The history in historical archaeology

Much (although not all) of the archaeology that is done at the Campus Archaeology Program is what is called Historical Archaeology. This type of investigation deals with what is considered the “historical” period, or, in America, the period after European Contact with the “New World”. It is at this point that written accounts about this continent become abundant. Often, Historical Archaeology is contrasted with Prehistoric Archaeology, which deals with the material past of cultures that predate contact.

Historical Archaeologists view the written record in a slightly different way than historians. From our point of view, the written account is an artifact in and of itself. All artifacts are products of human manipulation: a projectile point is a piece of rock manipulated to become an arrowhead, a nail is a piece of metal manipulated to join wood, and a document is a piece of paper used to convey information or to communicate. All were products that existed in one form, but were manipulated by humans to become and to do something different. This is an artifact.

The written word, therefore, carries the bias of the person who created it. It carries within the written form the bias of its historical context. For example, documents written by the founders of Michigan Agricultural College will refer to “students”, which carries a different meaning to them than it does to us. Our students can include any person, regardless of gender, class, or race, whereas their students were upper class, Euro-American men. Using historical documents, therefore, must be approached with as much caution as any other piece of material culture that is pulled from the ground. The historical record should never, ever be considered “fact”. It is always evidence.

The Campus Archaeology Program works with the University Archives and Historical Collections in order to gather much of our historical data. The Archive is the repository for the University’s documentation and historical record, in the same way that the MSU Museum houses pieces of MSU’s material culture. Often, trips to the Archive for the Campus Archaeologist includes looks at old maps and photographs, in order to get an idea as to where old buildings were located, what materials they were made of, and how the landscape may have differed. Since the Campus has (and still does) undergone so much change in such a rapid period of time, the Archive allows an opportunity for us to gain an idea as to what was located where.

Additionally, the Archive presents us with written records: land sales let us know who may have owned the property before MSU; diaries provide an insight into the lives of the earliest students. The latter is important because it may help us link the artifacts we find with the people who used them, or the activities they preformed while at the College. Sometimes, the material record does not match up with the historical record. The best example being the rules banning alcohol and smoking on campus. Our excavations at Saints’ Rest, MSU’s first dormitory, turned up alcohol bottles and smoking pipes…some things are a constant for college students!

Also, there are parts of the material record that the historical record doesn’t take into account. Much of our work on campus has been excavating trash deposits from the earliest periods of campus. These do not show up on maps, photographs, or in diaries. People typically hide their trash from view, and certainly from posterity. A person’s trash is often more truthful then what they write down. Much can be learned about eating habits, nutrition, and ways of life through these deposits, and can give a greater insight into issues such as class, gender, and race than the often biased view of the written record.

Our partnership with the MSU Archives and Historical Collections has been greatly beneficial for our Program, and has allowed us both the opportunity to investigate more thoroughly the cultural past of Michigan State University.

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Author: Terry Brock

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