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Digging Up The U.S.

July 2024
31min read

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

CROUCHED IN an L-shaped pit, a foot below the surface of the forest floor, John Ehrenhard, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, is contemplating a piece of charred wood. The sandy soil around the base of what appears to have once been a post has been carefully scraped away, and Ehrenhard, a small, lithe man wearing a colorful bandanna over his longish hair, seems ready to pounce. In the autumn sunlight filtering through a canopy of loblolly pines and live oaks hung with Spanish moss, he casts an ephemeral shadow on the ground. Not far away, just beyond the trees but obscured from view, is the beach where, nearly four hundred years ago, the first English settlers of the New World came ashore.

For the past few months, Ehrenhard and a team of archaeologists have been searching for the so-called lost colony of Sir Walter Raleigh here on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. Using some of the most advanced technology available—proton magnetometers, soil-resistivity meters, and computer-generated contour maps—as well as some of the most primitive—shovels, trowels, and bare hands—they are hoping to unearth new clues about this mysterious episode of American history.

In 1585, and then again in 1587, Raleigh, who had received a patent from Queen Elizabeth to explore and colonize the New World, sponsored two ill-fated expeditions to Roanoke. The first ended in failure when the colonists, unable to fend for themselves, abandoned their settlement on the northern end of the island and returned to England. The second fared even worse. The entire colony—more than one hundred men, women, and children (including Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in America)—vanished without a trace. A search party sent out from England in 1590 found only the mysterious word CROATOAN carved on a post near the entrance to the palisaded fort. Although the remains of the fort have since been located (a full reconstruction was done in the late 1940s), no evidence of the settlement where the colonists actually lived has ever been found. And to this day historians have only been able to conjecture about the fate that befell them.

Now, on this November afternoon, as the current phase of his search draws to a close and his assistants prepare to backfill the open pit for the winter months, Ehrenhard believes he has hit pay dirt. “We have a structure here,” he says excitedly, pointing at the charred wooden post. “There’s no doubt about it. All we have to do is spend some time figuring out what it is.”

There is, of course, no structure visible to the human eye—just a piece of wood in the ground and, a few inches away, some tiny lumps in the soil. The lumps, Ehrenhard thinks, are the oxidized remains of nailheads. If his hunch is correct, the two features taken together may represent what is left of a doorway—a doorway that could lead him back into the sixteenth-century settlement that once stood on this site.

It is with such flimsy evidence that much archaeological interpretation begins. But from a single artifact, like this piece of charred wood, whole structures can be built. Just as recent scientific advances led Ehrenhard to this site—the computer-generated maps spread out on the hood of a truck parked nearby all point to the presence of “anomalies,” or deviations in magnetic and soil-resistivity readings in the area—so, too, new techniques of analysis may enable him to come away with more than simply a burnt stick.

“The first thing we’ll do,” he says, wrapping a specimen in tinfoil, “is determine what kind of wood this is to see whether it’s a legitimate building material. Then we’ll have it radiocarbonized. There’s a new correlation curve that can tell you with a high degree of accuracy the range of years in which a tree was cut down.”

Ehrenhard rises from his crouch and walks through the imaginary doorway. “From the size of the post,” he continues, “and the spacing between it and other pestholes we’ve found, we can begin to make some assumptions about the weight and size of whatever structure may have been here. By looking at the hole around the post, we’ll be able to tell whether it was sawed flat or sharpened to a point, which, in turn, might tell us something about what kinds of tools these people were using and their methods of construction. And by examining the debris that may have accumulated in the posthole—things like seeds, fish scales, and pollen samples, which we can recover by flotation back in the lab—we may be able to learn a few things about local vegetation and diet.”

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.

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.

