Boom or Bust?
The emergence of historical archaeology in Scotland
Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what they can do until they try, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.
—R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946)
According to the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) founded in America in 1967, historical archaeology is the “study of the material remains of past societies that also left behind documentary and oral histories” while focusing on the “emergence, transformation, and nature of the Modern World”. In this light, archaeologists attempt to discover and reveal the structure and framework of history’s “common everyday life” in order to better understand the historical development of modern society (SHA 2021). While this definition encompasses the modern perspective, a survey of the origins of historical archaeology reveals a changing discipline transformed by the emergence of a sense of accountability, a development that has done much to erode the once dominant attitudes and prejudices affecting its outcomes. Nevertheless, the rise and acceptance of historical archaeology brings with it reasons to be cautious.
Though historical archaeology began to take its place as a legitimate subdiscipline of archaeology in both America and Australia during the early 20th century due in large part to their relatively recent colonial past (Brat 2021), “Old World” archaeologists had long since used textual information in their investigation of sites along the Mediterranean (Cotter 1994, p. 15). This allowed their North American counterparts to share in research methodologies with well-established archaeologists dating back to at least the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Orser 2001, p. 622). John Cotter, the 1984 recipient of the JC Harrington Medal for scholarly achievement in historical archaeology, points to Glaswegian Robert Pagan (Macmillan & Nason 2021) as the first person to apply archaeology to a historical site in North America. In 1796, armed with a copy of Samuel de Champlain’s map (See Figure 1), Pagan sailed up the Scoodic River in what is now upstate New York and located the ruins of Champlain’s 1604 settlement on Doceas Island (St Croix Island), thus resolving a boundary dispute between the United States and Britain (Cotter 1994, pp. 15—16; Pendery 2004).
As Brat points out (2021), archaeology and anthropology are closely related. In the United States, archaeology developed within anthropology (Paul 2021) in order to give anthropologists of pre-history the capacity to “project the human story into the most inaccessible corridors of time” by providing documentation of the human condition through material culture. In time, American archaeologists began applying their research methods to more recent sites and this naturally led to the use of historical materials as a collaborating resource. Because their research methods were sound, American archaeologists were able to begin asserting themselves across the Atlantic at some of the most “spectacular and world-renowned ancient sites” (Orser 2001, pp.621—622).
At this point, the research methods of American historical archaeology began to catch on in Europe as a legitimate means to consider the recent past (c. 1500s onward). Indeed, in many respects, European archaeologists outshined their American counterparts because of the abundance of “heroic sites” available throughout Europe (Orser 2001, p. 622). In Britain, urban archaeology gained renewed interest with the discovery of medieval towns buried under its cities and gave reason for bringing historical texts and documentation into the study of town planning and land use, oftentimes involving methodologies that challenged accepted archaeological practice (Brat 2021). Dr Paula Martin, for example, prefaced non-invasive field surveys of Scottish burghs with desk-based research to access archaeological records, maps, and town plans in order to gain a deeper understanding of the lay of the original towns and their growth patterns. This perspective was helpful in highlighting areas for future study (Martin 2008, p. 12) and in uncovering changes in land use such as the military parade grounds at Fraserburgh (Brat 2021).
Rural archaeologists, too, were emboldened by historical archaeology’s capacity to bring new perspectives to their research. Horace Fairhurst’s excavations of Rosal township in 1962 (Forestry and Land Scotland 2021) was an important step in this regard when he “combined records and archaeological evidence” to reconstruct the early community (Brat 2021). A type-site for clearance depopulation (Canmore 2021), Rosal was an 18th-century farming township in Strathnaver whose thirteen families were moved to coastal settlements between 1814—1818 (Close-Brooks, cited in Canmore 2021). Given no choice, the tenants were uprooted when the Countess of Sutherland initiated a series of “improvements” to convert the great glens of Strathnaver into large sheep farms (Forestry and Land Scotland 2021).
