The Poverty Point World Heritage Site, a Louisiana First
This past Saturday Poverty Point was formally dedicated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO. This is a big deal for the archaeology and cultural heritage in the state of Louisiana. Not too long ago I blogged about the dismantling of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology’s State and Regional Archaeology program because of state mandated funding cuts. I concluded that post by noting:
“Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.”
The World Heritage designation of Poverty Point provides an unparalleled opportunity to launch such a new direction. The 45-minutes of formal presentations at the dedication on Saturday were suitably nonpartisan and enthusiastic. The proceedings presided over by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne featured remarks by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. All spoke passionately about the potential the World Heritage Site designation brings for Louisiana. Special plaques were awarded to Nancy Hawkins of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and Diana Greenlee, Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point to acknowledge their work in the nomination process.
As someone who watched the process of development unfold at Poverty Point over the past nearly two decades, I was struck by a several aspects of the Saturday dedication:
- The politician who was and remains the most tireless and consistent champion of Poverty Point, beginning in his elementary school days, is State Senator Francis Thompson. The Senator was not on the speaker’s platform but was invited to come forward to say a few words. Thompson is a phenomenal orator who combines the best of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher and politician. His few words, which of course stretched into as long as any of the featured speakers, did not disappoint. Lieutenant Governor Dardenne spoke of the last eight years in shepherding the nomination through the World Heritage Process. Senator Thompson was able to extend and personally speak to that process going back to his childhood.
- Nancy Hawkins and Diana Greenlee were acknowledged as the individuals who gave the Lieutentant Governor and others the raw material to even launch the process. Nancy and the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks were responsible for creating the Station Archaeology program at Poverty Point that ultimately allowed for Diana Greenlee to put together the nomination document.
- The Native American tribal affiliates in Louisiana were recognized by Dardenne. Had their ancestors not built the earthwork, Poverty Point would be long forgotten today or only the name of an obscure 19th Century Plantation.
- There were also a bunch of archaeologists and soil scientists present on Saturday such as Jon Gibson, Bob Neuman, Joe Saunders, Thurman Allen and others who provided the very grist for the mill that created the basis for knowing the prehistory of the place. I have posted before about the importance of folks such as avocational archaeologist Carl Alexander to the Poverty Point site. This group of archaeologists was the only set of individuals not mentioned by Dardenne or other speakers from the platform this past Saturday (save Senator Thompson’s brief sermon). Somewhat fitting to this exclusion is the state funding cuts to Louisiana’s public archaeology program.
When the celebrations die down and lawmakers get back to the business of out budget cutting each other, as seems quite fashionable in the U.S. of late, Louisiana will be faced with the hard realities of the opportunities in having the 21st World Heritage Site in North America at Poverty Point – and the opportunities will require a commitment of time, energy, and resources. The state has had some lessons in this fact over the years at Poverty Point. For example, during my tenure as Station Archaeologist back in 1997, I debated with architects about whether the planned curation facility for Poverty Point needed to be climate controlled. The architects argued that all we had up there to put in the facility were a bunch of “rocks and those clay cooking balls.” In a similar way, the World Heritage Site status necessitated the Office of State Parks dealing with the issue of treefalls on the Poverty Point ridges and mounds. The exposed root mass of a single treefall typically exposed thousands of prehistoric artifacts and cultural features. Back in 1997, the state considered mitigating these events as a waste of resources. Ultimately, establishing best practices in both of these issues clearly were preconditions for the World Heritage Site designation.
If the proclamations from the podium this past Saturday of the tens of thousands of international travelers who will be flocking to view this new World Heritage site are true, then the museum and interpretive facility will need dramatic upgrades. For the most part, museum exhibits remain unchanged from their initial installations in the 1970s and certainly do not include the extensive research program that has taken place over the last 40 years on which the World Heritage Site nomination was largely based. In addition to Poverty Point, the past twenty years research by archaeologists such as Joe Saunders at the Middle Archaic Watson Brake site, arguably the earliest example of monumental architecture in North America, complements the Poverty Point site. Watson Brake is just some 50 miles as the crow flies from Poverty Point.
The tourism and cultural heritage bump provided by the World Heritage Site designation at Poverty Point could be used as a true launching pad for the region. The opportunities for the private and public development of the region are outstanding. The state of Louisiana can continue on the trajectory that led to the World Heritage designation and truly organize the resources to bring the interpretive potential of Poverty Point to the World Heritage Site status for which it is now recognized, along with an abundance of other earthwork complexes in northeast Louisiana spanning over 4000 years of prehistory. This can be the new direction that public archaeology takes in Louisiana and can serve too as a model for the nation as well.