Meet the Archaeologist: Christopher Matthews

The Reverse Art of Archaeology, is digging up the stories of Orange, before, and after I-280 was built through the city. Meet one of the archaeologists on this unique project.

Christopher N. Matthews is a historical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Montclair State University. His research interests are the archaeology of capitalism, slavery, and race in the United States as well as community-based research.

Talk about the concept of Reverse Archaeology
Reverse archaeology is an invented idea that came to me after getting to know Orange through my contacts at MSU, the University of Orange, and the community schools. What seemed so evident is how much people took for granted that 280 damaged the city by creating a giant excavated trench right through the heart of Orange. Being an archaeologist, this sounded to me like description of an archaeological site that was excavated but never interpreted or understood. So, a reverse archaeology is a way of thinking about how we can put back what the highway has taken away through memories, stories, and a closer understanding of those living in Orange today. In one sense, this is a novel way to frame an archaeological project, but in another its really just what archaeologists always do.

How do you want this project to restore Orange pride?

The memory of what Orange was like before the interstate should provide a combination of nostalgia for past years as well as clues to how successful communities were built and organized in the city that can be used today.

What has surprised you so far in the project? 
So far I am not so much surprised by what we have done as pleased. The RA team is a masterful combination of well balanced and articulated talents that are blending academic, artistic, and community engagement approaches in wonderful ways. If I am surprised it is when I see how well the work of my colleagues expands the vision of what I hope to accomplish in my own work.

What can we expect?
My job is to collect oral histories and historical documents. So far, I have interviewed more than 40 past and present residents of Orange from the African American and Italian American communities, which were the communities most impacted by the interstate. These stories detail vital aspects of two very powerful cultural histories and communities that no longer exist. Memoirists have also provided straight forward commentary on how 280 was the cause of so much change and struggle in Orange. The result of this work will be a rich archive of personal memories, observations, and memorabilia that will bring to life how these two groups settled and created vibrant and important migrant/immigrant urban communities. These findings will inform and inspire new artworks and performances that will be on display in Orange, allowing residents to learn about and see way that the city’s history can be part of its future.

You can meet Chris, along with the other archaeologists next Friday, March 11th at the opening of the Unearthing the Future: The Art of Archaeology at the Orange Public Library 6:30-8:30pm.

For more information please follow Reverse Archaeology in Orange on Facebook.  

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Written by Patricia Rogers

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