Mirrors that reveal our past selves

The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology
March 2, 2007

Nicholas Saunders enjoys a guide for explorers of not-so-distant times.

Historical archaeology - the melding of archaeological techniques, historical methods and documentary sources - is developing rapidly. In one sense, as archaeology carves out an ever wider remit for itself, so new kinds of archaeological investigation come into being, borrowing from other disciplines, redrawing the boundaries of intellectual inquiry and redefining what we believe we can recapture of the past.

Given our fascination with the recent past and our increasingly interdisciplinary attempts to investigate it, historical archaeology is in need of a user-friendly overview for the burgeoning number of students and public who find themselves encountering the "archaeology of recent ancestors". In The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology , Dan Hicks and Mary Beaudry have produced exactly what is needed.

In showcasing historical archaeology's excitement and complexity, the editors have drawn together chapters dealing with its relationships with urban archaeology, maritime archaeology, industrialisation, landscape, heritage and the built environment. Each of the 17 scholarly but accessible essays presents innumerable challenging issues, such as Laurie Wilkie's exploration of the differences between documentary and historical archaeology. The key point, Wilkie argues, is that historians regard documents as the primary window for gazing on the past, whereas documentary archaeologists see texts, oral history and material culture as additional windows that enrich interpretation by offering complementary or conflicting insights.

While some quibble with this, it is surely true that as documents themselves are items of material culture (regardless of what they say), their different types (for example, manuscripts or published accounts), the language they use and the time and place of their production (and identity of their producers) all offer new ways of "excavating" and interpreting the evidence they embody. Here, quite clearly, we see the influence of "material culture studies" in honing the sophistication with which historical archaeology reflexively investigates its own raw materials as well as the diversity of pasts that they suggest.

This influence is made explicit by Matthew Cochran and Beaudry in a chapter that acknowledges that historical archaeologists have only just begun to realise the potential of archaeological and anthropological material culture studies to cast interpretative light on the relationships between people and objects. In the materialities of, say, personal dress and object-belongings in colonial Annapolis in the eastern US, it is often less what people say or write about themselves than what they actually do that matters - though both "the word" and "the action" are equally revealing. In practices such as sewing, bodily adornments and household furnishings, individuals represent themselves to others and create and live within an embodied world of experience. And this personal universe intercalates itself into the wider social and cultural environment of the town or city, which, in turn, creates a distinctive identity within the wider and reconfigured landscape beyond.

Historical archaeology is also particularly well placed to investigate the reliability of interpretation and to question an "official" or "authorised"

view of the past. This is especially true as regards which materialities are or should be considered as heritage. Heritage itself, of course, is sometimes regarded as an insidious and dangerous concept, raising the spectres of who decides what is heritage, financial viability (at a given time) and target audiences whose attitudes and constituency are constantly changing. In John Schofield and Bill Johnson's wide-ranging essay, we see how multilateral views of Britain's military heritage - from the Second World War to the Cold War - are assessed and catered for in relation to conflicts (one actual, the other not) that shaped the landscape, and whose material remains move effortlessly across the boundaries of personal memory, technology and national and international politics. It is ironically appropriate that Cold War military sites now embody an integral part of national identity for a population whose survival was threatened by the presence of the very same sites (and the weapons they contained).

The nature of the built environment, from cities to households, is a recurrent theme in this book. Hicks and Audrey Horning, in particular, take issue with the assertion that buildings belong to historical geography, and architectural and art history, arguing instead that what is needed is a more holistic and integrated approach. This view fits well in an anthropological framework of material culture, where the changing designs and uses of space (broadly conceived) have important implications for heritage issues and cultural resource management. A point well made here is that of "entropic heritage" places, such as the World Trade Center (ruins, clearance and currently "empty" space), where "ruination" itself is valued as a combination of natural and cultural processes that form part of the well-documented historical landscape, replete with memories and emotions.

This idea could apply equally (and perhaps in an intensely tragic way) to the battle zone remains of those two exhaustively documented 20th-century events - the First and the Second World War.

Moving from small objects to vast landscapes, from experience through memory to materiality and back again, historical archaeology is uniquely placed to investigate the "archaeology of us" and to question the notion of "us" through material culture. This book is perfectly pitched and well timed, and shows us how as well as where to look for ourselves.

Nicholas J. Saunders is in the anthropology department, University College London.

The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology

Editor - Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 404
Price - £45.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 85375 3 and 61962 9

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments