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“Archaeology and the Ozarks,” Annual Meeting of the Arkansas Archaeological Society

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Annual Meeting of the Arkansas Archaeological Society Little Rock, AR
United States

September 22, 2012

I am honored to join this archaeological throng for your annual meeting.  The reason for my intrusion is to make a presentation to an esteemed Arkansan who has helped restore what time has hidden.  Before getting to this presentation I would like to take a few minutes to stress how relevant archaeology is to our times. 

Archaeology tells us about who our ancestors were and how they lived, and in so doing helps us better understand who we are and how we differ and at the same time share similarities with distant members of our family tree.  Monitoring the human condition provides perspective.  It allows us to better understand challenges of the day and cope with the unprecedented tomorrow.

Archaeology is immensely relevant because even man’s distant past is very near.  I did some long division on my flight from Washington this morning on the following assumptions of modern science: 1) that our planet is about 4.6 billion years old; 2) that it took about a billion years for cell organisms to appear, the simplest perhaps being ocean sponges; 3) it took another two billion years for animals to come on the scene; and 4) that humans were late arrivals, showing up about 200,000 years ago or perhaps a bit later if the story of Adam and Eve is not viewed as a parable.

Whether scientific or faith-based reasoning is applied, mankind is a recent development in the total scheme of matter and life.  Indeed, according to my flight math, mankind has existed at most about four one thousands of one percent of the earth’s time in our solar sky; Native American Indians have lived in the Ozarks only two or three one hundred thousands of one percent of the earth’s existence; and settlers with relatively recent ancestors in Europe and Africa have lived in this region only about four millions of one percent of the earth’s solar presence.  Archaeology is thus looking at things we may think are quite distant but in relative earth terms happened only yesterday.

In general, the archaeological story is about civilization: how humans learn and advance and sometimes regress.  Historical record keeping is particularly important today as civilization seems to be fraying at the edges.  Science and technology have precipitated uplifting change.  They have also produced civilization-jeopardizing capacities.  With nuclear energy and biological manipulation, this generation of humans is the first to be able not only to wage war but destroy human existence, perhaps pushing life modules back into sponges.  In the most profound political observation of the modern age, Einstein once noted that splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.   If we are to change our way of thinking and bring peoples of the world closer together, the study of man and his social and natural environment is critical.

That is why I am honored to come this evening to pay my respects to your profession and symbolically honor one of the most thoughtful professionals in Arkansas.    Over the past several years, I have visited every state in the country discussing civility and a host of other humanities subjects.  Everywhere I go I call on state humanities councils, of which Arkansas has an exemplary example, and see their programs in action.  During these trips I have had the good fortune to meet a number of extraordinary citizens, including the archaeologist I want to honor this evening.   My visits across the country have convinced me that America has no shortage of leaders in almost every field of endeavor, though it is becoming harder for thoughtful leadership to emerge in the political system.  As money conflicts have multiplied and ideological cleavages intensified, the will and capacity to mediate social differences is dangerously breaking down.  That is why it is so important to emphasize our shared heritage, the challenges our ancestors faced and the challenges we have in common today.

In this setting, we at the NEH have determined to honor a handful of individuals each year whose decency and commitment to the values of the humanities has particular impact in a state and regional context.  This evening I am pleased to honor an individual from your midst.  The Chairman’s Commendation reads:  “Dr. Leslie C. ‘Skip’ Stewart-Abernathy refuses to forget what time has buried.  In more than three decades of working with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, he has expanded regional history to acknowledge forgotten communities of Cherokee and African Americans, and added many layers of detail to standard, often simplistic accounts of Ozark history and culture.  He has trained countless volunteers, from young students to enthusiastic retirees, spreading his infectious love of history across the seventy-five counties of the state and multiplying the research capabilities of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.  In his work on lost elements of culture, from sunken steamboats to forgotten African-American cemeteries, he inspires us to remember our heritage, the lives of our people, and the meaningfulness of their passing.”

Thank you, Skip, for your thoughtful leadership and dedication to a profession that has given deeper meaning to so many in your state.