Historic archaeology
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Historic Archaeology. What is it? Historic Sites Case Studies. What is Historical Archaeology?. Historical archaeology is the study of the material remains of past societies that also left behind some other form of historical evidence.

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Historic Archaeology

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Historic archaeology

Historic Archaeology

What is it?

Historic Sites

Case Studies

What is historical archaeology

What is Historical Archaeology?

  • Historical archaeology is the study of the material remains of past societies that also left behind some other form of historical evidence.

  • This field of research embraces the interests of a diverse group of scholars representing the disciplines of anthropology, history, geography, and folklore.

  • In the New World, historical archaeologists work on a broad range of sites preserved on land and underwater.

Historic sites

Historic Sites

  • These sites document early European settlement and its effects on Native American peoples, as well the subsequent spread of the frontier and later urbanization and industrialization.

  • By examining the physical and documentary record of these sites, historical archaeologists attempt to discover the fabric of common everyday life in the past and seek to understand the broader historical development of their own and other societies.

  • In the old world (Europe, Africa and Asia) written records go back much farther and this type of archaeology is referred to as “classical archaeology”.

Development of historic archaeology in north america

Development of Historic Archaeology In North America

  • Historical archaeology in the United States began developing in the 1930s in response to the need for both material remains and documentary evidence to restore and interpret sites important in early American history, including Jamestown, St. Augustine, and Plymouth.

  • Colonial Williamsburg had one of the first departments of historical archaeology in the mid-1950s, and by the 1960s a few North American universities were offering courses in the subject.

  • Today many colleges and universities have graduate programs in historical archaeology, and field has emerged as a discipline in its own right.

What do historic archaeologists study

What do Historic Archaeologists Study?

  • African American and Native American studies explore the impact of European expansion upon these groups and issues related to inequality and the maintenance of traditional culture.

  • Gender studies are concerned with the way the division of labor between men and women within New World households changed as a result of modernization.

  • Farmstead studies focus upon the changes that occurred within rural households as they became increasingly involved in commercial agriculture.

  • Urban studies examine the development of cities, industries, technology, and their influences upon urban groups.

  • Maritime or underwater studies explore the history of ships and ocean transportation.

African american studies

African American Studies

  • Since the early 1970s historical archaeologists in the South have excavated sites inhabited by enslaved African Americans.

  • African American studies have been guided by t0 main questions: How did African American culture develop from West African origins and what was everyday life like for enslaved blacks?

  • The persistence of West African traditions in material culture have been identified by archaeologists in the areas of architecture and pottery.

Slave cabins

Slave Cabins

  • Slave cabins were usually 16 or 18 feet by 16 feet with a chimney at one end.

  • Sometimes a loft was reached by ladder and used for storage or as a sleeping room for children.

  • Slave cabins generally were grouped together on a "street" with several cabins facing each other across a lane.

  • Cabins for slaves who worked in the plantation house would have been fairly close to the house. Cabins for slaves who were field hands were located near the fields.

Slave cabin from sotterly plantation md ca 1840

Slave cabin from Sotterly Plantation, MD (ca. 1840).

Layout of mansfield plantation

Layout of Mansfield Plantation

Colono ware

Colono Ware

  • In South Carolina during the early 18th century slaves constructed West African-style, wattle and daub, thatched houses.

  • They also made pottery, called Colono Ware, derived from West African traditions.

  • During the late 18th and 19th centuries elements of European material culture, such as European-style houses and imported household goods, were increasingly imposed upon African Americans.

  • However, West African derived cultural elements, particularly along coastal South Carolina and Georgia, persist to the present in areas such as language, foodways, music, funeral customs, and decorative crafts.

Colono ware1

Colono Ware

Native american studies

Native American Studies

  • The impact of European colonization upon native groups and the way the sexual division of labor changed in the historic past are central topics in historical archaeology.

  • These issues are illustrated by historical archaeology conducted in Labrador, Canada.

  • During the late 18th century Moravian missionaries from Germany established mission towns along the Labrador coast.

  • This region was inhabited by the Inuit (Eskimo). The Moravians sought to convert the Inuit to Christianity and persuade them to live in mission towns.

  • The Inuit were nomadic hunter-gatherers and depended upon arctic animals such as seals, whales, and caribous.

Archaeological excavation of an inuit house midden in nain a mission town

Archaeological excavation of an Inuit house midden in Nain, a mission town

  • Illustrates the impact of European culture upon the Inuit and the way it restructured traditional divisions of labor between men and women.

  • European style houses and household items largely replaced Inuit material culture.

