Digging Up the Present

By Emily Gold Boutilier / July / August 2005
May 3rd, 2007

The fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, ranks among the deadliest in U.S. history. On the night of February 20, 2003, only seconds after the 1980s heavy metal band Great White had taken the stage, a pyrotechnics display ignited soundproofing foam on the walls. As the smoke spread and the fire reached the ceiling, more than 400 patrons struggled to escape, but the temperature soon soared to as high as 1,800 degrees. n Three days later, Brown archaeologist Richard Gould arrived at a lab in Providence as a member of a national Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) to help the state medical examiner identify the victims, many of whom were burned beyond recognition. Gould had joined the group, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. n Before 9/11, Gould was known primarily as a founder of ethnoarchaeology, a subfield that observes present-day behavior as a way to understand the past. He'd lived with hunter-gatherers in Australia and more recently had led underwater studies of old shipwrecks. Then, on a visit to lower Manhattan in the fall of 2001, Gould noticed gray dust that looked to him like kitty litter, only grittier, clinging like freshly fallen snow to fire escapes, alleys, and Dumpsters. Wherever he turned, he spotted in the dust what thousands of untrained eyes had missed: tiny fragments of human remains. He saw an opportunity to apply his expertise to the present.

Kenneth Ames, president of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), now considers Gould to be the founder of disaster archaeology. The new subfield is an offshoot of forensic archaeology, in which detectives use archaeological techniques to solve crimes. Forensic archaeology is increasingly popular, thanks in part to the CSI television series. Disaster archaeologists, in contrast, work at the sites of catastrophe, both criminal and natural. While they might find evidence that is useful to law enforcement, that is not their primary aim. Their purpose is to interpret entire disasters and to recover human remains and personal effects, like wedding rings, in order to help survivors find some semblance of closure. For Gould, disaster archaeology has a relevance that goes beyond studying the past. It is a way to help people more directly. "It's the most important thing I've ever done in my life," Gould says. "Everything I've done up to this point has been a sort of preamble."

The Station fire marked Gould's first deployment with DMORT. In the lab, Gould's job was to match bodies with clothing and personal effects that emergency workers had recovered from the scene, including cell phones and supermarket frequent-shopper cards. Other volunteers matched dental records. The team would eventually identify ninety-seven bodies (three other victims would die in hospitals).

Meanwhile in West Warwick, a working-class town ten miles south of College Hill, Irving Owens, the state fire marshal, was worried. Even though firefighters and investigators had cleared away the nightclub structure and all the visible evidence, he figured there was more to find in the rubble. He wanted to clear any bone fragments and personal effects before ambulance chasers and souvenir collectors descended. In the past, Gould points out, similar items have been sold on eBay. "We wanted to maintain the dignity of everything there," Owens says.

He placed a call to Gould, who in addition to joining DMORT had in the aftermath of 9/11 recruited graduate students, police officers, and other volunteers to join a new group he'd named Forensic Archaeology Recovery (FAR). A year before the fire, FAR members had sifted through debris in a parking lot outside Ground Zero in New York. To Gould's dismay, however, they'd found only ten pieces of bone, none of which appeared to him to be human. Gould hoped to have better luck at the Station.

FAR volunteers spent a week and a half digging and sifting at the Station site, working in temperatures that hovered just above zero. Their work yielded fragments of human remains, as well as pool balls, wine glasses, and cash. They found key rings and earrings, wallets and cell phones, guitar picks and driver's licenses. In all, FAR recorded eighty-eight personal objects.

"They're meticulous," says Providence police sergeant Napoleon Brito, who is also a FAR volunteer. "A police officer would use a rake where they would use a trowel."

In the January 2004 SAA Archaeological Record, Gould wrote that as the work progressed, Owens asked him to watch for items sought in the criminal investigation into the fire. Because of ongoing criminal and civil cases (a grand jury has indicted the nightclub owners and band manager for involuntary manslaughter, and lawsuits are pending against many people, including Owens), neither the fire marshal nor Gould is free to discuss the evidence FAR uncovered. Owens will say, however, that the value was extraordinary: "They did one tremendous job. I would call them back in a minute."

By the time Gould closed the Station site on March 9, FAR had excavated and sieved about 2,800 square feet. More important, he says, the team helped ease the pain that the fire caused. To accept the death of a loved one, Gould maintains, victims' families often need more than scientific analysis of DNA or dental records. They need to see and touch a tangible object, like a wallet or a watch. Only then can they begin to grieve.

In the last week of June 2003 a neighbor heard a pounding noise at the abandoned Station lot. According to news reports, she found a woman hammering 100 upright wooden crosses into the footprint of the building. A week later, when Gould came across the display, the crosses had been painted lavender and someone had decorated them with butterfly stickers and Mardi Gras beads. Forty-eight of the crosses now had names inscribed on them. Teddy bears, rosary beads, and coins had been placed beside some of the crosses.

Gould was intrigued: Why did mourners take comfort in such impermanent displays of grief? He realized he could use the observational methods of ethnoarchaeology to gain insight into a present-day mourning ritual. He asked Randi Scott, a local FAR volunteer, to help. Over the next few weeks they watched as families and friends placed such items as flowers, balloons, pizza boxes, and handwritten poems around the crosses. By the end of July seventy-six crosses had been personalized in such a way.

Some themes emerged. In the fall of 2004 Gould counted at the site 122 butterfly images, mostly made of plastic. "The butterfly just captured people's imagination and interest," he says. "They invest it with meaning." One family planted shrubs and trees to attract live butterflies, telling Gould it was an effort to make the place seem less sad.

