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Exhibit: The Americas Underground: Where our Past and Present Meet in the Dark


The Americas Underground: Where our Past and Present Meet in the Dark

Running from March 23 – April 30, 2015, The Americas Underground explores the various ways in which caves, rockshelters, mines, and other uses of the ‘underground’ have been perceived across the Americas. The exhibit addresses the theme of continuity and change in underground practices through time with the hopes of shedding light on these 'dark and scary' places. The exhibit demonstrates how caves have provided spaces for ritual and social practices throughout history, while practices such as archaeology, mining, caving, and tourism have emerged in different areas in different times and been slowly added to the repertoire. Photography, cultural objects and artifacts collected from ancient and modern contexts by UC Merced scholars and California residents demonstrate how modern practices intersect and overlap with past practices in interesting, but sometimes conflicting ways.

The exhibit is arranged around six themes:

1. Central America: This case features recreations of both an archaeological investigation of a 1000-year-old ancient Maya cave site and a modern Maya ceremony which took place outside a cave in 2012. Both of these displays are based on research being collected by UC Merced graduate and undergraduate student in SSHA under the direction of Dr. Holley Moyes.

2. Haiti: Featuring and exciting collection of modern Vodou ritual paraphernalia including drums, Vodou dolls, and rum this case is displays a recreation of one of the many rituals that Haitians perform in the caves of northern Haiti. The materials are provided by Patrick Wilkinson, a Ph.D. student in SSHA who has been assisted by undergraduates interested in anthropology and ethnography.

3. Ancient South America: This display features items and photographs collected by Dean Mark Aldenderfer during one of his research visits to a Peruvian cave site dating between 2500-1600 B.C. Due to a combination of climate, altitude, and burial practices, the oldest mummies in the world come from South America. Sometimes found in caves and in human-made niches in cliff faces, they provide a fascinating lens into abilities of people to not only survive, but thrive thousands of years ago in often harsh environments.

4. Ancient North America: The oldest recorded human remains in North America were recently found in a cave in Oregon, dating to 14,300 B.C. From this point on, people used caves and the underground to take shelter, store items, paint vibrant scenes and geometric designs, and bury their group members. Items in this case have been provided by Dr. Kathleen Hull in SSHA who continues to work on sites in Yosemite National Park.

5. Historical California: From the 16th century onwards occupation of North America by Spanish, French, and English colonialists forced a clash of cultures which led to much destruction, displacement, industrialization, and technological innovation. In California, the construction of transcontinental railroads through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range required tunnels to be dug under dangerous working conditions to bring not only goods but passengers across the country, bypassing the need for long boat trips around South America. When precious metals, including gold, were found in California, numerous mines were established as close as Mariposa and led to the economic rise of California in the 19th century. Gems and minerals have been generously provided by the California State Gem & Mineral Mining Museum in Mariposa.

6. The Americas Today: While many of the ancient activities that once took place underground (rituals, water collection) still take place today, over the past hundred years people have begun delving into the underground for a variety of additional activities. From recreational activities such as caving, exploring, swimming, filming, and tourism, to research-oriented activities such as geological sample collection for climate studies, monitoring for damage due to environmental change, and plant and animal research, more people have been entering cave sites than ever before. With this comes an increased awareness that conservation of these sites, which still hold cultural significance for many people, is crucial to preserving these sites for the benefit of everyone.

The exhibit has been organized by Marieka Arksey, Ph.D. Student in SSHA at UC Merced. It is made possible with generous assistance and funding from the following:

  • UC Merced’s Center for Humanities
  • UC Merced Library
  • California State Parks: California State Gem & Mineral Mining Museum,Mariposa
  • Mark Aldenderfer
  • Holley Moyes
  • Kathleen Hull
  • Patrick Wilkinson
  • Sarah Spoljaric