Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Books: The Blooming of Historical Archaeology Volume 51 Number 2, March/April 1998
by Mary C. Beaudry

Readers of ARCHAEOLOGY have been introduced to historical archaeology largely on a site-by-site basis. Five Points in New York City (see "New York's Mythic Slum," March/April 1997) and Columbus' La Isabela in the Dominican Republic (see "Medieval Foothold in the Americas," July/August 1997) are two recent examples. Invisible America: Unearthing Our Hidden History, the first general reference work about historical archaeology, presents, according to editors Mark Leone and Neil Silberman, literally hundreds of sites and dozens of "unusual and enlightening subjects."

A handsome book, Invisible America is lavishly illustrated with maps, drawings, and black-and-white photographs. Leone, a historical archaeologist at the University of Maryland, and Silberman, an author of several books about archaeology, state in the preface that the book is not an encyclopedia but a "new kind of archaeological guidebook." The work nonetheless has something of an encyclopedic feel to it, consisting of numerous short entries on a variety of topics, grouped into five broad chronological periods ranging from the initial contact between Europeans and Native Americans through the development of corporate America. Each correlates the creation and use of landscape with material culture within an explicit framework (critical theory, a variant of Marxism) that sees "American history as a never-ending dynamic between those who seek to dominate culture, economy, and society, and those who struggle to resist, all within capitalism." This perspective offers an alternative view of American history, one that combines popular culture studies, folklore, and historical archaeology in examining the lives of "largely forgotten American men, women, and children." The topics presented are therefore diverse and, at times, surprising: Native Americans, immigrants, African Americans, missions, subways, world's fairs, teenage culture, cemeteries, suburbia, department stores, patent medicines, fast food, vaudeville, utopias, and skyscrapers. This is just a partial list; the book's scope is dazzling. The editors explain that their interest lies in presenting many of the themes historical archaeologists address, including colonialism, ethnicity, gender, capitalism, diasporas (African, Jewish, etc.), slavery, creolization, frontiers, and modernization.

Throughout the work, no sources are cited; readers seeking additional sources of information are advised to check their libraries for books written by the volume's editors and contributors. Leone and Silberman note that they do not want to overwhelm the reader or clutter up the text with bibliographic entries, nor do they wish to confuse anyone by directing them to works by writers with other points of view. The lack of citations or even a rudimentary list of suggested readings is a serious shortcoming: it limits the utility of the work as a reference and guidebook because it abandons readers wishing to learn more about the topics discussed. Nonetheless, Invisible America is a rich and fascinating smorgasbord of unexpected topics that integrates the study of landscape, architecture, material culture, and ideology under the general rubric of historical archaeology. Its publication in 1996 was a watershed for historical archaeology, heralding its transformation over the past three decades from being a mere tool, "the servant of the historian," as it was described by archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume in 1968, into a vibrant, multidisciplinary exploration of the emergence of the modern world.

In reading Invisible America, I found myself considering the literature of historical archaeology. To what sources would I direct a reader interested in learning more about this burgeoning subfield? What do I consider to be the most influential books in the field, those not just for specialists and graduate students but for anyone hoping to learn more about the subject? I have taught historical archaeology to university and high-school students and to adult volunteers for nearly 20 years; when I began, there were very few suitable books. Since then, their publication has increased exponentially, and I have had to revise my course syllabi constantly to keep up. There are some classic works that I continue to use alongside the newer offerings; a look at these provides a sense of the development of historical archaeology.

The most engaging and prolific writer has been Noël Hume, former director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg. Noël Hume's Historical Archaeology (1968), "a comprehensive guide for both amateurs and professionals to the techniques and methods of excavating historical sites," is now out of print, though still available in second-hand book shops. While portions of the book are woefully out of date and passages have been cited as sexist in language and tone, the chapters that deal with the characteristics of domestic, military, industrial, and burial sites are enormously informative. Noël Hume also wrote A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America (1969), which historical archaeologists commonly refer to as "the bible." It is an invaluable compendium of information on identifying and dating objects commonly recovered from Anglo-American sites predating 1800. Noël Hume sees archaeology as an adjunct to history, as do most archaeologists who received their training outside of North America. American archaeologists are more likely to have been trained as anthropologists and hence bring to historical archaeology different perspectives and interests than historians.

