Cultural Heritage Versus Commerce

A March 2010 article in the New York Times, “When Scholarship and Tribal Heritage Face Off Against Commerce,” highlighted a tenuous cultural heritage situation ongoing in Oxford, Alabama, where the fate of an archaeological site remains in jeopardy because of the city’s desire for economic growth. To be fair, the site in question is no Temple of Doom: it is a small earthen mound and a scattering of stones sitting atop a lone hill behind a strip mall called the Oxford Exchange. Despite its unassuming character, the mound has spurred over a year of debates between archaeologists and historical preservationists—who want the mound saved—and Oxford’s City Council and mayor—who want to use it as fill dirt for construction of new commercial developments.

The leading voice for the preservationists belongs to Dr. Harry Holstein, an archaeology and anthropology professor at Jacksonville State University. After conducting an initial study of the mound in which only few artifacts and no human remains were excavated, Dr. Holstein concluded that American Indians had constructed it over 1,000 years ago. (He subsequently recorded these findings in Alabama’s archaeological registry in 2003.) However, a more recent excavation carried out last June by the Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama and commissioned by the city, found that the mound was not archaeologically significant [in archaeology parlance, the mound was undeserving of future study]. Follow-up reports determined even further that humans had not built the mound at all, and because the city owned the land the Oxford City Council and Mayor Leon Smith were legally entitled to either authorize or prevent the mound’s destruction.

On the one hand, Oxford’s politicians and economic decision-makers are looking after the best interests of the city’s commercial welfare. Understandably, if there is city-owned land that is deemed suitable for new business, Mr. Smith should be the person who champions its development most vigorously. Indeed there are some Oxfordians who have voiced support for Mr. Smith in the local paper, the Anniston Star, and defended his track record on business development in the city. His ideas for new commercial real estate include a restaurant, or a hotel, or a health clinic; whatever it is, “It’s going to be real pretty,” he said.

In contrast, Dr. Holstein represents a contingent of archaeologists and historical preservationists who instead argue that the mound has significant historical value—it is the largest stone mound of its kind in Alabama, not to mention may date to 1000 B.C. or older!—and thus deserves to be saved from destruction. Leveling the mound and destroying archaeological context would prevent any future excavations from taking place and would irreparably disrupt scholarship on Native American occupation of the area in the last millennium. Likewise, Dr. Holstein also represents American Indian groups who believe the controversy surrounding the mound’s preservation signifies the larger issues of natives’ rights to cultural property and their heritage. For example, Sharon Jackson of the Central Alabama Native American Council sees the mound’s preservation as typifying their attempts “to preserve our ancient heritage.” Rather, she proposes the construction of an educational complex that would include “history trails,…walking tours to the top of the mound,…[and] since there is a slave cemetery on the property, it could also include a museum about the impact of slavery.” No doubt these cultural heritage ventures will bring year-round revenue in educational and recreational tourism (not unlike the proposed Sam’s Club to be built in its place).

It is up for your consideration, though, whether economic motivations superseded cultural (and scientific) interests.

One final point to recognize is the prodigious use of social media throughout this debate. What began as a small town’s local development problem quickly transformed into a global cultural heritage debate. Carolyn Chambliss, a former Oxford resident now living in Italy, founded the Facebook group “Stop Sacred Burial Mounds from becoming a Sam’s Club” and the cause “Save Sacred Mounds from Destruction/ Boycott Sam’s Club,” which have a combined membership of over 7,000 Facebook users. Chambliss also utilized Twitter to increase the publicity of the preservationist cause to concerned global citizens around the world. She called these “virtual protests” and hoped they would usher “a real paradigm shift in Americans’ perception of Native Americans.”

I think the value of social media in transmitting cultural heritage movements to the world is only just being more appreciated. Having joined the Blogosphere this February, I am still learning how beneficial my writing on Culture in Peril has been towards a wider appreciation of issues that seem only to concern a local population. Instead, I have found that the most insignificant issues are important, and certainly relevant, to an audience outside the one location I am discussing. It is very possible, as I continue to write and publish stories and insights on this blog, to raise awareness among a readership with no geographic boundaries, a goal I set at the very birth of Culture in Peril.

[Culture in Peril can now be followed on Twitter @cultureinperil. There I will post daily links to cultural heritage stories I personally find most interesting.]

This entry was posted in Alabama, cultural conservation, Culture in Peril, development, heritage, mound, Native American, social media. Bookmark the permalink.

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