SCAD student enjoys the SGA’s Fall Meeting

Submitted by Adrienne Birge-Wilson (adriennebirge@gmail.com)

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SCAD HP students mix with “amiable, laid-back” SGA members and guests at the SGA’s Fall Meeting, a tour of archaeological sites in the St. Simons Island area.

Adrienne Birge-Wilson is a student in the Historic Preservation program at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

This year’s SGA Meeting in St. Simons Island had a catchy title—catchy because it is crossing the sacred line of academic disciplines, “Historic Preservation of Prehistoric, Colonial and Plantation Structures on the Coast.” This impenetrable hinterland of collaborative philosophy has not often been recognized, only implied. A brief look into the root ideologies of historic preservation (HP) and archaeology leaves no room for doubt. Both historic preservationists and archaeologists love deciphering the past based on physical manifestations left by generations gone by. More importantly, both want to learn from and protect these things that are often referred to as “cultural resources.” When the conference title was announced, a group of SCAD students, including me, responded with enthusiasm. It was a no brainer. The only self-dialogue I had was “duh, why didn’t I think of that before?”

When dealing with significant cultural resources, all roads lead to the National Register of Historic Places. When dealing with the Register, all roads lead to the four areas of significance: people, events, architecture, and “information potential”. This “information potential,” Criterion D is the black horse. It deals with the world of archaeology.

Many archaeological places have garnered mass public appeal, as well as significance on the world stage. One such site is the famous Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is apparent that archaeology and preservation overlap inherently. In the same vein, it was not hard for the grad students at SCAD, unjaded by inflexible dictums of discipline, to make the connection.

I would like to think I began to earn my stripes in the field this summer when I completed a field survey and National Register nomination for Pennyworth Island for the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan planning commission. Dan Elliot was the archaeologist on-call, conducting the reconnaissance survey of the untouched remains on the old rice plantation. One hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the marsh with no fancy guide in a seersucker to direct us, as they do in Savannah, we completed the mission with success. My colleague, Caitlin Chamberlain, also has archaeological experience. Caitlin began her archaeology experience with youth education programs while steadily gaining more field and laboratory abilities over the last few years.

We arrived in St. Simons on Friday evening, following sabotage by our GPS navigation at the last minute. After checking in to The Sea Palms Inn behind a group of fraternity brothers who hastily apologized, not for the line, but for their drunken state at 5 PM, We “hit the hay” early not knowing what to expect the next day.

The next morning, we arrived in the nouveau-tabby clubhouse and proceeded to register, be seated and down some coffee. The weekend went full speed with little downtime after that. Both of us expected to see the usual academia-centric art scenesters we had grown to love, but instead were greeted by the most amiable, laid-back group of professionals we had ever come in contact with. We broke up into cars and realized two first-year SCAD HP graduates, Barbara Fisher and Elizabeth Farish had also made their way down to the conference. All of us SCADees piled into the back of Fred and Beth Mercier’s SUV and headed into the “heck if we know.”

The first stop was the Hamilton Slave Tabbies for a ground penetrating radar presentation with Dan Elliott. We all played with the MALA radar with utter lack of finesse and Dan’s abiding patience. Next stop was the Evelyn Plantation site Indian Mounds. These were also of utmost relevance and interest to Caitlin and I. Apart from me being a card-carrying member of the Chickasaw Tribe, (of Ada, Oklahoma); these mounds’ significance is bleeds over into historic preservation. To the Native Americans who occupied the land, the mounds were monumental structures. As Cahokia demonstrates on a grand scale, although mounds had a variety of purposes, they were to their people as the great pyramids were to ancient Egyptians or Chartres Cathedral was to the French Catholics of the time. All embodiments of human willpower continue to astound and inspire us. It is clear to me that differing methodologies should not wreak havoc on any alliance that could be mutually beneficial.

The rest of the St. Simons weekend flew by as we followed the herd to the variety of sites so superbly picked by the SGA. My colleagues and I could go on and on about our experience, as we have to our faculty and classmates who did not attend. But some things are better said in a more long-winded format than I am given at this time.

The symbolic groundbreaking that took place for us, in recognizing archaeology’s pertinence in HP’s sphere of immediate concern will undoubtedly draw an even greater student audience in SGA events in the years to come. The graduate student class of SCAD who made it to the SGA conference in St. Simons humbly thank the SGA and fellow participants and would like to say, with all respect, “You guys ROCK!”

Editor’s Comment: For more on the SGA’s 2010 Fall Meeting, click here.