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Introduction: The Stuff of Histories and Cultures

Lu Ann De Cunzo

What comes to mind when you think of archaeology? Pith-helmeted adventurers traversing jungles and deserts in search of great treasures? The thrill of first peering through the dimly lit entrance to a tomb? But how about a white-haired gentleman in a fedora steering an old Volkswagen bus full of students through a picturesque cemetery, stopping to scrutinize marble lambs and praying hands? Or a tall, lanky man with an infectious sense of humor lecturing about clipped poodles and Medusa-headed gravestones? Or a petite blond woman leading a team through the wet heat of Hispaniola’s sugarcane fields and banana gardens in search of the places Spanish and Native American peoples first encountered each other? Doesn’t sound familiar? Are you wondering what new Hollywood release or New York Times bestseller you’ve missed? None--at least not if you’d been looking for these three real-life archaeologists.

Fifteen years before I ever met that white-haired archaeologist in a fedora I learned on my own what he spent a lifetime advocating: archaeology has a fundamental role in education, to galvanize kids’ interest in discovery. For me the epiphany came when I was eight, as I crept along in a cotton field in search of arrowheads. I was with a family friend who was a collector, not an archaeologist, but the distinction meant nothing to me then. I cared only about discovering those bits of stone that lie scattered on the ground. Someone had shaped them into tools centuries ago, and then broken and thrown them away. No one had touched them since. I was hooked.

In 1978, I had the good fortune to be among the students in that Volkswagen bus. The gentleman was John Cotter, the last semester he taught a course he had introduced to American universities, American historical archaeology {sidebar#1 here}. We were on the legendary Halloween tour of Philadelphia’s cemeteries, learning how death could help us understand life, asking why eighteenth-century Quakers marked graves with small stones carved with the person’s names or initials, and why Victorian Philadelphians created romantic landscaped parks for their dead, complete with classical obelisks and towering mausoleums. By the time we took that tour, John Cotter had trained a generation of American historical archaeologists. He taught us an historical archaeology fundamentally simple in concept, profoundly difficult to accomplish. Archaeologists worth a damn try to evoke enough of the past to make it a semblance of life. Archaeology worth a damn is relevant. “There is an archaeology of everything. Computers have an archaeology beginning, of course, with your 10 fingers.”

I had already learned that the best archaeologists want to know the people of the past, not just the things they left behind. James Deetz taught me that in his lectures on poodles and gravestones, what archaeologists and others call material culture {sidebar#2 here}. What do we mean by material culture? Well, Deetz explained, it’s fish hooks, office buildings, banjos, Freaky cereal and the little band of plastic Freakies which dwells in the box, the box, standing rib roast, apple pies, jumbo jets, step ladders, borders of perennial flowers, tattoos, a knotted rope, clipped poodles, and everything else people have made or done to their environment inspired by their culture. All these things carry messages from their makers and users. Archaeologists try to decode the messages, because you can understand people only if you understand these things that people made {sidebar#3 here}.

The year I studied American material culture with James Deetz, his classic book, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, had just been published. It opens with a series of brief vignettes. Set along the eastern seaboard between Virginia and Massachusetts, spanning the years 1658 to 1932, and featuring an enslaved African-American pastry chef, a carpenter, a gravestone carver, a banjo picker, a tobacco planter, and an estate appraiser, the vignettes captured many of Deetz’s wide-ranging research interests. His stories of these Americans related them to their material world. Together with the written documents people left behind and the oral stories they passed from one generation to the next, these material remains tell us about people’s everyday experiences, and what they thought of their lives and their world.

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This is what defines historical archaeology: an attention to the everyday world of all peoples, approached from multiple perspectives. The existence of written historical records distinguishes our method from that of prehistoric archaeology, the archaeology of peoples who communicated and transmitted their cultural heritage without a means of translating their language into writing. Historical archaeology is at once history and anthropology; historical archaeologists seek to understand the cultural processes and human experiences that produced the world we live in today. In North America, it is the archaeology of the modernizing world. The earliest written records document European exploration, colonization, and conquest beginning with Norse voyagers. These records, when read in the context of material culture and oral traditions, tell the stories of peoples from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia encountering each other and the North American environment over the course of many centuries. They tell the “big” stories of immigration, contact, contest, capitalism, racism, slavery, and ethnicity, viewed from the perspectives of individual lives lived locally. Archaeological remains teach us what historical documents cannot about these things, enhancing and amplifying history and making it more meaningful to people.

