What’s the point? Establishing a Typology for Historic Sites

As our typology project comes to a close, I am excited about the potential such a collection can offer the field. Unfortunately, I have learned that this excitement is primarily from the fact that I am a historic archaeologist. While we sat around the CAP table last week, we discussed some of the issues that arise from working on sites like Campus where not only records, but photos, archives, videos, and voices abound. So then, we are left with the question of what’s the point?

This question is not new and any archaeologists with a twitter account has definitely come across the fevered hashtag #whyarchmatters. The national discussion about the field in general has added some much-needed steam to innovative reasoning and applications of the general field of archaeology. Therefore as we defend our collective selves, it’s no wonder why subfield’s are picked apart to ensure they contribute and are substantive to our greater archaeological cause. Historic archaeology is a contentious subfield with some scholars referring to it as mere forensics, history, or even just a plain waste of time. The biggest opponents simply relegate it to “handmaiden” status when they are tired of thinking about how “useless” it is.

Historic archaeologists and their allies are adamant about the many reasons it is not only useful but necessary to understand the entire context of contemporary societies. We defend our field with phrases like, “voice to the voicelessanddocuments aren’t complete.”  We talk about digital archaeology and archaeology of plastics to demonstrate the changing nature of the field site and how we can document those changes here and now. I would like to raise a couple more reasons why the typology project of the MSU Campus is a contribution to the field.

First, I will start with a brief story. Last week Adrianne and I went to look into some community outreach activities for CAP. In the midst of a conversation about the a particular organization and its relationship to MSU, a gentleman began sharing things he had heard and experienced regarding race in East Lansing. This man said that one thing he knew was that African-American faculty were not allowed to live in East Lansing until the 1960s so they stayed in a particular city house or in Lansing proper. Now, we can look at city ordinances and in this case, even talk to people who lived during that time. So what can the typology offer this story?  One thing we can do, thanks to many studies on intercultural relationships in historic archaeology, is to look to see if and how racial housing segregation affected the campus landscape. Here we have a contemporary case of campus legend of housing segregation, which according to some people still remains to be the case, versus a large body of MSU rhetoric that esteems equality. More than a mere answer or even triangulation of memory and record, the typology may be able to address the effects of such unspoken housing policies on the consumption, retention, and matriculation of some parts of MSU’s student body. Do these practices show up in the archaeological record? Wouldn’t that be interesting to asses through our artifacts?

This leads to a second contribution of a historic typology; more questions. One of the problems with being so familiar with the archaeological record, for the simple fact that we are living in it, is that we feel like we know it. The familiarity tailors our approach so that our questions can become quite teleological. The typology project, and other historic projects like it, can serve to generate new questions about the world around us. Rather than just dismissing anomalies to grand processes of “trade systems,” we are forced to think pretty creatively about the nature of social change when we ourselves are in the midst of it. This helps not just archaeology but anthropology as it can guide questions about living folks and their memories as well.

These contributions help me to reframe the typology and how it can help us understand how campus changed overtime. As archaeologists, the study of recent times comes as a challenge, an opportunity to expand our field and how we view cultural change. Given the many histories we are apart of today, I believe that we can all add to how we categorize our present world. How splendid would it be if the ancient Mayans, Egyptians, or Cahokians developed a typology of their sites based on their own understandings? I am just at the beginning of such studies so my excitement is still growing. What are some of your experiences?


Author: Blair Zaid

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