PastForward Brings National Spotlight to Maryland, DC and Virginia

By Susan West Montgomery, National Trust for Historic Preservation

PastForwardThis year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, PastForward, kicks off a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act with educational opportunities, Field Studies and networking events. PastForward, to be held Nov. 3-6 in Washington, DC, will convene the diverse and expansive constituency of preservation players in the nation’s capital, from individuals to elected officials, federal agencies to architects, scholars to activists. Online registration closes on Friday, Oct. 30 — after that date, preservationists can register onsite. For more information, visit http://www.PastForwardConference.org.

Core conference programming provides focused education and new ideas in order for attendees to elevate the role and expand the meaning of their preservation work within their communities. Programming this year emphasizes urban strategies, federal innovation and excellence, and telling a more inclusive story by featuring multiple voices and experiences. Finally, we will launch a rich and engaging discussion about the future as we approach the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Groundbreaking Discussions at TrustLives

Back again this year are the four marquee PastForward presentations, TrustLive. Launched at last year’s conference in Savannah, not only did the TrustLive presentations draw record numbers (including overflow seating in an additional theater for the first TrustLive), but more than 800 virtual sites tuned in live from around the world to participate. Viewing parties with more than 30 attendees participated virtually and joined the discussion on Twitter, expanding these discussions to reach a much broader and more diverse audience. Virtual attendance during the TrustLive presentations is free and open to the public.

The inaugural TrustLive: preservationTOMORROW | Credit: Randy Thompson Photography

The inaugural TrustLive: preservationTOMORROW | Credit: Randy Thompson Photography

The first TrustLive, preservationFUTURE, looks ahead to the next 50 years, including how we can adapt and grow to respond to the ever-changing landscape of the movement. At preservationVOICES, sponsored by the National Park Service and the Kellogg Foundation, you will hear from those using place to seek justice, foster inclusivity and tell the full American story. Sponsored by The 1772 Foundation, preservationURBAN explores the tools and solutions to take preservation to scale in our downtown communities, with particular focus on property redevelopment, creative financing and Main Street approaches. Finally, the last TrustLive, preservationINNOVATION, brings the work of federal agencies into the spotlight, as these agencies play a critical role in the stewardship of our nation’s heritage and are often on the front lines of innovation. This TrustLive is sponsored by Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, General Services Administration and US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Telling the Story of Local Preservationists

Executive Director of Baltimore Heritage Inc., Johns Hopkins during the dry run of "Graffiti, Tattoos, and Antique Tower Clocks: Arts and Preservation Team Up in Baltimore." | Credit: Byrd Wood

Executive Director of Baltimore Heritage Inc., Johns Hopkins during the dry run of “Graffiti, Tattoos, and Antique Tower Clocks: Arts and Preservation Team Up in Baltimore.” | Credit: Byrd Wood

In addition to educational sessions and TrustLives, Field Studies highlight preservation in the host city, sending attendees into the field to explore local preservation projects and connect with the people who are defining preservation within the local community. Since we’re in Washington, DC, this year, attendees are afforded the opportunity to explore not only the host city, but also get to learn from local efforts in Virginia and Maryland through these half-day and day-long activities. This year Field Studies explore the intersection of arts and preservation in Baltimore and learn from the stories of Maryland Rosenwald schools. It’s apparent that attendees are excited to explore the DC metro area as many Field Studies are already sold out.

Celebration and Inspiration at the National Cathedral

PastForward isn’t all about education and training—networking is a key component to the conference, and the number one networking event is the opening reception. Not only does the reception follow the first TrustLive, preservationFUTURE, but it serves as the venue to celebrate the National Historic Preservation Act and the Historic Tax Credit. This year, the Opening Plenary and Reception take place at DC’s beloved treasure, Washington National Cathedral. This is a special experience for attendees to spend time in a spectacular historic treasure, not just to the city of DC but the entire nation.

One Day Options

If you can’t make it for the entire conference, there are several one day options that are ideal for local preservationists. From one day conference passes to day-long, skill-building Preservation Leadership Training (PLT) Intensives to a morning focused on inclusivity in preservation, there are conference options to fit any schedule. The PastForward Diversity Summit also has free programming that’s open to the public. The Conversation and Panel Discussion on Organizational Leadership and National Partnership (Wednesday, November 4, 9:00-10:15 a.m.) will start a powerful discussion on how we must work together to engage more communities of color, women and the LGBTQ community to preserve the places that tell the full American story.

We hope you will join us at PastForward 2015!

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Prehistoric Ossuaries: A Personal Journey

by Dennis C. Curry, Chief Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust

Theodor de Bry engraving of a John White watercolor, possibly showing an ossuary at Secotan.

Theodor de Bry engraving of a John White watercolor, possibly showing an ossuary at Secotan.

It’s funny how things work.  Some 20 years ago, in response to requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the archeology staff was compiling an inventory of human remains curated at MHT.  During that process, the extreme complexities of ossuary remains and sites led me to look at these unique features in Maryland.  The ultimate result was a book, Feast of the Dead: Aboriginal Ossuaries in Maryland.  Then about a decade ago I was asked to write a book chapter that would look at ossuaries from throughout the entire Middle Atlantic region.  Although that book project eventually died, I reworked my chapter and submitted it as an article to the journal Archaeology of Eastern North America, where it was recently published.  Below are some highlights.

