CRM Journal

Book Review

Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America

Edited by Lu Ann De Cunzo and John H. Jameson Jr. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, in cooperation with the Society for Historical Archaeology, 2005; x + 255 pp., index; cloth $39.95.

Heritage of Value, Archaeology of Renown: Reshaping Archaeological Assessment and Significance

Edited by Clay Mathers, Timothy Darvill, and Barbara J. Little. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005; xviii + 368 pp., index; cloth $69.95.


Unlocking the Past and Heritage of Value, Archaeology of Renown both offer real value to anyone interested in the practice of archeology in the service of history and historic preservation and each, in its own way, focuses on current issues in their own part of that practice (or praxis as some would have it). While both sets of editors offer detailed views of their respective sides of the coin, neither book touches upon critical aspects of the other side. And with the exception of a few contributors, neither book really explores its own practitioners' stake in the results of determining what happens to archeological sites.

"Celebrating" is the key word in the De Cunzo and Jameson volume, Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America. Every contribution is written by an expert in the field, and in most ways the book is an enjoyable non-technical book to read.

The titles of the first five sections of this book reveal that the editors mean to cover a lot of ground ("Cultures in Contact: Melting Pots or Not?;" "Challenging and Changing Environments: Exploring New Lands and Exploiting New Environments;" "Building Cities: Tales of Many Cities;" "Making a Living in Rural America: the Archaeology of Work;" and "Cultures in Conflict: Contests on Land and Sea"). In those sections, the substantive chapters are of variable usefulness: A few are too narrow; a lesser number read like a press release, while one or two look like the last paragraph of a grant report.

The better chapters are general historic overviews of one or another aspect of the discipline presented through the medium of personalized and engaging "just-so" examples. Although identified by unexplained font changes, these call-outs, which are embedded in the larger chapters, are ultimately distracting: They do not appear in the index or in any table and pose a dilemma for those readers who might wish to cite them.

The reader is treated to a lot of the very interesting "low hanging fruit" to be found among the methods and conclusions historical archeology uses and yields, but is presented with no broad justification for the discipline until section 6, "Unlocking the Past: From the Past in the Present to the Future." This section introduction by Lu Ann De Cunzo and the well-written chapters by Maria Franklin and John Triggs are the intellectual heart of the book.

The publisher claims "this book [Unlocking the Past] describes compelling discoveries unearthed by archaeologists in search of North America's historical past." However, the history in this historical North America begins only with the Norse and the continent ends abruptly at the Rio Grande. Perhaps that is just as well, since this book does not grapple with the question of just what makes archeology at a particular site "historical" archeology. The Mexicans with whom I have worked quite correctly considered excavations at their Mayan sites in the Yucatan to be historical archeology. One might debate whether the late American Indian sites in the Great Lakes region became historical sites when Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492 or when Champlain sailed up the Saint Lawrence to Lake Huron in 1612, or whether they became historical sites when they were vaguely referred to on a 1640 French map.

The concept underlying most of this book is that material culture, as discovered and studied through historic archeology (not through politicized texts), is the way to understand an unlettered proletariat or the disesteemed indigenous peoples still present in the world. But perhaps that asks too much: However correct it may be to question the motive behind every historical document, archeologists cannot thoroughly study human behavior without those documents and without recognizing the importance of motive—often individual motives.

The book's stated raison d'etre is to raise public interest in historical archeology, and to be sure the point is understood, John Jameson Jr.'s concluding paragraph exhorts the reader to follow that flag. But while many of the editors and authors work in museums or for public agencies, with the exception of Pamela Cressey's contribution, this book is all about the experts. Nowhere is there any dialogue with the public, and the absence of any map to help readers find Jamestown, Shaker Village, the Lowell Mills, Louisbourg, or the scores of antebellum plantations mentioned in the text makes the book seem less than user-friendly. Readers may also be disappointed to find the first references to websites more than three quarters of the way into the book.

The good chapters are very good, and the topics they present—arcane forensic science, the discovery of buried cities, identifying some long-forgotten craftsman's family history, recognizing mysterious but once familiar objects, re-fighting famous battles and exposing inept generals—these are unquestionably topics that spark public appreciation for archeology. Unlocking the Past would make a nice present to give anyone curious about historical archeology as a career.

At first glance, the volume Heritage of Value, Archaeology of Renown: Reshaping Archaeological Assessment and Significance, edited by Mathers, Darvil, and Little, appears to be an altogether different book. According to the publisher, it "raises concerns and…revives the critical debate concerning significance and value while emphasizing innovations in both theory and practice in what has become in the 21st century an increasingly diverse discipline." Yet, the book presents few new innovations in either theory or practice.

Following a very clear introduction by the editors, part 1 contains three chapters on archaeology and heritage. Darvill's and Tainter and Bagley's discussions relating "significance" to site size and descriptive simplicity—suggesting that we all too readily pigeonhole data—are intriguing. Part 2, "Archaeology in Context," provides four governmental historical essays on assessing site significance from rather different international perspectives, but a critical comparative analysis of the reasons behind or the effects that resulted from applying those different national rules and regulations would have strengthened this part. Part 3, "Judging Value and Importance," contains a potpourri of chapters running from mathematical modeling of uncertain applicability to the very interesting issue of the equally ethnocentric value judgments about site preservation being made by Australian aborigines and American archeologists. And while I would not deny there has been controversy in the American heartland over American Indian sacred sites, these issues have moved beyond where author Sherene Baugher has portrayed them.

After reading the chapter, "Traditional Cultural Properties and the National Preservation Program in the United States," by Swidler and Yeatts, I wondered why a book whose purpose is clearly informed by the "liberation theology" of continental academicians would ignore discussion of the National Park Service Thematic Framework for History and Prehistory developed in 1991 and adopted in 1994—a new cultural history approach that finally expanded historical and archeological "significance" for cultural resources, taking it from the plantation veranda to the "dependencies," and from William Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate to Appalachian coal company towns. This omission appeared especially curious since editor Barbara Little wrote an excellent summary of that document for the Society for American Archaeology Bulletin in 1996.

The three chapters in part 4, "Managing Valued Places," show that an archeological site, like an architectural one, can be commodified as a cultural heritage site not unlike (and not infrequently linked to) locales promoted for ecotourism. Commodification implies another meaning of value, albeit one assessed more frequently by the local Chamber of Commerce than the local historical society.

These worthwhile books offer many new views of the "values" placed on uncovering, interpreting, and preserving the remains of the past. Yet, the fact that we have been reduced to selling the past by fantastic promises of its future earning power says a lot about our cultural values. I could not help but think that among all of the "values" that we, as professionals, were prepared to dissect, the value of furthering our professional careers was not on the table.

That oversight was also manifest in the "who we are and how we got that way" parts of both of these volumes. It seems that too few authors are familiar with the literature of their disciplines prior to the start of their own careers. Equally surprising, encomiums offered by both sets of editors to their immediate intellectual forbears ignore many of the truly pioneering archeologists and much of the disciplines' multi-lineal history that wrestled with these issues before the current paradigms coalesced. But as every contributor to both of these books should acknowledge, and as Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have said, "History shall be kind to me for I intend to write it."

David Brose
Imprints From The Past, LLC