Archaeology Program Extends to Puerto Rico: Looking at the Past and the Future
by John Gagnon, promotional writer
Sam Sweitz has been a wandering scientist interested in sherds and sugar; houses, mills and gold mines; and history unearthed by archaeology.
Now he is settled in Houghton as an assistant professor of anthropology and archaeology in the social sciences department, and, from that vantage, he dreams of expanding the reach of Michigan Tech’s world-renowned industrial archaeology program.
Sweitz already has seasoned credentials. His work has spanned four time periods and four countries: prehistoric Mayan culture in Belize; 18th–20th century Mayan culture in the Yucatan; 19th century gold mining in the United States; and now the 20th century sugar industry in Puerto Rico, where he wants to understand the evolution of capitalism and its impact on local people.
"It’s interesting," he says. "Everything is connected. I am fascinated by how decisions made in one place can affect people in another place."
For instance, the demand for sugar, along with the accompanying industrial apparatus, changed the way social status was achieved in the Yucatan—from a tradition of age, gender, lineage and experience to a new world of occupation and income.
In pinpointing these cultural changes, Sweitz bases his inquiry on the presumption that ordinary people matter.
"One of the primary missions of historical archaeology," he says, "is to talk about the lives of everyday people."
A native of Yakima, Wash., Sweitz earned a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and history at Boston University; he bypassed the master’s degree and earned a PhD in Anthropology from Texas A&M; and he came to Tech’s PhD program in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology as a postdoctoral fellow in fall 2005.
Since then, he has visited Puerto Rico five times to begin to research the sugar industry and build connections with local scholars and institutions.
Puerto Rico's sugar economy was "pervasive," Sweitz says.
The industry was based on what is called a central, an expansive array of a mill, a company store and a company town—characterized in part by both paternalism and peonage, and segregated, "to some degree," on the basis of race, ethnicity and occupation.
In embarking on this study, Sweitz is the detached scientist. "My place is not to judge but to find out what happened in the past and what changes resulted."
In particular, he is working at Central Aguirre—the lone surviving example of a central with a company town in Puerto Rico. Located on the south-central coast, it was built around 1900, reached its peak in the 1950s and shut down in 1990.
The central was the product of an infusion of capital by American investors after the United States gained possession of Puerto Rico in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.
The development of the system intrigues and engages Sweitz, whose work ultimately will constitute a marriage of oral history, archival history and archeological history—from recollections to maps to pottery. The material culture, which is the warp and weft of archaeology, reflects the impact of the industry on the local population.
In an even broader scheme, Sweitz's work might affect our understanding of the processes and the future impact that the spread of capitalism might have on indigenous people.
"We're trying to understand processes—global markets and commodity exchanges—that are still happening today in the developing world," he says. "Industry is going there, capital is going there, and it's changing local culture there."
In this respect, Sweitz says, the past could inform the future—that is, ameliorate the hardships and enhance the benefits of industry and capitalism.
"We hope to better the lives of the people we work with," he says. "There needs to be some outreach. By doing studies like this, we're understanding the evolution of not only the sugar industry, but also the community itself and the people in it. Aguirre is a post-industrial community. The mill is shut down. Jobs are leaving. The economy is depressed. The community is starting to deteriorate. These people are in a tough position, and they are left to wonder, 'What are we going to do with this mill that's derelict? How are we going to preserve our community? What do we do next?'"
In turn, Sweitz asks, "How do we answer these poignant questions? How do we help them keep their past but move on in a new direction? How can we incorporate the past with the future? How can we help this community move on in a post-industrial world?"
So, why does he care about a small island and its sugar—and the sweet and bitter fruits of its industry?
"Because," Sweitz avows, "this is the story of humanity."
Sweitz has high hopes for his labors.
He wants to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Puerto Rico to collaborate on this work; exchange students and scholars; organize a field school to train both American and Puerto Rican students and have them enroll in Tech's master's program in industrial archaeology; and establish a dual degree offered by both institutions.
"It's exciting," Sweitz says. "It really will expand the impact of the industrial archaeology program—a beachhead in the Caribbean and in Latin America."
The initiative complements the expansive geographical reach that already characterizes Tech's industrial archaeology program.
Tech scholars work in the Norwegian Arctic, the West Indies, Mexico, Hawaii, Utah and New York.
Michigan Tech is the headquarters of the Society of Industrial Archaeology and the home of the organization's scientific journal.