Mossback nails it . . .

Mossback's column at

Some time ago I mentioned Seattle’s reporter on the “Heritage Beat”, Knute Berger, who posts by the name Mossback. Over the summer, while I was gone, mossback produced a really to-the-point column on heritage preservation: Help wanted: A ‘Sierra Club’ for historic preservation to fight development.  Unusually for heritage conservation advocates, Mossback cares as much about indigenous archaeology as about historic buildings, and he does a terrific job writing about both.  Take for example, the following quote, from the above article, which speaks to many of the same issues currently plaguing the Glenrose Cannery site (it’s long, so you’ll have to click below):

Knute Berger, aka "Mossback". Source: facebook (!)

Cultural resource professionals are the ones asking the kinds of questions that excite me as a journalist who wants to know more about this place. What does a mountain mean to people who have lived here 10,000 years? What should it be called, Rainier or Tahoma or Tacoma or Ti’Swaq (“tea-swawk”), as some Puyallup tribal members have proposed? What is in that pile of 3,000-year-old seashells? How did people live here in ancient times, and was it anything like we live now? Is that Denny’s diner in Ballard really a landmark, even if it’s only 40 years old? Is the place we want to expand the 520 bridge a burial ground of someone’s ancestors? What are the histories worth uncovering, and which are best left alone?

To me the preservation of our collective heritage is a no-brainer. But unfortunately, while it is important, it is often an after-thought, or worse, it’s considered a nuisance or waste of time.

This is because the laws seem designed to mitigate the damage of so-called progress. So much of the resource work isn’t for the joy of knowledge, of getting closer to our past. It’s on a check list of hurdles, the list of risks to be documented.

The money and the momentum are not with historic preservation or archaeology or expanding our knowledge and heritage, or confirming our connections to place. The momentum is with the builders, the developers, the engineers, the transportation policy makers, the shovel-ready folks who don’t care much about the past. They want a future built on a blank slate.

Our modern economy pushes and encourages us to bulldoze and steamroller the past, despite the rules. It often pretends that history is something that happened somewhere else, or casts it as a barrier to a brighter future.

That’s just one snippet from the article (emphasis in original) which in a narrow sense is about the massive road development along the Seattle waterfront, but in a broader sense is about how we talk about “cultural resources”.  As he continues:

I’ll be honest with you. People have no idea what “cultural resources” are. “Cultural” sounds like art, and “resources” are something you exploit, or use up. Forests are called “resources” now. People are called “resources” too, just like coal and oil: “human resources.” Who ever wants to go to the Human Resources Department? Sounds like they will serve you up as Soylent Green. History, culture and heritage, apparently, have no inherent value except as a consumables, a resource.

Most people have never heard of NEPA, SEPA, SHPOs, TCPs or Section 106. Most people don’t know that protecting cultural resources is something written into our laws, rules, and regulations.

But people are interested in artifacts, landscapes, landmarks, graves, myths, and most of all, stories.

Mossback: get out of my head!  I mean, I use the “Cultural Resource Management” speak as well but it is entirely true: call something a resource – a human, an archaeological site, a tree – and it is automatically categorized as something to be consumed.  I am nobody’s goddamn resource.  We could really, really use a Mossback up here in Soviet Canuckistan.  Note the high quality of the comments on his pieces as well.  Maybe he likes poutine?  Maple Syrup?  Roe on Kelp?  Maybe the ASBC should try to bring him up, or the archaeology forum.

I’m just gonna quickly mention, because I pilfered some of his prose, that Mossback has a book out called Pugetopolis, which looks excellent, and a wide-ranging blog of the same name.  Also, he is currently soliciting for Heritage Turkeys 2010 – bad heritage decisions from the archaeological and architectural perspective, and he explicitly looks for examples from this side of the border (2009 list).  Go to it!  Email him your Turkeys, or post them here, but let’s also have a discussion about his highly apt article.

Video screencap of massive Seattle Waterfront road construction. Click to play for developer utopia.

7 responses to “Mossback nails it . . .

  1. “Those who unveil and protect our heritage are a thin line of defense against losing all sense of self, of suffering from a kind of civic Alzheimer’s where we live in a perpetual present, with neither a long-term or a short-term memory, only the manic drive to run on.”

    So true Mr Mossback. It is a thin line of defense and at times one must simply keep the head down and dukes up, not knowing where the next hit will come from as the big machine roles on by. This wild west does seem intent on scraping away the past, one road, one hot tub, one resort, one golf course, one mega project at a time. Its hard to preserve your integrity when expected to help pave the way for the big machine eh? Not a team player? Drop that trowel, grab a shovel (or chainsaw) or go home…

    The perpetual present is a safe place to be, particularly if you like to travel, never having to wonder where all these ‘other’ people came from and how they lived and died. There seems to be more respect for the past from those who have stayed in one place longer and have a connection with the places… landscape. If you go up coast these people still thrive more or less, incorporating newcomers as guests that may never leave. There is still a big wilderness up there and the people have no idea that the big machine is rolling their way…

    One question to ask is: what will this ‘heritage’ look like in the future? Will it be safe to dig? I think not.

    oh, 9 am – time to punch the card and help fuel the big machine…


    • The perpetual present is a safe place to be, particularly if you like to travel, never having to wonder where all these ‘other’ people came from and how they lived and died.

