Cultural Palimpsest

I have been working on a Land Use Land Cover (LULC) mapping project of the Yakima River delta area for the last few weeks. The task assumed that the only information available to us on the area was the set of four aerial photographs we were given, and included making a detailed map (accurate to within 51m) showing the patterns of land use and land cover in the 8mi2area. A part of the task was a 3-page essay giving an explanation of the patterns of development shown by the new map. Writing the essay for the project, I had an idea of development in the area as making something of a cultural palimpsest.


The word palimpsestcomes to us from more ancient times, when paper and skins for writing were very dear, and very expensive. Everything was reused. To reuse a skin, the writing on it had to be scraped off with a knife. The process of scraping off writing removed most of the ink, but little ghosted stains remained, very much like the ghosted writing on a dry-erase marker board. These ghosted writing stains are called palimpsests.

Although the term originally refers to a remnant of writing, palimpsest has been used in many different fields to mean an original form that has been covered up, but some of it still remains. That is the meaning of the word in geomorphology. Cultural palimpsest, though is generally used in the field of literature, and refers to something like pieces of one culture shining through into the writings of a different, later culture. When I talk of a cultural palimpsest, I am not talking about literature, I am talking about land use and land development.

The land development that got me thinking was a number of clean, geometrically-shaped housing and commercially developments located around the delta of the Yakima River, where the Yakima meets up with the Columbia River. Considering my essay on the patterns of development in the area, it seemed to me that there seemed to be a correlation between the density of a development and the disregard of that development’s creators for the physical context of the development. In an area dominated by two rivers, many of the housing and commercial areas, formed at highway intersections and at nodes of transportation corridors, might as well have been built in Nebraska, for all the regard they paid to the rivers. Assuming a negative correlation between development density and regard for physical context in the area, I hypothesized (in my essay) about a succession of development, in layers, from a river-context-sensitive bottom layer of farm land, to early urban development, to layers of increasingly dense urban and suburban development, and that small patches of farm land that have survived to the present day actually represent a cultural palimpsest, preserved in gaps between the increasingly more geometrically-shaped developments.

I hypothesized a cultural palimpsest, but I had no real way of knowing, based only on the air photos that I had available to me. However, our newest assignment in the airphoto lab is an analysis of historical change in the area using the LULC maps (which were made from 1996 or 1997 air photos) and an air photo from 1940. I took one look at the 1940 air photo and came really very close to a penalty for excessive celebration. The original settlement of the area was in large sheets (an entire layer) of river-context-sensitive farm land. As development occurred over the years, it increased in density and disregard for the cultural and physical context of the area, which meant that small slivers of farm land were left in what I have been calling a cultural palimpsest. If you have a better name for this phenomenon, please let me know

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