In the past two weeks, the southern United States and much of the Caribbean were devastated by two hurricanes. These storms serve as a reminder of nature’s destructive powers and bring back memories of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans in 2005. As an archaeologist we are prompted to ask, how do hurricanes provide us with research that can strengthen our understanding of human nature? What do the artifacts, what was left behind, tell us about the social, political, and cultural values of the communities destroyed? Using archaeology, we can learn about cultures through natural disasters.
Because archaeology is the study of what is left behind, human migration plays an important role in understanding cultures. When Hurricane Katrina reached New Orleans, the mayor had only recently issued an evacuation order for the residents. Because he waited to do so, many people, predominantly poor people of color and the elderly, were left without means to leave. Their possessions have since become archaeological artifacts which can provide insight to their lives. As an archaeologist studies an artifact, they must consider questions of context and taphonomy. For example, if a researcher was examining a body of an individual who died in the hurricane, they might ask questions about why the person was not able to escape. Asking deeper questions allows for an archaeologist to consider the broader social and political context. The majority of those who died were poorer people of color and the elderly. Knowing this, anthropologists can begin to learn more about the economical situations and racial relations in New Orleans at the time.
Additionally, archaeologists played a very specific role in the reconstruction of New Orleans. They were able to use methods of “GPS and GIS technologies to locate and identify historic properties” (McComb). By doing this, they helped the city decide what to rebuild. Understanding that sites change over time and are not time capsules is an important element of archaeology. New Orleans now is not what it was ten years ago. The decisions surrounding what buildings to rebuild provides commentary on a society’s cultural values. In New Orleans, the economically rich tourist centers, such as the French Quarter, were the first to be salvaged. In contrast, the poorer neighborhoods of the lower ward were never rebuilt. By realizing that sites are palimpsests and by questioning why certain buildings remain whilst others do not, archaeologists consider context.
In summary, archaeology can be used in times of natural disasters to learn more about a culture’s values. By asking questions about who and what was left behind, and what was rebuilt, anthropologists can learn more about issues of racial and economic segregation. Natural disasters play a huge role in history and have heavily impacted archaeological research.
McComb, Angela. “The Archaeology of Vulnerability: Hurricane Katrina and Archaeology in the Midst of Disaster.” MAPA. February 17, 2017. http://mapabing.org/2017/02/17/the-archaeology-of-vulnerability-hurricane-katrina-and-archaeology-in-the-midst-of-disaster/
Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: theories, methods, practice. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Fig. 1.: David J. Phillip. From: Associated Press. 2005. http://rare.us/rare-news/across-the-u-s-a/these-before-and-after-photos-of-hurricane-katrinas-mammoth-trail-of-damage-will-leave-you-breathless/
Fig 2.: Gerald Herbert. From: Associated Press. 2015. http://rare.us/rare-news/across-the-u-s-a/these-before-and-after-photos-of-hurricane-katrinas-mammoth-trail-of-damage-will-leave-you-breathless/
Fig. 3: Marty Bahamonde. New Orleans residents lining up to shelter inside the Superdome. From: FEMA. 2005. http://mapabing.org/2017/02/17/the-archaeology-of-vulnerability-hurricane-katrina-and-archaeology-in-the-midst-of-disaster/