James Deetz thought and wrote most extensively about a dramatic change that occurred in Anglo-Americans’ view of the world beginning in the eighteenth century, one that still shapes our views today. In the “old” world, many families ate, slept, worked, and entertained together in one- or two-room houses. They didn’t worry that the front windows in the house didn’t match. They shared plates, spoons, and mugs, tossed trash wherever it was most convenient. In contrast, order and control, balance, mechanics, science, and individuality marked this new way of thinking about oneself, others, and the world.

But why did it happen? As a result of what we know as the “scientific revolution,” religion became less and less the central, integrating factor of many people’s lives. Accumulating wealth and material possessions took on a new and powerful meaning in a free-enterprise economy. By the opening of the eighteenth century, the framework of beliefs that had given comfort and support to society was cracking, and Anglo-Americans saw a world becoming more complex. They compensated by making dramatic changes to their material culture, imposing balance and order on a world spinning out of their control. The results? New houses with central doors flanked by matching windows to create visual symmetry. Behind the façade, a central hall lined with closed doors and a stairway to the second floor. Parlors for entertaining downstairs in the front, kitchen and other work areas hidden from public view in the back, bed chambers--one for each family member--upstairs for privacy. Gardens planned according to precise geometric formulae to make the house seem larger, and planted with carefully clipped trees and hedges signifying human control over nature. Sets of dining wares with ever-growing numbers of special forms like dishes for butter pats and oyster forks. Trash buried out of sight far from the house, not scattered about the yard. Gravestones with Medusa-like heads shaped by carvers trying new images to represent new ideas about death and God.

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To a baby boomer who grew up in the sixties, studies of such “cultural revolutions” held a certain attraction. At a time when the “girls love dirt” t-shirt I now wear would have appalled mothers like mine, women weren’t an especially welcome sight on an archaeological site in North America. That’s how Kathleen Deagan, “girl archaeologist,” as she was called, became my role model {sidebar#4 here}. She knew about being denied jobs on excavations because men assumed she wouldn’t know how to deal with the bulldozers and because her presence would mean having to dig a separate latrine.

Historical archaeology for the boomer generation wasn’t just about getting women into the field. The civil rights and feminist movements made an impression on our thinking and our work (see Cultures in Contact). Deagan agrees that the best historical archaeology deals with the daily lives of all classes and all races of people in America and the ways they shaped the world in which they lived. This means we often deal with the “underside” of American history. The stories of voluntary and forced immigrants excluded from the “American dream” are as much a part of our history as the stories of those men and women who created the “dream,” and indeed, believed they lived it. We’re in a unique position to help understand the history of slavery, imperialism, our class system and consumer culture, and the accelerating rate at which North Americans are degrading the environment, among many other topics. To do so, however, requires that we work with written records and oral histories as well as material culture, food remains, and environmental evidence from our excavations.

Deagan has tried to explain what happened when Native American, Spanish, and African men, women, and children came into contact with one another in Spanish Florida and the Caribbean. At the early sixteenth-century Spanish town of Puerto Real on Hispaniola, for example, she has uncovered the origins of many processes that ultimately created the modern Americas. The Spanish government purposely placed Puerto Real and other towns to control and exploit the island’s native peoples and natural resources and to firmly establish Spanish town life as an institution on the colonial frontier. Here the Spanish first experimented with a colonial system in the New World.

As European diseases struck down the native peoples, the Spanish replaced them with other Indians and Africans brought to the town against their will to live and work in bondage. Their interactions created a biological and cultural heritage reflecting both the European presence and the persistence and influence of Indians and Africans. Women—particularly Indian and African women—served as a primary link between the three peoples and their cultures. As wives, concubines, and servants to Spanish men, they produced the multiracial population and multicultural identity that defines much of Latin America today. They interwove their own traditions with those of the Spanish to create new ones suited to the environment and economy of colonial Hispaniola. Most critically, they developed a cuisine incorporating meat from European animals able to adapt to the tropical environment, and locally available foods. Their innovations literally ensured the survival of Puerto Real’s residents.

