Kasey Diserens, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, always wanted to find a way to link her interests in economic and social development with her passion for archaeology and ethics.
While working on her master’s degree in historic preservation at Penn Design, Diserens, who hails from Bronxville, N.Y., took an ethics class in the Anthropology Department with Richard Leventhal, who later became her advisor. He has been integral in helping her to explore the human side of heritage preservation, she says.
During the course, Leventhal and Diserens talked about the town of Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, Mexico, which served as the epicenter of the Caste War of Yucatan when it began around 1847, but yields little presence in the Mexican national discourse on heritage. The town was abandoned before the war ended in 1901.
“We spoke extensively about how a community-based and fully integrated project could be a new lens through which to understand heritage preservation,” Diserens says, noting that it prompted her to think more about how heritage preservation could start from the ground up, getting those who were directly impacted involved in preservation efforts. “As scholars, now more than ever, we have an ethical obligation to reflect deeply on how our projects impact others, but particularly those communities in which we work.”
After earning her master’s in 2013, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology with a concentration in archaeology and cultural heritage studies in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. She says she wanted to play a role in reshaping the field’s priorities and trying to make a small difference in the world.
Her area of focus is on the legacy of the colonial houses and other auxiliary structures, such as wells, walls and shrines that sprinkle the town of Tihosuco. Using a combination of methods from historic preservation and archaeology, she’s gathering physical documentation of the structures and oral histories based on interviews with local residents.
“The goal of this methodology is to generate a more holistic view of the history of Tihosuco that reflects the memory and identity of those that live in town and develops avenues for its continued preservation,” says Diserens. This was her fourth summer in Tihosuco, a town about three hours south of Cancun.
There, she documented the colonial houses, taking photographs and producing measured drawings. She interviewed the owners of some of the homes and members of the community who were interested in the history of the Caste War. More specifically, she asked about how these families came there during the repopulation of Tihosuco in the 1930s.
“I am producing oral histories of the houses and creating a preservation plan for the colonial structures,” says Diserens. “I am also hoping to conduct a landscape study of the town by taking GPS points and aerial photos, to map its features.”
After spending the past four years learning more about the historic houses and listening to the concerns of residents about restoration projects, Diserens will now use this information to form the basis of her dissertation, but says, the research means much more.
“This project argues for a new wave of bottom-up, integrated and community-oriented models for studying and preserving the past,” she says. “This research will allow for deeper understandings of how history can influence the present and how heritage preservation can become an impetus for real-time economic, social and political change.”
Diserens says she is also looking to the future of the work and its potential.
“The project overall is using this research as a basis for helping to create a sustainable tourism and heritage preservation program in the town,” she says.
Diserens’ research is conducted as a part of a larger project run jointly by the Museo de la Guerra de Castas in Tihosuco, the Tihosuco Ejido, or Land Commune, the Tihosuco Alcaldía, Mayor’s Office, and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
The overall Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Development project has 10 other sub-projects focused on the archaeology of the Caste War.
“The project values the input of Tihosuco residents, allowing them to drive the research questions and set the pace,” says Diserens. “It tries to be a more holistic heritage preservation program, instead of those that focus on the material remains or the most prevalent aspects of the history. We open the project up to all histories and stories from the Caste War to the repopulation of the town in the 1930s through the present day.”
She says international fieldwork is often difficult for graduate students to participate in because of the costs associated with travel and living abroad. She credits support from the Anthropology Department and the Penn Museum Summer Field Fund Grant for allowing her to conduct her research.
“At Penn, we are particularly lucky to have generous donors and grant programs that enable this type of research,” Diserens says. “I could not have gone to the field for such an extensive period of time without this support.”