Other archaeologists have also made discoveries of potential historical significance in recent years. On St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia, for example, a team from the Museum of Natural History located the long-lost mission of Santa Catalina de Guale and may soon be able to shed some light on the fate that befell this northernmost outpost of Christianity in the Spanish colonies. In Kingston, New York, evidence was uncovered that indicated English goods were being smuggled into that city at a time when the Dutch ostensibly controlled trading in the area. And in Sacramento an excavation at the site of the fashionable nineteenth-century Golden Eagle Hotel revealed that garbage, including a three-foot deposit of oyster shells, had been stashed in the building’s basement despite sanitation laws to the contrary.

None of these discoveries is, in and of itself, particularly earthshaking. But as archaeologists continue to sift through what historian Allan Nevins once described as the “primitive materials of history,” a clearer picture of daily life in America will inevitably emerge. What’s in the ground, as archaeologists are fond of saying, is inherently more democratic than what survives in the written record. And whether it is by examining the remains of a black community established by the Freedman’s Bureau at what is now the site of a Washington, D. C., subway station, or the slave quarters at Jefferson’s home in Monticello, or a nineteenth-century sailing ship that went to the bottom of the Great Lakes, or a Victorian brothel in an abandoned Colorado mining town, archaeology can provide what Ivor Noël Hume calls “a physical dimension to social history.” It can put the cups and saucers back on the tables of reconstructed dining rooms. And it can tell us, sometimes more accurately than written documents, about such things as the consumption of alcohol at the workplace, the changes in Indian diet after contact with Europeans, and the living conditions of Chinese immigrants in the American West.

T O MAKE SENSE of all this activity, of all this earth being moved (papers on more than one hundred different digs were presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual convention in Denver this past January), over a period of several weeks last fall I traveled to a number of archaeological sites, from the southern tip of Manhattan to northern California and back to the eastern shores of North Carolina. I talked with dozens of historical archaeologists of every conceivable variety (urban, underwater, industrial, plantation, and so on), burrowed through a pile of reports at least as deep as an eighteenth-century trash pit, and attended one professional conference where I saw as many slides in a single day as I had encountered in four years of high school. All this, and I only nicked the surface.

I arrived a few months late at the first site I visited: a thirty-two-story office tower had already gone up on the very spot where archaeologists had made a most unusual find. It was a brilliantly clear day last October, and several hundred people were gathered at the corner of Water and John streets in lower Manhattan to watch the final steel girder hoisted into place atop the building. Real estate developers in three-piece suits and white construction helmets posed for pictures. Scores of helium-filled balloons were released to celebrate the occasion, and a brass band played “Anchors Aweigh” as the beam lurched precariously overhead.

Three hundred years ago, when progress in this part of the city was measured horizontally in feet of landfill, the entire block on which the building at 175 Water Street had been constructed was submerged under the East River. But on this day, with urban progress being measured vertically, few people at the topping-out ceremony were thinking about what lay underfoot. Even Joan Geismar, a woman who spends much of her time looking down, had her eyes riveted on the sky.

Although you wouldn’t know it from her appearance—in her fashionable tweed jacket and wool skirt she looked more like a successful businesswoman than an archaeologist—Geismar spent four months the previous winter digging in the mucky landfill under what is now 175 Water Street, looking for clues to New York’s past. The mother of three grown children and the recent recipient of a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia, Geismar had been hired by Soil Systems, Inc., the largest archaeological research firm in the country, to supervise fieldwork at the site. (Because the developer had sought a zoning variance from the city, he was required by law to conduct an archaeological survey, the bill for which came to $1.2 million.)

What’s buried in the ground is inherently more democratic than what survives in the written record.

One January day toward the end of the dig, with the temperature below freezing and the developer anxious to begin construction, Geismar stumbled on one of the most extraordinary objects ever uncovered beneath the city’s streets—the intact hull of an eighteenthcentury merchant ship. “We were making a deep cut with a backhoe, trying to locate the original river bottom,” she recalls, “when suddenly the earth fell away and these timbers were exposed. At first we thought it was a bulkhead, but on closer inspection the structure turned out to be curved. That’s when we realized we had a ship.”

