Krysta Ryzewski: historical archaeologist

Much to her sister's disappointment, anthropology professor Krysta Ryzewski self-identified as a "total history nerd" since childhood. When their parents asked if they would rather go to Disney World or Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Massachusetts, the choice was obvious for 8-year-old Ryzewski.  

"I insisted on going to the living history museum and my sister has never let me live that down." 

Ryzewski has since channeled her appreciation for history into a career as a historical archaeologist, which she defines as an archaeologist who studies the modern world and how capitalism took hold as Europeans started to travel across the Atlantic and other parts of the world. 

"I like the challenge of relocating the histories of people and processes that aren't written about in official narratives — the people who didn't have the power, knowledge or ability to write down their histories in their own words."

Putting on her detective hat, Ryzewski looks at artifacts to piece together the stories of the past and works to understand the social dynamics that existed.

"There are clues in old maps, personal letters or even from census data. We read between the lines to figure it out."

Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, moving to Detroit seemed like the natural choice for Ryzewski, who valued not only the history of the city but the unique culture as well.

"In many ways, New Haven was like a smaller Detroit. It struggles with a lot of similar issues. There are a lot of parallels between where I grew up and where I wound up." 

Of course, the major advantage of working in Detroit, according to Ryzewski, is the urban historical archaeology. 

"Since the late 1950s Wayne State has been a center for historical archaeology in the Midwest, and the research produced by our faculty and graduate students over the past seven decades has contributed to shaping the field of study on an international level. Fifty years ago, Professor Arnold Pilling, a former Professor of Anthropology and founder of the department’s museum, was one of the founding members of the Society for Historical Archaeology. That legacy is a big deal.”

Ryzewski's current research projects focus on urban North America (Detroit) and the Caribbean (Montserrat), as well as some smaller collaborative projects with colleagues. Her favorite project was one that allowed her to combine her appreciation of history with her love of music: the contemporary archaeology of AIR Studios, a recording studio active in the 1970s and 1980s on the island of Montserrat. 

"This building was becoming dilapidated. There was volcanic ash and thick vegetation covering the buildings and surfaces. We heard that some of the musicians who recorded at AIR had impressed their handprints in the sidewalk, and we were keen to find them and tell the story," she said. "I was a musician growing up, and I almost went to music school as an undergraduate. To be able to connect archaeology with music history in a meaningful way was fun for me."

Ryzewski sees places like the Grande Ballroom in Detroit as environments that were equally important spaces for social gatherings as for making music. While many of the old buildings she has examined in Detroit are nostalgic for local communities, she notes that those feelings are not always associated with specific objects, making the remains even more important pieces to the puzzle. 

 "Our job as archaeologists is to reanimate those spaces so their stories can be told and preserved for the future. You'd be surprised at what you find in these abandoned, ruined buildings and on urban archaeological sites in general,” she said. “You think everything's gone, but people always leave material remains behind. Little scraps of paper between floorboards can take someone back to a time that's been long forgotten. You show them what you’ve found, and suddenly they say, 'Oh, I remember that New Year's party when the band blasted off confetti guns.'"

Ryzewski believes that project has opened doors and allowed for her students and other archeologists to think more broadly about archeology.

"What archaeology allows us to do is to think creatively about the past in ways that inform the present, to help plan for the future. Our work around Detroit and on Montserrat has been generating conversations about how to preserve the legacies of each place’s history, their people, and the unique contributions they’ve made to industries, popular culture, and other aspects of everyday life.” 

“Archaeology has something for everyone,” notes Ryzewski, who said that it is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. "We have our feet in both, so you need to have an appreciation for and literacy in both domains, even if you prefer one over the other." Luckily, Ryzewski loves scientific and historical research equally. 

"There's never a dull moment in archaeology. Sometimes you're living in close quarters with people you barely know for long periods of time in trying conditions. Then you come home and you're doing independent lab work for what seems like forever. There's a saying in archaeology that for every day in the field, you spend a week in the lab processing your finds. I think that may actually be an understatement." 

It's a labor of love for Ryzewski. Considering that the process of conducting archaeological recovery is a destructive process, she and her students take the time to document every detail of the settings in which artifacts are found before they are removed.

“Our job is to take care of the past by gathering information systematically. We tell stories that shed light on unwritten aspects of our histories, share our findings with as many people as possible, and advocate for the protection of our heritage for the benefit of future generations.”

By Carly Adams, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences communications associate

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Krysta Ryzewski: historical archaeologist 12/19/2016
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