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.



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Further Reading

Dana Common National Historic Place Registration Report:

Friends of Quabbin:

Letting Swift River Go:

Lost Towns of the Quabbin:

The Ainu: Indigenous Archaeology in Japan

Contrary to the pervading myth that Japan is a homogeneous society, Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is home to the indigenous Ainu people. While there is some controversy over their ancestry, they are thought to be closely related descendants of the Jomon people, who arrived in the Japanese archipelago via land bridge during the Jomon Period (about 14500-300 BCE). The Jomon people’s mixing with the Yayoi (likely migrants from continental East Asia) created the Yamato (or Wajin), which makes up the majority of modern Japan’s population.

Figure 1. An Ainu woman with a traditional mouth tattoo.

The Yamato drove the Ainu farther and farther North to Hokkaido, taking control of the area during the Tokugawa Shogunate (the Edo Period, 1803-1867 CE). In 1899, the Meiji Period imperial government began enforcing assimilation through the so-called Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, nearly driving the Ainu to extinction, until Japan lost World War II. As a result, many Ainu people had to hide their heritage for fear of discrimination and were stripped of much of their culture. Today, the Ainu language is on UNESCO’s endangered language list, and a 2013 survey shows about 16,786 self-identifying Ainu remaining in Hokkaido (though the actual number is estimated to be higher).

It was not until 1997 that the Japanese Diet replaced the Meiji government’s policy with the Ainu Culture Promotion and Dissemination of Information Concerning Ainu Traditions Act, which promoted cultural practices such as carving and dancing. In 2008, the government finally formally recognized the Ainu as a Japanese indigenous people.

As the stigma around the Ainu slowly began to wane and interest in their culture grow, more Japanese academics at Hokkaido University began to study them. Following its creation of the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies in 2007, the university conducted an excavation at Rebun Island, led by Indigenous Studies Professor Hirofumi Kato, off the northern coast of Hokkaido. There, archaeologists have been able to recover evidence of about 4,000 years of daily Ainu life. Thanks to sand calcium-rich from shell fragments, organic materials have been well-preserved, allowing archaeologists to study the ancient Ainu diet. Other such research has led to Takuro Segawa’s theory that the Ainu were involved in significant trade with the Japanese mainland and Northeast Asia, discrediting the image of the Ainu as an isolated people.

Figure 2. The Hamanaka 2 excavation site at Rebun Island.

Still, archaeological research on the Ainu needs reform, says Kato, as “Ainu studies have been undertaken ignoring the native point of view, and most studies have depended on descriptions of Ainu culture by non-native scholars” (Kato 2017). Moving forward, he emphasizes the need for more collaboration with local Ainu in research, as well as thorough consideration of their perspectives, especially in cases involving ancestral Ainu remains. “It is fully understood today that archaeology is a powerful tool for the creation of cultural identities in the past”, Kato writes, and “it should also be understood that archaeologists cannot operate in the absence of partnerships with host communities” (Kato 2017).





Hoang, Tony. “Jomon Period.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited, 2 March 2016,

Joseph Caspermeyer, “New Genetic Evidence Resolves Origins of Modern Japanese”, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Volume 32, Issue 7, July 2015, Page 1913,

Ōnishi, Hideyuki. “The Formation of the Ainu Cultural Landscape: Landscape Shift in a Hunter-Gatherer Society in the Northern Part of the Japanese Archipelago.” Journal of World Prehistory, vol. 27, no. 3/4, 2014, pp. 277–293.,

Nishimura, Yo. “Archaeologist awarded for Ainu trade theory.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times Limited, 1 March 2016, https:/A/

“Further research, museum, park, augur well for increased understanding of Ainu people, culture.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 26 December 2016,

“Law, the ainu, and changing perceptions.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 20 December 2016,

“Tokugawa Period.” Encylopædia Briticanna, Encylopædia Briticanna Incorporated, 31 July 2019,

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. “The Ainu: Beyond the Politics of Cultural Coexistence.” Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival, December 1999,

“Archaeology of indigenous people: Reading stories buried in the Earth.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 15 April 2019,

“Hokkaido U. an important hub for research into indigenous peoples.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 28 December 2016,

Kato, Hirofumi. “The Ainu and Japanese Archaeology: A change of perspective.” Japanese Journal of Archaeology 4 (2017): 185-190. 2019. Web. 22 Sept. 2019.


Further Reading: