Last week I stepped out onto St. Nicholas Ave., the street I live on in Washington Heights, to find new grooves running in the pavement. St. Nicholas, like any other street in New York, is subject to regular repair. The asphalt cracks under the cold, wet winters, and the normal wear and tear of trucks, buses and taxis doing Indy 500 sprints to catch the next traffic light. Over the next few days I watched as the street crews worked their way down the stretch running past my apartment building, laying down the new black tar that would serve us for the next couple of years. As I watched, two thoughts came to my mind regarding semiotics and archeology.
First, I couldn't help but compare the steady march of the steamrollers to an experience I had this summer. I spent the months of June and July doing ethnographic research in the village of Ouaouizarht, Morocco, studying local people's reactions to and participation in a recent boom in development going on in their valley. Ouaouizarht is, or rather has been, a sleepy little place sitting in the High Atlas Mountains on the edge of a reservoir known as Bin el Ouidane (Arabic for "Between Rivers"). Before the 1920's there was a single river running through the valley until the French colonial government built a dam. This dam created the reservoir, funneled irrigation southwest down to the plains outside of Marrakech, and increased the country's electricity capacity by 25%. Since that time, the dam has been guarded by the army, first by French forces and then by the Moroccans themselves following Independence in 1957. Until recently the government gave little notice to the area except for the strategic importance of the dam. Ouaouizarht and its surrounding villages are populated by Berbers, the indigenous ethnic people of North Africa, and were viewed as holdovers of the bled al sida (land of anarchy) which stood in opposition to the Arab controlled cities, or bled al makhzen (land of government). Since 1999, however, when King Mohamed VI acceded to the throne, Morocco has been moving on a path towards modernization, building more roads, a 3G cell phone network, high speed internet connections, and satellite TV networks that reach deep into the mountains and the desert. Such development serves at least two purposes: one, improved education, health care and other social services are beginning to reach low income, rural populations; two, the independent Berber identity is beginning to be subsumed into a larger national consciousness. The potential upsides and downsides of this development are a matter of intense debate, but for better or for worse Ouaouizarht, and other villages like it, are being transformed. The natural beauty of the valley has recently been discovered by wealthy Moroccans from Casablanca and Rabat (the capital of the country), as well as entrepreneurs from France and Spain who have begun building luxury hotels to lure tourists away from the cities and into the as yet unspoiled countryside. In a country where unemployment is often in the double digits, the town council of Ouaouizarht has begun to capitalize on this recent boom, and have laid out plans for the next 5 years of development in their village. Priority one was improving the road running into town to better serve hotel guests and draw them into local shops.
Over the course of the summer we watched the bulldozers move through the town, tearing up old concrete and dirt sidewalks to expand the road, nearly doubling its previous width. They poured new pavement, smoothing over the dark surface with steamrollers and laid beautifully carved stone tiles to create an even sidewalk on both sides. The road runs all the way up from the entrance to town, past two hotels and many shops on its way to the taxi stand (Morocco has an amazingly efficient and cheap public transportation system with taxis, buses and vans running between nearly every city, town and village in the country). By the end of the summer the road was finally complete, and when it opened everyone came out to walk on their new communal treasure. Kids were riding bikes in circles and kicking around soccer balls; old men were poking at it with their walking sticks and laughing to each other; whole families just walked around on it, mothers holding their young children’s hands; a few people were literally dancing in the street (music and dancing is a fairly common public activity in Morocco).
Looking back on this, and comparing it to the work being done outside my apartment building, I'm struck by what a difference context makes in the interpretation of something that, here in New York City, seems so commonplace. No one was dancing on St. Nicholas Ave. when the road crews finished their work. There was no excitement, no expectation of a new golden age of jobs for everyone and increasing connection to the world outside our neighborhood. It's just pavement. It's something we're surrounded by, something that fades into the backdrop of the mind as we move about our lives. We've spent a good deal of time this semester trying to figure out the meaning of a sign or a symbol, and how we could apply our methodologies to the practice of archeology. A lesson I have taken away from this experience of watching road construction in these two different countries is that a lot of what something means has to do with timing, history, economic factors, relative proximity to centers of power, and a host of other factors. Additionally, what is recognized as having some symbolic value (either consciously or unconsciously) has a great deal to do with how familiar it is to the people living in the moment when it is produced.
Which brings me to my second point. I know nothing about the archeology of roads, or even if such a sub-field exists, but I can't help but wonder how many layers of pavement there are underneath St. Nicholas Ave. If you dug deep enough I imagine you'd come to a time when that road did mean something to someone, when it meant that food could be got more easily and taxis could more quickly transport you to Times Square. The great difficulty would be in trying to reconstruct the exact meaning that that road had for people in that neighborhood, and just as there is debate in Morocco about whether or not development is good or bad, there was very likely some debate in Washington Heights as well. But this seems to me to be an area where anthropology and archeology might have some interesting dialogue, where a semiotic analysis of a living culture might inform an interpretation of a past one and vice versa. As I said earlier, context is important, and the historical conditions surrounding Washington Heights at the time St. Nicholas Ave. (in Manhattan, New York City) was first paved are likely very different from the current conditions surrounding Ouaouizarht (High Atlas Mountains, Morocco).
Still, I believe this to be an Avenue worth exploring.