3 February 2016
History could be simply thought of as a collection of human events; however, the history of mankind is anything but simple. So how does it seem that history is so clear cut when taught in the educational environment? For example, there are easily identifiable time periods, characters categorized as either good or bad and an almost romanticized feel to the literature. This leads the academic to question why and how history became so far removed from reality and the individual. The answer is generalization. More specifically, it is impossible to have an accurate picture of all the individual lives and events that took place in the past. In order to convey information historians must use pieces of history to paint the picture of a time long ago. Unfortunately, however, many stories that are less persevered but have equal importance get lost in the complex storylines. So how do we find, learn, preserve, and understand the lost history? Through reading “Parting Ways” the reader examines effective, alternative methods for analyzing and interpreting pieces of lost or damaged history, which can be applied to situations of other damaged historical structures and artifacts, such as the earthquake in Italy.
In order to translate the historical preservation method used in “Parting Ways” to the artifact loss in Italy, we must first understand the circumstances that occurred. On August 24, 2016, “a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck central Italy” taking the lives of at least 247 people (Sanchez). Along with the loss of life, the earthquake devastated “at least 293 cultural heritage assets” located within the earthquake zone, a huge loss for the Italian people and the history of mankind (Orjoux). As one might expect, the most significant damage was done to central Italy’s historic structures: Catterale di Urbino, Monastero Santa Chiara, San Guilano cathedral, Basilica Di San Franceso, Chiesa di Agostino, Benedictine of Monks of Norcia, and Amatrice’s “historic medieval walls (Orjoux). Due to the amount of devastation that occurred, Italy has lost significant, tangible pieces of its history, but using alternative methods, like those explained in “Parting Ways”, historians can use generalizations found in surviving artifacts to apply to the analysis of the ruins. By doing so central Italy’s individual history may be preserved instead of forgotten and incorporated into the mainstream.
As seen in “Parting Ways”, one of the most effective methods of preserving lost or damaged history is through individuals expressing their memories about a particular subject. More specifically, oral history has been central to the preservation of many culture’s history, such as those of the Native American and African civilizations. At the Parting Ways community, “the strength of oral tradition…preserved more than [they hoped],” providing assurance that historical information can be accurately gathered without tangible evidence (Deetz 188). Furthermore, the oral tradition also assess the artifact’s influence on the individual and their everyday life. It also allows the historian to access a more subjective view from the time period, instead of an objective view residing in most educational textbooks. This applies to the situation in Italy, because the people feel as though they have lost a part of their culture in the devastation. Additionally, the people may also worry that future generations will regard the structures as part of the past, causing them to eventually become forgotten. But, through detailed records of individual recollection, the historical structures can maintain their significance to the people, instead of becoming only an objective piece of architecture. It is, however, important to note that due to personal perspectives “complete agreement among all sources is rare indeed”, creating a need for more objective evidence to sort out what is accurate and what is less than accurate. One method of fulfilling this need would be written records. For example, a historian hears two stories: one that the house burned down in a fire and one that recalled the house being demolished by the owner. Which one should the historian believe? Using public records the historian can decipher which is closer to the truth.
In addition to oral history, written records can act as a “complementary body of information” to fill in the holes that personal verbal accounts leave (Deetz 188). The reader observes this method being effective in the Parting Ways community by contributing to the narrative of the life of Cato Howe. Additionally, the written records provided information to help archeologists and volunteers understand the structures of the buildings in the Parting Ways community. A similar technique could be used in Italy, to reconstruct the damage artifactual structures and provide insight to the lives of people that utilized the building. Examples of the types of written records that may be helpful may include schematics, photographs with descriptions, observations, educational articles, and other public documents. Written records could also address questions raised by the site. These questions may include: Who used these structures? Was the structure made to simply fulfill a basic human need of shelter or did they have a deeper purpose? Who used the structure? Was the structure for private use or public use? How was the structure incorporated into the greater cultural environment?
Another more obvious way of preserving damaged structures is using the ruins to reconstruct and document the original condition of the building or artifact. For example, in the Parting Ways community, volunteers noticed an “open cellar hole had all the appearances of having had a house standing over it”, showing accurate reconstruction is possible for even the smallest, remaining details (Deetz 194). This same method can once again be applied in Italy. In fact, most of the structures in the earthquake zone were left somewhat intact, leaving components for the researchers to analyze and apply to the greater structural scheme. Furthermore, the structural ruins can provide additional information, such as the materials used to build the structure, how they were assembled, and the relative time period. This method is essential to our knowledge of historical sites, because every structure will eventually deteriorate no matter whether it’s due to a natural disaster or just the passage of time.
With much focus on the external structures, it is also important to consider the artifacts located within the sites. One such artifact that is common in most historical locations is pottery. In the information provided on the Parting Ways community, readers find that pottery can be used to “[date]…the main period of occupation of the site” as well as reconstructed to provide relevant cultural information (Deetz 198). For example, the “two large earthware jars” provided valuable insight that the Parting Ways community differed greatly from their Anglo-American neighbors, in regard to the structures being a unique fusion of culture do to the “African and West Indian background of the people who lived there” (Deetz 199-200). Along with the significant cultural contribution of the artifacts in the Parting Ways community, artifacts such as pottery could also provide valuable insight to the historical sites damaged in central Italy. These artifacts could include, but are not limited to religious paintings, pottery, books, ceremonial pieces, alters, and garments. In some cases, the artifacts located within can be just as crucial as the outside structure to effectively portray the history of a specific site or even broader culture.
It is clear to see that these methods are viable techniques for understanding and preserving the lost or damaged history of the past, however, its also important to understand that history, like other subjects, is constantly changing with the addition of more information. The reader experiences this first hand when the historians were “forced to question the identity of those individuals buried” at the site marked for the Parting Ways community members after a new burial site seemed more likely. More specifically, this shows the reader that history is messy. In order to create a more cohesive whole from the pieces, educated guessing and generalization may be required. Furthermore, this will inevitably be the case in Italy too, as more and more information is collected over time. Overall, the example from the “Parting Ways” reading shows that history is constantly evolving and will continue to evolve as more evidence is found and better methods are instituted.
In sum, the lesson to be learned and applied from the “Parting Ways” architectural description, is that there are many ways to preserve and understand lost or damaged historical sites, no matter whether they were lost hundreds of years ago or just a few days. Even though Massachusetts and Italy seem drastically different, the cultural identity of both can be saved for future generation and applied to lesser-known histories. More specifically, we can generalize the information from one site to analyze and better understand a similar site. To illustrate, imagine if another natural disaster devastated other historical landmarks in Italy. The existing information can contribute to more accurate and complete historical preservation. This could also be applies in central Italy’s current situation by using already documented or other known information to create a more complete picture. To conclude, learning about the cultures outside of the mainstream history can give students a more individual-focused perspective and exposure to the lesser-known perspectives.
Deetz, James F. “Parting Ways.” The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, 1996,
http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/parting.html. Accessed 24 January 2017.
Orjoux, Alanne. “Historical Treasures Lost, Damaged in Italian Quake.” CNN, 25 August 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/25/europe/italy-earthquake-historic-sites-damaged/. Accessed 26 January 2017.
Sanchez, Ray. “At Least 247 Killed in Earthquake in Central Italy.” CNN, 25 August 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/23/europe/italy-earthquake/. Accessed 26 January 2017.