By: Lotte Govaerts, Pre-doctoral Researcher and Volunteer.
In the mid-20th century a massive effort was made to survey and excavate low-lying areas of multiple river valleys in advance of flooding due to dam construction. These River Basin Surveys encompassed parts of the Missouri River and other waterways in the United States. Here in the Rogers Archaeology Lab, I am studying some of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)’s collections associated with historic sites excavated during the River Basin Surveys. I will be reporting on my research in a series of posts on this blog. I will start with an introduction to historical archaeology, as the field might not be familiar to everyone. So, what exactly IS historical archaeology?
Historical archaeology is a subdiscipline of archaeology. Its exact definition has been the topic of some debate as the field has grown over the past several decades (see, for example, this series of articles from the early days of the Society for Historical Archaeology). In the strictest sense, historical archaeology is the archaeology of societies that left behind historical records. These records are generally written materials, but oral histories can also be used. The historic period begins at very different times in different parts of the world. To make things more complicated, between “prehistory” and “history” there is a grey area, usually referred to as “protohistory”. So, this strict definition is even more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
In practice, the above definition of historical archaeology is seldom used. Historical archaeologists certainly make use of written records, but not all research that involves written records is classified as “historical archaeology”. For example, the writings of Meso-American cultures are studied by archaeologists, but their work is not generally considered to be “historical archaeology”. The same is true for fields such as Egyptology and Classical (Greek and Roman) Archaeology.
The term “historical archaeology” most commonly refers to a narrower aspect of archaeology, namely the archaeology of the modern period with a focus on colonial and post-colonial contexts influenced by European Imperialism. I have heard some people define it as the archaeology of imperialism, colonialism, or capitalism. The Society for Historical Archaeology defines historical archaeology on its webpage as the archaeology of “the emergence, transformation, and nature of the Modern World.” However, the terminology is used mostly for sites outside of Europe. In Europe, researchers prefer to use “post-medieval archaeology”.
In North America, historical archaeology generally means the study of “post-contact” sites, that is to say, sites that postdate the arrival of Europeans. This includes anything from approximately 1500 through the twentieth century (Archaeological methods can be used on subjects from the very recent past, including the 21st century, but this isn’t common). The starting point for the historic period in the Americas is slightly fuzzy, as European contact did not take place for all native peoples at the same time. Moreover, European trade goods (and infectious diseases!) preceded actual Europeans into the inland. We often refer to these trade goods as “historic artifacts” (as opposed to prehistoric artifacts). However, native sites containing a few European trade artifacts but where the inhabitants haven’t “made contact” with Europeans, are usually called “protohistoric”. “Historic” is typically only used for sites that have contemporary written sources associated with them. Therefore context and subject matter are more important than dates when defining the boundaries of historical archaeology in North America.
Historical archaeologists studying the period of European arrivals investigate topics such as early culture contact and the ways colonists formed settlements and adapted to new environments. In the study of later periods, topics of interest include how the struggle for independence manifests itself in the material culture, the lives of enslaved or newly free people, urbanization, industrialization, the archaeology of institutions such as prisons and asylums, conflict and warfare, farmsteads, factories and labor, capitalism, mass production, transportation systems, trade networks, infrastructure, and the intersection of any of those with class, race, and gender.
Some people might question the use of archaeology to study cultures or time periods for which we have ample historic records available. While such records certainly are of great importance to historians and historical archaeologists, they can’t tell us everything we wish to know about the past. For example, historical records often lack details about people’s daily lives – details that are reflected in the material culture studied by historical archaeologist. Even more importantly, most societies or groups that left behind written records also included large cohorts of people who did not write, or who were not written about.
The interest in using historical archaeology to study poorly documented members of societies is a somewhat recent trend. In previous generations the field of archaeology focused largely on sites that were of historical importance, that is to say, those associated with famous people, events, or locations. This is true for historical archaeology as well. Some of the more well-known historical sites where archaeologists have been working for decades are those associated with early presidents’ homes, (Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon, for example), and early colonial towns like the site of the English settlement at Jamestown.
