Historical Archaeology Research Paper

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Historical archaeology is the concurrent study of material culture and documentary evidence. This research paper outlines the scope of the practice of historical archaeology, some of its principal features as a discipline, and some of the major research questions for which historical archaeologists seek answers.

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In a strict sense, historical archaeology should begin with the discovery of writing, for it is from this time onwards that societies are able to express themselves both in the ways in which they fashion the world around them—their artifacts—and also through recorded self-expression: the written record. But in practice, these early literate periods have been left to classical archaeology, and historical archaeologists have defined their domain as the last 500 years. This half millennium saw the creation of extensive ‘world systems’ and, in particular, the colonization of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia by Europeans. This focus has given historical archaeology its particular character, and some have gone so far as to describe it as the archaeology of European colonial expansion. But more recently—as we shall see—these conventions have been challenged, opening up the possibility of a dynamic and expanding area of enquiry.

The practice of historical archaeology is rooted in the study of the European settlement of North America and, in particular, of the early seventeenth century colonial settlement in New England and the Chesapeake. Here, a rich heritage of material culture has long been closely associated with a sense of national identity, best represented by the archaeology of Colonial Williamsburg, the eighteenth century capital of Virginia which has been preserved and reconstructed as an interpretation of daily life in America’s early years (Colonial Williamsburg 2000). This focus has resulted in a rich narrative of early settlement, best represented by Ivor Noel Hume’s excavation and interpretation of Martin’s Hundred (Noel Hume 1983). Here, we see the carefully excavated traces of daily domestic life matched with an imperfect documentary record to reveal a far fuller narrative history than words alone could tell. Martin’s Hundred is matched by numerous other studies that provide an ever-emerging picture of life in the early American colonies.

More recently, this emphasis on the settler and colonist has been balanced by the emergence of an archaeology of slavery. Archaeologists of slavery— whether working on former plantations in the south or on slave living sites in northern towns—have made the point that archaeology’s claim to be the history of ordinary people must remain hollow if all dimensions of colonial life are not fully explored (Singleton 1995). In this area, historical archaeology has made notable gains in revealing domestic life on plantations and some of the aspects of identity, including the persistence of elements of African material culture in house design and personal artifacts, distinctive culinary practices, and patterns in composite material culture assemblages.

Historical archaeology in North America now extends well beyond this ‘classic’ focus and there is a variety of specialized subfields. These include the archaeology of western frontier settlements, battlefield archaeology, the archaeology of industrial sites, and urban archaeology. The practice of historical archaeology has also been strongly influenced by the professional field of cultural resource management, (CRM) as large State and federal projects have required numerous surveys and excavation projects ahead of development and urban renewal projects. CRM work has ranged from small studies of individual archaeological features to comprehensive surveys and extensive excavations in the face of freeway construction. Such work tends to be characterized by a heavy emphasis on fieldwork and recording, and less attention given to analysis, interpretation and historical synthesis, leading to a division between field-oriented archaeologists working in cultural resource management and archaeologists working in museums, universities, and other public institutions.

Despite a fondness for the self-image of a rugged fieldworker, uncluttered by intellectual pretensions, historical archaeology has reflected the major theoretical trends of the social sciences over the past half century (Hall 2000, Orser and Fagan 1995). Early work—such as Noel Hume’s study of Martin’s Hundred—was avowedly narrative. In this approach (which has continued through to the present) the results of archaeological excavations serve to amplify and illustrate an incomplete documentary history, contributing to telling a story that is made richer by the tangible traces of the past. This empirical emphasis was challenged from several directions. Firstly, the ‘New Archaeology’ of the 1960s and 1970s sought lawlike generalizations of human behavior through the evidence of material culture—an approach represented in Stanley South’s search for standard patterns across archaeological sites (South 1977).

This approach was challenged by structuralism, best represented by James Deetz’ widely read In Small Things Forgotten (1996). Here, material culture in its full breadth—from pipe-stems to houses—was organized as evidence of the human mind at work in creating systems of binary oppositions, together constituting ‘world views.’ Structuralism reasserted the principles of narrative history in seeking to show how European settlers ‘became American’ when they adopted an embedded mental template that determined how their world was arranged—the essence of cultural identity. But, in emphasizing the commonality of world views, structuralism lost a clear sense of cause and effect, and the processes of history unfolding. This prompted new interpretative approaches that turned to historical materialism for theoretical models. Well represented by Mark Leone’s work in Maryland’s Annapolis (1988), this approach has seen in the archaeological record the evidence for the emergence of merchant capitalism and social and economic control through the manipulation of material culture to create a false consciousness that disguises the true location of power. For example, Leone showed how garden design served to naturalize the authority of the new class of merchant capitalists in Annapolis, and how such naturalization extended to other categories of material culture, including musical instruments and ceramics.

