A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A historical archaeologist explores the divide between archaeologists and historians.
It has been over 30 years since Ivor Noel Hume gave historical archaeology the "handmaiden to history" moniker archaeologists are still fleeing. Yet three decades later the relationship envisioned by this problematic grand-old-man of the field continues to color what historians and historical archaeologists think of each other. This legacy has particular sting in the study of the colonial Chesapeake, perhaps in part because this region has been Noel Hume's stomping ground. The region's archaeology has produced a number of highly creative and insightful studies, but few of these have had any real effect on the way regional historians see the colonial past. Historians and historical archaeologists are divided by the same past that unites them. In the long run this state of affairs is in no one's best interest; it marginalizes archaeology and weakens the region's historical writing. Historical archaeologists have the power to change this situation and should act to do so.
I write this paper from a somewhat rare vantage point in American historical archaeology. For the past seven years I have spent my summers digging in Tidewater Virginia's light-brown, sandy loam and my winters reading, writing, and arguing history, first in graduate classes, then studying for comprehensive exams, and now working on my doctoral dissertation. The relationship between historians and historical archaeologists is one that is near and dear to me--in some perverse way I embody it, or at least have to confront it regularly. Archaeologists expect other archaeologists to spring from anthropology departments and look askance at an historian in the ranks, almost as one would look at a fifth columnist. Historians on the other hand, often draw a blank when archaeological issues come up, and peer through narrowed eyes wondering why I would care about them in the first place. Because this is such a personal topic for me I have chosen to write this very personal paper in a very personal way.
Without departments of historical archaeology on American campuses there is no real academic home for hybrids like myself, and this situation is exacerbated by historians' and anthropologists' assumption that historical archaeologists will be anthropologists first. I came to archaeology through history, heavily aided by The College of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg's graduate history and historical archaeology apprenticeship program. Over the years this courageous outlier program has trained well over two dozen historians in archaeology's field methods and theories. Most students do a few summers in the Virginia heat and then move on to become materially sensitive historians. A few, like myself, have spent more time with archaeology and have made it part of our regular work.
I have had the good fortune to do my digging in eastern Virginia, mostly under the auspices of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and primarily at two seventeenth-century plantation sites: Rich Neck Plantation and Williamsburg's Nassau Street Ordinary site. Virginia's tidewater provides a unique opportunity for scholars of the seventeenth century. The combination of a thin document base and, until recent decades, relatively light real-estate development made the Chesapeake a hub for statistical historical methods and an endlessly rewarding world for archaeology. The absence of documents and the abundance of archaeological data would seem to make the Chesapeake an interdisciplinary paradise, while there certainly is a great deal of contact between the region's various practitioners, true synthesis has not been forthcoming.
Writing in 1983, historian James Whittenburg, a key founder and sustainer of William and Mary's archaeology apprenticeship program, waxed optimistic about the prospects for a scholarly convergence of history and historical archaeology in the Chesapeake. Although he deemed himself an outsider, Whittenburg was and is a historian with a long excavation association and as such is somewhat less of an outsider than he suggested. For Whittenburg the statistical social science approach of the "New Social Historians" provided a real possibility for a bridges between history and a then increasingly science-oriented historical archaeology. In those heady days, when a social science approach to the past was eroding the well established supremacy of political, diplomatic, and intellectual histories, it seemed that a common interest in figures and data sets could unite those who dug in the ground and those who dug in colonial records. Both disciplines embraced scientific rigor and ever-more-available computers to create an explosion of Chesapeake scholarship--work that, for the most part, still dominates. For all his optimism about possible cooperation in the future, Whittenburg was, however, markedly glum about the level of cooperation and communication he saw around him. For all of historians' and archaeologists' shared interests, data bases, and regional foci, Whittenburg wrote, they "may as well be working on different continents."
Things are not much better today. Historians and archaeologists continue to talk past each other and not see the value in each other's work. As someone caught in the middle of this indifference I have the misfortune to be able to see the validity of each side's criticism of the other. The New Archaeology's strident renunciation of history has softened into a pragmatic recognition of the utility of documents, but many archaeologists still see historians as purveyors of highly subjective rubbish. There certainly is some truth there. There is no shortage of jingoistic ancestor worship that lauds the heroism of great dead men while imagining them to have been just like us but with funny clothes and hair cuts, but the field of history is far too large to be painted with one damning brush. For every theoretically uninformed historian, there is another struggling with the problems implicit in interpreting the fallible writings of people so different from ourselves.
