August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
Digging More Deeply
I N 1960, WHEN THE Florida archaeologist Robert S. Carr was in junior high school, he and another thirteen-year-old boy discovered what they thought was an undisturbed Paleo-Indian mound on the south bank of the Miami River. Every afternoon and summer for the next two years, they and their friends dug away at the mound, their interest maintained by occasional potsherds and animal bones. Finally they struck into the center of the sandy hill and “uncovered a huge mass of rusted iron. As we scraped away … we realized that it was the remains of an old, rusted Model T…”
The search for ancient Indian traces still occupies a large number of American archaeologists, but a relatively new breed of diggers would not necessarily have been disappointed to have found that car: they are concentrating on artifacts of the colonization and industrial development of our continent. These historical archaeologists are looking for postholes in Virginia that give us an accurate idea of the size of our first dwellings; they are looking in silted harbors and landfill for early hulls; they are probing for all types of hard evidence in old mills and railroad tunnels, under city streets, and around abandoned mining camps. What they turn up for the most part are bits of wood, clay, iron, stone, brick, and old cow and fish bones.
Only a scientist (or a thirteen-year-old boy) could love trash so much. Nevertheless, for those who try to see the past in a handful of dust, the mundane debris of communities is more valuable than buried treasure. Not only is historical archaeology the foundation of historic preservation—the reconstruction of Williamsburg could not have been accomplished without it—it is the gateway to an appreciation of the daily life of the ordinary people who once lived here. In its professional details, as Robert Friedman tells us in this issue, it is both a detective story and a race against oblivion.
Another, but related, kind of historical artifact is seen in the recently discovered photographs made in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, at the turn of the century (“Our Town, 1900”). The pictures themselves look as new as the day they were taken, and that makes them all the more startling. The faces of these citizens of a small American town seem familiar and alive to us—and charming, too, as if a group of our friends had surprised us by turning up in theatrical costume. Although we know that at least one of the persons in the full set of photographs we have seen is still alive, we hope there is someone out there who’ll be sufficiently inspired by the beauty and mystery of the pictures to find out who these people were and what happened to them.