Ossuaries are communal graves.  They are also secondary graves, meaning that the deceased were originally buried in individual graves before being exhumed and reinterred in a collective burial.  Early historical accounts of Huron ossuary burials (such as those by 17th century French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf) describe an elaborate burial ceremony referred to as the “Feast of the Dead.”  And while early explorers in the Middle Atlantic region do not mention ossuaries (they describe individual burials, and the deposition of “king’s” bodies in charnel houses), I think watercolorist John White inadvertently depicted an ossuary at the North Carolina village of Secotan in 1585.  There, he portrays a small plot (B) “where they assemble themselves to make their solemn prayers;” it is topped by a ceremonial fire and surrounded by wooden posts carved with human faces, and it is adjacent to a structure (A) “wherein are the tombs of their kings and princes.”  Each of these characteristics has been documented archeologically at various ossuary sites.

Today, ossuaries are typically encountered by accident, such as at this house construction site on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Today, ossuaries are typically encountered by
accident, such as at this house construction site on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

One advantage to looking at ossuary sites from a large region (the core of the Middle Atlantic runs from Cape Henlopen, Delaware to Cape Fear, North Carolina) is that trends start to appear.  One thing that I noticed throughout the region was that ossuaries consistently occur in one of three settings: in isolated locations, within village sites, and within what appear to be defined “cemetery areas.”  The latter really intrigued me.  I looked at 27 primary sites from the region, and 16 of these contained cemetery areas consisting of multiple ossuaries; these ossuaries range in number from 2 to 13, and total more than 60.  In most cases, these multiple ossuaries are fairly tightly clustered, yet they never intrude into each other.  (Similarly, in village settings, ossuaries are not disturbed by other village features or structures.)  This makes me think that ossuaries—which were sometimes re-opened and re-used—were clearly marked and maintained on the landscape, probably often visited and esteemed by the local population.  It also makes me think that there are many ossuaries that have not yet been found.  Today, most ossuaries are found by accident, usually exposed during construction activities, and when I visit such finds, I often wonder how many more ossuaries are there, just beneath my feet.  Recently, I got a partial answer to that question.  A Maryland county was looking to develop one of its properties…a property on which several ossuaries had been found in the past.  Since I was convinced there was a “cemetery area” at this location, we recommended that the county undertake a non-destructive ground-penetrating radar survey of the area.  The results obtained by geophysical archeologist Dr. Tim Horsley were spectacular: clear indication of at least 8 more ossuaries on the property!  Yes, indeed, this was a “cemetery area.”

Results of a ground-penetrating radar survey at a site with 3 known ossuaries (blue), indicating the presence of at least 8 more probable ossuaries (red).

Results of a ground-penetrating radar survey at a site with 3 known ossuaries (blue), indicating the presence of at least 8 more probable ossuaries (red).

During the course of my study of Middle Atlantic ossuaries, many other patterns emerged.  Some of these include:

  • Ossuaries vary in size from just a few individuals to more than 600; the average is around 70 people.
  • The largest ossuaries tend to occur in the tidewater Potomac region of Maryland and Virginia, where a dozen ossuaries average nearly 250 people each.
  • The earliest ossuaries contain no associated artifacts.  Later, when artifacts do appear, they are usually non-utilitarian and decorative in nature.
  • The most common artifacts are beads (initially shell, then copper, then glass and/or a combination of types).  One Virginia ossuary contained 35,000 shell and glass beads, but that is unique.
  • Notably, artifacts are often associated with the remains of children.
  • Artifacts may also indicate the social status of individuals, such as a presumed “shaman’s kit” from a North Carolina ossuary, and a possible copper headdress from one in Maryland.
  • Specific treatment of remains (for example, extended articulated burials, or cremations) may also suggest social differentiation of individuals.  In fact, I have wondered if the death of these “special” people actually triggered the periodic Feast of the Dead.
  • In any event, ossuaries are not merely jumbles of bones.  Specific individuals (as bundles, articulated burials, or cremations) can be discerned, and it is clear that their identities were maintained by family members over the years-long burial process.  In this sense, they truly represent a community of the dead.

So it is that a simple catalog compilation developed into a 20-year immersion into the study of prehistoric ossuaries, first in Maryland, then further afield.  I hope my work allows modern Native Americans to better understand the ways of their ancestors, as well as allowing non-Native Americans to appreciate other cultures.  And some 20 or 50 years down the road, I hope this work will help guide future archeologists.

A post script:  When my article appeared in Archaeology of Eastern North America, I told my wife that it had been published.  She asked to see a copy, explaining “I don’t really understand what you do.”  (I know she started reading Feast of the Dead, but I’m fairly sure she never finished it.)  Anyway, that’s a pretty big shortcoming on my part, so I decided to write this blog from a more first-person perspective in order to provide an “inside look” at how one archeologist works. — DCC

Links for further reading: