- Historic Sites
Digging Up The U.S.
In the underpinnings of our cities, in desolate swampland, beneath coastal waters—wherever the early settlers left traces of their lives—a new generation of archaeologists is uncovering a lost world
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
Later that afternoon we visited the remains of one of these plantations on a ridge overlooking the river. It was here, last summer, that one of Deetz’s graduate students found a circular icehouse more than fifteen feet deep, filled with five distinct layers of artifacts. Most of these artifacts—hand-painted Chinese porcelain with 14-carat-gold decorations, farm tools, building materials, and kitchen refuse—were deposited between 1795 and 1815 after the death of Miles Seiden, the owner of the plantation. Although the house itself was a modest, single-story, wooden structure, the material found in the icehouse reflected considerable affluence. And it should prove to be a treasure trove for those interested in reweaving the fabric of life on a middle-sized Virginia plantation. “Everything old Miles Seiden ever owned ended up in that hole,” Deetz had told me back in Berkeley. “It’s the most spectacular pit I’ve encountered in thirty years of digging-”
As we were leaving the site, David Harrison, the man who put all the pieces of Flowerdew back together—his fourteen-hundred-acre tract roughly follows the boundaries of Yeardley’s original grant—drove up in an ancient Lincoln Continental. A stocky man with a florid face and bushy white eyebrows, he looks like a country squire who just stepped out of the pages of a Henry Fielding novel.
“The good Lord sure made a beautiful spot,” he says with an oratorical flourish, surveying the expanse of land before him.
When he returned to his native Virginia in 1969, Harrison had no idea that the retirement home he bought was an archaeological cornucopia. A maintenance man from William and Mary, who was digging for Indian artifacts upriver, one day asked if he could come down and survey the land. Sure enough, one thing led to another, and Harrison was soon in the business of exploiting his archaeological resources. (“A very excellent way to lose your shirt,” he chuckles.) Now, with plans for an outdoor museum well under way, he seems a bit awed by it all.
“Makes you feel kind of humble,” he says, gazing out at the river. “All those people who have been here before us—and those who’ll be here long after we’re gone. ”
T HAT NIGHT I DROVE to Richmond for a rendezvous with the past. It took me a while to find the place, but there, in a McDonald’s parking lot, holding a white handkerchief by prearranged design, was none other than Pinky Harrington, the man who started it all, the grandfather of historical archaeology in America.
Eighty-one years old now, and remarkably well preserved, Harrington drove me to his nearby apartment, where, joined by his wife, Virginia, we spent two hours digging up the past. It was nearly half a century ago, in 1936, that Harrington, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Chicago, accepted a job as director of archaeology at Jamestown. That fateful appointment would lead him not only to his future wife, whom he was to meet there, but to the development of a whole new academic profession.
Sitting in a straight-backed chair in his modest living room, blinking as if he had just emerged from the darkness, Harrington hardly looks the part of a legendary figure. But his contribution is universally acknowledged.
“With so many people doing historical archaeology these days,” he says, running his fingers through his thin, white hair, “it’s difficult to realize just how little interest there was for it back in the 1930s. Most people just equated archaeology in America with the excavation of Indian sites. They called us ‘tin-can archaeologists.’”
Undaunted, Harrington stayed on at Jamestown until 1941, amassing a vast collection of seventeenth-century artifacts and locating the foundations of many buildings associated with the first permanent English settlement in America. But it wasn’t until after the war, in the course of excavating Fort Raleigh and a number of other historic sites for the National Park Service, that he began to question what he was doing. “Nobody had really thought about it before,” he says. “We were too busy digging and writing reports and recording what we found.”
In 1955 Harrington presented a paper to the American Anthropological Association, the first ever delivered to that group on the subject of historical archaeology. It was titled “Archaeology as an Auxiliary Science to American History,” and in it he attempted to set forth his views on what this new discipline was all about. His assessment was not altogether self-flattering. “It is time we ask specifically what these excavations at historic sites have contributed to American history,” he wrote. “Briefly, it is my contention that their contributions to historical data are considerable; to history , relatively little.”