Category Archives: Archaeology

The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

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Filed under American Revolution, Archaeology, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

A walk in Jamestown

For the last post, we took a stroll around the place where England’s American empire came to an end.  Just a short distance away, at the other end of the Colonial Parkway, is the place where it started.

If you haven’t been to Jamestown since the 400th anniversary, you’ve missed out on a lot.  Last week was my first visit in a long time, and they’ve added so much stuff that it almost seemed like a different site.

The visitor center exhibit is packed with archaeological materials…


…the fruit of many years’ worth of excavations, which are still ongoing.  (Check out this nifty interactive map for info on what they’ve found so far.)


In addition to the visitor center displays, there’s a new museum in the park called the “Archaearium,” which sits atop the site of the statehouse.


You can see the statehouse foundations through glass windows in the Archaearium floor.


Excavators found these items inside one of the fort’s wells, and the exhibit designers mounted them in a way that illustrates their positions in situ.  It’s pretty neat.


The most powerful exhibit in the Archaearium is a gallery with the remains of some of Jamestown’s dead, including “Jane,” a girl of about fourteen whose bones bear the traces of cannibalism.  Photography is forbidden in that part of the museum, but you can get some more info on Jane here.

The Tercentenary Monument is still there…


…along with the site’s only remaining seventeenth-century structure, a church tower.


The current church alongside the tower is a 1907 reconstruction, but seventeenth-century foundations are visible inside.


There’s also a partial reconstruction of one of the earlier churches, a “mud and stud” building erected within the original fort walls in 1608.  John Rolfe married Pocahontas on this site in 1614.


John Smith gazes out across the James River…


…while Pocahontas stands near the reconstructed fort with arms outstretched in what looks like a gesture of welcome.  Hardly the most accurate depiction of what Powhatan’s daughter would have looked like when Jamestown’s settlers first encountered her, but still a nice piece of commemorative sculpture.


Historians long thought that the site of the original, triangular fortification built by the first settlers was lost to the river.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.  The original fort site was right there near the church tower the whole time, although erosion carried away any traces of one of the corner bastions.  Cannons mark the site of the other two.  Only one of the bastions pointed inland; the others faced south toward the river, since the first settlers were more worried about Spanish ships than marauding Indians.


What should have concerned them more than either were disease and starvation.  Crosses mark some of the early burials in and around the fort, bearing testimony to the fact that, in its first years, Jamestown—whatever else it eventually meant for the history of America—was above all else a deathtrap.


The colony eventually outgrew the triangular fort and expanded eastward along two streets beside the river.  Walking trails take you past the reconstructed foundations of some of these later buildings.


Near the park entrance are the remains of the glasshouse, one of many failed attempts to make the colony profitable before tobacco took off.


In a reconstructed glasshouse nearby, interpreters demonstrate seventeenth-century glass-blowing techniques.


Jamestown has the highest concentration of critters per acre of any historic site I’ve visited.  Geese enjoy hanging out by the river…


…and turtles are pretty common, too.  I met this fellow taking a stroll beside the fort site.


I also ran across herons, lizards, a muskrat, a deer, and bugs…lots and lots and lots of bugs, especially on Island Drive, where so many flying insects pelted the car windows that it sounded like driving through a hailstorm.


It’s a little ironic that Jamestown is teeming with life today, given that so many of its settlers went to an early grave.



Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

Two items of note from here in Tennessee

Eight Tennessee sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, including Crockett Tavern in Morristown, just down the road from my hometown.  Davy Crockett’s family moved to the site when the famous frontiersman was still a boy.  The present structure is a replica built in the 1950s, during the Crockett craze whipped up by the Disney series.

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going this year, as soon as they re-open for the spring.  It’s not that uncommon for history buffs to spend years driving all over the country to visit sites and let the ones in their own backyards fall through the cracks, but the fact that I’ve gone this long without crossing Crockett Tavern off my bucket list is downright scandalous.

Also, the East Tennessee Historical Society is hosting a Brown Bag Lecture on Jan. 16 at noon about an interesting archaeological site in downtown Knoxville: the home of Peter Kern, a remarkable guy who turned a run of bad luck into a fortune in the food business.  Kern was a German immigrant who settled in Georgia and signed up to fight for the Confederacy.  Wounded in Virginia, he went back home to recover.  While returning to the front by train, he ended up in Knoxville just as the city fell into Union hands.  Stuck in town for the duration of the war, he made the most of his situation and established a bakery and ice cream parlor.  Kern’s bread business was quite a success (you can still buy baked goods with the Kern’s label here in East Tennessee) and he stayed in Knoxville, running successfully for mayor in 1890.

So on behalf of my fellow East Tennesseans to whichever Yankee soldier managed to knock Kern out of the action—thanks for all the awesome sandwiches.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

A slave cemetery study and a TSM exhibit

Next year the Tennessee State Museum is mounting an exhibit on slavery at the Wessyngton plantation, which at one point was the largest farm in the entire state and the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the country.  Archaeologists from UT have been studying the plantation’s slave cemetery, site of some 200 burials, as part of the preparation for the exhibit.  USA Today has the details.  Looks like it’ll be an interesting display.

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Filed under Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Lunchtime lecture tomorrow on Cavett’s Station massacre

If you’re free at noon tomorrow, pack your lunch and head over to the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville for a brown bag lecture on the 1793 massacre at Cavett’s Station.  The speaker is Dr. Charles Faulkner, who’s spent years studying Tennessee archaeology.  Admission is free.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Tennessee History

“Television’s not about information at all.”