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Across America, other archaeologists are also devoted to helping people take back their history. Suzanne Spencer-Wood’s commitment to women’s history led her to research women’s reform movements in Boston. Her work has challenged us to rethink the impact women had on the public landscapes of nineteenth-century cities. Many of the sites she documented, such as working women’s homes, playgrounds, kindergartens, and domestic science schools, are now included on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trails. Similar projects across the continent are bringing alive women’s accomplishments in the past. In the west, a group of archaeologists involved in the Colorado Coal Field War Archaeology Project with Randall McGuire of Binghamton University, are also pursuing clear political goals. In 1914, Colorado National Guard troops killed twenty striking coal miners and family members in what became known as the infamous Ludlow Massacre. The Massacre marked a turning point in United States labor history, and historians have mined the rich collection of documents and photos that recorded the strike and the culminating catastrophe. But none of the studies explored the miners’ lives, the conditions that led them to strike, or their living and working conditions during or after the strike. Archaeologists have. Perhaps the most important question their project has posed is “How could this have happened in America?” The reality of class conflict is widely ignored in the history we learn in our classrooms. The Colorado Coal Field War project is dedicated to changing that, and to assisting union laborers and their families in remembering this past.

These North American historical archaeologists share a common goal of creating a sharper, richer image of the forces and the people that influenced North American history. We all start with individual places like Puerto Real, and the unique array of objects, building foundations, and plant and animal remains that make up the archaeological site. We agree these things are meaningless except in contexts that range from the local to the global. But how do we move from the local to the global in our studies? Which groups of people should receive our greatest attention? The Native American women who married Spanish craftsmen in Puerto Real? The European immigrant men who imposed the Spanish vision in the Caribbean? The enslaved African men who replaced native laborers? And on what should we focus as we try to unravel their complex interactions? The opportunities and limitations of the Caribbean environment? The different cultural traditions of Native, African, Spaniard? The role that gender played in organizing life? The colonial economy? On these points, we don’t agree, and that provides historical archaeology with its richness. Indeed many would add other issues to this list if given the chance.

In this book, we gave that chance to a team of thirty North American historical archaeologists working in different parts of the continent studying different time periods from different perspectives. And many others offered their ideas as the book developed. We don’t all agree about how to explain the past, or how and what to present about what we learn and how to make the history of our cultures useful in the present. We spent a lot of time discussing these issues, and this book is the result. Unlocking the Past represents a subjective view of a field characterized by a diversity of approaches, experiences, and views about the most significant contributions our work makes to historical and anthropological scholarship. Our selections do not attempt to establish a canon of most important people, places, and studies in our field, and we have deliberately not thought about the book as a historical archaeology textbook. Our goal is to introduce our readers to the fascinating “underground” world of historical archaeology, and to guide you to other sites, books, films, and web pages where you may learn more. The Society for Historical Archaeology, the international professional association for historical archaeologists, has sponsored this project. The society’s web site, www.sha.org, contains an online changing “exhibit” on North American historical archaeology that complements this book, and an expanded guide to internet sources.

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The next five chapters present cultural themes around which much North American historical archaeology has focused, thanks to the pioneering work of John Cotter, James Deetz, Kathleen Deagan, and many others. The voluntary and forced immigration of peoples from around the world and their interaction with native peoples in many ways is the story of North America. “Cultures in Contact” introduces studies of Spanish and Native Americans, African Americans, and Chinese sojourners in America. Colonization by non-native peoples dramatically reshaped North America. “Challenging and Changing Environments” considers the archaeology of environmental change wrought by early colonization and industrial scale mining. “Building Cities” has also re-formed our environment, and urban archaeologists have dug up the past of huge cities like New York and World Heritage cities like Quebec. Yet for centuries, most North Americans lived in farming and manufacturing communities; we look into their world in “Making a Living in Rural America.” The interaction of so many diverse peoples in North America inevitably sparked conflict. Among these “Cultures in Conflict,” we have studied colonial wars, the United States Civil War (here we discuss the war fought on and under water), General Custer’s infamous last stand at Little Big Horn, and even World War II.

For North Americans in the past as in the present, seemingly little and insignificant things accumulated across lifetimes encode the essence of life. Don’t forget these things and the people who made and used them. Through them, we can gain a new appreciation for what life is today, and was in the past. Perhaps James Deetz said it best. Reading what people wrote is not enough. Look at what they have done, he urged. And so, in this book, we will.

In all our work, despite differences in the questions we ask and perspectives we take, historical archaeologists share a crucial goal. We want you to discover this complex history and preserve the places in which Americans forged our multicultural heritage. Look around you. Get involved. Help save our past for the future.

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