TMS Architects’s guest blogger, J. Dennis Robinson, provides us with a serious message in his 23rd guest post for us. As he points out, cultural tourism is important to our local economy as Portsmouth is one of the top heritage destination points in America and as building continues at a rapid pace downtown, the last bits of history are being destroyed underneath these new buildings.
“We are at a tipping point in downtown Portsmouth. We have a little bit of land left to build on and we have the last bits of history to recover from underneath those sites. When the bulldozers dig out those final foundations, it’s all over. Whatever secrets from our shared past were buried there will be gone. And since only developers using federal funds are required to file an environmental impact statement, downtown sites are virtually unprotected. New Hampshire state regulations are weak at best and local preservation requirements nonexistent.
I’ve been preaching this message lately in lectures, at the local rotary, and on the front page of the newspaper. I’ve been on a sort of campaign to raise awareness in hopes that we can slow down the rapid building boom just enough to save our history. Few cities in America have been built upon consistently for 400 years. They don’t call Portsmouth’s South End “America’s Oldest Neighborhood” for nothing. And recent evidence hints at the possibility that Portsmouth has been built upon for 10-12,000 years by Native people.
Archaeology is one of the few sciences — actually half science, half art — where the scientist destroys what he or she studies. Once the site is dug, and its data extracted, it is used up. But if the information is gathered following a scientific methodology, it survives forever. As much as 90% of the “dig” happens later in the laboratory. Artifacts go on display to the public. Data is disseminated to historians, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, climate change experts, and beyond.
Despite scary rumors, archaeology rarely stops a building from being built around here. Most often the diggers come and go quickly. Yes, it may cost a few extra dollars, but those are the true costs of doing business. The benefits are enormous. What we get back from the study of historically sensitive sites can change the way we see our city, our culture, our lives, and our nation. Recent digs at the Isles of Shoals proved that Native Americans were there 6,000 years ago. A 2003 dig proved that Portsmouth’s only African American cemetery had been broken up by buildings and tarred over by streets. Digs in Portsmouth’s North End, one of the richest historic sites in the city, have unearthed an enormous amount of data below the Sheraton and Portwalk hotel sites. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. But the building goes on.
I don’t know if the city will step up and pass protective regulations. I don’t know if developers will see the light. But if we really are one of the top heritage destination points in America, as the tour books say, then we should not kill the goose that laid the golden egg. History is not just for scholars anymore. Cultural tourism is the key to our new local economy. It is why our stores and restaurants are busy, our hotel beds full, our tax rates relatively low, and our housing values stable. Take away Portsmouth’s historic character and it would wither and die. We would become “Anywhere, USA” as the late historian Dorothy Vaughan warned us. In this region, saving the past is a form of self-preservation. History not only tells where we come from, but it keeps our economic engine running.
I was asked recently, why developers should do the “right thing” when calling in archaeologists could slow construction and cost extra money? I had only one response — because it is the RIGHT THING. It’s that simple.
So I’m passing this message along to you, the men and women who design and oversee the construction of buildings here. You, the architects are the front line. The ancient buildings you studied in school were likely saved by archaeologists. You can pay them back now.
Have you noticed that both occupations begin with the same four letters? But they come from different roots. The “archaeo” in Archaeology means “ancient.” But the “arch” in Architecture is derived from the Greek “arkhi,” meaning the “chief.” You are, therefore, the chief of the building. You decide what the building looks like and how it functions, what it is made from, and how it relates to the people who see it and occupy it. The tell the builder what is right and what is not right.
You derive your future building ideas from the past . And what’s left of the past, the part of humanity we have yet to uncover, lies beneath that project you are planning right now. It is not just dirt we are building on — it is history. “
For more information read my latest history feature
Why We Must Save Underground Portsmouth
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of books about history. His latest books are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812.He is currently writing a book on the 1873 Smuttynose Island murders.