More recently, the overwhelming association between historical archaeology and North America has been challenged by strong developments in other parts of the world. Each regional focus has tended to develop its own identity while remaining linked to the core concepts of this discipline. This is opening up the possibilities of a richer body of theory and of new areas of comparative study. One such area of development has been in Australia, where the archaeology of colonial settlement has gained increasing attention (Connah 1988). Here, studies have ranged from the historical archaeology of colonial buildings and early settler footholds on the continent to women’s prisons in Tasmania. This has been matched by the development of historical archaeology in South Africa, where Dutch settlement in the mid-seventeenth century was followed by a century of British colonial settlement and a diverse material record (Hall 1993). Newer work in areas such as the Caribbean and in South America is adding a comparative richness to the field.

Despite these developments, though, historical archaeology still remains overwhelmingly the archaeology of European colonial expansion. Despite notable exceptions (for example, Johnson 1996), the archaeology of Europe itself in recent centuries still remains a separate field—‘post-Medieval archaeology.’ The archaeology of colonial contact—and the impact of European colonial expansion on the other side of colonial frontiers—remains largely unexplored. Claims for other forms of historical archaeology, for example the use of oral traditions as verbal sources (Andah 1990), remain largely unacknowledged. And the historical archaeologies of other large-scale, literate systems such as those of China or of Islamic expansion and settlement remain outside the scope of the field.

For some, historical archaeology is no more than a transition zone between preliterate periods, in which material culture is the only source of evidence, and documented history. But for others, historical archaeology has a distinctive character that makes it a discipline in its own right. There is some justification in this second point of view. Increasingly, historical archaeology has a distinctive set of methodologies and a suite of particular research questions of its own. Historical archaeology has its own professional journals, and its practitioners attend their own conferences. If this were the world of natural organisms, we could say that speciation is well advanced.

Historical archaeology shares with the rest of archaeology the basic methodologies of excavation. But although historical archaeologists often work with the precision of the prehistorian, teasing evidence from the slightest detail, they also often work to a larger scale. This is because the archaeological sites are large, with complex histories of deposition and disturbance which make the mechanical excavator a more appropriate research tool than the trowel. In addition, a large proportion of historical archaeological evidence is not beneath the ground. Standing buildings, field systems, roads and town layouts can reveal as much about the past as a conventional excavation. This brings historical archaeology close to fields such as ecology, cartography, architectural studies, and historical geography in its methodologies. Indeed, while retaining its ties with the time-honored skills of excavation, historical archaeology is quintessentially interdisciplinary in its search for, and analysis of, evidence.


  1. Andah B W 1990 The oral versus the written word in the cognitive revolution: Language, culture and literacy. West African Journal of Archaeology 20: 18–45
  2. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2000 Williamsburg restored. http://www.history.org./10/January/2000
  3. Connah G 1988 ‘Of the Hut I Builded’: The Archaeology of Australia’s History. Cambridge University Press, London
  4. Deetz J 1996 In Small Things Forgotten. An Archaeology of Early American Life, (expanded and revised). Anchor Books, New York
  5. Hall M 1993 The archaeology of colonial settlement in southern Africa. Annual Review of Anthropology 22: 177–200
  6. Hall M 2000 An Archaeology of the Modern World. Routledge, London
  7. Johnson M 1996 An Archaeology of Capitalism. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  8. Leone M 1988 The Georgian order as the order of merchant capitalism in Annapolis, Maryland. In: Leone M, Potter P (eds.) The Recovery of Meaning. Historical Archaeology in the Eastern United States. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 235–61
  9. Noel Hume I 1982 Martin’s Hundred: The Discovery of a Lost Colonial Virginia Settlement. Knopf, New York
  10. Orser C E, Fagan B M 1995 Historical Archaeology. HarperCollins, New York
  11. Singleton T A 1995 The archaeology of slavery in North America. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 119–140
  12. South S A 1977 Method and Theory in Historical Archaeology. Academic Press, New York
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