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Have any of you ever seen a disaster movie? You know, one of those crazy action movies where there’s a giant snow storm or a hurricane or an earthquake and the hero has to save their family or town from getting totally destroyed and “the force of nature” is the big bad guy? It’s one of the classic conflicts — humans vs. nature — and that’s what makes these stories so timeless and exciting.
Humanity’s relationship to nature has been at the center of… well, all of human existence. That’s why it makes for such compelling storytelling! But it’s also an essential part of cultural resource management.
That's why environmental historians and environmental archaeologists (separate but interrelated fields) are so important to have on any CRM team. (Shout out to the fabulous Sharlene, who is both an environmental archaeologist and an environmental historian!). The relationships between humans and nature have shaped and reshaped all of human history many times over. Understanding how that happens is essential.
If you ask us, hardly anyone explains it better than David Silkenat in his book Scars on the Land. We’ve referred to this book time and time again as we’ve grown in our own knowledge of environmental history, and most recently, it’s helped us develop an understanding of the environmental history of a former gold mine site we’ve been investigating.
Honestly, we just got so excited about this one, we had to share! Yes, we know we’re nerds, but seriously — if you’ve ever seen a disaster movie and wondered about the long-term effects of the crazy things both nature and humans do, this book — and this post — are for you.
What Is Environmental History?
In the most basic sense, environmental history is just that — the history of human interaction with the environment. It looks at how different environments, landscapes, natural disasters, weather patterns, climate shifts, animal and insect ecosystems, and any other environmental elements you can think of interact with each other and, more importantly, with people.
In the world of archaeology, we investigate environmental history by doing visual inspections of our project areas and reconstructing what must have happened in the past. We look at the features of the land that we find, and we pay attention to what we don’t find, and from that data, we develop an interpretation that tells us more about the past. Take, for example, the coal hills at Saterfield Farm.
Our very own Emma Jackson Pepperman’s great grandparents once owned a beautiful farm called Satterfield Farm. The land stretched on for acres, and was full of rolling hills. But upon closer inspection, it became clear that those hills didn’t just occur naturally. They weren’t formed over centuries of erosion or millenia of changing climates. They’re the result of human activity.
It turns out that those hills were formed by miners. Decades ago, mining companies owned the land on which Satterfield farm exists today, and they excavated huge coal mines underground. They dug out the entrances to the mines and cleared space far beneath the surface, but, as with all mines, eventually, it came time to close up shop. The mines were filled in, and the entrances were sealed. However, because of the way they were filled in and sealed, those mine sites stayed elevated above ground level. They eventually became grown-over with grass, but they remained small hills — literal scars on the land.
Those scars tell us about what happened at that place in the past. They’re visible, tangible, indicators of how humans have interacted with — and, in this case, used — the land around them.
Scars on the Land — Silkenat’s First Chapter
As that example showed, human activity leaves visible and long-lasting traces on landscapes. Both intentionally and unintentionally, we alter the land around us. Funny enough, Silkenat also used mining as an example in the first chapter of Scars on the Land, “An Exhausted Soil.”
In that chapter, Silkenat shows how mining not only removes resources from a landscape, it moves the landscape. He explains how the First American Gold Rush, which occurred in the Southern Appalachia region, created visible scars in the landscape and long-term problems that communities downstream from mining sites are still being impacted by. He writes, “In the mountainous region unsuitable for plantation agriculture, mine owners ranked among the largest enslavers in southern Appalachia” (Silkenat 22). It’s true — mining wasn’t only big in California! There were plenty of resources on the east side of the country to keep mining companies busy for a long time. Unfortunately, however, that mining has had some scary effects on the land.
Silkenat goes on to explain how hydraulic mining — a highly efficient mining technique that uses powerful jets of water to remove rock and dirt to allow for access to more valuable minerals — washed away square acres of earth into the Yahoola and Chestatee Rivers in North Georgia. The effects of all that rock and dirt washing away were devastating — and that’s putting it gently! To start with, this disturbance churned the river, flooded low lying communities, and aided in the deforestation of hundreds of acres of land. But that’s not all…
Because miners used Mercury to chemically bind gold fragments together, mercury was introduced into the rivers, poisoning the marine life and the people downstream from mining sites. Suddenly, the water wasn’t safe for any living things — and that’s not a problem that can go away overnight!
Silkenat uses the physical, archaeological evidence — the mercury in the water, deforestation, and evidence of flooding and removed earth — combined with historical research about the mining activities in the region to reconstruct the history of the earth and the people who lived on it. From there, he draws conclusions and makes interpretations about the relationship between human and human industry in the natural world. That, friends, is environmental history.
The Dahlonega Gold Mine
Following along with the theme, the TerraX history department has been spending a lot of time studying mines lately — specifically the gold mines in Dahlonega, GA. Just last month, we found physical evidence of a goldmine. No physical, cultural material was located that could point to when the mine operated or who operated it, but when we performed a typical archeological survey, we found several features associated with past mining activities, including four underground mines, three pits, six trenches, and eight spoil piles. We found a lot of data, but there were still plenty of holes in our knowledge and understanding of the site. So, our excellent historians got to work!
Newspaper clippings about the gold rush and mining in North Georgia towns.
This is where Silkenat’s book comes into play. Top-notch researchers Emma and Margaret set out to discover everything they could about these mines and the scars they left, so they consulted Scars on the Land and studies of prospective gold mining in Colorado, and came to the conclusion that the landscape seen at this site represents a corporate prospecting for hardrock ore (United States Department of the Interior [USDI] 1992).
Of course, the lack of any material evidence — physical cultural material like artifacts — including carts, rails, and other mining equipment was still a problem. However, our historians reasoned, it’s not too big a leap in logic to think that may be explained by the fact that this was a prospecting site, and such materials would have been collected and moved after the work was over and done. Archival research of the area revealed that (what we learned were called) the Black Gold Mines’ interests were divided, sold, and traded multiple times between 1845 and 1950 — it seems a lot of people were in and out of the site, regularly bringing in and clearing out equipment when they were through.
The Black Mines hold historical significance as they are the one mine that was mined by at least five companies using at least three different mining techniques. At least three of these companies failed within 10 to 20 years. For these reasons, TerraX now believes that the site represents the Industrial Gold Rush of North Georgia, qualifying it for listing on the official National Register of Historic Places.
It’s always a good day when we get to nominate a site for listing on the National Register, and this nomination was even more special because it was so collaborative. It took the combined efforts between historians and archaeologists to achieve the nomination of eligibility for this one site. We couldn’t have done it without environmental history, y’all!
Environmental History Is Bigger Than Just Mines!
Environmental history is cool, and as a field, it’s huge. You could say it spans the great outdoors.
No? Fair enough.
But it is an incredible field of study and research, and it is essential to CRM work. Without environmental historians, we never would have discovered the significance of the Black Mines site in Georgia!
It’s important to remember, though, that environmental history is bigger than just mines. It encompasses all kinds of natural and environmental features, events, and elements, and it informs our understanding of human life here on earth stretching way back to the very beginning.
Silkenat’s book Scars on the Land, goes way beyond mining, too! In this post, we only had room to dip our little toes into the first chapter, but he digs deep into so much fascinating stuff. If you have any interest in history, archaeology, or cultural resource management, we highly recommend checking it out! You can find it on Amazon at the link above, or consider checking out your local library.
We’ll be back soon! Until next time, keep learning.
— The TerraX Team