Lives in Ruins

  • I recently spoke with a woman inquiring about the Palisades Museum of Prehistory and she told me about her book club’s discussion of Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson.  It came as a complete surprise to me when she told me I was featured in the book.   Although initially pausing with concern at the book’s title,  I discovered after reading it that my short appearance had little to do with a tattered life.  From the book, under the title of Amateurs:


    Since working for the medical examiner of New York City, going through the debris from the neighborhood of the Twin Towers, Erin Coward had decided to make forensic anthropology her specialty.  While she applied for programs, she was staying with her mother near Washington, D.C.  We arranged to meet one afternoon near the Capitol.  Coward and her mother, Lane, picked me up at my hotel to whisk me off to check out an archaeological museum Erin had found online.  “we never heard of this place,” her mother said, “but Erin called and made arrangements for a private showing.”  How great is this?  I thought happily, as her mother chauffeured us around the circles and loops of suburban D.C and chatted knowledgeably about her daughter’s archaeological career.  “Did she tell you about finding a seashell in the middle of the desert?”

    It was an adventure with lively and well-read companions.  The bedtime story that Erin had wanted to hear each night in childhood had been Beowulf; now she consumed biography, travel essays, British novels, Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Bryson.  Of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Erin said: “I was prepared to be a skeptic –  ‘I will take you down!’ – but he was amazing on evolution.”

    The car climbed the hills above D.C. to the Palisades, a residential neighborhood of lovely homes on an old river terrace above the Potomac.  We would never have found the Palisades Museum of Prehistory without GPS.  We were running a little late, and Erin nervously chewed a nail while her mother drove up and down a road of pretty houses, all of us squinting at street numbers. There were no signs, no indication that anything commercial was happening here -and, as it turned out, nothing commercial was.  The address was for the corner house on the big lot,with a grape arbor and an outbuilding and children’s toys littering the patio.  Our host, Doug Dupin, was a relaxed young dad, a skateboarder, who led us out back.  We walked across the lawn to the outbuilding, an elaborate clubhouse with just enough room inside for four.  “I’ve been working for a few years on this thing, and every once in a while people come through,” Doug Dupin said.  He had been digging the foundation for a wine cellar when he began to uncover layers of history: medicine bottles, Civil War bullets, shards of pottery, and Native American points.  While Lane Coward and I admired the decor, burlap walls with bark accents, and the posters he made and sold (Smoking Pipes of the American Indian, Stone Points of the Potomac Palisades), Erin gravitated toward the display cases of mounted Indian points.  She and Dupin began speaking the language of stone tools.

    Dupin’s personal collection, and his determination to salvage what he could of the archaeology of the area, had deepened when a soccer field was dug in his neighborhood.  He watched bulldozers churn up the earth, exposing all sorts of artifacts.  He alerted the archaeologist who worked for the District of Columbia, but could not get him to halt the construction or gather the artifacts, so he and a couple neighbors began surface-collecting points and pottery in the evenings.  He posted his finds on archaeology listserv, only to earn a scolding from the local historic preservation office.  “Look,” he told us, “I’m happy to let the professionals takeover, but if they aren’t going to do their jobs, I will step in.”  Dupin began noticing how little actually got surveyed and mitigated in the Palisades before developers broke ground.  So he decided to intervene on his own, collecting and cataloging artifacts for public display.  He bought some display cases, fixed up his clubhouse as a museum, put together a website, and stepped into the cavernous gap left by the local professionals.  He also started to document local violations of historic preservation laws, to create a record of the local history that had been found- as well as the history that had been erased.

    He was driven by a connection to this landscape, the people who once inhabited it, and the next generation who would inherit it.  “The river below is full of fish,” Dupin said.  “you can see why the Native Americans loved it.  I take my three boys exploring in the caves in the bluffs, and we’ve found petroglyphs [rock carvings] and arrowheads.”

    Coward told him about her work in the Southwest, and they found common ground in their love of the Native American past.  Both were frustrated by the lack of economic suport for Native Amerian cultural history.  These days, Erin and Dupin agreed, funding went to colonial sites and African-American projects.  The extraordianry record of the Native American life that stretched back more than ten thousand years was going begging.

    Later Erin admitted that, after she met Dupin, “I had to reevaluate my thinking toward amateur archaeologists.”  If they were as responsible as he was, she wouldn’t mind seeing them train volunteers.  Come to think of it, “teaching the public how to properly deal with accidental finds would be a huge help to a number of professionals.”  She was ready to put the man to work!

    Before Dupin’s sons got home from school, we headed to Erin and Lane’s family home in Annandale, Virginia, where we cooked mahi-mahi and Erin talked about working on the Big Island in Hawaii.  She remembered finding petroglyphs full of piko holes everywhere.  Piko holes-tiny gouges in the basalt where natives once buried the stumps of their babies’ umbilical cords for good luck.

    Lane beamed at the daughter who could find such marvels in the world.  But when Erin carried our dishes out to the kitchen, Lane leaned my way, the concerned mother harking back to the World Trade Center rubble, and whispered, “Did she tell you about finding the baby’s T-shirt?”

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