A fine example of an anthropological approach is set out by James Deetz, David A. Harrison Professor of New World Studies at the University of Virginia, in his book In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (1977). Deetz's approach is synthetic, working from data outward, emphasizing qualitative as well as quantitative evaluations, incorporating multiple and complementary lines of evidence, and allying historical documents closely with excavated evidence. His interest lies in the details of everyday life among early colonists, indigenous peoples, and African Americans, and his method involves examining a wide range of evidenceÑarchitecture, gravestones, ceramics, musical instruments, and clay pipes. Deetz developed a three-part model of cultural change in colonial New England based on findings from excavations at a number of sites of Plymouth colonists. His model posited an initial transplantation of English culture to New England in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, followed by a period of relative isolation from the mother country that fostered the emergence of regional folk cultures as colonies developed on their own. Finally, the colonists became "re-Anglicized" and adopted English fashions in architecture and the decorative arts, along with contemporary notions about privacy and the use of household space. Deetz built up the case for his model by reexamining the evidence from sites dating from each phase to elucidate underlying cultural rules reflected in social behavior and material remains. Elsewhere in Plymouth, at the African-American site known as Parting Ways, he found the heritage of the site's occupants expressed in traditional West African architecture, pottery forms, food production and consumption, and mortuary practices. In a revised and expanded edition of In Small Things Forgotten (1996), Deetz reexamines the evidence from Parting Ways in light of the 20 years of research on African-American sites since the book was first published and draws comparisons based on his own recent research in the Chesapeake. Deetz was among the first historical archaeologists to champion the study of minorities and disenfranchised groups, and his crisply written, affordable book is one of the most widely read works in historical archaeology--it has even been translated into Japanese.

Since Deetz's book appeared in 1977, the archaeological study of slavery and African-American culture has grown considerably. Of the many works that have appeared, two monographs stand out: Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America 1650-1800 (1992), by Leland Ferguson, professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolinia, and A Chesapeake Family and Their Slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology (1994), by Anne Yentsch, professor of historical archaeology in the History Department at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. Ferguson's work is a highly readable account of African-American archaeology in the Southeast, synthesizing information from excavations at numerous plantation sites, including the results of his own work at Middleburg Plantation in South Carolina. In a sense, he is recounting his own growth as a scholar of the African-American past, as he attempts to understand the meaning of the archaeological evidence for slave life and to relate African-American culture to its African roots.

Yentsch's book is a comprehensive study of the Calvert family in eighteenth-century Annapolis, Maryland, with several chapters devoted to the archaeological evidence of urban slavery. Yentsch describes her effort as a "historical ethnography"--a study that examines a past culture, insofar as possible, using the methods an anthropologist would employ in gathering, analyzing, and interpreting social activities. She combines extensive documentary research with analysis of material evidence, including paintings and other artwork, within an archaeological perspective that features an intimate knowledge of the environmental setting of Annapolis and the Chesapeake region. Beautifully written, the story Yentsch weaves is a human one; it contrasts the luminous, wealthy life-style of the Calverts with that of the enslaved Africans whose labor supported them.

Historical archaeology's potential to shed light on the unheralded aspects of everyday life is one of its greatest strengths. It can also illuminate some of the darker chapters in the development of the modern world, and it is increasingly seen as a global study of the material impact of colonialism. Charles Orser, professor of anthropology at Illinois State University, and Brian Fagan, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, present such a world perspective in Historical Archaeology (1995), the first textbook of its kind. Like Leone and Silberman, they emphasize a particular ideological viewpoint, historical materialism (sometimes called Marxism), but because their work is intended for use as a textbook the authors provide a general introduction and offer a review of differing perspectives. Orser and Fagan also provide highly useful suggestions for further reading.