However, for several decades now, historical archaeologists have increasingly focused on people who are far less visible in the historical record. For example, written records about slavery are generally from the point of view of those who did the buying and selling of human beings, in the form of record keeping, or possibly discussions on the morality of slavery. Written sources from the point of view of the enslaved are more rare. Archaeology can help shed light on those lives and the lives of other groups of people (the urban poor, tenant farmers, women working in brothels, Native American kids at boarding schools, etc.) who have traditionally been underrepresented in historical records, and who have been underrepresented as subjects of study as well.
The well-known historic sites have had researchers working on them for decades. These well-funded programs often engage in a high level of public outreach, complete with informative websites (See for example Monticello Archaeology, Mount Vernon Archaeology, Jamestown Rediscovery, Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology, and perhaps less famous on a national level, but still considered historically important for the history of the western expansion of the US, the site of Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers). On these websites, researchers publish articles discussing their latest findings, and often have their artifact collections available for viewing. In visiting these websites, it is apparent that the contributing archaeologists have been devoting ample attention to the not-so famous people of the historic sites, and their day-to-day activities.
There are other historical archaeology projects focused solely on “obscure” sites (in the sense that they are not associated with any particularly famous people or events) that also do great outreach including extensive websites, for example “New Philadelphia” in Illinois and the African Burial Ground in New York.
Not all historical archaeology work gets reported on fancy websites or in academic publications. All around the country, a great deal of less publicized work is conducted in the context of Cultural Resources Management (CRM). In these studies, archaeologists discover and/or examine sites during legally required archaeological surveys or mitigation projects (related to new construction or repairs after natural disasters). These types of projects produce results that often only appear in technical reports filed with the State Archaeology offices. I am certainly not alone in dreaming of a day when all the information from such reports will be easily accessible as reference material.
My dissertation research and the work I’m doing here at the Rogers Archaeology lab studies mostly sites ranging from the late 18th to early 20th century (hence the use of 19th century examples in most of my figures). There is an abundance of historic documents available from this time period. Local courthouses have documents such as birth, death, and marriage records, wills, property deeds, and probate inventories. Many of those document collections date back all the way to the founding of the county, although courthouses full of paper have been known to burn down, especially those in areas where Civil War fighting took place. Stores and manufacturers sometimes have store records, trade catalogs, and advertising archives. Local and national libraries
have items like personal communication collections full of letters, postcards, and personal journals. There are also vast collections of historic photographs, newspapers, and maps in repositories around the country. Other records like patent claims and census data are available as well. The list is nearly endless. As I report on my research in future blog posts, I will detail the specific historic sources I used, and what I used to find them.
As you can see, the definition of historical archaeology can be broad (any study of societies that have writing) or narrow (modern colonial and post-colonial societies outside of Europe). In my research, I will be using documentary as well as archaeological sources to study sites in the Upper Missouri River basin. One challenge of this work is that the sites under investigation have long been submerged or destroyed. The archaeological surveys and excavations were done by other people, long before I was even born. Therefore my work addresses the historical archaeology of the sites solely through the collected data and artifacts from the River Basin Surveys and any associated historical documents I can identify. I look forward to sharing my ongoing research on this blog. In my next blog post, I will discuss how historical archaeology fits into the River Basin Surveys.
Deetz, James 1977/1996 In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York.
Ferguson, Leland 1992 Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hall M. and S. Silliman (eds.) 2006 Historical Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hicks, Dan and Mary C. Beaudry (eds.) 2006 The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Orser, Charles E. 2004 Historical Archaeology, New Jersey
South, Stanley 1977. Method and Theory in Historical Archaeology. New York.
Scott, Elizabeth M. (ed.) 1994 Those of Little Note: Gender, Race, and Class in Historical Archaeology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Spector, Janet D. 1993 What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.