracey and Katherine Lewin
2018 How Havana is collapsing, building by building. USA Today. accessed November 10, 2019.

Perrottet, Tony
2018 The Man Who Saved Havana. Smithsonian Magazine. accessed November 10, 2019.

Rainsford, Sarah
2012 Cuba’s crumbling buildings mean Havana housing shortage. BBC. accessed November 10, 2019.


Figure 1

Figure 2

Additional Content

Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins

Documentary about the people living in Havana’s ruins

Why Havana Had to Die

Why Havana’s buildings sunk into ruin initially

Decreasing Temperatures, Increasing Risk

When the temperatures begin to drop, most people mindlessly make the change to the colder season. From warmer clothes, to warmer drinks, a majority make small switches in their daily routines. However, this change isn’t possible for everyone. During the colder times of the year, the homeless struggle to stay warm, and stay alive. In an interview by Ari Shapiro of the National Public Radio (NPR) team, she meets with a homeless man named David Pirtle to discuss the difficulties he encounters on the streets. At one point, Shapiro asks Pirtle what it is like on the worst nights for him (National Public Radio 2012). Pirtle responds, admitting thatduring the coldest nights is just, you know, fear of not waking up in the morning. It’s fear of freezing to death” (National Public Radio 2012). Although, he then adds that one learns how to stuff their clothes with newspaper and develop an awareness of resources, such as hypothermia vans that drive around Washington D.C (National Public Radio 2012).

Figure 1: In cities, homeless people tend to migrate to air vents on the street in order to stay warm.

Those living on the streets find ways to make the area they inhabit their home. This idea of home, although it can be difficult for outsiders to understand, is often the reason the homeless decline opportunities of residence in shelters. Due to this preference, though, the homeless are susceptible to cold related illnesses, such as hypothermia. And that’s why the hypothermia van system was created.

Using the Washington D.C. Shelter Crisis hotline, a van is deployed to offer transportation to shelter, blankets (if shelter is refused), or medical help (Georgetown Ministry Center 2019). Service organizations rely heavily on pedestrians to contact van systems when encountering a homeless person that is displaying signs of hypothermia (Tillett 2004). 

Steps have also been taken to prevent police intervention on the homeless when the homeless take shelter in off-limit areas. For example, Simmons of the “Cold Hits Homeless Hard” essay discusses his work as one of Washington D.C.’s van drivers (Tillett 2004). Simmons establishes relationships with parking garage attendees in hope that they will contact hypothermia vans when homeless people are found in garages instead of the police (Tillett 2004).

Figure 2: Simmons on hypothermia patrol in his van.

The service of hypothermia vans may be relatively new and unheard of to most, but hopefully the information is spreading to the right people. Potential sponsors, volunteers, and those in need should all be well aware of the on-call vans. With an estimated 700 homeless killed a year due to hypothermia, the issue is pressing (National Public Radio 2012). Death from hypothermia can be easily prevented with the right resources, and it’s important the need for these resources is widely advertised.


National Public Radio

   2012     “Why Some Homeless Choose Streets Over Shelters, National Public Radio.  Electronic document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Tillett, Scott L.

   2004    Cold Hits Homeless Hard, Street Sense Media. Electronic document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Georgetown Ministry Center

  2019    Emergency Info & Hotlines, Georgetown Ministry Center. Electronic          document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Images Used:

Image #1:

Image #2:


Additional Readings:


The Quabbin and the Catskills: Memory’s Role in Ruination

Growing up in Massachusetts, I went on a field trip to the Quabbin reservoir in western Mass, when the leaves were just beginning to fall. We went to enjoy the beauty of the water and foliage, but were first given a picture book to read about its history. Thinking back, the gravity of the history didn’t dawn on us. Learning now about the impact the construction of the Catskills reservoirs had on residents, it does.

Figure 1. A view of the Quabbin Reservoir from above

Due to rising water demand in the Boston area, construction began in 1938, when the Metropolitan District Water Supply Company acquired four towns: Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott (Bourgault 2019). The Swift River Act of 1927 forced these towns’ residents to leave their homes (Ibid.). About 2,700 people were displaced and 7,163 bodies exhumed and reburied (Ibid). The MDWSC demolished the area’s buildings, built dams, and flooded it to create the reservoir, which holds 412 billion gallons of water (Ibid).

Figure 2. The well-preserved foundations of the Josephine Marcille House in Dana

Now, much of the Quabbin watershed is accessible to the public for outdoor activities, has several trails, and a park (DCR Office of Watershed Management 2018). Dana, which lost the least land to the reservoir, is memorialized at its town common and registered as a National Historic Place (National Parks Service 2019). Over the years, former residents have worked to keep the memory of these towns alive. At the Quabbin Park Cemetery, where many of the exhumed now lay, they restore and maintain headstones, as well as hold a Memorial Day service in honor of both soldiers and those whose homes were sacrificed for the reservoir (Godfrey 2018).

Figure 3. The restoration of a Quabbin area resident’s headstone

Similarly, NYC created six reservoirs in the Catskills to respond to rising water demands. The reservoirs displaced 16 villages and 4,464 people, and now NYC labels the surrounding purchased plots as environmental protection and recreation land (Beisaw 2017). Yet this land is hard to find, littered, and treated by adjacent residents, many unaware of their history, as private property (Ibid.).

This comparison reveals another dimension to the process of ruination: how the ruiners treat the ruins, both physically and symbolically. In ruination, the cause of the destruction or decay doesn’t bother to clean it up, but in its own way, NYC has, by helping to erase these places from collective memory. The city has restricted access to much of the reservoirs’ surrounding land, and kept the public plots barely accessible. It has tried to make these ruins part of the natural landscape, void of historical significance. That is, effectively, an attempt at erasure, not just ruination.

Figure 4. The stone memorial at Dana Town Common, reading “to all those who sacrificed their homes and way of life”

Massachusetts has helped to preserve them, but by saying it was a “sacrifice” rather than a “taking”. By making the ruins accessible and by labeling Dana’s town common as a National Historic Place, they’ve curated the memory of the ruins that they created, something maybe stranger than hiding them. Whether it was an act of respect, or a retelling of history to be quaint rather than tragic, remains to be known.




Beisaw, April                                                                                                                   2017 Ruined by the Thirst for Urban Prosperity: Contemporary Archaeology of City Water Systems. In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski. Oxford Press. pp. 132-148.

Bourgault, Bethany                                                                                                         2019 Lost Towns of the Quabbin Reservoir. New England Living, June 26, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019

DCR Office of Watershed Management                                                                           2018 Quabbin Reservoir Watershed System Public Access Policies – 2018. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019

Godfrey, Paul                                                                                                                 2018 Memorial Day Services at Quabbin Park Cemetery. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019.

National Parks Service                                                                                                   2013 Dana Common Historic and Archaeological District. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019.



Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:


Further Reading

Dana Common National Historic Place Registration Report:

Friends of Quabbin:

Letting Swift River Go:

Lost Towns of the Quabbin: