Review of ‘Documentary Archaeology in the New World’ edited by Mary V. Beaudry

26th May 2014

‘Documentary Archaeology in the New World’ edited by Mary V. Beaudry, 1988, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521-3033435 (hbk)

Review by Tim Murray

Twenty volumes in this series and things show no sign of letting up. By now we are quite used to the high price and the uneven intelletual product, nonetheless it is still worth remarking that the series could be cheaper (without sacrificing quality), and that editorial control should be more consistently exercised, But why go on about it? The volumes in this series provide a window onto the concerns of contemporary archaeology unmatched by any other publisher. Best of all, the expanded editorial board is doing its job and enlarging the catchment of volumes away from the traditional sources at Cambridge and its academic colonies.

This book is a case in point. Apart from being the only volume in the series specifically concerned with some of the core issues of 18th and 19th century historical archaeology, its authors all reside in the United States, that powerhouse of historical archaeology. All this might only be a passing fascination if it were not for the fact that contextual archaeology of the structuralist / structural Marxist / post structuralist / hermeneutical / postmodern kind (ie the work of Hodder, Leone, Miller and TIlley – to name a few) has, in large measure, been derived from the efforts of North American historical archaeologists such as Deetz and Glassie. Given the multiplicity of data bases – what Schuyler once misleadingly called ‘the spoken work, the written word, observed behaviour, preserved behaviours’ historical archaeologists have set sail to explore many elements of a theory of material culture that have for so long eluded their prehistoric colleagues. One need only turn to pathbreaking investigations of ethnicity and status/class representations such as Deagan’s work at Spanish St. Augustine and Geismar’s study of Skunk Hollow to see why.

This volume contains a number of papers which continue this process. Lag time for ‘technology transfer’ notwithstanding, we should see their incorporation into the contextualist prehistoric agendum in the not too distant future – albeit with a much reduced empirical content and much increased posturing about principles. But then most of the papers in the volume are feisty and frankly unapologetic – a welcome change from the usual behaviour of historical archaeologists cringingly looking for attention from either historians or ‘proper’ (prehistoric) archaeologists and begging to be taken seriously. Most historical archaeologists would have had the experience of being patronised by one (or both) group or other and of resenting it hugely.

You can feel the increased sense of self-confidence in Beaudry’s Introduction, when the usual obsession about uncharitable behaviour by historians and prehistoric archaeologists is given a fresh twist. Beaudry dispenses with past fears by convincingly staking out the need for distinctive methodologies and research strategies. Whilst I disagree that these differences are of a sufficient order to justify historical archaeology assuming the mantle of a discipline, she is right enough that crucial distinctions do exist.

The following seventeen papers (count them) are divided into four parts. Part I: Archaeology is not enough (5 papers); Part II: Documents and the archaeologist: the data base (7 papers); Part III: Ecological questions in historical archaeology (2 papers); Part IV: Consumerism, status, gender and ethnicity (3 papers). Clearly I am not going to be able to do justice to them all, but I want to make some general points and exemplify them in terms of several of the papers.

The first thing to note (apart from the feisty tone of the volume) is that Beaudry and her authors are absolutely convinced that historical archaeologists must find a way of using documentary evidence more effectively – in other words to maximise what they consider to be the significant advantage of the field. Hence the argument that archaeology is not enough. Yet the examples presented here (especially Anne Yentsch’s paper on Massachusetts farmhouses) tend to go the other way – in demonstrating the primacy of the written document, because of its supposedly greater information content. This is not the place for a thunderbolt against incipient positivism (never far from the postmodern psyche), but one is simply left with the question: why excavate the bloody stuff if the answers are in the written documents or the oral histories?

I see little understanding here that the material record is another way of telling and that these data require deep consideration when framing questions and research designs. Nonetheless the kernel of advice offered to the reader, that source criticism is important because written documents and people do not always tell the truth (and what is truth anyway?), was probably worth hearing again.

The second thing to note is that in the better papers (Beaudry’s own ‘Words for things: linguistic analysis of probate inventories’) we really are given the basis of a genuine integration of the written document, oral history and material culture in a way which grants real insight into folk taxonomies and the comparison of those taxonomies with the material record. Certainly the age-old hassles with establishing context of discard (a kind of archaeologists’ source criticism) took on a more rosy aspect!

Another paper, Kathleen Bragdon’s ‘The material culture of the Christian Indians in New England 1650-1775’, exemplified this approach through the use of probate inventories to establish the extent to which what she calls acculturative influences began to structure the material lives of native New Englanders. This kind of approach to contact archaeology would appear to have real potential for investigating the material characterization of Aboriginality in post-contact times – especially in the south east of Australia.

The third point is the demonstrated primacy of the probate inventory itself. Without the inventory the vast bulk of what we consider to be points of access to emic categorisation (by extension, access to Plog’s palaeo-ideology) would simply be lost. Nonetheless such documents, and the ease of their translation into the status of decoders of the emic, should be utilised alongside a deep understanding of the ways in which such documents would have been ‘read’ by the people involved. Mind you, this process affects some sacred cows, such as the concept of seasonality. Joanne Bowen’s paper (Chapter 14) presents a delightful cautionary tale about the need to research patterning in faunal assemblages in terms of market documents and account books.

The final point is that the feistiness and chauvinism are, in the end, probably pretty well founded. Experience has been a great teacher and the earlier (over-optimistic) studies on the archaeology of ethnicity have been replaced with a more measured, programmatic, exploration of dominant material culture as a standard against which to observe anomalies which may be the result of ethnicity in action. I admired the candour Praetzellis, Praetzellis and Brown (Chapter 17) managed to inject into their wide-ranging discussion of urban archaeology.

This is a big volume full of bits and pieces to delight, instruct and to irritate. The message is direct, perhaps not filled with the startling insights the authors seem to want to claim, but well and truly exemplified. It should be compulsory reading for all archaeologists, but more than likely it will do its best service as a reminder to local historical archaeologists that the world did not stop with the publication of South’s Research Strategies in Historical Anthropology, and that they should stop apologising.

Murray, T.
Review of 'Documentary Archaeology in the New World’ edited by Mary V. Beaudry
June 1991
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