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#TBT: Uncovering the Past, Small Bit by Small Bit

September 29, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Uncovering the Past, Small Bit by Small Bit

We often want to understand the past in big chunks, whether through stories that help us figure things out, or in broad spatial scales that let us comprehend how parts of the world fit together.  But there’s another way of going about this question of exploring the past, a way that takes a small, finite space and uncovers it in minute detail in order to draw out much bigger threads of meaning.

Speaking (overly) generally that’s the way archaeological investigations work.  Archaeologists painstakingly uncover the buried remnants of the past in place, and then put together the clues from the material worlds they find in order to get at understandings of the past that are inaccessible through the documented record.  This past summer, University of Minnesota professor of anthropology Kat Hayes led a team of students on an archaeological exploration of the old jail site at Historic Fort Snelling, a historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.  An article with the evocative title “Thinking through the Dirt” describes the field school and another series of captioned photographs evokes both the experience of the field work and some of the thinking that went into the project.

In the case of the Fort Snelling prison site, questions emerge concerning how imprisonment, or “carcerality” in the contemporary academic jargon, serves as a metaphor for understanding broader relationships between the fort and the landscape: Once the fort was established, to what extent was its role really about establishing and enforcing new restrictions on movement of indigenous people? How was the fort a precursor to new ways of establishing order (and restrictions) on the landscape through formal land office survey and “opening” of the land to purchase?  These are big, provocative questions; understanding the nature and role of the site formally devoted to imprisonment can help ground answers from becoming completely flights of fancy.

Questions like these are at the heart of numerous projects now underway to develop a more nuanced and richer understanding of Historic Fort Snelling and the landscape surrounding it.  Staff from the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota have been collaborating for some time to develop and implement a new course of study, a degree in Heritage Studies and Public History, that will make such focused and broad-ranging inquiries a regular part of both the University’s curriculum and the Historical Society’s practice.

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