A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Applause for Re-Enactors
by Mark RoseMay 29, 2009
Heather Pringle is in the field, so allow me to share some thoughts about a recent arrival in the mail, the 2009/2010 catalog from Smoke & Fire Company. Historical archaeologists and members of the re-enactor community may be familiar with Smoke & Fire. For others, well, the catalog is a gateway to the material culture of the colonial past in North America, featuring everything from tinware lanterns and redware porringers to clothing and patterns, even 18th-century scissors for do-it-yourselfers. Looking for that special elk-hide sporran or Revolutionary War “spider pan” for cooking over a campfire? They’ve got it.
I admit that I’ve had doubts about re-enactors. So I asked archaeologist David Starbuck, a specialist on the Champlain corridor in the 18th century, what he thought. Turns out my preconception of them as mere hobbyists is way off the mark. “I talk with re-enactors all the time while working on the identifications of British material culture,” says Starbuck. “I think that almost all of us [archaeologists] have found that re-enactors are hard core when it comes to researching period artifacts: They want to be accurate, they want to wear/utilize exactly what is appropriate to the time period, and they especially want to say that ‘so and so dug up a knife just like this.’ Re-enactors do follow archaeological discoveries all the time! Re-enactors are inveterate researchers, just like us.”
Donlyn Meyers at Smoke & Fire agrees. According to her, re-enactors are the “most avid fans” of archaeologists. For them, details matter. If you are visiting a historic site and overhear people arguing about sleeve lengths or whether pans were riveted or forged, don’t worry—it’s just re-enactors sweating the details. And if you see someone on the floor in a museum trying to get the perfect photograph of the back of an 18th-century button, there’s no need to summon security. Re-enactor.
This enthusiasm has its benefits according to Starbuck. “Most re-enactors are eager to help us identify what we’ve found and to interpret it for us. I’ve had many re-enactors show me exactly where something was worn on the body, they know exactly when something entered use (and also when it stopped being used), and they know which things were used by officers vs. ordinary soldiers. And just like archaeologists, they are PASSIONATE about what they do. They are at least as accurate in their artifact identifications as we archaeologists are, and oftentimes they are more accurate.”
I asked Meyers how business is these days. Not bad, she says. In part that’s because after an initial outlay, for costume and musket, the costs of participating in re-enactments are not high, after all you are camping and cooking over a campfire. Still some items sell better than others, with practical use being one factor (copper tankards do better than pans for separating cream from milk, she notes). Re-enactors range from college age to 70 year-olds, and focus on conflicts from the French and Indian War to the Civil War. The Smoke & Fire News, a monthly print publication, lists events if you want to explore this community first hand (for more information, see their website).
So, if like me, you had thought of these people as “weekend warriors,” maybe it is time to reconsider. “The reality is,” says Starbuck, “that re-enactors devote all of their spare time to teaching the public about early life styles and weaponry, and they really want to be respected for the quality of their artifact research.” That’s dedication we can all applaud.
For more about David Starbuck’s work in the Champlain corridor, see the website of the Rogers Island Visitors Center in Fort Edward, New York.
Post by AIA Online Editorial Director Mark Rose
This entry was posted by Mark Rose on
Friday, May 29, 2009.
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5 comments for "Applause for Re-Enactors"
I asked George Washington (Dean Malissa, re-enactor) whether he was ever in the far west of New York State. “No,” said he, and he listed the places he surveyed.
This contradicts a popular book on the origins of the Erie Canal, an 1847 mention of “Washington fording place” on the Tonawanda river (google American Whig review 1847, bottom p. 488), a NY State historical marker, and stories from a local Native American and an Erie Canal tour guide.
However, Chief Justice John Marshall says George never went west of the Oswego River, near Syracuse, NY, during his 1783 trip.
My bet is on the re-enactor.
As a 11th generation ‘North American’ whose family came to Canada in the late 1700 early 1800s, I recently joined the United Empire Loyalists to learn more about my family heritage.
What an amazing journey!!
While most of my direct ancestors were ‘plain folk’ farmers, I have found a southern Ontario tavern license in my family name from the 1850s. I’ve even heard rumours of a stone pub with my family name engraved on the lintel dated from the 1500s somewhere in Somersetshire, England!
So – Do they have any suggestions for a tavern keeper’s costume?
Dan Hilborn asks if Smoke & Fire has suggestions for tavern keeper’s costume. If it’s 19th century, they likely have something suitable (like period style waistcoat and trousers). If you’re looking for something to link with Somersetshire in 1500s, they do have some late medieval but probably could put you on to places that specialize more in Tudor/Elizabethan. Wouldn’t hurt to send the an email and inquire, or phone 800-766-5334.
I was a Civil War reenactor for five years or so, as well as being an academic of sorts. Most of the regiment were teachers or history professors. Reenactors are diligent in authenticity as well as research. The day to day life of soldiers is researched and reproduced in the equipment carried and tactics portrayed. Our Regiment, 28th Massachusetts, Irish Brigade, trained in 19th century battle formations and did maneuvers that most people never saw, and yet were standard battlefield practice. Reenactments can provide visual and sensual (smell and sound) documentation of the “fog of war”, which in today’s CNN and twitter-based technology seems unrealistic. Yet, most evidence in journal forms states that most soldiers never knew what was happening or what happened for some time after the battle. Researchers should make more use of the research and talents of reenactors to gain insight into events, since isolated study of artifacts can be a limitation on the whole picture of that event.
Thanks for your post Tom. I spoke also with David Bush at Heidelberg University, director of the Johnson’s Island Civil War POW camp excavations (see interactive.archaeology.org/johnsons/). Like David Starbuck, he is also appreciative of the reenactor community. You point out the value of reenactors for battlefield conditions (and hence battlefield archaeology). What could be more important would be the “experimental archaeology” performed by reenactors in campsites. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think little archaeological work on the camps of the armies has been done. The work of organizations like Civil War Preservation Trust is important in preserving battlefields (and I personally support it), but we need to think of other sites as well, like the POW camps and the campsites used by the armies during campaigns.
Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.
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