The eighty-five-foot-long ship was not the first to be found by urban archaeologists. Similar discoveries had been made in Boston, San Francisco, and at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. But it was probably the best preserved and certainly the first to be so extensively excavated. (The ship under the World Trade Center was not excavated at all. Back in 1968, when the towers were constructed, archaeologists were called in only at the last minute. It wasn’t until the following year that the first real urban archaeology was done in New York.)

Built around 1720, the ship Geismar unearthed had been stripped of its fittings and deliberately sunk some thirty years later as landfill—a notuncommon practice in the eighteenth century. From the tracings of warmwater shipworms on the exterior of the hull, nautical archaeologists called in to help salvage the vessel were able to surmise that it had sailed a Caribbean route. The still-unidentified ship had gunports for six cannons, plus room for upwards of two hundred tons of cargo, and probably carried a crew of fifty.

It took nearly that many people, working eighteen feet below street level, four weeks to excavate and dismantle the hull. Because the timbers were subject to rapid decay once exposed to air, special precautions had to be taken to conserve them. And because the conservation process is such an expensive one—the wood must be chemically treated for several years to prevent it from drying out—it was decided to save only a twenty-foot section of the bow. (For the time being, the fragments of the bow are floating in a tank at the Soil Systems conservation laboratory in Groton, Massachusetts. The rest of the ship was carted off to Staten Island, where it will be used as twentieth-century landfill and, perhaps, give future archaeologists something to ponder.)

“This is the most spectacular find we’ve ever made,” says Patrick Garrow, chief archaeologist for Soil Systems and a veteran of more than three hundred projects. “It’s not every day you come across an eighteenth-century ship in almost pristine condition. ”


Garrow, a soft-spoken man with wispy hair and sunken eyes, is standing in front of a long, steel table in his company’s New York office a few hours before the topping-out ceremony. Spread out before him are some of the more than one million artifacts that came out of the ground at 175 Water Street. There is a delicate bowl of rare black basaltware made by Wedgwood in the second half of the eighteenth century; a mended creamware pitcher from the same period with the inscription “Happy the man whom no vain fears torment”; a pair of well-preserved leather shoes from the early 180Os, when the area was the center of boot manufacturing in the city (“Had the stitching not deteriorated,” Garrow remarks, “you could have worn them off the site”); a vial of Turlington s Balsam of Life dated 1754; and the seal from a nineteenth-century bottle of Château Lafite, long since consumed. Mostly there are boxes full of broken glass (130,000 pieces in all) and ceramic shards (nearly 90,000 of them), each marked with the provenience numbers that enable archaeologists to identify the exact location where they were found. “Everything ever made,” Garrow says, surveying the table, “seems to have ended up on this block.”

That New York’s economy was as diverse two hundred years ago as it is now, that its inhabitants had expensive tastes, and that they generated a lot of garbage, should come as no surprise. Indeed, it is doubtful that anything found at 175 Water Street will lead historians to dramatic new insights about urban life. But like a number of other digs that have been done in Manhattan in recent years—most notably at the site of the Stadt Huys, New York’s first city hall, where archaeologists unearthed artifacts dating back to the time of Peter Stuyvesant—this excavation can help document patterns of commerce and consumption in an urban environment. And better than musty record books, the objects in the ground can provide an immediate, tactile connection with the past.

It is this last aspect of urban archaeology—its capacity to capture the public imagination—that has helped make a citywide program in Alexandria, Virginia, so successful. A few weeks after visiting 175 Water Street, I spent a Saturday afternoon with Pamela Cressey, the director of Alexandria’s Urban Archaeology Program and a woman whose enthusiasm for her work seems to know no bounds. We met down by the waterfront, at the site of a new condominium development, where Cressey was supervising a crew excavating the remains of an eighteenth-century wharf. The wharf had been discovered by a construction foreman earlier in the week, and Cressey had gotten permission from the developer to explore the site over the weekend. Now, dressed in jeans, work boots, and a red down jacket, she is shouting words of encouragement like a cheerleader to the half-dozen workers sloshing around in calf-deep water, screening for artifacts in the mud. At the entrance to the site, a group of spectators, including several in Revolutionary War costumes who had wandered over from a passing parade, have gathered to watch the work in progress.

