- 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
All this is just a beginning. There are infrared photographs to be developed—pictures Ehrenhard took from an overhanging tree—which are capable of registering subtle variations in soil compactness that may have been caused by long-ago human activity. There are soil samples to be analyzed for their phosphate content, a test which can detect whether human wastes were ever deposited in the area. And there are five other anomalies on the computer maps that are likely sites for further excavation. Of course, the piece of charred wood may turn out to be from a later century, the lumps something other than nailheads, and the doorway not a doorway after all. But if there is any evidence to be found of the lost colony, however insubstantial it might be, Ehrenhard would seem far better equipped to find it than the last archaeologist who passed through here thirty-five years ago.
Back in the late 1940s a man named J. C. (“Pinky”) Harrington, the grandfather of what is known as historical archaeology in America, dug several thousand feet of trenches around the fort looking for remains of the sixteenth-century settlement. The outline of one of his trenches—itself now an artifact of sorts—can be seen along the wall of Ehrenhard’s pit. That Harrington found nothing may be more a function of what he was looking for—bricks, ceramics, bones, and other artifacts traditionally associated with historical archaeological digs—than of what was actually in the ground.
“I don’t expect we’ll make any dramatic discoveries here,” Ehrenhard says, stepping cautiously from the sixteenth-century ground level to the twentieth-century forest floor. “No skeletons or things like that. Any bones would probably have long since decomposed in this soil. And it doesn’t look like the English left much behind. What we have demonstrated, though, is that we now have the techniques at our disposal to dig a site where the cultural material is as ephemeral as it is here.”
He pauses a moment to help one of his crew members lay a sheet of protective plastic over a section of the pit. “The mystique of this place,” he adds, almost wistfully, “has always been in not knowing where the colony was. Well, it looks like it may not be lost much longer.”
W HETHER JOHN Ehrenhard succeeds in unlocking the mystery of the lost colony with his space-age keys remains to be seen. But all across America hundreds of archaeologists like him are busy digging up the countryside—and city streets as well—in search of similar doorways to the past. Indeed, the urge to excavate has become something of a national compulsion. In the last year alone, the federal government has spent more than $100 million on scores of archaeological projects mandated by historic preservation laws. Private foundations, universities, and museums have sponsored countless others. And although professional archaeologists consider them beneath contempt, hordes of treasure hunters have dived for sunken ships, explored caves, and scoured the land with magnetic detectors looking for valuable relics.
Archaeology has long been an accepted academic tool for studying prehistoric cultures in America—Thomas Jefferson, who dug up an ancient burial mound near his home in Monticello, was one of this country’s first practitioners—but it is only in recent years that the same techniques have been systematically applied to a study of the more immediate past. The term historical archaeology , referring to any archaeology done on sites post-dating the arrival of Europeans in America and of written history, was not coined until the mid-1950s. And it was only with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act three years later that the profession was given a much-needed boost. These laws required all federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of their construction projects, including their effect on potential archaeological sites, and to take whatever steps necessary to study or preserve those of historic significance. Funds suddenly became available for contract work, and universities were quick to offer their services. By the time of the Bicentennial, when interest in American history reached, if only temporarily, a feverish pitch, historical archaeology had become not only lucrative but academically respectable.
Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Pinky Harrington was doing his pioneering work at Jamestown and Fort Raleigh, historical archaeology was primarily a tool of architectural reconstruction. The role of the archaeologist was to find the foundation of a historic building or fort and then take a back seat to the architect. Any excavating for artifacts had to be done at a prearranged distance from the site, and sometimes, as at Colonial Williamsburg, the two groups almost came to blows.