Similarly, when historians claim that archaeology can offer little more than an expensive validation of things we already knew, they touch a raw nerve. There is some truth in this just as surely as there is truth in archaeological criticism of history. The real sticking point is that there is an unequal dependency between the two fields. Secondary historical literature--historiography--is the stuff of historians' lives and it shapes historical archaeologists' concerns as surely as it shapes those of historians. It prioritizes, informs, and directs archaeological research. It creates entire arenas of investigation--colonization, slavery, and economic fluctuation, for example, are all historiographic constructions which deeply interest historical archaeologists. Take slavery: archaeology can locate ethnic and economic variation in the ground, but the vital and defining knowledge that these peoples were enslaved comes from history, oral tradition, or folklore, but not archaeology. Any ethnographic archaeological study of slave practices, habitation patterns, family structure, and so on is dependent on knowing that the institution existed in a given place and a given time. Without that historically derived knowledge, all one studies is diversity.
Ultimately, historical archaeology is intertwined with history and historiography at its core. Therefore it is vital that archaeologists interact with historiographies in creative ways. More importantly perhaps, archaeologists need to create their own archaeologically informed narratives so that the resulting historiography will better reflect archaeological concerns and findings and in turn be of greater use to archaeologists. In short, archaeologists have been the consumers of historians' work--they now need to become producers.
Too often archaeologists let their work sit in the shadow of regional historical writing, creating the illusion that the discipline is nothing more than an appendage. Most often this happens when archaeologists allow regional secondary literature to establish the framework for investigation. By using the arguments and research priorities of one or two local historians as the background for a study, archaeologists surrender the reigns of research to work that is not sensitive to or derived from materially based questions. In the Chesapeake, one of the best examples is the way in which noted historian Edmund Morgan's magnificent American Slavery American Freedom dominates the interpretive side of historical archaeological work. Morgan's timing and priority of events as well as his vision of what motivated seventeenth-century Virginians is too often taken as gospel, but what he saw as the defining events in Virginia's history simply may not be what most resonates in the archaeological record.
A more specific example comes from an exhibition that Colonial Williamsburg put on this past summer to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the moving of Virginia's colonial capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg. The exhibit, entitled 1699: When Virginia Was the Wild West, was both courageous and ambitious. It defied boldly the traditional form of museum material culture presentation by presenting its entire story in the form of an enormous comic book. Visitors walked past eight-foot high panels drawn in living color by a D.C. Comics artist and even got to see 1676 Virginia rebel Nathaniel Bacon and friends burn a plantation in 3-D. The exhibit also displayed one of the finest collections of seventeenth-century archaeologically recovered artifacts ever assembled. What visitors, and there were many of them, could not have detected was the disjuncture between the historical narrative they read and the one suggested by the artifacts and reconstructions they viewed.
The exhibit's narrative came from the work of the Chesapeake school of social historians--many of the same folks Whittenburg saw as holding the promise to create an interdisciplinary bridge. These historians see the history of the region as a slow progression from rude economic pragmatism to a stratified but solid social order with gentility at the top and hard work and emulation at the bottom. Chesapeake archaeologists, however, see a rich diversity of material culture at many levels of English Virginia society throughout the seventeenth century. The exhibit's narrative tells the story of an evolutionary rise of a particular type of elite gentility made possible by good economic times, but the words on the panels overlook artifacts and reconstructions that suggest a gradual change in the presentation of an elite gentility that was always part of Virginia life.
One small point, admittedly, but an illustrative one. The exhibit shows how the historian-archaeologist relationship has functioned in the Chesapeake: archaeological evidence mismatched and made to serve a narrative not of its creation. Had the exhibit been prepared from the archaeology outwards, the entire story might have been different, focusing instead on the changing shape of the Virginia home lot and its relationship to English Atlantic culture, or on how colonial power relations played themselves out in the region's landscape and ecology. There are any number of reasons why that did not happen at this exhibit, and my point here is not to criticize its skillful and daring designers. What is important here is that by taking secondary literature as a starting point, as the exhibit did, archaeologists run the risk of hamstringing their own evidence and short-changing the archaeological record. If secondary historical literature--essentially a literature of document-inspired priorities--sets the stage, then archaeological findings are forced into the handmaidenesque role of confirming or denying historical arguments.
There is an irony here. As archaeologists have gotten better and better at using site-specific and material culture documentation, much of the resulting work has begun to look more and more like social history. In many cases the artifact or the structure provide entrée into the topic, but the findings are largely documentary. Meanwhile historians are becoming more and more concerned with anthropological issues. The essentially anthropologically derived concerns of gender, class, and race dominate recent historical writing. Even in a Chesapeake scholarship still dominated by New Social Historians, one of the region's most read books is Pulitzer prize-winning historian Rhys Isaac's The Transformation of Virginia, a book heavily indebted to the writing of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and one of the most acclaimed new books is University of Pennsylvania historian Kathleen Brown's gendered analysis of Chesapeake society, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. At a time when historians are more and more ready to seriously move across disciplinary lines, an increasing number of archaeologists seem to be moving away from anthropology as a meaning maker. Historians won't listen to archaeologists who look like historians, and archaeological evidence hanging on a framework that historians themselves created simply looks uninteresting and derivative. Harry Truman's old political zinger comes to mind--"In a race between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican will win." What Give-'em-Hell Harry meant was that Democrats should be Democrats. Without the political association, what I mean is that if archaeologists want to have a greater impact on the writing of history, they should employ historical archaeology's unique combination of history, anthropology, and material focus to unsettle the very ground historians walk on. The timing is right, and if archaeologists can write anthropologically inspired large-scale histories that address real absences in the historical record and draw on a diversity of historiographies, the handmaiden shadow will disappear.