Carmel Schrire's Digging Through Darkness: Chronicle of an Archaeologist (1995) is a recent work of incredible power and imagination. A brilliant writer, Schrire combines autobiography, archaeology, and fiction in a compelling and provocative--some would say controversial--narrative about the Dutch colonization of South Africa and the responses of the indigenous Khoikhoi people of the Cape of Good Hope. Schrire credits Noël Hume and Deetz with the inspiration for her study, but she has pushed so far beyond the approach of either that she has introduced a wholly new genre of writing about historical archaeology. The more rigidly scientific among us will never be comfortable with the notion that archaeologists can be storytellers, but Schrire has blazed a trail for others to follow--and they will.

Post-Medieval Archaeology in Britain (1990), by David Crossley, who teaches archaeology and economic history at the University of Sheffield, and The Archaeology of Australia's History (1990), by Graham Connah, professor of archaeology and palaeoanthropology at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, synthesize the results of work in Great Britain and Australia, respectively, and provide useful introductions to the types of sites that have been explored. These two books also serve, indirectly, to highlight the difference noted above between the British and American (or historical and anthropological) approaches to historical sites. Crossley's and Connah's books emphasize economic or historical geography, industry, housing, and so forth; the anthropological influence on American historical archaeology has meant that the themes addressed have been cultural in nature, focusing more on the seemingly prosaic and everyday aspects of life, the nature of struggle, survival, and accommodation among differing groups in society, gender relations, and the construction of cultural and personal identity. North American historical archaeologists seem to have shied away from producing synthetic overviews of their field. Is this because it seems impossible to encompass the field as a whole, given the enormous volume of work that has been done in the United States alone? As a first attempt at such a synthesis, Leone and Silberman's Invisible America offers not just a nontraditional view of American history but a bold survey of the issues that contemporary historical archaeologists explore in their efforts to understand American culture. Here is where the real strength of the work lies.

Mary C. Beaudry is associate professor of archaeology and anthropology at Boston University.

Invisible America:
Unearthing Our Hidden History

M.P. Leone and N.A. Silberman, editors
287 pages. New York:
Henry Holt, 1996. $35.00.
ISBN 0-8050-3525-7
Historical Archaeology. I
Noël Hume
367 pages. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1975
(first published by Alfred
A. Knopf in 1968). $5.95.
ISBN 0-3944-2848-X
A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. I
Noël Hume
331 pages. New York: Vintage Books,
1991 (first published by Alfred
A. Knopf in 1969). $14.95.
ISBN 0-679-72460-5
Historical Archaeology
C.E. Orser, Jr., and B.M. Fagan
291 pages. New York:
HarperCollins, 1995. $26.95.
ISBN 067399094-X
In Small Things Forgotten:
An Archaeology of Early American Life

Expanded and revised edition
J. Deetz, with illustrations by A.E. Grey
285 pages. New York: Anchor Books,
1996 (first published in 1977). $11.00.
ISBN 0-385-48399-6
Post-Medieval Archaeology in Britain
D. Crossley
328 pages. London: Leicester University Press,
1994. First published in 1990.
ISBN 0-7185-1937-X
The Archaeology of Australia's History
G. Connah, D. Hobbs, and J. Mulvaney
176 pages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1994 (first published in 1990 as Of the Hut I Builded). $29.95.
ISBN 0-5214-5475-1
Uncommon Ground:
Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800

L. Ferguson
186 pages. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. $14.95.
ISBN 1-5609-8059-1
A Chesapeake Family and Their Slaves:
A Study in Historical Archaeology

A.E. Yentsch, with illustrations by J. Hunter-Abazza
433 pages. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994. $24.95.
ISBN 0-5214-6730-6
Digging Through Darkness:
Chronicles of an Archaeologist

C. Schrire
Charlottesville: University Press
of Virginia, 1996 (first published 1995). $12.95.
ISBN 0-8139-1692-5

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© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America