“It’s not every day you come across an 18th-century ship in almost pristine condition.”

“What fascinates me about doing archaeology like this,” Cressey says, squinting in the bright sunshine, “is that it allows you to see the flow of human existence over time in one spot. It never ceases to amaze me. I mean, here we are, standing on the site of a mideighteenth-century wharf, looking up at a storybook Georgian house, which is across from an old market square and a nineteenth-century city hall. A World War I torpedo factory used to stand here, but that’s been torn down to make way for a new waterfront development.

She turns to take in the panorama of history. “Urban archaeology can help make people feel they’re part of a community, that they’re connected to the past. It sort of gives them a hug.”

Cressey’s program, the largest of its kind in the country, was established by the city of Alexandria in 1977 and now has nearly three hundred volunteers. Some of them, like the Defense Department intelligence analyst who is helping out on the wharf excavation today, put in seven hundred and fifty hours in a year. With only three staff archaeologists and an annual budget of eight thousand dollars (not including salaries or office space that the city provides free), Cressey relies on the help of volunteers to carry out her ambitious program. Unlike most urban archaeologists, who are contracted to investigate a particular area slated for development, Cressey treats the whole city as her site. She digs pretty much where she pleases. Some of her excavations, like the one this weekend, are simple salvage operations. But she has also received permission to dig up wells in the backyards of some of Alexandria’s more exclusive homes; she has excavated several sites in the nineteenth-century free-black neighborhood known as the “Bottoms”; and she has done extensive archaeological work on a block that had long been occupied by upwardly mobile middleclass families. “We were able to see, in the cultural material found on that block, a concern for keeping up with the fads of the period,” she says later that afternoon, while taking me on an archaeological tour of the city. “By the middle of the nineteenth century, people were discarding whole dinner sets, service for twelve. It was the beginning of our modern, throwaway society.”

In the nineteenth century people discarded whole dinner sets; it was the start of our throwaway society.

Working as an archaeologist in an urban environment is not without its problems. There is plenty of red tape to be cut through above ground and lots of things to be avoided below ground. A few months earlier, just around the time the movie Poltergeist was released, Cressey got a spate of phone calls from people who claimed to have seen human bones and coffin handles at the site of a new housing development outside of town. An old cemetery had once been located on the site, but a nearby funeral home swore that all the graves had been removed. The real world turned out to be not as spooky as Hollywood would have it: Cressey’s investigation unearthed no skeletons.

Then there are the minor inconveniences of city life. Back at the wharf site toward the end of the day, as the sun is disappearing behind the Georgian houses on Fairfax Street, Cressey is finishing up a sketch of the stratigraphy of a pit wall when a volunteer rushes over in a panic. He had spent the last half-hour meticulously setting up a transit so he could take some final survey measurements before the sun went down. Just as he had everything lined up, a woman trying to park her car backed into the tripod, knocking it over. Now it is too dark to start again. Cressey, half-amused, half-sympathetic, looks up from her sketch pad and shrugs, “That’s urban archaeology.”

P OINT REYES National Seashore, twenty-five miles north of San Francisco, is about as non-urban a setting as one is likely to find anywhere. From a half-mile out on Drake’s Bay the view is probably not much different from what it was that day in 1579 when the British explorer sailed into these waters on his way around the world. No telephone poles or beachfront condominiums mar the shoreline. A flock of brown pelicans glides low over the surface of the bay, beaks cocked in search of prey. Against a backdrop of dun-colored cliffs, a peregrine falcon cuts circles in the sky before coming to rest on a guano-covered rock.