Fairhurst’s research was in sharp contrast to the dominant nineteenth century empire-tinged perspective that regarded the Highlanders of Scotland, for example, as either an unchanging and primitive people who were resistant to change, or romanticised noble savages (See Figure 2) (Brat, 2021). Nearly a century later, Curwen’s 1938 study, The Herbrides: A Cultural Backwater, still showed lingering prejudices through its romanticised interpretation of Highland life and association of Highland architecture with a resistance to change, even if that change was for the better (Brat 2021). Still, it was obvious from the work of archaeologists like Curwen that change was afoot; historical archaeology was allowing a more unprejudiced consideration of archaeological evidence to emerge.
One of the strengths of historical archaeology is that it gives an “insight into people and how they behave” (Brat 2021), a quality that can perhaps be traced to its beginnings as a sub-discipline of anthropology. Like anthropology, historical archaeology is uniquely positioned to draw upon disciplines like sociology, philosophy, and political science in order to satisfy one of its main directives: to “reconstruct a kind of social reality” that corresponds to the period examined (Brat 2021). In so doing, historical archaeology is poised to realise one of history’s great maxims, “All history is the history of thought” (Collingwood 1946).
R.G. Collingwood, an ardent philosopher, historian and archaeologist who became one of Britain’s foremost authorities on Roman archaeology during the first half of the 20th century (Connelly & D’Oro 2020), argues that it is not enough to simply examine material culture in regard to an event, but to understand the thought expressed through it (1946). In his seminal work The Idea of History, Collingwood tells us that the spilt blood of Caesar takes on its greatest significance when studied in relation to the deeper ramifications of the constitutional divide between he and his assassins (1946). Approaching material culture in this way, the archaeologist becomes a histo-archaeologist, if you will, and in this vein, uses archaeology’s inherent friendship towards integrative approaches to its full capacity.
Historical archaeology, however, is not without its controversies and detractors and, at the very least, comes with cautionary footnotes. In his brief history of
historical archaeology in America, Orser (2001, p. 621) points out that historical archaeology in the United States was not a “fully recognised member of the archaeological family until the late 1960s.” This was due in large part, he says, because even historical archaeologists, themselves, were hesitant to justify the field’s existence—what to some was “an expensive way of finding out what we know already” (Bradley, cited in Orser 2001, p. 621; Leone, Potter, Jr., & Shackel 1987).
Beyond any insecurities of using historical sources, archaeologists must contend with the emotional nature often inherent in the recent past. Its nearness to “lives lived now” can make things uncomfortable, even painful (Brat 2021). This can quickly become problematic when stepping on the toes of those who may harbour a strong identification to the past and to the people who lived it. For this reason, it has been proposed that archaeologists adopt a “critical theory” approach in order to mitigate “the fact that archaeological interpretations presented to the public may acquire a meaning unintended by the archaeologist and not to be found in the data “(Leone, Potter, Jr. & Shackel 1987, pp. 282-283).
Even more problematic are the prejudices, preconceptions and attitudes held by the archaeologist. A child’s developing mind is continually impressed with the inputs it receives from the outside world including familial, environmental, social, cultural and economic (Podolskiy 2012). These subconscious impressions, in turn, can, and do, affect later behaviour, choices, and attitudes including what is considered valuable and significant. This means the archaeologist may unknowingly have an “opinion” long before their trowel touches the earth.
Is it necessary for the historical archaeologist to free themselves from their subconscious impressions? If they do not, are they simply an updated version of what plagued nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeology? Collingwood tells us that it is the action that should interest the archaeologist-historian. To understand the action, one must understand the thoughts that drive the action: “The history of thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind” (1946).
One possibility lies in utilising frameworks of archaeological practice that support a more dispassionate examination of the evidence without endangering the chance to understand the action. Antczak and Beaudry offer a conceptual framework for exploring the relationship humans have to “things”, what they call an assemblage of practice. In essence, their method is designed to emphasise the connection humans have with ‘things” through a “ground up” approach that recognises the tendency of humans to become “entangled” with material objects. Their aim is not to remove the emotion from the process; rather, their aim is to channel it toward a more enlightened outcome using the available evidence (Antczak & Beaudry 2019).
Because historical archaeology is concerned with the recent past, an obvious question is when does archaeology stop being archaeology and become something else (Brat 2021; Cooke 2021)? Even a quick perusal across the internet reveals a multitude of “archaeologies”: archaeology of the mind, archaeology of the emotions, archaeology of art and film–at the very least, these hint at a certain flexibility and adaptability within the discipline.