Whenever there's breaking news on the Station - a fire commission hearing or a court filing, for instance - Gould is certain to see some physical expression at the site. He has taken particular note of the conflicting displays of grief and anger. After the grand jury decided to indict, for example, Gould noticed hand-lettered posters across the parking lot, physically separated from the memorial crosses. The posters, which remain today, express rage at the fire officials who'd deemed the nightclub safe. "Above the law Ôinspectors' did not do their jobs," one poster asserts. Another proclaims that a daughter's death was no accident.

For two years, Gould and Scott have recorded the smallest changes. Gould has taken between 250 and 300 slides. Scott has mapped on paper every new angel statuette, elf figurine, and Patriots cap. They've noticed that families mow the lawn, shovel snow, and replenish the weather-worn materials. "There's something very existential about this place," Gould remarks.

"It's an uphill struggle to keep [it] looking nice," he added in late May, when an unseasonably cold wind had knocked over artificial flowers and ceramic bowls. He pointed out the remains of one of the last original displays, bride and groom dolls made of straw. All that was left was the weathered bride, facedown in the dirt with a faded purple wreath in her hair.

Today, the most intricate display is in memory of Louis S. Alves, whose loved ones erected a glass case containing images of the Virgin Mary. Scott says there used to be a kneeling bench in front of the case, giving it the feel of an altar. Many families visit mostly on birthdays and anniversaries. In May, Scott and Gould noticed a new bench dedicated to Tina Marie Ayer, painted with a few sentences to "Mom." "This must have been a Mother's Day present," Scott concluded. Inscribed on a cross to Ty Longley, the Great White guitarist who died in the fire, is the message "I love you daddy. Happy birthday."

"People will drive up, sit in their vehicles, and just stare," Gould says. Others yearn to talk. Scott recalls her conversation with a man who'd been badly burned in the fire. "When he first came in, he was kind of slumped over. The look on his face was distant, vacant almost," she says. "As he was reliving the night, his whole demeanor changed." She saw new life in his eyes. "It was almost like he'd carried in everything that had happened that night."

Scott says mourners have told her they visit the site because they believe it is home to the soul of their loved one. Others find comfort in being around those who share their grief. Gould's hypothesis is that once there's a permanent memorial, families will stop tending the ephemeral displays. That is what happened in Oklahoma City when plans took shape for an official memorial to victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. In June, Gould was surprised to see that many of the Station displays had languished. Perhaps, he says, attention is already beginning to fade.

For centuries, says Sylvia Grider, associate professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, families have marked the sites of accidents with a cross at the side of the road. But the spontaneous shrines that sprout up in the aftermath of larger or more public tragedies are a recent trend. She says the phenomenon took shape in the 1980s after the creation of the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., when visitors began to leave dog tags, beer cans, and personal notes at the wall. Today, the Vietnam artifacts are on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. After Princess Diana's fatal car wreck in 1997, teddy bears and flowers filled the streets outside Buckingham Palace in London. When the Columbia space shuttle blew up over Texas in 2003, shrines appeared in fields where the debris landed. Grider says there now exists a sizable professional literature on spontaneous memorials, but it is based mostly on newspaper accounts. She and Gould are among the few to study the phenomenon firsthand.

Grider's interest stems from the 1999 bonfire that killed twelve students at her university. When a spontaneous shrine took shape, she collected and preserved the artifacts. She says such memorials are a contemporary expression of an ancient emotion. The difference is that people used to leave flowers and photographs only at cemeteries, not at the sites of traumatic death. "That's been the shift," she says. "What does that mean in our culture? We don't know yet."

FAR has generated a buzz among a number of Brown anthropology students, including Christine Reiser, who worked on the Station recovery. "This is probably the most directly relevant thing you'll ever do as an archaeologist," she says. "I fear all the time that [my work] is of benefit only to a select public. In this situation it's obvious to see how you're really helping people." FAR has also connected Reiser, who is studying Native American archaeology, to the community that exists beyond the Van Wickle Gates. She says that before the Station fire, she'd only come close to West Warwick while shopping at the nearby Target.

Reiser says when she talks about FAR, senior archaeologists tend to pull back, while friends and family - as well as strangers on airplanes - appear fascinated. Gould, too, has noticed resistance. The latest edition of one archaeology textbook covers Gould and the new subfield in a chapter on the future of archaeology, but he says other academics seem to view disaster archaeology as simply a hobby or a community-service project. "In academia," he admits, "this is a very hard sell."

Brown's anthropology department chairman, Philip Leis, says it's not always clear where the theory comes in at the site of a present-day disaster. He adds, however, that opportunities to do hands-on archaeology are always of benefit to students, and that scientific advancements that come out of forensic archaeology could have useful applications in academia.

Grider says her colleagues have expressed "grudging acceptance" of her work. She now teaches a graduate seminar on spontaneous shrines, for which she assigns an article on Gould's study of the Station. Gould, meanwhile, teaches a course on physical anthropology that incorporates a forensics component. He is also writing a book on disaster archaeology that includes a chapter on the Station memorials. The book is to be published by the University of Utah.

In his work, Gould has also overcome resistance from emergency workers, whom he's had to convince that he is more than just a glorified treasure hunter. Sergeant Brito, head of the Providence police department's crime scene unit, explains he was skeptical at first, in part because nobody from Brown had ever before offered to help the local police. "Are they going to criticize the way we do things?" he wondered. "Are they going to testify against us?"

Disaster archaeology may next take Gould to Iraq. He is now in tentative talks with U.S. Army officials who've asked him to help exhume mass graves in the war-torn country. Gould never could have imagined his career would take such a turn. "It's almost impossible," he says, "to make plans anymore."

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July / August 2005