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American Scene: Rocking the Plymouth Myth Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz

Both the Pilgrims and the much vaunted stone upon which they landed are figments of our fertile imagination.

There is no modern consensus regarding who the Pilgrims were, and little wonder, for the people who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 never perceived themselves as a group who, at the end of the eighteenth century, would come to be known as Pilgrims. What most of us know about the Pilgrims we learned as early as grade school, especially around Thanksgiving time. Stern and godfearing, possessed of the loftiest motives, the women dressed in somber attire with white collars, the men in gray and black, with buckles on their hats, belts, shoes, and for all we know, their undergarments. Some modern Plymouth residents refer to them as the "Grim Pills." This is the image with which we are all so familiar, but its origins lie more in early nineteenth-century America than two hundred years earlier. By the early nineteenth century, the new nation needed a myth of epic proportion on which to found its history. Who better than the Pilgrims, a term which by that time had narrowed its definition to apply solely to the settlers of Plymouth, whose piety, fortitude, and dedication to hard work embodied a set of ideals that could make every American proud? The earliest symbol to be associated with the Plymouth settlers is the famous, or perhaps infamous, chunk of granite known as Plymouth Rock. For a century and a half after the landing of the Pilgrims the rock lay unmarked, almost unnoticed. What facts, if any, support the Rock as the first spot on which the Mayflower passengers set foot? Only a third-hand account.

James Deetz is the Harrison Professor of Historical Archaeology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of In Small Things Forgotten and Flowerdew Hundred. Patricia Scott Deetz is a cultural historian with an M.A. in history from Rhodes University, South Africa. She has worked as a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia for the past seven years. This article is excerpted from their book The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony, © 2000 W.H. Freeman and Company, NY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America