Digging Up The U.S.

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The passage of twenty-eight years has not done much to alter his views. Although he retired from the Park Service in 1965, two years before the Society for Historical Archaeology was founded, he has kept up with recent developments in the profession. And he is not altogether pleased with the way things have turned out. For one thing, the union between archaeologists and historians that he once hoped for has not materialized. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, Allan Nevins and Daniel Boorstin among them, the response of historians has been, he says, “terrible.”

The fault is not entirely with the historians. The emphasis on archaeology as science over the past two decades has, if anything, made cooperation even more difficult. Harrington’s criticism that archaeologists have failed to interpret their data in a way that is palatable to historians may be more valid today than when it was first delivered in 1955. “My attitude then, as it is now,” he says, “was that archaeologists could no more develop laws governing why cultures behave as they do than historians could. We always called archaeology a science and, in a methodological sense, it is. We’re very precise. We record everything. We leave little to the imagination. But I’ve always looked at archaeology as a handmaiden to history, not to science.”

Despite all this, Harrington is optimistic. Historical archaeology is still a young profession, he says, and he has no reason to feel any different about its future than he did in 1955 when he concluded his talk to the American Anthropological Association with these words borrowed from the colonial historian Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker: “Perhaps the day is not distant when the social historian, whether he is writing about the New England Puritans, or the Pennsylvania Germans, or the rice planters of South Carolina, will look underground, as well as in the archives, for his evidence.”

That day may soon be breaking. And if Pinky Harrington has his way, he’ll be around to see it.