The key to grabbing hold of the discussion is to find the right point of entry, to find a real absence in the record. A few years ago we held an open house at the Rich Neck site. Over its 1640-1700 life span, Rich Neck was the home to three of seventeenth-century Virginia's big-name secretaries of the colony--Richard Kemp, Sir Thomas Lundford, and Thomas Ludwell--as well as dozens of slaves and servants. The site has yielded thousands of artifacts as well as the remains of two brick buildings and five post buildings. All told, we had about 500 people come by to visit our two building lots in a newly developing suburban neighborhood, and we were pretty happy with the positive feedback and general interest.
Among the visitors were several of the big names in Virginia Colonial history. We welcomed the opportunity to share our thoughts and findings with some of the men who had been so prominent in the shaping of our picture of Virginia's seventeenth century. As I stood there with my colleagues and the VIP guests, I was struck by how we simply could not convey the import of what we saw. They were defiantly interested in the site. After all, the Ludwells were central members of Virginia's ruling Greenspring faction and major actors in the servile tumult of Bacon's Rebellion, and Rich Neck was the site of several interesting events surrounding that 1670s revolt. Simply standing on the site and looking into its well built tile-floored cellars had an unquestionable emotional effect. But we had spent five seasons (we will have spent seven before we finish next year) removing every one-meter plow zone unit by hand and creating one of the most detailed and nuanced intra-site chronologies in the business. We had devoted considerable time to understanding the change in lot shape and use, and we had done phytolith analysis area by area. Our historian guests received this information gracefully and showed polite interest, but as the conversation slowly drifted back to Edmund Morgan it was clear that what we saw as research potential, they saw as incomprehensible jargon. I know that many archaeologists have had their versions of this experience, but this was my first.
The failure to communicate was more than a question of discipline-specific language. It was not that they did not care, what really was at work was that they were not thinking of the landscape in the same way we were. Historians have never really given space its proper due. Space has tended to be a neutral, naturalized, and stagnant plain--a bare and unchanging stage on which historic actors play their parts--but rarely has the stage been an active participant in events, culture, and meaning. Coaxed by historical geographers among others, some historians have begun to see space and spatial arrangements as sitting more in the center of historical events. I don't mean central in the way that a military historian would see a particular copse of trees or rocky ridge as being the key to a battlefield. I mean rather the way that geographer Edward Soja, material culture specialist Dell Upton, or archaeologist Christopher Tilley might see a culturally conditional spatial setting as shaping ideas and culture and hence the action of past peoples. These kinds of spaces are so well addressed by archaeology. An archaeology that focuses on these kinds of spatial relations, be they on a city block, small farm, or large plantation, addresses an arena that no other field of study can get at as well.
A quick chat on an open-site day was not the best setting for building interdisciplinary understanding, but in their blank looks I saw an open door. An increasing number of historians are becoming sensitive to the importance of landscape. The door was opened by ecological historians like William Cronon, and it remains for archaeologists to exploit the breech. Spatial relations are only one the of holes in the documentary record. I'm sure there are plenty more. The problem is that historians can only point out holes that are created by documentary concerns and therefore are structured for documentary answers. Archaeologists need to find the real holes of which the historiography itself is not even aware.
Many historical archaeologists have contented themselves with the idea that they can speak for those left out of the documentary record. Historians laugh at that claim and reply that the disenfranchised are alive and loud in the documents--half of which derive from elites' attempts to control those pesky and insubordinate subordinates. Historian Philip Morgan's award-winning 600-page account of eighteenth-century slave cultures, Slave Counterpoint, and noted Chesapeake scholar Lorena Walsh's masterful From Calabar to Carter's Grove (both of which use some archaeological evidence, but rely principally on archival research) stand as powerful rebuttals to those who would claim that history cannot address the lives, thoughts, and practices of the disenfranchised. The real holes in the documentary record transcend established historical categories and need theory for plugging. Both historians and archaeologists have seen historical archaeology as a check on the documents or a material way to answer questions that historians derived from non-archaeological research. Instead, historical archaeologists need to recognize that many historians are struggling to find meaning and that the discipline's unique position, straddling the line between history and anthropology, gives historical archaeology unique power. Using that power will relegate handmaiden status to the past once and for all.
Philip Levy divides his time between the College of William and Mary Department of History and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Department of Archaeological Research.
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