Last week, Texas judge James Shoemake ordered the Fort Bend Independent School District to halt construction after the remains of 95 black prisoners were unearthed on a property it was building on. The site, once known as the “Hellhole on the Brazos,” was the former Imperial State Prison Farm, the infamous home of numerous prison camps and sugar cane plantations where slaves lived and worked in hellish conditions before their subsequent deaths. The property is located in Sugar Land, now one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing cities in Texas just southwest of Houston, but which once served as a graveyard for slaves. It was there, after the district broke ground for a new school, where archaeologists exhumed a massive, 19th-century graveyard of nearly 100 bodies that had been concealed five feet beneath the soil in dilapidated pinewood caskets for decades. According to NBC affiliate KPRC, Judge Shoemake ordered the school district to halt construction so that the human remains could be examined and investigated at the site. “This find is very different from any other,” Judge Shoemake said in an interview with KPRC. “We have a history that’s different. I want some more effort. This is important stuff. Families and communities are affected by this. You came here for permission [to build]; I’m not going to give you permission.” Sugar Land has a unique and shocking history. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the town, located along the Brazos River, served as the epicenter of the country's sugar industry. The convict-lease system flourished throughout the region, targeting former slaves who were leased by the state to private businesses and forced to work in coal mines, plantations, railroads, and state projects. According to The Washington Post, the black “convicts” were imprisoned into the system for offenses as minor as homelessness, flirting with white women, or petty theft, yet they were made to work from sunrise to sunset in the fields, occasionally until they “dropped dead in their tracks.” The Fort Bend Independent School District’s construction site encompasses land that was called “Imperial State Farm Prison Camp No. 1.” Conditions were so horrific that prisoners wrote songs about how they would rather die than live another day of beatings, whippings, and slaving under the hot sun. Private contractors did not care about the health and well-being of their workers. According to W. Caleb McDaniel, a history professor at Rice University in Houston, the convict-leasing system experienced tremendously high levels of disease and mortality. If a prisoner died, a contractor would simply demand a replacement prisoner from the state. More than 3,500 prisoners of ages ranging from 14 to 70 years old died between 1866 and 1912 when lawmakers finally outlawed convict leasing out of utter shock at the death rates. This past summer, a team of archaeologists requested permission from the Texas Historical Commission to conduct a more thorough investigation of the human bones salvaged from the cemetery. Their main goal is to perform DNA testing on the remains in order to identify the prisoners. The Fort Bend Independent School District shares this ambition, telling KPRC that “our sole mission is to educate students and we only exist to learn. The more knowledge we have the better. We want DNA testing. We want answers, we want to connect the body with the name, and we want to tell the story of an individual.” As of last week, Judge Shoemake said he hopes to reconsider his decision to halt construction by March 2019.
Posts tagged with "Archaeology":
When I tell people my daughter lives in France, their first thoughts are of Paris. When I say the south of France, they think of Cannes, Nice, and Marseilles. Actually, she lives two hours east of Bordeaux in a beautiful region known as the Dordogne. Buried amongst the stately chateaus and castles is a collection of artwork that has captured the imagination of the world—the cave paintings of Lascaux. Discovered in 1940, these prehistoric works of art were created more than 17,000 years ago in Montignac, France. At first, the caves were open to the public, but were closed in 1963 when it was discovered that humans exhaling carbon dioxide were damaging the artwork. Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original, opened in 1983, and is located 600 feet away. But, even still, human traffic was damaging the original. Subsequently, in 2012, Lascaux III was created as a traveling exhibit and it is currently touring Asia. To bring this whole fascinating story back to life, after it had been closed to the public for over 50 years, a design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. Its mission was to bring this world heritage site out of the darkness and back into the public’s eye, to provide access to the Dordogne region of France as an international cultural and scientific attraction, and to create a greater understanding of the history and meaning that spawned this Paleolithic cave art. The design competition attracted many of Europe’s leading firms, including Mateo Arquitectura, Auer+Weber, and Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Ultimately, in 2013, the jury selected the design team led by Snøhetta, of Oslo, Norway, working with local firm Duncan Lewis and interior-exhibition designers Casson Mann of London. Jury member Bernard Cazeau, a senator representing the Dordogne, said, “From the point of view of the scenography—which was, in our eyes, an essential factor—it’s the most successful project.” Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, one of the founding architects of Snøhetta, explained that “during the process of copying, you discover new information. It was a huge research investment.” The architects and exhibit designers learned how the ancient artists thought and acted. Those painters would draw multiple heads on a horse to simulate movement as the horse swam across a river. The building and its multiple exhibitions work beautifully as an integrated sequence of spaces. Snøhetta is recognized for its integration of landscape and architecture. The Lascaux IV Museum is masterful in this regard. The museum forms the edge of a sloping forest adjacent to a broad field. “The building is an insertion,” Thorsen explained, “a negotiation between the forest and the agriculture.” It is possible to walk from the entry plaza up a slope to the top of the building, not unlike Snøhetta’s design for the Oslo Opera House. “The building is not an abstract,” Thorsen said. It brings the museum experience to a new reality, reminding us we are all part of a 20,000-year continuum. Many people, including this writer, were skeptical about the value of a museum with copies of the cave art. I had visited the original cave paintings in the nearby French town of Rouffignac and have been trained to value original artwork. So how would this team of architects and exhibit designers create a place that could teach us new things, touch our hearts, and move our minds? With imagination, innovation, and technology, they created a whole new world worth every hour of your time and then some. I envisioned a fake cave and a gift shop, but as I approached this bold incision in the landscape, set against the forested hillside, I realized there was much more to this museum than I had imagined. The building is partially buried in the hillside near the original caves. The sequence of spaces skillfully takes the visitor from outside to inside and back outside again. There is, of course, the re-creation of the original caves; with a change in light, acoustics, and humidity, you feel like you are entering down into the cave as the artists did more than 17,000 years ago. Your eyes adjust to the dim light, and the paintings come alive. Over 50 artists and sculptors from the Perigord Facsimile Workshop labored for three years to reproduce the shape and texture of the cave, and, using the same materials as the original artists, captured the color, shape, and form of over 600 animals, 400 signs and symbols, and one human with a bird’s head. The gentle curvature of the cave walls was used to simulate the curvature of the animals’ bodies. It’s impossible not to wonder about who these Paleolithic people were and how they lived. And why did they spend the time and effort to tell us their stories? After exiting the caves, you enter a series of additional exhibition halls and theaters. Pieces of the cave are re-created and suspended from the ceiling. Digital images, projected on the paintings, explain how the artists created layers of meaning over time. Thorsen explained that “the cave has a meaning in its own right. The cave is itself an artifact.” Three mini-theaters trace the history of discovery in the caves since 1940. Then, a separate space, framed by multiple suspended digital monitors, explores how the cave paintings have influenced contemporary artists. Museums have a dual function: first, to display the art within in a visually stimulating way that allows visitors to learn, to grow, and to explore. And second, to create an architecture that engages the community and makes a design statement of its own. Snøhetta achieves both with a deft hand and a keen eye. The image of the building against the forest at dusk is a dramatic sight, expecting to draw nearly half a million visitors per year.
Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia The Museum of Fine Arts Houston 5601 Main Street Houston, Texas December 19 through March 9, 2014 The Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) is hosting an eye-opening exhibition this winter that will uncover the rich history of the ancient trade routes of the Arabian Peninsula. Organized by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Roads of Arabia will feature objects recently excavated from more than 10 archaeological sites, and give insight into the culture and economy of this ancient civilization. Recently discovered objects along the trade routes include alabaster bowls and fragile glassware as well as heavy gold earrings and monumental statues. All of the artifacts are testament to the lively exchange between Arabs and their neighbors, including the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, and Greco-Romans.
The US National Academy of Sciences has published the results of a survey performed in April 2012 of the forests of Cambodia, which uncovered a monumental, intricate landscape of low-density urban sprawl connected to ancient ruins of Angkor Wat that dates back to more than 700 years, invalidating archaeologists’ current understandings of pre-industrial urbanism. Until now, scholars have based their thoughts of medieval cities around the world on European cities. This study has revealed a colossal low-density urban system with working citadels and vast infrastructures in Cambodia. Lara Dunston of The Guardian wrote that the “high-tech survey of Khmer Empire sites has rocked the archaeological world and captured travelers’ imaginations.” The densely populated, sophisticated landscape system consists of and links Angkor cities such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bayon, along with seldom visited medieval city ruins of Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, over 62 miles away. Koh Ker, 75 miles from Siem Reap, and Beng Mealea, 32 miles away, were thought of as isolated structures, but the study has revealed that they were actually large outlying service centers for Angkor.