- 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
He leans across a desk piled high with students’ papers. “Too often we wind up as archaeologists doing second-rate history. It’s time to back up and ask what it is we’re all about.”
The answer, Deetz believes, is to take a more humanistic approach toward what’s in the ground. “The central paradigm with which we as archaeologists are dealing is culture,” he says. “It’s not behavior. It’s not commodity flow. So the best thing we can do is use archaeological methods to block out and define, from a material perspective, the form of American culture at different times and at different places. I think it’s enough if we can do that. We don’t actually have to write history.”
For Deetz, the most promising avenue of investigation is the study of common folk. “Archaeology is the only approach we have to true minority history,” he says. “By minority I don’t just mean Afro-Americans, or Native Americans after contact with Europeans, but poor whites as well—people who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t leave many documents behind. Archaeology is the best way to flesh out their history. It’s an antidote to the cutesy-pie, pretty-pretty interpretation of the past that’s sold at so many outdoor museums. Let me tell you, nothing can beat that immediate confrontation with the garbage in the pit. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to time travel.”
On one wall of his office is a map of Flowerdew Hundred, the Virginia plantation where, for the past three years, Deetz has been doing some time-traveling of his own. The fourteen-hundred-acre tract of land, on which he conducts a summer field program in historical archaeology, has been continuously occupied since 1618. “What we’re trying to do,” he says, walking over to the map, “is put together a coherent picture of life and land use on a Tidewater plantation—both AfroAmerican and Anglo-American—over the past 350 years. ”
The project is an ambitious one. “We could be digging there for the next hundred years,” he laughs. “By then our camp will itself become an archaeological site.”
A month later I visited Flowerdew on my way to North Carolina. Located on the south side of the James River, midway between Williamsburg and Richmond, the plantation appears, on first approach, to be nothing more than a working farm. The soybean and peanut fields show signs of recent harvest. A herd of cows is waiting to be milked. There is no majestic house to be seen, indeed no antebellum structures of any kind still standing. But as Thomas Young, director of the Flowerdew Hundred Foundation, shows me around the plantation, it is evident there is more here than meets the eye.
Down by the river, fence posts mark the outlines of what was once a palisaded fort dating back to the first years of English settlement. Not far away is the exposed stone foundation of a house built sometime around 1620 and believed to be the oldest such structure in the colonies. (Most of the architecture from that period was of an impermanent nature, wattle-and-daub houses that left no tangible remains.) In a nearby cornfield, a staff archaeologist is busy laying a surface grid over a seventeenth-century burial site he hopes to dig up next summer.
During the past sixteen years, since Flowerdew was acquired by David Harrison, a retired New York investment banker, more than sixty such sites have been located. Some of these excavations, like the one at the original riverfront settlement, were done by archaeologists from the College of William and Mary before Deetz arrived on the scene. But since then the pace of activity has accelerated. An old schoolhouse was converted into a two-room museum. Plans were drawn up to reconstruct a number of buildings representing different historical periods. And last summer Deetz imported thirty-five archaeology students to help him dig three major sites: an enclosed area near the stone foundation that may have been used for copper smelting; the cellar and abandoned icehouse of a fourroom, Georgian-style house built around 1760; and a nineteenth-century slave cabin that was continuously occupied until the 1930s.
The union between archaeologists and historians that Harrington once hoped for has not materialized.
Over lunch in a converted barn that now serves as an archaeological laboratory, Ed Ayres, the staff historian, recounted Flowerdew’s early years. The plantation was first settled by the English in 1618 under a grant to George Yeardley, then the colonial governor of Virginia. He named it in honor of his wife, Temperance Flowerdew. In 1622, when a fifth of the nearly two thousand English colonists living along the James River were killed in an Indian uprising (the same one that wiped out Wolstenholme Towne twenty miles downriver), Flowerdew escaped relatively unscathed. A 1624 census recorded sixtythree people living there, including eleven who were among the first black slaves brought to Virginia. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the original one-thousand-acre plantation changed ownership many times and was eventually broken up into smaller parcels. By the time of the Civil War, when Grant’s army crossed the James River at Flowerdew on its way to Petersburg, there were three separate plantations on the site.