Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What Records Can’t Tell You

One of the early influences on my developing interest in history was a fascination with historic archaeology. In the late 1950s and early 1960s I visited excavations underway in Jamestown, Williamsburg, Harpers Ferry, and Antietam, and each and every one of these sites introduced me to how artifacts and material remains spoke to us from the past. In the early 1970s I spent two enjoyable summers working on projects in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, where I learned considerably more about the connection between documentary research and what was extracted from the ground. I remember vividly removing a shattered teapot from what had been a basement, an object apparently tossed by a workman in the early nineteenth century as he and others pulled down a dwelling constructed a hundred years before.

I continue reading about archaeology and what it can tell us about the past even though I long ago rejected a career in this field. Besides a continuing personal interest, the reason I keep reading in this field is because it can remind us, archivists and other records professionals, about the limitations records pose as sources for understanding the past. In effect, there are other documents that speak to us, and many of these other sources reside far from the traditional archival repository. Archivists and manuscripts curators sometimes become so absorbed in their own work that they begin to believe that the past is documented thoroughly through their actions to preserve textual and visual records. This is not the case.

Archaeologist William Kelso provides a view into the value of historical archaeology and the limitations of certain varieties of historical documentation in his recent Jamestown: The Buried Truth (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), ISBN-13:978-0-8139-2563-9. Kelso’s book is a progress report on the Jamestown Rediscovery© project in Jamestown, Virginia, an effort to try to determine whether there was archaeological evidence of the original fort and settlement (challenging the long told story that evidence of the early settlement had disappeared in the James River).

Kelso’s book, clearly written and lavishly illustrated, is aimed at a popular audience, roughly the same group which has been visiting the National Parks Service site and its museum for generations. Anyone interested in the work of historical archaeologists or early American settlements will enjoy the book, but it is what the book suggests about the limitations of textual evidence that most interests me. After describing the importance of this site, Kelso writes, “Important as these accomplishments were, the written records pertaining to hem are scarce, ambiguous, and sometimes conflicting: maps of questionable accuracy; a few letters and official reports; published accounts written by interested parties. . . “(p. 1). In fact, much of this book can be read as an assessment of the limitations of the kinds of records archivists administer. Kelso notes that “eyewitness accounts” are critical for determining what happened in the past, but that “they must be read carefully: the testimony even of eyewitnesses must be scrutinized, keeping in mind that the authors were not immune to dreams of gold and glory that might distort their accounts” (p. 9).

At various points in Kelso’s recounting of his analysis of what occurred in the first decades of the English settlement, he wrestles with what documents tell us and don’t tell us. Our archaeologist suggests that while it might be nice to discover more and better documents, that the odds of this happening are quite small, suggesting that we need to look more closely at the “physical remains” (p. 46). While many earlier archaeologists suggested that there was little to be sanguine about there, Kelso’s book reveals that there was, in fact, much more to be little by turning over a little earth. For example, in considering the actual structures of the settlement and fort, Kelso provides this perspective: “Documentary accounts have given us some idea of the changing town design and the types of houses and public buildings within and about the fort. Archaeological remains bring the design and structures of Jamestown into clearer focus” (p. 76). In other words, there are clear restrictions to the scale and detail of contemporary records that can be supplemented by considering the material remains at the site. Some of this is quite remarkably just trash, often the archaeologist’s dream since trash, “accidental and impartial records of life” often provide an “unusually clear insight into the past” (p. 81).

What emerges from this entertaining and insightful book is the manner in which documentary, material culture, and archaeological evidence intertwines to open up a clearer view into the past. Kelso notes how artifacts, “when juxtaposed to a document” with explicit meaning, can give us a “fresh perspective on the colonists’ anticipations as well as their accomplishments, leading to a more complex story than the simpler tale of poor preparation and incompetence” associated with this early settlement (p. 169). For archivists we can go beyond this, suggesting both that their records can supplement other forms of documentary and material evidence and that their own evidence is partial unless viewed in a bigger context. For such reasons, archivists ought to read into the literature of historical archaeology and museum studies (among others) to appreciate such connections and values even more.