Archaeology & place

It’s 8 am, and already bright.  I’m out for an early morning walk because it’s a good way to see what ‘s going on around this community–to see what people are up to, and also just to go check out the surrounding landscape.  I like to do this a few times a week…it’s good for getting the ideas rolling.  I walk up a small ridge along the coast.  I weave my way through the thorny, chaotic bushes that try to impose themselves on the trail.  Why is everything in the desert sharp?  As I walk up to the crest of the ridge, I get a view of a large, blue-green bay curving in front of me.  Down below the dark forms of the rocky reef peek through the shimmering water.  Other obscure forms dart around below the water’s surface: sharks.  I walk over to the edge of the ridge, and notice darker soil eroding out of the bank.  Amidst this soil: a slew of broken rocks and shells.  Another archaeological site, another testament to the depth of human occupation in this place.  The whole coast has similar remnants of the hunter-gatherer populations that lived here thousands of years before the words “international five start hotel” were ever muttered on the Baja California Peninsula.

If you don’t already know, I will tell you again: my fieldwork is about tourism development.  I am looking at what happens when the massive global process that is international tourism development edges its way into new territories.  Let’s not pretend that it is a faceless process, however.  Individuals move the development juggernaut along with the smallest of daily actions and decisions.  They also stand in its way, mind you–nothing is completely inevitable.  There have been many changes to this place, especially in the last 10-15 years.  A network of barbed wire fences and “no-trespassing” signs cut across the landscape and speak to the nature of those changes.  Things weren’t always this way, though.  When it became increasingly apparent around the 1970s that tourism had tremendous potential, the government made sure to survey, map, and place proper boundaries on the landscape.  The boundaries eventually became fences, which now mark particularized, alienable, and marketable bits of geographic space.  Interesting, the different ways that people think about and arrange space, no?

My research is about people, of course, but also about a particular place.  This place is a stretch of land located between two communities that are deeply divided about what “development” should mean for this region.  Some want the jobs promised by tourism developers and local officials.  Others, fearful of severe environmental degradation, call for conservation and “sustainable” development.  Many people fall somewhere between those two positions.  So yes, I am exploring the stories of people, which happen to be intricately connected with the histories of a particular place.  This strip of land has an endless array of histories and meanings for people around here.  But the histories extend even further back, as those shells and rocks easing their way down the ridge line of that coastal cliff quietly attest.

My point: archaeology matters.  When it comes to trying to understand the meaning(s) of this place, for me the importance of archaeology is unmistakable–even if I am unsure how I am going to incorporate it into my overall research framework.  Maybe this is my four-field training showing through.  No doubt, it is.  But when I hear people debating about the meanings of this landscape, these weathered, little known sites all along the coast often come to mind.  Coastal hunter-gatherer sites don’t exactly get a lot of press, if you know what I mean.  Most people, in fact, probably wouldn’t notice them even if they walked right past them.  But they carry meaning, just as giant rock art panels in San Ignacio or pyramids on the Yucatan peninsula do.  A key difference, of course, is that tourism sites tend to be constructed around things like pyramids, yet literally placed over hunter-gatherer sites.  That’s one way of making the landscape into a blank page, and in some ways it’s inevitable.  Right?  Land goes through different cycles of human use, after all.  Still, when the backhoes come sweeping through to clear the landscape, important layers of meaning are literally stripped away.  It happens here, in Los Angeles, and all around the world for that matter.  The past gives way to the present, however reluctantly.  And, when I hear another real estate agent touting the investment potential of the “untouched” landscape around these parts, I know the process of effacement is well under way, and the next cycle of human use is just around the corner.  Five star hotels, airports, you name it.  Well, maybe.  That depends.  Same place, different human pursuits.  It’s a long story.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “Archaeology & place

  1. @Ryan

    What lies between the hunters and gatherers and the hotels? I ask as someone whose local landscape includes a late Jomon (pre-300 b.c.) shell mound turned public park, a shrine that claims to be more than 900 years old, and a back street that was once a section of the Tokaido, the main highway connecting Edo and Kyoto during the Tokugawa period. It runs along the foot of a ridge in what used to be seacoast and is now well inland in a city whose center is built largely on reclaimed land. Layered landscapes are a fascinating topic.

  2. Hey John,

    “What lies between the hunters and gatherers and the hotels?”

    Depends. There were of course many things that happened between now and the days of H&G populations–from the Spanish to the missionaries to miners, pirates, and whalers. Then there were the more recent ranching and fishing communities. So, there’s a lot. But the coastal sites are interesting because it’s not like these particular sites had a lot other uses…many of the sites are on sand dunes and are literally right there on the surface. This isn’t to say that other people haven’t been there in the mean time…plenty have obviously. But when some of these hotels go in, they are basically going right on top. So, sometimes there can be a lot in between, and sometimes it’s a pretty direct layering, if you know what I mean. It would be really interesting though to see a site that had a really broad mixture of occupations and uses.

    “Layered landscapes are a fascinating topic.”

    I agree! Thanks for the comments!

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