Monday, September 06, 2010

Will They Preserve Our Memory, Or Bury Us As Landfill?

In today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:

Over the summer, while excavating the site of the future World Trade Center, workers unearthed a rare find, remnants of an 18th-century ship buried 30 feet below street level. It isn’t unusual to find odds and ends when digging down deep in New York because all kinds of rubble was used as landfill in the early 1800s, but this wasn’t just scrap wood. It was a ship, not quite whole but enough to warrant rescuing.

After a few pain-staking weeks of careful removal, the ship was taken to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory for further investigation. Historians and archaeologists are now hard at work preserving the remains of the ship and studying it for clues about the people who made it and the society in which they lived.

We already know quite a bit about life in 18th-century America as the literate people of the day were hardly shy about writing down their thoughts and documenting their activities, but archaeologists point out that most of what we’ve read from that era was written by the aristocracy. They are hoping this new find will help answer their questions about the lives of everyday people, the common men and women who did the heavy lifting.

This ship was no luxury liner, they say. It was a workhorse of a vessel, a cargo ship that hauled goods up and down the Atlantic coast in the years following our independence. Based on the items found inside the hull, they know it was armed against pirate attacks and ready for action. It was built to be used and to get dirty.

What investigators are discovering as they examine the hewn planks held together with handmade iron nails is that this ship was constructed by expert craftsmen, the best of the day, and their expertise is still evident even on something buried in muck for 200 years. Hard work and honed skills were valued traits to early Americans. The objects they created would not have survived for centuries otherwise.

As we continue to learn more about the work force of the 18th century, I wonder what future generations will discover about 21st-century workers when they excavate what we leave behind. I wonder what they will discover about our society and what we value, and I have some questions of my own.

A recently published list of our highest paying occupations requiring a college degree includes engineers, mathematicians, lawyers, surgeons and doctors. We don’t have enough of these much-needed workers, but we value the ones we have and pay them well, three to four times the median household income on average. In the future, when archaeologists unearth our fleets of airplanes and ships, will they be impressed with our craftsmanship and engineering? Will they pull apart what’s left of our artifacts and think we were resourceful and forward thinking? Will they learn from our medical advancements and be grateful we invested so heavily in the health industry?

On the list of worst paying jobs requiring a college degree, schoolteachers, social workers, theologians, artists and composers rank in the top 20 with these workers earning less than or just about the median income. When archaeologists pour over the shards of our possessions and sort through our records, will they believe we held education in high regard, or will they think we should have invested more in our children? Will they see us as empathetic toward our fellow citizens, and will they think we were willing to invest sufficiently for the sake of our spirituality and in the creation of beauty?

Just as early Americans valued hard work and honed skills, I’d like to believe current Americans hold those traits in high regard as well. The future will tell, as the goods we produce, the fortunes we build and the social structure we design will leave behind traces to be judged by our descendants. On this Labor Day, my general questions are these: will these future generations review what they know about us and want to emulate us, or will they study us as examples of how not to live? Will they find our relics and determine them to be worthy of preserving, or will they leave them in the mud as nothing more than landfill?


Madame DeFarge said...

What an interesting post. I'm not sure how future generations will see us. Not as craftsmen, I suspect. But maybe we might achieve something if we actually leave behind a world worth inheriting.

Alifan said...

Another great tale Robyn, always so interesting to know the facts, thank you.