Remembering the People Behind the Things

Posted by on Apr 18, 2011 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 5 Comments

It’s often easy, as archaeologists, to get lost in the stuff. Often, this is because the stuff is the part of archaeology that gets celebrated. Rarely do visitors to archaeological sites ask, “So, what are you learning about the cultural past of the people who lived here?” Mostly, the question is, “So, what kinds of cool stuff are you finding?” Getting lost in the things we excavate, the shiny artifacts, the pretty ceramics, the old coins, can be a fun way to excavate. But it’s not archaeology. It’s not what we do, because we study the people who used the stuff, not the stuff itself. And studying people is a huge responsibility.

For my research (so far), the stuff has been the built environment and landscape of a 19th century plantation in Southern Maryland. In order to discover the people who lived in these buildings, I need to know things about the buildings they lived in: where are they located? How were they constructed? What were they made of? How are they placed in relationship to each other? How have they moved or changed or been modified over time? Were other people building similar buildings and organizing them in similar ways? These questions are fascinating to me. Answering these questions are a means to an end; they get me to the people. However, they can often feel like an end, because it can take a lot of work to just identify when and where a building was built, let alone why the person built at that time and in that place. Or, even better, why a group of people were building these structures in similar ways. What environmental forces or cultural trends, were influencing their decisions? These are questions that start to get at people, cultures, and are the main purpose of what we do.

Sometimes, it takes a moment to pull our heads out of our excavation units, or our eyes away from the microscope, to remind us that each object we find has a person behind it. I had the amazing opportunity a few months ago to conduct an interview with a woman who grew up in a duplex quarter that was a part of the plantation I am studying. Although this building was once a slave quarter, it was occupied through the 1950s as a tenant home, and this woman spent most of her childhood living in the building.

I learned a great deal about the structure that I hadn’t before. I learned about additions that were put on the back of it, how they used the two sides of the house (one as a bedroom, one as a kitchen),I learned about some of the objects they used in the kitchen, where they threw out their trash, and I learned that they had pig pens and a small garden in their back yard. I learned about the stuff they used.

But I also learned about how that stuff was a product of their lives. I learned that the beach behind their house was the popular place for the kids to play, and that the hard work that her father did eventually led to his death. I learned about life as a girl growing up with seven brothers, and how it was rare that friends came to visit. I learned about the importance of church and school as social spaces, not just places for religion and learning. I also learned about how difficult segregation was, and, through her reluctance to speak about it, how my position as a white man dictated what she thought I wanted to hear and what she thought I didn’t want to hear.

The most meaningful moment, however, came as we walked through her current house so she could show me some of the decorations that had adorned the walls of the duplex, and now sat on her walls. As we finished the tour of her her home, which her husband had built for her, she said, “wow, I have a really big house.” It was a wonderful moment: after spending hours talking about the tiny place she had grown up, and how hard that life was, she realized how much her life had changed.

It reminded me of the importance and delicacy of what I was doing: this building is not just a thing to be studied. It is not just a place where people lived. It was a home. It was where families were raised, where dinners were eaten. It was a place that was as important to them as my home is to me and my family. The simple fact that it is now an “object of study” that has important cultural and historical value doesn’t take away the significance that it has to individual people, both alive and dead. For the woman I interviewed, it was her childhood home, where she was raised, and now serves as a marker of how far in life she had come. This is more than research: it’s a responsibility.

This is always something that can be difficult for archaeologists to remember, because of the nature of our discipline: we are often distracted by the things that let us study people. But we must always consider that for each nail we find, someone had to craft it. Someone had to pound it into a piece of wood, and someone slept under the shelter that that wood and nail were a part of. And that someone has a life that we have the responsibility to portray accurately and respectfully. If we fail to do that, then we are not only failing to do our jobs, but we are failing the people of the past and the present.

Photo: The Duplex Quarter at Historic St. Mary’s City, ca 1920s courtesy of Historic St. Mary’s City
  • LynneG

    Nice job, Terry – a lesson that many folks forget.

    • Thanks, Lynne. I always get a little worried when I hear lots of conversations about artifacts, but little conversation about how they link to people…I also think there’s an important public archaeology component: we need to be sure that we take that question about “cool stuff” and turn the answer into something about people.

  • Hey Terry, I think what you’re describing is an ethics, in a way. It’s a responsibility that archaeologists have to reinforce and re-articulate the social relations and lives that the artifacts we’ve excavated were/are enmeshed in.

    • Exactly right. It’s a big responsibility, explaining the past accurately. What can get muddled, sometimes, is remembering that our end goal isn’t the history of the artifact, but of the people who used it. Understanding the artifact is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Thanks for the comment!

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