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26 March, 2013

That Portsmouth Project

Since I needed to write a conference paper this week, I spent some time procrastinating, eventually searching out the one place I did any real archaeology in Virginia. A couple of weeks digging shovel probes in 100-degrees, poison ivy and snakes all around, an employer jerking us around and housing us in a crackhead hotel was enough to send me as far away as possible. 

The location was what must have been the last agricultural remnant north of Portsmouth, and subsequent development has insured that there are no animals or plants surviving. In their place is the largest privately funded marine container terminal in the US, capable of handling 1.44 million containers. Archaeologists in the private sector know that they are often the last to see a place before it is developed, but I had no idea that this would end up being hundreds of acres of barrenscape.

Besides the wildlife that had clung to this refuge, all of the archaeology there was obliterated. My job was to run a crew that would dig a hole, walk 25 feet, and dig another, looking for artifacts. With 300 acres to cover in a couple of weeks, that meant giving up at the outset on some areas, so there are parts of the project that were never tested. I concentrated on the shoreline, and although there was more recent stuff mixed in often as not, we found prehistoric artifacts. There was a concentration of quartz cobbles that tribes had used forever as a raw material for tools--this is a rarity in tidewater Virginia.

My memory of what exactly we found a decade ago is fuzzy, but it seems like it was more than the report ever mentioned. The company that hired me forgot their promise to have me to some writing, and I never saw the report. They cashed in on data recovery excavation at the two sites they acknowledge to the tune of $300,000, and brag about it to this day on their website (it sounds like a lot, but the terminal cost $509,000,000). I got $15 an hour and poison ivy; the crew got less money, but about as much poison ivy. Maersk got a terminal that can bring in ships carrying 9,000 standard containers and transfer them to rail or trucks.

 It's an amazing facility. Cranes on rails move back and forth offloading containers, and smaller machines grab them and take them to the right place, eventually loading them onto trains or trucks. And off they go to walmart or wherever all that stuff is needed. It's immense, and a high achievement of efficient logistics. But it's also inhuman. When everything is in containers moved by machines (I think there are human operators for the time being, but would not count on that for toomuch longer), there are not many jobs. Row after 200-foot row of containers stacked high is not a landscape for soul-endowed primates. I don't long for bugs and snakes and poison ivy, but it still looks like a net loss to me, and strengthens my resolve to buy as few shipped goods as possible.

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