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.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Digging the Past

Mark Leone, early in his book The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), describes the traditional purpose of historical archaeology with that of his work and his evolution of thought about it: “Normally, within American historical archaeology, the purpose of finding and highlighting other voices, sometimes called muted groups, is to extend the cultural franchise to these speakers. If such people found their past, celebrated, and learned about it, or if their past, long ignored, denied, held in contempt, or regarded as anonymous, was dug up and called heritage, then they would be equally proud Americans. There is, no doubt, some effectiveness to this hope, especially through pride and catharsis. The aim of this rationale for American historical archaeology is twofold. It is, first, to enfranchise those thought to be without a history and, second, to protect democracy by bringing more participants to it” (p. 27). With this we can see some variation of the rationale employed by many archivists to describe their own mission in society, especially for that generation coming out of the 1960s and 1970s and the rising interest in social history and its many spin offs. Leone expands on the standard definition of historical archaeology, believing that the “job of historical archaeologists is to understand how some groups ameliorated capitalist practices, and then to explain both that fact, and the means by which they did so, to those who are aware that they need an alternative, but do not have one, so that they can do so too. Our job is to translate to our own needy peers, which has been the main goal of anthropology since it’s founding” (p. 28).

So, yes, why am I commenting on this book in my blog? After all, the blog is not called “Reading Archaeology.” One reason I alluded to in the above paragraph – there are many similarities between archival work and the archaeological endeavor; this is especially the case in historical archaeology because this approach involves as much the use of historical records as digging into the earth and often provides an interesting way of evaluating the utility of the sources found in archives for understanding the past. In the case of Annapolis, one of the primary parts of the foundation of doing this work was a group of historians who came together to study the city and its hinterland by drawing on the rich, but largely untapped, archival sources relating to it. But there are other professional and personal reasons. Leone’s book is more than the normal archaeological site report describing findings and drawing tentative conclusions; his analysis pulls together many different reports on excavations and builds observations and then some conclusions within a theoretical framework. Whereas many archivists have fretted about the theoretical approach over and above the nuts and bolts of practice, Leone, from another discipline, demonstrates how the two perspectives not only co-exist but need each other. His book is a candid assessment of how he started with no theoretical models, the realization that he needed one or more for understanding the data he was acquiring from the excavations, and the process involved in trying and rejecting various theories. Finally, on the personal side, I grew up in Baltimore, have always been interested in Annapolis, played a bit with historical archaeology in the early 1970s, and have seen the excellent work done in Annapolis evolve over three decades.

Leone’s book is built around the notion that “possessive individualism is an unusually powerful idea.” He believes that not only is it a “social construction” but that it is “also a mask that hides something far more real: the steep hierarchy of wealth, power, possessions, slavery, poverty, oppression, and exploitation” (p. 35). This is what Leone is trying to understand in the hundreds of excavations, historic preservation projects, and archivally based research projects concerning life in Annapolis from the late 18th into the early 20th century. In examining this matter, Leone considers the nature of historic preservation, the understanding of landscapes, the roles of reading and printing, and the use of dishes and the process of dining.

As one might imagine there are references to records and recordkeeping. On page 54, there is an illustration of a desk with compartments and this explanation: “The Enlightenment project of systematically discovering ordered nature included compartmentalizing that knowledge in inventories, principles, rules, and record books. All of these devices were held in writing instruments like this.” However, I don’t want to mislead anyone in thinking that they will discover in this volume an extensive discourse on historical texts. There are, though, references to recordkeeping in other contexts. In a fascinating chapter about the matter of whether archaeology can be used to detect the African presence in Annapolis, Leone writes that “within archaeology there is a tradition of recording almost everything that is excavated. If you dig it up, you write it down, count it, identify it, say what it is made of, and save it. You certainly do not throw it away, even if you have no idea of what it is or was” (p. 200). This leads to an interesting (and controversial) analysis of what he identifies as African spirit stones and their use as both protest and defense, whereby he does sort other forms of evidence. Yet, it is in the discussion of material culture, as another historical source, that this book is most useful: “Material culture forces an emphasis on things and their dimensions, and then on the activity made possible by the things, an activity learned through making, using, and keeping things. . . . Material culture comprised the instruments of power people used on one another and on themselves. These instruments were important because they were used to teach time, work habits, orderliness, and many other behaviors” (p. 153). It is in examining these things that the archaeologist can make his or her contribution: “Archaeology’s job is to provide undeniable patterns for those who forget, doubt, deny, get lost, and become rootless” (p. 251).

Those interested in matters archival, meant also find something to reflect on this analysis of historical archaeology.