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Historical archaeology refers to the study of archaeological remains dating from ‘modern’ periods, usually within the last 500 years. This research paper outlines the major themes of historical archaeology, with particular attention to capitalism and colonialism. It discusses new theoretical developments, in particular the expansion of the field beyond North America and the Atlantic World, and greater engagement with social theory.
The term historical archaeology is somewhat of a misnomer for this field. Technically, historical archaeology could apply to any period for which historical documentation is available to supplement the material record studied by archaeologists. We might think of historical archaeology as more specifically the archaeology of the modern world (although modernity itself is a contested term). This period coincides roughly with the beginning of capitalism and European colonialism, with most historical archaeologists studying material remains, and the social relations to which they relate, from the late 1400s onward. Historical archaeology thus encounters some of the material with which we ourselves have some familiarity. The field itself was first broadly constituted in North America in the 1960s, and by the 1990s was firmly established with a focus on the major themes discussed here (Little, 1994).
Several key social, cultural, and economic issues are most commonly investigated through historical archaeology’s broad framing of modernity (cf Funari et al., 1999). Capitalism has been, and continues to be, one of the central topics for historical archaeology. Our field studies the emergence of capitalism in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. This is often thought of in linear terms, with capitalist ways of life first being thought to emerge in England. Studies of household space and landscapes show that a process of enclosure began to commodify agrarian space, households increasingly began to differentiate work and domestic space, and food preparation and consumption began to separate (Johnson, 1996). Such changes have been argued to form a genealogy of later capitalist shifts in the United States, often framed as an eighteenth- century ‘Georgian Order’ in housing and other material culture (Deetz, 1996; Leone, 1984).
Historical archaeological studies of capitalism go far beyond economic shifts; fundamentally these studies are interested in the social changes associated with new ways of organizing labor and bodies, often concomitant with the rise of the individual (Shackel, 1993). Beyond British genealogies and the eighteenth-century Georgian Order, capitalism has been addressed in a range of different contexts. Plantations, for instance, have been central to wider debates as to the development of capitalist production (Mintz, 1985; Wolf, 1982). Studying the landscape of plantations, archaeologists have identified ways in which space was used to help create new means of viewing labor, in line with the development of particular technologies of labor that are seen to be tied up in capitalism (Delle, 1998). Other archaeologists have addressed capitalism through the world systems theory outlined by Immanuel Wallerstein (2000). Thus, the archaeology of Russian America can be studied as a part of a global system of capitalism, linking changes in material culture and oppression of native communities to wider worldwide economics (Crowell, 1997). Industrial archaeology – the study of factories and domestic spaces in industrialized locations – has also been a vital part of the study of capitalism. This involves the study of factories themselves, including their development as workplaces separated from the home with clear class hierarchies, and the concomitant growth of new domestic spaces for working class laborers and their families (Casella and Croucher, 2010; McGuire and Reckner, 2005; Mrozowski, 2000; Palmer, 2005; Symonds, 2005). This turn to industrialization is studied hand in hand with the general shift toward urbanization, and extensive studies of working class ‘slums’ have taken place in cities such as New York (Mayne and Murray, 2001).
The second central research topic of historical archaeology is the study of colonialism. This is often a corollary of developing capitalism, but is regularly separated out in analyses (cf Croucher and Weiss, 2011; Orser, 1996). The archaeology of Spanish colonialism forms one broad subfield, in locations such as Mexico (Rodríguez-Alegría, 2005), the Caribbean and Florida (Deagan, 1998), and California (Voss, 2008). The archaeology of British colonialism forms another significant subfield (Lawrence, 2003) and this includes locations as diverse as North America (Deetz, 1996), Australia (Paterson and Wilson, 2000), and South Africa (Klose and Malan, 2000). Beyond this, increasing attention is being paid to the archaeology of French colonialism, particularly in the Caribbean (Dawdy, 2008; Kelly and Hardy, 2011). Smaller pockets of study have addressed Dutch colonialism in South America (Hall, 2000; Schrire, 1995), Russian colonialism in the Americas (Lightfoot et al., 1998), and Omani colonialism in East Africa. Recent directions in this field, drawing on postcolonial theory, have turned from the study of colonizer to that of the colonized, placing increasing importance on the way in which indigenous cultures resisted colonial rule and continued to thrive, even as forms of material culture may seem to change. Such studies emphasize the ever-changing nature of indigenous societies, and the need to understand these as occupying the same temporal space – i.e., not that of the ‘primitive’ – as colonizers (Liebmann and Murphy, 2011; Silliman, 2009).
The study of these issues is addressed through varied forms of material culture. Historical archaeologists excavate, just as in any other field, and many studies are based on quantitative analysis of artifact patterns at different sites (e.g., Shackel, 1993). Other studies address landscape-based approaches, studying buildings or larger-scale landscapes to assess changing patterns through time (e.g., Delle, 1998). Alongside these sources, historical archaeologists always incorporate, to varying degrees, historical data. This field is by no means a ‘handmaiden to history’ (Noël Hume, 1964); instead, we are able to bring new insights to historical data through our integration of material perspectives. Oral historical interviews may also be undertaken in conjunction with archaeological excavation, and these may yield an interesting interplay between recollection and material facts (Whitehead and Casella, 2011).
