Archival Research in Historical Archaeology

Fieldwork in historical archaeology doesn’t always involve digging in the dirt. I’ve spent many of my days this field season digging in the archives instead, which is what I’m doing today. An archive houses collections of preserved documents from any time period and subject that can be used for historical research. Archives I frequent are kept at universities, public libraries, or museums.

Some tools of archival research: a notebook, writing implement, stack of documents, and my iPod for quick photos (and background noise since archives can be too quiet!).  Taken at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum Culinary Library and Archives.

Some tools of archival research: a notebook, writing implement, stack of documents, and my iPod for quick photos (and background noise since archives can be too quiet!). Taken at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum Culinary Library and Archives.

Historical documents provide us with a different kind of data than we might discover with physical remains from an archaeological site. These types of data—such as federal census records, photographs, and newspapers—connect what’s in the ground with the diverse people that lived and worked at these sites in the past. Reading about local happenings and what people thought about them helps archaeologists gain social insights for interpreting artifacts. Documents can also help us figure out where to start digging, particularly historical maps from the time period of interest.

Blue Books list the names and addresses of New Orleans brothel employees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Taken at the Louisiana Research Collection.

Blue Books list the names and addresses of New Orleans brothel employees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Taken at the Louisiana Research Collection.

Archivists are invaluable resources when working on any historical archaeology project. They have a vast knowledge of the collections and can direct you to resources you were unaware of before, as well as help you navigate complicated collection catalogues. My list of important things to look at has expanded considerably after discussing my project with archivists—the more data the better!

Fieldwork in NOLA

I just got home from summer fieldwork in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I helped out with a field school excavating on various historic period sites.  My day of archaeology there was as one would expect, with our team starting work at about 8 o’clock in the morning digging, screening, bagging artifacts, mapping, note taking, and trying to stay relatively cool and unburned in the subtropical heat.

Towards the end of the course we found a late 19th century privy (in archaeology you always find the best stuff right when you’re about to leave, naturally), which may be useful for my dissertation.  Privies were essentially bathrooms before indoor plumbing became common, but people also used them to dispose of trash and other unwanted items.  Since archaeology is often an exercise in trash analysis, privies can be a boon to historic period research.

I happily worked through a whole afternoon carefully moving tiny amounts of dirt away from a thick assemblage of artifacts so we could get a better idea of how to proceed with digging out the privy.

A day in the field often runs eights hours, five days a week, which still leaves some down time for archaeologists to rest and view the sights, especially if they’re working away from home.  This was the case for me, and I used the opportunity to take in as much of local culture as I was able.  In historical archaeology, it especially important to take the time to get a feel for the whole history of a place and gain an understanding of the contemporary community.  Archaeology matters beyond academia—the communities in which archaeologists work not only provide insight into what we study, but are affected by the research that we produce.  Collaboration and cultural understanding are vitally important to create meaningful interpretations.

I study food, so the first thing I always want to do on a research trip is eat.  New Orleans is full of iconic cuisine, some of which has roots reaching back to the early colonial days of the city.  To end my day of archaeology, after fieldwork is finished for evening, I like to try dishes at new or familiar restaurants to enhance my understanding of the food culture and history.

Café du Monde is about as iconic as you can get, with a long and popular history.


Leftovers (Archaeology and Food!)

Recently, I’ve begun analyzing data for my dissertation project in historical archaeology.  My day is spent in the lab, surrounded by animal bones, small tools for detailed cleaning and measuring, spreadsheets, and more bones.  I’m interested in brothel household food practices, and animal remains from kitchen trash deposits are a good place to start.  As a zooarchaeologist I’m often asked about my lab process, especially about the kinds of things can I learn from studying animal bones and how I know what they are.  When I’m embarking on a new project I often ask myself the same kinds of questions.  How do I identify animal remains?  What categories are important to my basic research questions?  Does any of this actually matter?

As a point of reference, I’ve been starting with the same tongue-in-cheek query I’ve been asking myself since my first solo project: Who ate the hamsteak?  Broken down into basic parts, what I’m really posing is an answer to why zooarchaeology matters.  “Ate” implies an action, a human behavior.  “Who” implies a search for the identity of the eaters.  The “hamsteak” is what is left over for the archaeologist to find, a clue to discovering cultural identity.  Examining eating habits is a way for me to understand not only past diets, but delve into meaningful choices that indicate ethnicity, class consciousness, fashion, heritage, nutrition, and many other aspects of humanity.

Choosing categories in which to record data that might show patterns in food choices usually begins with a broad understanding of what is in that pile of bones sitting on my table.  Species, skeletal element, and age are necessary no matter what the project is about.  Published guides about bones with detailed drawings, measurements, and age charts are available for archaeologists, but the best way to identify animal remains is by comparison to complete zoological specimens.

Since my focus is on food, I also collect data on how the meat was prepared, including butchery marks, if the bone has been burned, and other human modifications.  Butchery marks can be very obvious, such as the relatively neat lines and even surface an industrial saw makes, or they can be difficult to distinguish, such as scratches from utensils during consumption.  Burning has more ambiguous meaning – for example, it can indicate food preparation or it can indicate how the remains were disposed.  Sometimes you can see that a bone was broken or smashed intentionally in preparation to recover the marrow inside for use as an ingredient.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, I determine the cut of meat from butcher charts.  Knowing the cut links a bone to specific recipes, serving methods, pricing, and food trends, all of which can be researched historically.  Analyzing food remains doesn’t end in the lab.  I spend a lot of time pouring over regional and historic cookbooks for popular dishes and personal records for family favorites.  Newspapers with restaurant and grocery advertisements, personal accounts, and food columns are also helpful in deciphering what I am looking at in that big pile of bones.

Everyday Archaeology

My Day of Archaeology is not in the field, or in the lab, or even at a conference.  By “everyday” I don’t mean mundane, quite far from it.  Everyday Archaeology is the way I choose to describe my experiences dabbling in the public aspect of museums.  Currently, I’m a PhD student at Michigan State University studying for exams and trying to get my dissertation proposal together, but I also work in our tiny museum shop, where my most common customers are children.  This job has been a completely new and enlightening experience, one which I feel has helped me grow as a future educator.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately:  When I’m not in the field and not in the lab or in a place where there are artifacts readily available, how do I talk about archaeology in a way that gets people excited?

One answer is using toys.  We have several archaeology toys in our shop—things like pyramid dig kits, replica projectile points, and storybooks.  When I get asked about these items, either how they work or if they’re real artifacts, it’s an opportunity to engage young minds and create a spark of interest in the field.  Most recently, I was asked if I knew what was inside the pyramid in one of the dig kits.  I replied that it was a surprise, because you never know exactly what you’re going to find during an excavation, and he promptly told his mother he wanted to buy it.  Sometimes parents (or grandparents) stop in to buy a souvenir for their kids, and ask about archaeology in Michigan so they can relay the information with the present later.  Projectile points and their abundance are a popular topic of conversation, because they are easily relatable artifacts for kids, who are often interested handmade things.

Getting away from the books and artifacts during the day to talk to visitors, particularly children, grounds me and helps me put what I do in perspective.  I’ve been interested in the community aspect of doing archaeology since college, when I did lab analysis on a project where kids from a local school assisted in the excavation of their own neighborhood.  Archaeology should be meaningful for everyone, and I try to use my job in the Museum as a venue to excite curiosity for ways of knowing about the past.  Right now, that usually means talking to kids about toys, and at the end of the day I’m happy with my accomplishments.