Here, where time is marked by the pounding of waves along the shore and nothing changes but the tides, a team of underwater archaeologists from the National Park Service is searching for shipwrecks on the ocean floor. More than a dozen ships, including the San Augustin , a Spanish galleon wrecked at anchor during a storm in 1595, are known to have gone down in these waters. Some, like the nineteenthcentury Mexican ship Ayacucho , ran aground in bad weather; others, like the Hartwood , a steam schooner that was smashed up on the rocks in 1929, got lost in the notorious Point Reyes fog.

The attempt to find the remains of these vessels is part of a long-range plan to survey and protect all shipwrecks in waters under the jurisdiction of the Park Service. For several weeks this past summer three archaeologists from the agency’s Submerged Cultural Resources Unit in Santa Fe (how the underwater archaeology division came to be based in New Mexico is one of those bureaucratic mysteries no one seems able to fathom) conducted a remote-sensing survey of Drake’s Bay. Now, in mid-October, they are back to finish the job.

The search for sunken ships is probably the most glamorous form of historical archaeology. The allure of lost treasure is powerful. And the prospect of finding a time capsule at the bottom of the sea, even if it contains no gold, is an exciting one to divers regardless of their academic credentials. In the past few years, a number of private outfits, equipped with the latest in remote-sensing technology, have attempted to find and salvage historic wrecks. One group of divers brought up the safe of the Andrea Doria not long ago, and another recently located the Whidah , an eighteenth-century pirate ship said to be worth as much as $80 million, near Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The admiralty laws governing recovery of such ships are in a state of flux, but last summer one well-known treasure hunter, MeI Fisher, won a Supreme Court decision upholding his claim to a seventeenth-century Spanish galleon he located off the coast of Florida in 1971.

To underwater archaeologists like Daniel Lenihan, head of the Park Service team at Point Reyes, treasure hunters are anathema. Not only do they remove valuable artifacts, but they often disturb the entire site of a wreck by using the powerful prop wash from their boats to stir up the ocean bottom. “The concept of ripping stuff off from coastal waters,” Lenihan says disdainfully, “is apparently considered part of the American ethic.” Although there have been no reports of such activity in Drake’s Bay, it is, in part, to help the park police to fend off potential salvage operations that Lenihan and his two colleagues, Larry Murphy and Toni Carrell, have come to Point Reyes.

The day before Columbus Day—the same day, coincidentally, that the Mary Rose , the flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet, was raised from the bottom of England’s Portsmouth Harbor, I sat belowdeck on an old fishing boat with Larry Murphy as we tracked back and forth across Drake’s Bay. Stashed in the boat’s galley, and in the hold where salmon and rock cod are normally kept on ice, was more than $100,000 of electronic equipment, including a positioning system that plotted the exact location of the boat every ten seconds; a magnetometer that measured deviations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the presence of submerged ferrous objects; and a side-scan sonar system that recorded the patterns of sound waves as they bounced off anything protruding above the ocean floor. Taken together, the graphs generated by these three machines can virtually pinpoint a ship-wreck for divers to explore later.

Murphy is a bear of a man, and his huge frame nearly fills the galley of the Nick . He uses words like digitize and trilaterate as he explains what each of the gadgets does. But despite the impressive array of equipment on board and Murphy’s total fluency in communicating with it, he is at the mercy of a more primitive technology. The Nick was built in 1939 and looks not unlike the African Queen . Its engine needs constant coaxing, its electrical system is a tangle of wires, and its generator doesn’t have enough power to run all three machines at the same time. Murphy’s Law seems to rule the day: everything that can go wrong does. The little notebook he keeps handy—his “log of daily harassments,” as he calls it—is soon filled with accounts of failed batteries, crossed wires, and empty gas tanks.

“Ripping stuff off from coastal waters is apparently considered part of the American ethic.”

By early afternoon Murphy finally has everything under control, and as we traverse the bay along parallel lanes one hundred feet apart, the first anomalies begin to show up on the graphic recorders. One of these is from the wreck of the Pomo , a steamer that ran aground in 1913 and whose engine block is still visible at low tide. Then, just before two o’clock, both the magnetometer and the side-scan sonar register simultaneous deviations. “We got a mag hit,” Murphy shouts exultantly, poking his bearded face out of the galley to see where we are. The readout on the sonar graph, which looks like one of those video pictures of a lunar landscape, shows an eighty-foot-long structure lying at the bottom of the bay about a quarter-mile offshore.

That evening, back at the motel where the Park Service team is staying, Murphy spreads all his graphs and charts out on a bed and shows his partners what he found. Lenihan, a thirty-eight-year-old native New Yorker with an air of obsession about him, and Carrell, one of the few women underwater archaeologists in the country, had both spent the day on another boat, in a different part of the bay, diving for wrecks that had appeared on an earlier scan. The seas had been rough, the underwater visibility poor, but Lenihan had managed to locate what, by all accounts, was the wreck of the Hartwood . A Xerox copy of the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle from June 29, 1929, ( SF SHIP RAMS REEF; 16 MEN RESCUED ) lies on the bed next to a half-eaten sandwich. “We got caught in a back-surge,” Lenihan says matter-of-factly. “Damn near got the guts kicked out of us. But we found the engine and the shafting—all in excellent shape.”

The next day I go out with Lenihan and Carrell, who are planning to dive for two more wrecks off the treacherous point. A thick fog hovers over the bay as the two archaeologists change into their neoprene diving suits and stow their gear in the boat. They are joined by two local divers, James Delgado and Dave Buller, both shipwreck buffs who have been helping out on the project. Delgado, a park ranger in San Francisco, is an amateur expert on the history of West Coast shipping. “There’s more to this than just finding wrecks,” he says as we head out to sea. “A ship is a microcosm, a slice of life from a particular period. The whole history of the region, the development of its maritime economy, is written out there on the ocean floor.”

Shortly after noon, as the sun begins to break through the cloud cover, we arrive at the site where the Munleon , a twenty-six-hundred-ton freighter is believed to have sunk in 1931. Six-foot swells heave the diving boat like a bathtub toy before spending themselves on the rocky shore. Delgado and Carrell are the first to go. With their Mylar pads—on which they can take notes underwater—and their tape measures, they disappear beneath the waves. Twenty-five minutes later their heads bob to the surface. “What a beautiful sight,” Carrell gasps, hauling herself back into the boat. “It’s all there—the engine, the boilers, the connecting rods still attached—just where it’s supposed to be.”

For the next two hours the four divers take turns exploring the wreck. Empty Clorox bottles are tied to the two boilers to mark the site. Everything is carefully measured, then photographed with underwater cameras. But the work of excavating the site, of searching for artifacts amidst the wreckage, will have to wait another day. There are a dozen other wrecks to find before this phase of the survey is completed, many of them of more historical significance than the Munleon . And the San Augustin , the real prize of the lot, the oldest known shipwreck on the West Coast, has thus far managed to elude them.

A FEW DAYS AFTER returning to dry land, I visited James Deetz in his office on the Berkeley campus. An energetic, almost charismatic figure in the field of historical archaeology, Deetz is fifty-three, the father of nine children, and a teacher of considerable renown. Behind his cheerful, folksy demeanor, however, gloomy thoughts were lurking. “I think we’re in great danger of losing our center,” he says in a smoky voice, fingering his turquoise-studded belt. “Things are falling apart.”

What has been bothering Deetz of late is the pseudoscientific character of much of the work being passed off as historical archaeology these days. “There are whole areas of American cultural history which can be dealt with better through the documents than by digging holes,” he explains. “I get very nervous when I read research designs which claim, for example, that they’re going to be dealing with the economic structure and commodity exchange of a nineteenth-century city. And this translates into the inevitable five-by-five pits, where you get some potsherds and this and that and the other which might hint at some of these processes. But, Jesus, you can get them a lot better through commercial records and shipping records and things like that.”