An archaeologist was kind enough to share his thoughts on the brace of new artifact-hunting TV shows.  His whole comment is worth reading (click on yesterday’s post to see the whole thing), but take note of this excerpt:

I don’t know what the answer is to balancing the need for professionalism with the desire for people to be involved and the reality that if only archaeologists dug sites, most would never get dug…but these shows are certainly not it. I’d much rather see a show where professional and avocational archaeologists and community members all worked together to both dig and interpret sites, but I guess that wouldn’t fit with the current fascination with pawn shops, storage lockers, and antiquing, where one in a thousand items will net that lucky person with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The story that can be woven from one out-of-context item is engrossing, but it’s also inherently tied to it’s rarity and economic value in these shows.…Of course, doing the actual archaeology would take a lot longer than bulldozing a backyard for a cannon. le sigh.

That sums it up pretty well, I think, it and echoes what I’ve been saying quite a bit lately—the media saturates us with “the past,” but generally does little to foster a real historical consciousness or understanding.

One of my all-time favorite authors is the late Michael Crichton.  Longtime dinosaur nut that I am, I’d probably find it hard not to be a fan of the man who brought Jurassic Park into the world, but it wasn’t until I’d been reading him for several years that I came to appreciate him as an intellectual force to be reckoned with.  Here was a guy who had modern civilization’s number.

One of his most overtly issue-driven books is Airframe, a story about an investigation into a commercial air disaster pitting an employee of a plane manufacturing company against an ambitious TV news producer.  On one level, it’s a thriller; on another, it’s an indictment of the media in this so-called Information Age.

At one point in the story, as the main character is about to be interviewed for a major investigative news program, her company dispatches a media expert to prep her for the experience.  “A lot of people complain that television lacks focus,” the expert tells her.  “But that’s the nature of the medium.  Television’s not about information at all.  Information is active, engaging.  Television is passive.  Information is disinterested, objective.  Television is emotional.  It’s entertainment.”  The reporter who will be interviewing her “has absolutely no interest in you, or your company, or your airplanes.…He wants a media moment.”  Crichton, of course, didn’t originate the practice of critiquing TV along these lines, but he made the case more powerfully and in a more articulate manner than most.

Hence the way in which TV handles the past.  The complex, detailed, and messy business of reality is not very congenial to the medium of television, but making sense of that reality is what historians, archaeologists, and scholars in related fields do.  Their work requires the assimilation of lots of complicated information and a carefully constructed presentation of their findings.  The issues with which working historians and archaeologists grapple—the need to determine what happened, why it happened, and what it all means—are not subject to the quick, neat solutions that characterize so many TV shows.

The problems with which the characters on reality shows deal, by contrast, are generally pretty simple and straightforward.  Some guy has brought an old musket into my pawn shop, and I need to know what it is and how much it’s worth.  This is the stuff of “the past,” but it’s not really the stuff of history.

Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying.  I’m sure we could all come up with examples of solid and scholarly TV shows that make a real contribution to our understanding of the past.  But those examples serve only to demonstrate the culpability of the media in general, because they show that the trifling nature of so much of our “historical” TV programming is not an inevitable result of the medium’s inherent limitations.  As for those of us in the audience, it demonstrates our culpability, too, because the people in control of the lineup are ultimately just giving us more of what we already watch the most.  We shouldn’t be too eager to blame the producers of culture for our predicaments, because culture is simply an expression of our collective appetites.


Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory

Dirt flying

Gordon Belt recently directed my attention an online petition directed against Spike TV’s upcoming reality series about artifact hunting. You can read it (and sign it, if you so desire) by clicking here.  There’s also a petition in support of the show, hoping that the program will “correct the false impression that relic hunting is unethical.”

Coincidentally, the president of the Society for American Archaeology is protesting a similar show which is about to premiere on the National Geographic Channel, and has written a letter of complaint to the National Geographic Society’s CEO.  Critics of this show have an online petition, too.

Personally, I’m not opposed to relic hunting on principle, at least within reasonable limits.  If somebody wants to take a metal detector and look for Minié balls or buttons on private land, that’s fine with me, as long as they have the landowner’s permission and the site isn’t particularly significant.

From Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to historically sensitive ground, that’s another matter.  Battlefields, the sites of prison camps and hospitals, burial sites, and things of that sort are best left to the pros, even if the land in question belongs to private parties who don’t object to relic hunting.  In archaeology, context is everything.  Indeed, the information about an artifact’s context is as valuable as the artifact itself.

Since the shows haven’t aired, I don’t know what sort of digging we’re dealing with.  If we’re talking about sites and finds that merit a systematic approach, I’d rather see them left alone than get picked over by relic hunters, even if a full-scale excavation in the near future is unlikely.

If this sounds snotty, let me point out that when it comes to archaeology, I’m not a professional, either.  History and archaeology are two completely disciplines, with their own separate methodologies, programs of study, professional associations, publications, and so on.  Historians and archaeologists draw frequently on one another’s expertise, of course, but even a terminal degree in history won’t prepare you to run a large-scale excavation.

A few years ago, I got the chance to work with a professional team of archaeologists for a few days, when they came to campus to do some shovel tests for a survey of the area.  It was fun and interesting, and I learned quite a bit, but by no means am I under the impression that I’m competent to interpret a site just because they showed me how to classify soil samples and screen for artifacts.

If it turns out these shows are promoting irresponsible behavior, then I’ll add my voice to the chorus of protest.  Until then, I’m going to wait and see what they’re digging up and where they’re doing it.


Filed under Archaeology, Uncategorized