Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Anthropology and the Destruction of New Orleans

The Boston Globe reports on the latest issue of American Anthropologist. How often does that happen? It happens when the entire issue is dedicated to the anthropology of Post-Katrina New Orleans. The article has summaries of the various articles, including one by Shannon Lee Dawdy on the archaeological implications from what people took from their ruined homes in the aftermath.

I am an archaeologist at Tulane University, and yes my rented apartment home (hence no benefit from insurance!) was filled with four and some feet of water for several weeks. I didn't return until my landlords had cleaned it all out (with my permission, they've been golden to me during all of this). Eventually I did return four months after the storm and the flooding. I re-opened our Center for Archaeology, and got back to writing my dissertation. It wasn't until March, two months later, when I ventured onto the neutral ground (the media) in front of the house. In part this was because it was choked with debris. Even when I finally walked over it, it was still covered in trash, and gnats were everywhere, rising up from the wet mud. There were other hazards, including an open sewer (the entire foundation around the manhole cover had been torn out and laid to the side, exposing a fifteen foot drop).

Being an archaeologist, I started poking around on the surface, and it wasn't long before I began recognizing some of my own possessions. This was a bit startling, but I figured that after years of pawing through other people's trash after they've died, there could be a karmic penalty to pay. So I made a few observations and took a few photos. I noticed that my possessions were relatively small ones, and they were oriented about three feet to the south of the lines of the house, if you extended them across the street and onto the neutral ground. This trash was not disposed as part of standard city sanitation trash hauling, but rather as debris. Homeowners and contractors in the first few months after the storm would dump their trash, debris from house gutting, sealed (for fear of what rotted inside) refrigerators, and other things on the neutral ground. On a, I believe, weekly or so basis an Army Corps of Engineers truck would come by with a large claw arm, and pick up debris for landfilling. What I found of my former possessions (a music CD, Mardi Gras doubloons, old floppy disks with my handwriting on them) were those that were small enough and slippery enough that they could fall out of the claw's grasp, and start to be embedded in the mud.

Their displacement a few feet south of the house initially puzzled me. I walked up and down the neutral ground, and noticed that in general the denser debris scatters were in each case a bit south of the houses on my block. Why? Was there some taphonomic factor that escaped me? They certainly didn't roll down hill. Then it struck me: the trash wasn't in front of the houses, it was in front of the driveways. The houses I was investigating had driveways, and access doors, on their south sides. The trash was leaving the house through the easiest access doors, and either being dumped by hand by homeowners or contractors at the closest spot, or they were filling their trucks with the debris and then backing up to dump it on the neutral ground.

I will admit, the temptation did drift through my mind: maybe some of my stuff, the metals, stone, ceramics, and plastics, could be excavated and recovered. I started thinking about what I owned, what was small and durable? What was precious to me in that category? Maybe with enough disinfecting cleanser, I could recover my own artifacts. Then I thought about the gnats. The muck. The toxic and septic stew that had sat in my apartment for days. And I thought about how much I really needed any of those things. Or did I really just not want to give up all the vestiges of my former life. I decided I'd leave it to someone to study in the future. Maybe the robots that survive the twenty-first century, or the ant people that succeed them. In any case, if this blog post survives, remember to look a meter south of the houses.

No comments: