Public History Series: Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology is not a complicated subject.  It is much like regular archaeology except it involves digging at historic sites.  The key with historical archaeology is looking for the artifacts left behind by those who occupied the land.

Historical Archaeology can be pretty technical.  Like typical archaeology, digging is done in squares.  Artifacts are carefully removed and documented as to their proximity to buildings and landscape, but also their depth in the ground.  The depth is specifically important because it is possible to use that depth to determine its age.  Stratigraphy is a branch of geology used to determine the age of layers within the soil.

The artifacts found can also help in understanding who was there and when.  One of the most common and widely studied artifacts are pipe stems.  It sound strange, but pipe stems can help date a site to within a few years.  This then brings in another key term: terminus post quem.   This Latin term roughly translate to “the date after which.”  It essentially means that nothing found in a specific layer can be older than the oldest artifact.  While this all sounds complicated, it is rather simple.  If you find three artifacts and Artifact 1 is from 1850, Artifact 2 is from 1870, and Artifacts 3 is from 1905, then we know the site cannot be older than 1850.  This is true for more than historical archaeology.  This is also true when determining the age of a house by looking at the specific building materials and construction techniques.

Archaeology at Montpelier

Historical archaeology is important because it uncovers artifacts of everyday life as well as bones of animals.  Extensive studies have been done on plantations in the South, and James Deetz found, in his book In Small Things Forgotten, that slaves ate different types of meats.  This has been determined by studying the remains of animals near slave cabins.

Historical archaeology is ongoing at many sites within the United States.  One project that I am familiar with takes place at Montpelier.  They are excavating in search for items from the Madison era.  Things have been discovered include: remnants of slave cabins, kitchens, and artifacts once owned by the slaves on the property.  The work is ongoing as the property at Montpelier is quite large.

There is a need for students to work on these projects.  Montpelier has a summer internship program that allows college age students to assist with the archaeological projects.  While not all of them are public historians, several are.  It is a great opportunity to do field work and not spend all the time in an archive or museum.  It is one of the most exciting sub-disciplines within public history.


NOTE:  This is the eighth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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