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.

Later that afternoon we visited the remains of one of these plantations on a ridge overlooking the river. It was here, last summer, that one of Deetz’s graduate students found a circular icehouse more than fifteen feet deep, filled with five distinct layers of artifacts. Most of these artifacts—hand-painted Chinese porcelain with 14-carat-gold decorations, farm tools, building materials, and kitchen refuse—were deposited between 1795 and 1815 after the death of Miles Seiden, the owner of the plantation. Although the house itself was a modest, single-story, wooden structure, the material found in the icehouse reflected considerable affluence. And it should prove to be a treasure trove for those interested in reweaving the fabric of life on a middle-sized Virginia plantation. “Everything old Miles Seiden ever owned ended up in that hole,” Deetz had told me back in Berkeley. “It’s the most spectacular pit I’ve encountered in thirty years of digging-”

As we were leaving the site, David Harrison, the man who put all the pieces of Flowerdew back together—his fourteen-hundred-acre tract roughly follows the boundaries of Yeardley’s original grant—drove up in an ancient Lincoln Continental. A stocky man with a florid face and bushy white eyebrows, he looks like a country squire who just stepped out of the pages of a Henry Fielding novel.

“The good Lord sure made a beautiful spot,” he says with an oratorical flourish, surveying the expanse of land before him.

When he returned to his native Virginia in 1969, Harrison had no idea that the retirement home he bought was an archaeological cornucopia. A maintenance man from William and Mary, who was digging for Indian artifacts upriver, one day asked if he could come down and survey the land. Sure enough, one thing led to another, and Harrison was soon in the business of exploiting his archaeological resources. (“A very excellent way to lose your shirt,” he chuckles.) Now, with plans for an outdoor museum well under way, he seems a bit awed by it all.

“Makes you feel kind of humble,” he says, gazing out at the river. “All those people who have been here before us—and those who’ll be here long after we’re gone. ”

T HAT NIGHT I DROVE to Richmond for a rendezvous with the past. It took me a while to find the place, but there, in a McDonald’s parking lot, holding a white handkerchief by prearranged design, was none other than Pinky Harrington, the man who started it all, the grandfather of historical archaeology in America.

Eighty-one years old now, and remarkably well preserved, Harrington drove me to his nearby apartment, where, joined by his wife, Virginia, we spent two hours digging up the past. It was nearly half a century ago, in 1936, that Harrington, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Chicago, accepted a job as director of archaeology at Jamestown. That fateful appointment would lead him not only to his future wife, whom he was to meet there, but to the development of a whole new academic profession.

Sitting in a straight-backed chair in his modest living room, blinking as if he had just emerged from the darkness, Harrington hardly looks the part of a legendary figure. But his contribution is universally acknowledged.

“With so many people doing historical archaeology these days,” he says, running his fingers through his thin, white hair, “it’s difficult to realize just how little interest there was for it back in the 1930s. Most people just equated archaeology in America with the excavation of Indian sites. They called us ‘tin-can archaeologists.’”

Undaunted, Harrington stayed on at Jamestown until 1941, amassing a vast collection of seventeenth-century artifacts and locating the foundations of many buildings associated with the first permanent English settlement in America. But it wasn’t until after the war, in the course of excavating Fort Raleigh and a number of other historic sites for the National Park Service, that he began to question what he was doing. “Nobody had really thought about it before,” he says. “We were too busy digging and writing reports and recording what we found.”

In 1955 Harrington presented a paper to the American Anthropological Association, the first ever delivered to that group on the subject of historical archaeology. It was titled “Archaeology as an Auxiliary Science to American History,” and in it he attempted to set forth his views on what this new discipline was all about. His assessment was not altogether self-flattering. “It is time we ask specifically what these excavations at historic sites have contributed to American history,” he wrote. “Briefly, it is my contention that their contributions to historical data are considerable; to history , relatively little.”

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.


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