The beginnings of historical archaeology were rooted in a search for a distinctly American past. Plantations in the Chesapeake have long, for instance, been a mainstay of historical archaeology. However, there has also always been diversity in the field, if nothing else, through the study of Spanish colonialism. But in the last few decades there has been significant growth in the idea of historical archaeology as a global field. At first this included the recognition that colonial South Africa had interesting comparisons with the U.S. (Falk, 1991), and the study of European colonialism in Australia, as mentioned above, has also figured into historical archaeology writ large. By the 1990s ‘postmedieval’ archaeologists in the United Kingdom (those archaeologists studying roughly the same period as US-based historical archaeologists) were beginning to engage in serious debate with U.S. scholars about the Atlantic World. But this period also witnessed the push for something that was more recognizably postcolonial in theoretical orientation, that is, some way in which historical archaeology outside of the Atlantic World, and areas which did not experience white settler colonialism, might also be addressed through the broader rubric of historical archaeology. One of the areas in which this development has been most notable has been sub-Saharan Africa (Croucher, 2014; Reid and Lane, 2004; Richard, 2013). This move has come with a call to incorporate postcolonial theory into historical archaeology, so that the dominant narrative is no longer that of a teleological expansion of European colonialism and capitalism throughout the world, and in which local voices come to be privileged in the determination of heritage (Shepherd, 2002; Stahl, 2009).
One of the central subfields of historical archaeology is the study of the African Diaspora. This began with the excavation of plantations in the U.S., and many studies have been written about the materiality of enslaved life in the Americas, demonstrating the rich social and cultural lives of these groups. For instance, on Jamaica, Mark Hauser (2008) has used locally produced ceramics as a means to trace participation in autonomous economic transactions by African Jamaicans. The deliberate deposition of artifacts, and artifacts associated with burials often shows the way in which enslaved and free black communities participated in ritual practices linked to African traditions (Armstrong and Fleishman, 2003; Davidson, 2010). Archaeological studies in the Americas, and now in East Africa, have also shown how self-emancipated communities built autonomous lives outside of bondage (Marshall, 2013). Studying free communities allows archaeologists to understand the way in which agency was expressed by African descendant individuals and groups, and shifts our present-day focus on the African Diaspora away from slavery. As such there has been a significant turn toward the study of free black communities in the U.S. in particular, with growing attention focused on the effects of systematic racism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Leone et al., 2005; Mullins, 1999). Themes of social justice, racialization, and the study of those groups who may lack widespread historical recognition are also present in studies of wider immigrant groups in the U.S. This includes the study of Irish Americans in the industrial northeast and overseas Chinese in the West (Voss, 2005).
Feminist and gendered approaches to archaeology have been taken up widely within historical archaeology. Since much of the structure of gendered life today has been actively generated in the last few hundred years, historical archaeologists are able to trace the way in which material culture has been used to create and reinforce gender norms and identities. For instance, Diana Wall (1994) has shown that ceramics for various forms of dining in nineteenth-century New York City were related to the growing development of middle- and upper-class values in relation to the separation of the domestic sphere. Masculinities have also been studied in historical archaeology; Rodney Harrison (2002) has shown how impressive flaked glass tools, known as Kimberley spear points, were central to new ways of defining masculinity for Aboriginal men in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australia. Sexuality has also begun to be integrated into historical archaeology, with a range of case studies showing the value of analyzing former brothel contexts to understand more about the lives of the women and men who formerly inhabited these sites (Seifert, 1991). Sexuality has been recognized as one of the ways through which colonial subjects were controlled. In eighteenth-century California, controlling indigenous and colonist women’s sexuality was achieved through various spatial means, including the redesign of the Presidio in San Francisco (Voss, 2008). Critiques of mainstream feminist approaches have also been raised through drawing historical archaeology into conversation with black feminist theory (Battle-Baptiste, 2011; Franklin, 2001). These demonstrate the general lack of diversity within the field and have forced archaeologists to think about intersectionality, particularly as it pertains to African Diaspora archaeology.
The lack of diversity in historical archaeology is being addressed in part through a revisioning of some projects in relation to local communities. Following on from public pressure in cases with egregious mismanagement such as the African Burial Ground in New York City, historical archaeologists are beginning to recognize the importance of being led by communities as we engage in our research (La Roche et al., 1997). The nature of our field means that there are often communities who have some form of direct ties to the material that we work with. Listening to such groups and having an open and collaborative research process may mean that we come to produce work that holds much greater value to a public beyond our discipline, and that in the process also pays greater attention to the wealth of knowledge held in communities outside of traditional scholarly venues (Agbe-Davies, 2010; McDavid, 2002).
Historical archaeologists also have their eyes turned to the future, present, and very recent past. Forensic archaeology overlaps with historical archaeology in chronological terms, and historical archaeologists engage with the practice and theory of locating and identifying remains associated with war, mass killings, and other human rights violations of the last century (Crossland, 2000; González-Ruibal, 2008; see Conflict and War, Archaeology of: Behavior and Social Organization). Studies of contemporary material culture, practiced using the methodologies of historical archaeology, are also allowing archaeologists to analyze the materiality of contemporary phenomena. For example, Jason De León (2012) has studied the material traces of, and objects carried by, undocumented migrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico. This shows the way in which migrants struggle to carry useful objects purchased with limited means. Such archaeological projects fuse the methodology of historical archaeology with ethnographic study to bring forward new insights that emerge when material culture is taken seriously. Interdisciplinarity – drawing on varied historical and ethnographic data – is the hallmark of historical archaeology. This field is by no means a handmaiden to history; historical archaeologists are focused on material culture, and thus are able to bring new insights into periods which may seem much more familiar than the traditional areas of archaeological study.
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