Perhaps there is no better place to begin answering this question than with William Rathje’s Garbology Project in Tucson, Arizona in the 1970s. Rathje, himself, states:
“I personally became interested in analysing modern garbage for two reasons: I wanted to understand our society better and I thought an archaeological approach offered a new insight. We are literally buried in our artefacts and every day they affect our lives more” (Anthropology News 1981).
Rathje recorded significant data on food loss, solid-waste management and, interestingly, on the discrepancies between what people say and what they do. The three neighbourhoods that reported the lowest consumption of beer, for example, had the highest number of discarded beer cans per household (Anthropology News 1981).
Did this project cross the line of acceptable archaeology? In an interview in 1981, Rathje said that although the project received enormous amounts of press, the reception from both archaeologists and sociocultural anthropologists was lukewarm. “I assumed at the start,” he notes, “that I would not have to prove to archaeologists that garbology was, in fact, archaeology. I was wrong” (Anthropology News 1981).
Since that time, Rathje’s work has become more
accepted, and it is not difficult to find lectures or modules in garbology at universities around the world. Perhaps this is so because at the core of Rathje’s project is one of the reasons we study archaeology in the first place: to know the past so we can chart a better future:
“Today derives from the past and if we can see both from the same perspective, if we can plot ourselves and our ancestors on the same trajectory, we may be able to anticipate some of our future” (Anthropology News 1981).
Nevertheless, there is another, perhaps more profound reason we study archaeology. Michael Johnson, one of historical archaeology’s leading theoreticians (Smith 2014), observes:
“The question ‘why do we do archaeology?’ is therefore bound up with the question ‘why is archaeology… so important to us?’ And this again leads on to the question of ‘us’, of our identity — who are we?’” (Johnson 2020).
Perhaps it is just that whether we are at the ruins of a longhouse or an old wall in the woods, we discover the history of those who lived before us is still alive among the fallen stones and overgrown brush just as they are in a diary or 17th century engraving. Perhaps our relationship to archaeology is of a thing very close, akin to rediscovering a forgotten letter from a long, lost friend. In such moments of stillness, we experience a part of us that reaches out beyond the years, beyond even lifetimes. And there we discover, in the lap of a timeless, infinite past, why archaeology is so important to us.
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Scott, K., 2020. Mural in East Belfast. [image] Available at:
https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/new-uvf-mural-of-masked-gunmen-in-east-belfast-despicable-says-sinn-fein-38681594.html [Accessed 8 March 2021].
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Title Page Image Credits (left to right in descending order):
- The 1722 Waggonway Project is a community heritage project that “aims to interpret, preserve and enhance the route of Scotland’s first railway.”
History Scotland, 2019. 1722 Waggonway Project. [image] Available at: https://www.historyscotland.com/history/scottish-archaeology//the-1722-waggonway-project [Accessed 8 March 2021].
- Map of Britain by Matthew Paris (c. 1200 – 1259).
Paris, M., n.d. Matthew Paris’s map of Britain. [image] Available at: https://sarahpeverley.com/2014/09/18/medieval-maps-of-scotland/ [Accessed 8 March 2021].
- Archaeologists discover a medieval doorway to the caves at Culzean.
NTS Media Pics, 2018. Archaeology work at Culzean caves. [image] Available at: https://www.historyscotland.com/history/scottish-archaeology//medieval-doorway-revealed-during-archaeological-work-at-culzean-caves [Accessed 8 March 2021].
- Watercolour of John Knox’s house in Edinburgh by Louise Ingram Raynor (1832—1924).
Raynor, L., n.d. John Knox’s House, Edinburgh. [image] Available at: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18883/lot/112/ [Accessed 8 March 2021].
- Sign leading to Strathnaver Folk Museum.
Heart of Scotland Tours, 2021. Strathnaver Folk Museum. [image] Available at: https://www.heartofscotlandtours.co.uk/our-tours/tours-timetable/private-7-day-tour-the-north-coast-500/ [Accessed 8 March 2021].
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