The Ethics of Historical Archaeology
Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons…
Since the SHA was formed in 1967 scholars have acknowledged the complex global relationships between local sites and broader international social, material, and political currents. The truism to “think globally, dig locally” has been repeated many times by historical archaeologists and figures in nearly every textbook definition of the discipline, but for various reasons we have been slow to mount ambitious international projects. Many of those reasons are simply practical realities: for instance, it is often expensive to launch excavations in international contexts; learning the scholarship and culture of a whole other place—even a seemingly similar one—can be exceptionally demanding; and developing a network of local scholars to support archaeology of the recent past—and the last half-millennium is recent in many international contexts—takes significant patience. Yet I write all this from a train platform in York, England, where I have spent much of the past year doing exciting collections research with post-medieval colleagues in the UK. While all the things that make us reluctant to launch international research are true, there are enormous possibilities for scholars who want to conduct ambitious international projects. There are rich bodies of data that colleagues are willing to share with us, and in my experience those colleagues in places like Britain and Europe have been universally interested in sharing their scholarship and data and building projects spanning the Atlantic.
I spent a week in September, 2011 in York working with decorative materials from Hungate, which has a nearly unparalleled ambition to examine two millennia of continuous occupation of a ten-acre site in the heart of York. While York is best-known for its Viking history, and it is in a region with a rich history of Roman archaeology, it has a post-medieval archaeological record that includes 18th century domestic material as well as tenements from the mid- 19th-century into the 1930s. It is those latter materials I looked at in York, since my work looks at tenement life in Indiana, and I am interested in broad international patterns in the construction of poverty and the process of displacing people from “slum” contexts in the 20th century throughout the world. The York Archeological Trust has devoted the same thorough attention to that tenement period as it has given to the Roman, Viking, and medieval material from Hungate, and the record of all those periods is exceptionally rich. Like most of us, they want their research to be useful to scholars outside narrow archaeological specializations and outside Great Britain itself, and the York Archaeological Trust has a long record of running public programs examining the northern British city’s heritage as revealed by extensive archaeological research. They were kind enough to share much of their decorative material culture—figurines, display ceramics, and assorted household goods—to examine what it meant to be impoverished in York and assess how that compares to impoverishment in the US and places like Indianapolis.
Hungate is the single largest excavation ever conducted in York, which has been the scene of relatively continuous occupation for at least two millennia. Today York remains circled by well-preserved perimeter defensive walls, and it has exceptional architectural preservation of astounding sites including Clifford’s Tower, the massive York Minster, and numerous medieval structures that welcome numerous tourists throughout the year. The York Archaeological Trust began excavations in York in 1972 and has excavated sites that reach across several millennia, with particularly rich work on the Viking period that led to the creation of the JORVIK Viking Centre. Working across so many periods demands a vast range of specialists, and the Hungate team includes Romanists, medievalists, and post-medievalists alike who focus on historical research, zooarchaeology, ceramics, assorted small finds, and every other possible specialization.
What should interest many North American historical archaeologists is that the Hungate scholars have found quite a lot of community interest in the post-medieval archaeology on the site, especially the tenement period that is within the memory of many residents. Where the post-medieval period was once something overlying the “real” archaeology, the Hungate team recognized that there are local constituencies and an international scholarly community interested in these most recent material remains. Much of that work has examined how poverty was constructed in 19th and 20th century York, and they hosted a conference in 2009 on the archaeology of poverty that included North American scholars such as Mary Beaudry, Charles Orser, Adrian Praetzellis, Diana Wall, and Rebecca Yamin. That work subsequently was part of an SHA session in 2011 that included Hungate Project Director Peter Connelly and Historical Researcher Jayne Rimmer. In addition to a forthcoming journal collection from the project, the Hungate team plans an ambitious series of technical reports and accessible public scholarship.
Many North American historical archaeologists are interested in the same issues as our Atlantic World, European, Latin American, and Pacific colleagues, and there are increasingly more grants targeting international research and encouraging American graduate students to work with data outside the US. My own University was exceptionally supportive providing seed grants to conduct the work in York as well as trips to work in museums and universities in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Finland. For those who cannot make it overseas because of cost and all the genuine practical realities, though, there are still enormous possibilities as increasingly more scholarship is digitized and many of our once-distant colleagues are accessible electronically. With the 2013 SHA Conference set for Leicester, we will have the chance to meet many of those British and European colleagues, so start planning ahead and think about extending your work to international settings.