      Nicely put, deeply buried, and welcome.

      I wonder how many, if any, archaeologists are taking refuge in the present though. The perpetual present is safe, but so is a time 5,000 years ago, it would seem.

      Yet it’s now a truism in archaeology though, that the past is over, it only exists in the present. To the extent the ancestors are with their remains, they are with them in the present. It therefore behooves archaeologists, and many take up the challenge, to construct all their work as including an archaeology of the present, with all its attendant intersecting interest group conflicts.

      This probably sounds like a flower arrangement of ideas sent with love c/o the Ivory Tower, but there must be a seamless way that archaeologists understand the contested nature of the archaeological record and decide to educate, fight, whatever. But the default is being part of the machine, like it or not, and some seem to embrace that role as well.


      • “…the default is being part of the machine, like it or not, and some seem to embrace that role as well.”

        …But the machine is big and wonderful (behold!) and is the provider, without the machine would there be archaeology? If we could look into the past, say with a machine, a time machine, would we need to preserve these sites and have pe0ple (archaeologists) try to understand them, or could we simply have workers mine them for their artifacts, bits and pieces of the past not sitting in museums, no, but sold on ebay!

        Yep, hard not to be stuck in the past when you got your head in a square hole, decades of data to write up, and those pesky attendant intersecting interest group conflicts to constantly deal with.


      • I couldn’t agree more: we desperately need a public advocacy force to do the job that outfits like the Heritage Branch are unable or unwilling to do.

        Goverment entities are either politicized or deliberately underfunded. What action they do take is often knee-jerk, after-the-fact and (or so it sometimes seems) more accidental than intentional.

        But the advocacy role has to entail more than just policing — it needs to make people in the general public care in the first place. And this requires an educational component. It’s all well and fine to teach European history in schools, but what about North American history before the Euro-invasion? Where are the stories that would motivate Everyman? Outside those of us with a keen interest, does anyone else know about the extent of trade/exchange routes, cities on the scale of Cahokia or the southern (and to a lesser degree) Athabascan exodus?

        These are the things that create a sense of what was. These are the things that allow people to appreciate what was — and out of that appreciation will come a desire to protect.

        Another thing we lack in this country is the kind of public outreach programmes that are a commonplace in many parts of the U.S. We tend to limit the knowledge to the archaeological few and keep anyone else in the dark. Is it any wonder then that there is so little enthusiasm for protection? If you don’t know about it, why would you care?

        So, yes, I agree that we need some form of advocacy entity. Because without some sort of improvement in how things are done, governments, developers and even indifferent homeowners will continue destroying vital links to prehistory. Time’s running out.


  2. At the risk of stating the obvious, we do have an advocacy group, and have for more than 40 years: The Archaeological Society of British Columbia. Problem is, they (we) are not as effective as, say, the Sierra Club or even relative newcomers such as The Land Conservancy. How could the ASBC become more effective? It needs to grow beyond its base which largely consists of archaeologists – the “converted”, so to speak. At the Victoria public lectures, for example, it is almost entirely archaeologists in attendance.

    I’m honestly not sure that the Archaeology Branch is “unable or unwilling”. All else being equal, if they were given the resources to quietly and effectively just do their job to the full extent of the law (as mentioned, from my outside perspective, field visits by branch staff and a reduction in case-load per officer are two outstanding issues), then that would be excellent. Other entities, free of the inherent intra-government conflicts which land use decisions promote, can then argue aggressively for conservation and do public education.


  3. OK, here’s a concrete idea. The BCAPCA could make a small levy* and come up with $7,500, which the Province would match through the MITACS program to hire a graduate student for a double semester devoted solely to kickstarting public education in archaeology. This student could be chosen for their charisma and web skills and be part of the CRM program at SFU or the LOA with their awesome facilities via connection to Museum of Anthropology.

    *Consulting archaeology in BC is now a huge business with several international corporations involved. This will not be a hardship on mom and pop garage businesses. And the outcome would benefit the industry. Step up to the plate, BCAPA.


  4. Coming from England, I’ve always found it bizarre how little the general public in Canada actually know about the history of the land they live in. I think though, that this issue goes far beyond just ‘making archaeology public knowledge’… It needs to be driven from within – taught in schools as ‘history’ not ‘first nations history’. And, yes, I am looking specifically at the archaeology departments that are located WITHIN Anthropology departments. Before there is a shift in the perceived ‘us and them’ history, you can’t expect Canadians to care.
    Start with the kids!


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