Where Preservation & Technology Meet: NCPTT

I began my 10 week internship with the Archaeology and Collections department of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) on June 1st.  NCPTT is located in sleepy Natchitoches, LA. The organization is an outlet of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.  It is associated with Northwestern State University, who houses us.  NCPTT’s mission is to advance “the application of science and technology to historic preservation.  Working in the fields of archeology, architecture, landscape architecture and materials conservation, the Center accomplishes its mission through training, education, research, technology transfer and partnerships.”

Nelson Hall Lee H. Nelson Hall on Northwestern State University’s campus, where NCPTT is housed (photo courtesy of NCPTT)

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in one such training workshop called “Wood Identification”.  It was a 3-day, hands-on workshop hosted by NCPTT and lead by Dr. Suzana Radivojevic, an adjunct instructor of Historic Preservation at the University of Oregon.  She instructed us on macroscopic and microscopic methods of identifying a wide variety of wood species.  Some participants brought samples from their various projects to be identified.  These samples included a coffin board, a ceiling tile, a wooden grave monument, and a large piece of a wooden barge boat that had been used to construct a dwelling.  The workshop was top-notch and very intriguing.  When it came to identifying the unknown specimens, it seemed a pathological need to correctly identify the wood overtook the group.  I was definitely not spared in this.

workstation One of the workstations with materials provided by NCPTT for the Wood Identification Workshop

The area and the college town itself are similar to Starkville, MS, but older and a bit smaller with more swamps and alligators instead of Starkville’s pine forests and cows.  Natchitoches was established in 1714 and is the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase.  The city is located on the Cane River Lake.  It’s an oxbow lake that used to be part of the Red River, a tributary of the Mississippi River.  It broke from the Red River in the 19th century, due to a massive (~160 miles long!) centuries-old log jam called the “Great Raft”.  Natchitoches was once the point where freight from Texas was transferred from the Sabine River to the Red River.  However, the change in the Red River’s course cut Natchitoches off from access to the Mississippi River, which greatly affected the city’s economy and future development.  There are many beautiful antebellum plantations and historic structures in the area.  Natchitoches is also the location where the classic movie Steel Magnolias was filmed.  One more fun fact, Natchitoches is known for their meat pies, for which they host an annual festival in the fall.

historic Front Street The view from historic Front St. overlooking Cane River Lake

southern amazingness Some local fare: turkey necks in gravy, red beans and rice, with cornbread

Down to business.  What am I doing in Natchitoches?  Well, Tad Britt, the Chief of Archaeology & Collections at NCPTT (my boss), and I are researching archaeological surveillance technologies that are or can be used to catch and prosecute people who loot and vandalize archaeological sites.  Much of my work consists of reviewing literature on 1) past technology used to this effect, 2) what technology is currently used and/or available, and 3) what is on the horizon.  The ‘future technology’ portion also involves a fun section on ‘fringe tech’, like nanobots and cockroach robots.  A lot of the available technology is adopted from existing anti-poaching and wildlife management technology.  This research is in part a response to continued problems with looting and vandalism of archaeological sites.  Laws such as the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) make it unlawful to intentionally or accidentally damage or remove archaeological resources on federal property.  However, we just don’t have the necessary manpower and funding to monitor and protect millions of acres of lands.  To amend this, many land managers and law enforcement have turned to remote sensing technologies.

Technologies have been deployed for this purpose for decades, with varying results.  However, there is no central source in which managers and law enforcement can share evaluations of the technology they are using.  Sharing of this information is generally discouraged due to security reasons.  A lot of the technology that is currently in place is outdated.  Anyone seeking to update or acquire surveillance tech has no reference for what is available to meet their financial and logistical needs.  So it is here that we reach an impasse; how can we share in-the-field performance evaluations with other archaeological resource managers without compromising the security of archaeological sites?  Efforts to reconcile these problems in the past have mostly or completely dissolved.  Unfortunately, this issue is ultimately beyond the scope of my internship research.  The review of technologies we are performing simply aims to provide an update/resource on the topic of archaeological surveillance technologies.  The larger project will continue after the conclusion of my internship.  I am hopeful some progress can be made on this issue as the research continues to evolve.

Tad Britt    Tad Britt, Chief of Archaeology & Collections

Christina Ramazani

Bioarchaeology Graduate Student

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