Digging Up The U.S.


The mania for reconstruction had largely subsided by the time the second generation of historical archaeologists came of age in the 1950s and ’60s, but the profession still hadn’t shaken its identity crisis. Most of the people who went into the field during this period came out of university anthropology departments, where they had studied prehistoric cultures. They were, by training, social scientists, not historians, and their work tended to reflect this academic bias. The questions they framed, the techniques they used, were designed to help them understand, as scientists, how people behaved. They counted potsherds, measured clay pipestems, and cross-mended bottle fragments in the hope of finding the Rosetta stone that would help them decipher the patterns of cultural change. But because they were treading on historical ground for which there was often extensive written documentation, and because their own knowledge of these periods was usually limited, their contributions to American history remained circumscribed. Their reports, highly technical and poorly written, went unread. Historians, by and large, ignored their efforts. As Bert Salwen, a professor of anthropology at New York University, confesses, “We were reduced to providing little footnotes to history.”

Professional archaeologists consider treasure hunters, looking for relics, beneath contempt.

Within the Society for Historical Archaeology, a professional organization founded in 1967 and now claiming fourteen hundred members, the anthropologists have long held sway. But in recent years a number of respected archaeologists have begun to question this orthodoxy. Men like Ivor Noël Hume at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, James Deetz at the University of California at Berkeley, and Charles Fairbanks at the University of Florida, though by no means in agreement among themselves, have sought to demonstrate that their work can be a valuable tool not only of science but also of history, providing fresh insights into the daily lives of ordinary people whose existences might not otherwise be so well documented. Coming at a time when many historians have taken to rewriting history from the bottom up, this new emphasis on archaeology as social history would seem to hold great promise. Indeed, some of the work being done in this area has already led to a reevaluation of America’s past.

Ivor Noël Hume’s excavation at Wolstenholme Towne on the James River, chronicled in his recent book Martin’s Hundred , is just one example of what such a humanistic approach can offer. His painstaking archaeological resurrection of an all - but - forgotten English settlement wiped out by an Indian massacre in 1622 has shed new light on early-seventeenth-century colonial life. From a single artifact—an ornamental headband found on the skull of a woman probably killed during the massacre—he was able to learn more about the struggle to maintain European standards on the frontiers of civilization than he could from all the written records of the time. “What interests me is why people did what they did,” he explains, “why this particular woman, for example, continued to wear her hair in an old-fashioned style, even though there was no practical reason to do so. The only way to understand this is to really get into a period and wrap it round you like a cloak, pull it down over your head, so you’re thinking the way they did. And that’s where archaeology comes in. It’s a catalyst. It provides opportunities for thought that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

In a somewhat different fashion, James Deetz’s work at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts and more recently at Flowerdew Hundred in Virginia has also enhanced our understanding of the texture of colonial life. By applying a structuralist model to the interpretation of cultural remains, everything from gravestones to tableware to butchered bones—“small things forgotten,” as he calls them—Deetz has been able to decode the unwritten messages left behind by these early settlers. In the transition from death’s-heads to cherubs on colonial gravestones, he saw the change in Puritan attitudes toward death. In the increase in the number of plates and cups that showed up in trash pits over time, and the corresponding decrease in communal vessels, he marked the rise of individualism in colonial America.


Working in a different historical period, Charles Fairbanks has used archaeology as a way of exploring a society about which little written evidence is available—that of Afro-Americans on sea-island plantations off the coast of Georgia. His excavations of slave quarters on St. Simon Island and elsewhere have provided a number of insights about plantation life, some predictable—that blacks ate poorer cuts of meat than whites, for example—and some quite surprising. At almost every site he excavated, Fairbanks found evidence of firearms possession by slaves. He believes the firearms “were hidden by slaves in preparation for a clandestine revolt. ” Another interpretation is that such widespread disregard for existing laws meant the practice was openly condoned by whites as a means of allowing blacks to supplement their diet through hunting. But whether masters knew to what extent their slaves owned guns, the notion of an armed slave population in that part of the South has certainly not been a familiar one to readers of history texts.