  • However, artifacts from excavation illustrate European goods were used in distinctively Inuit ways.

Native use of european goods

Native use of European goods

  • For example, numerous European ceramics such as tablewares possessed oil discoloration from being used as lamps.

    • Previously, the Inuit had made lamps from soapstone. Also, bowls made in Europe comprised the bulk of the imported tablewares, indicating that stews, previously consumed from soapstone bowls, continued to be the main fare of the Inuit.

    • The Inuit also mended European ceramic vessels by drilling and tying the pieces together with sinew, a practice previously conducted with soapstone vessels.

  • Concerning changes in the division of household labor, European goods such as metal and firearms increased the efficiency of hunting and reinforced male activities.

  • Conversely, the incorporation of European household goods by Inuit women increased the time and labor needed to maintain the household and in turn encouraged sedentism.

Exchange items

Exchange items

The five points site

The Five Points Site

  • Archaeologists and historians rediscover a famous nineteenth-century New York neighborhood.

  • Named for the points created by the intersection of Park, Worth, and Baxter streets, the neighborhood was known as a center of vice and debauchery throughout the nineteenth century.

Descriptions of five points

Descriptions of Five Points

  • Outsiders found Five Points threatening and fodder for lurid prose.

  • Describing a visit in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote:

  • "This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth…The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?"

Five points excavation

Five Points Excavation

  • The archaeological excavation of the Foley Square courthouse block provided the opportunity to examine the physical remains of life in this infamous place.

Five points excavation1

Five Points Excavation

Five points in 1827 as depicted in valentine s manual 1855

Five Points in 1827 as depicted in Valentine's Manual, 1855

The pearl street tanneries

The Pearl Street Tanneries

  • A 1785 map shows the courthouse block divided into eight lots that belonged to George and Jacob Shaw, tanners.

  • Taking advantage of the moving water of the eastern outlet of the Collect Pond and standing water in the surrounding swamps, the tanners sited their operations along the sill of land that eventually became Pearl Street.

Tannery artifacts

Tannery Artifacts

Iron hook for moving hides around

Cattle bones

The hoffman house

The Hoffman House

  • While the Hoffmans ate on fancy Chinese porcelain dishes, other citizens complained loudly about the industries that were polluting the nearby Collect Pond.

  • In addition to the tanneries, slaughterhouses, breweries, ropewalks, and potteries contributed to making the neighborhood less than desirable.

  • Despite these conditions, artisans continued to live here in order to be near their businesses.

  • The Hoffman bakery (managed by a sequence of tenants) remained in business on Pearl Street well into the 1850s; the widow Hoffman lived on the property until circa 1830 when the Five Points had already achieved its notorious reputation.

The hoffman assemblage

The Hoffman Assemblage

Irish tenement and saloon

Irish Tenement and Saloon

  • Newly arrived immigrants worked in a variety of skilled and unskilled jobs, including construction, carpentry, masonry, dressmaking, printing, housekeeping, and hat making.

  • Men, women, and even children contributed to the family income which hovered around $600 a year, enough to put meat on the table at most meals and buy fashionable household goods and clothing.

  • For working-class men, life included membership in fraternal orders, trade unions, and fire companies as well as the camaraderie of the many local grog shops.

  • Women formed strong support networks in the tenements, sharing the burden of child care and domestic responsibilities.

Irish tenement artifacts

Irish Tenement Artifacts

Kids toys

Soda Bottles

Medicine Bottles



  • We have to be careful not to let the biases of nineteenth-century observers, men like George Foster who were outsiders to the neighborhood, prevent us from hearing the voices of the actual residents who lived there.

  • The Five Points artifacts speak for those whom Walt Whitman described in 1842 as "...not paupers and criminals, but the Republic's most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men [and we will add women] who will work" (the Aurora).

Underwater historic archaeology

Underwater Historic Archaeology

  • The Thomas Wilson was a riveted-steel, single propeller freight-carrying steamship.

  • The Wilson was built during the winter of 1891-1892 at West Superior, Wisc., and was launched April 30, 1892.

  • The wreck of the Wilson is historically significant as the best known surviving example of the earliest whaleback steamships. Whalebacks were a distinctive type of Great Lakes bulk freighter designed by Captain Alexander McDougall for the transportation of grain, iron ore and lumber in the late 19th century.

  • On June 7, 1902, the Thomas Wilson was outbound from Duluth Harbor carrying a cargo of Mesabi iron ore. It collided with the Hadley, killing nine of the twenty man crew.

The thomas wilson

The Thomas Wilson

Diver taking photos

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