What is it?
What is Historical Archaeology?
Historical archaeology is the study of the
material remains of past societies that also
left behind some other form of historical
This field of research embraces the
interests of a diverse group of scholars
representing the disciplines of
anthropology, history, geography, and
In the New World, historical archaeologists
work on a broad range of sites preserved
on land and underwater.
These sites document early European settlement and its
effects on Native American peoples, as well the
subsequent spread of the frontier and later urbanization
By examining the physical and documentary record of
these sites, historical archaeologists attempt to discover
the fabric of common everyday life in the past and seek
to understand the broader historical development of
their own and other societies.
In the old world (Europe, Africa and Asia) written
records go back much farther and this type of
archaeology is referred to as “classical archaeology”.
Development of Historic Archaeology
In North America
Historical archaeology in the United States began
developing in the 1930s in response to the need for both
material remains and documentary evidence to restore
and interpret sites important in early American history,
including Jamestown, St. Augustine, and Plymouth.
Colonial Williamsburg had one of the first departments of
historical archaeology in the mid-1950s, and by the
1960s a few North American universities were offering
courses in the subject.
Today many colleges and universities have graduate
programs in historical archaeology, and field has
emerged as a discipline in its own right.
What do Historic Archaeologists Study?
African American and Native American studies
explore the impact of European expansion upon
these groups and issues related to inequality and the
maintenance of traditional culture.
Gender studies are concerned with the way the
division of labor between men and women within
New World households changed as a result of
Farmstead studies focus upon the changes that
occurred within rural households as they became
increasingly involved in commercial agriculture.
Urban studies examine the development of cities,
industries, technology, and their influences upon
Maritime or underwater studies explore the history of
ships and ocean transportation.
African American Studies
Since the early 1970s historical archaeologists in
the South have excavated sites inhabited by
enslaved African Americans.
African American studies have been guided by t0
main questions: How did African American
culture develop from West African origins and
what was everyday life like for enslaved blacks?
The persistence of West African traditions in
material culture have been identified by
archaeologists in the areas of architecture and
Slave cabins were usually 16 or 18 feet by 16
feet with a chimney at one end.
Sometimes a loft was reached by ladder and
used for storage or as a sleeping room for
Slave cabins generally were grouped together on
a "street" with several cabins facing each other
across a lane.
Cabins for slaves who worked in the plantation
house would have been fairly close to the house.
Cabins for slaves who were field hands were
located near the fields.
Slave cabin from Sotterly Plantation,
MD (ca. 1840).
Layout of Mansfield Plantation
In South Carolina during the early 18th century slaves
constructed West African-style, wattle and daub,
They also made pottery, called Colono Ware, derived
from West African traditions.
During the late 18th and 19th centuries elements of
European material culture, such as European-style
houses and imported household goods, were
increasingly imposed upon African Americans.
However, West African derived cultural elements,
particularly along coastal South Carolina and Georgia,
persist to the present in areas such as language,
foodways, music, funeral customs, and decorative crafts.
Native American Studies
The impact of European colonization upon native groups
and the way the sexual division of labor changed in the
historic past are central topics in historical archaeology.
These issues are illustrated by historical archaeology
conducted in Labrador, Canada.
During the late 18th century Moravian missionaries from
Germany established mission towns along the Labrador
This region was inhabited by the Inuit (Eskimo). The
Moravians sought to convert the Inuit to Christianity and
persuade them to live in mission towns.
The Inuit were nomadic hunter-gatherers and depended
upon arctic animals such as seals, whales, and caribous.
Archaeological excavation of an Inuit house midden in
Nain, a mission town
Illustrates the impact of European culture
upon the Inuit and the way it restructured
traditional divisions of labor between men
European style houses and household
items largely replaced Inuit material
However, artifacts from excavation
illustrate European goods were used in
distinctively Inuit ways.
Native use of European goods
For example, numerous European ceramics such as
tablewares possessed oil discoloration from being used as
Previously, the Inuit had made lamps from soapstone. Also, bowls
made in Europe comprised the bulk of the imported tablewares,
indicating that stews, previously consumed from soapstone bowls,
continued to be the main fare of the Inuit.
The Inuit also mended European ceramic vessels by drilling and
tying the pieces together with sinew, a practice previously conducted
with soapstone vessels.
Concerning changes in the division of household labor,
European goods such as metal and firearms increased the
efficiency of hunting and reinforced male activities.
Conversely, the incorporation of European household goods
by Inuit women increased the time and labor needed to
maintain the household and in turn encouraged sedentism.
The Five Points Site
Archaeologists and historians rediscover a
famous nineteenth-century New York
Named for the points created by the
intersection of Park, Worth, and Baxter
streets, the neighborhood was known as a
center of vice and debauchery throughout
the nineteenth century.
Descriptions of Five Points
Outsiders found Five Points threatening and fodder for
Describing a visit in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote:
"This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right
and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth…The
coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at
home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made
the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten
beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and
broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have
been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here.
Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu
of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of
Five Points Excavation
The archaeological excavation of the Foley
Square courthouse block provided the
opportunity to examine the physical
remains of life in this infamous place.
Five Points Excavation
Five Points in 1827 as depicted in
Valentine's Manual, 1855
The Pearl Street Tanneries
A 1785 map shows the courthouse block
divided into eight lots that belonged to
George and Jacob Shaw, tanners.
Taking advantage of the moving water of
the eastern outlet of the Collect Pond and
standing water in the surrounding
swamps, the tanners sited their operations
along the sill of land that eventually
became Pearl Street.
Iron hook for moving hides around Cattle bones
The Hoffman House
While the Hoffmans ate on fancy Chinese porcelain
dishes, other citizens complained loudly about the
industries that were polluting the nearby Collect
In addition to the tanneries, slaughterhouses,
breweries, ropewalks, and potteries contributed to
making the neighborhood less than desirable.
Despite these conditions, artisans continued to live
here in order to be near their businesses.
The Hoffman bakery (managed by a sequence of
tenants) remained in business on Pearl Street well
into the 1850s; the widow Hoffman lived on the
property until circa 1830 when the Five Points had
already achieved its notorious reputation.
The Hoffman Assemblage
Irish Tenement and Saloon
Newly arrived immigrants worked in a variety of
skilled and unskilled jobs, including construction,
carpentry, masonry, dressmaking, printing,
housekeeping, and hat making.
Men, women, and even children contributed to the
family income which hovered around $600 a year,
enough to put meat on the table at most meals and
buy fashionable household goods and clothing.
For working-class men, life included membership in
fraternal orders, trade unions, and fire companies
as well as the camaraderie of the many local grog
Women formed strong support networks in the
tenements, sharing the burden of child care and
Irish Tenement Artifacts
Soda Bottles Kids toys
We have to be careful not to let the biases of
nineteenth-century observers, men like George
Foster who were outsiders to the neighborhood,
prevent us from hearing the voices of the actual
residents who lived there.
The Five Points artifacts speak for those whom
Walt Whitman described in 1842 as "...not
paupers and criminals, but the Republic's most
needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men
[and we will add women] who will work" (the
Underwater Historic Archaeology
The Thomas Wilson was a riveted-steel, single propeller
The Wilson was built during the winter of 1891-1892 at
West Superior, Wisc., and was launched April 30, 1892.
The wreck of the Wilson is historically significant as the
best known surviving example of the earliest whaleback
steamships. Whalebacks were a distinctive type of Great
Lakes bulk freighter designed by Captain Alexander
McDougall for the transportation of grain, iron ore and
lumber in the late 19th century.
On June 7, 1902, the Thomas Wilson was outbound from
Duluth Harbor carrying a cargo of Mesabi iron ore. It
collided with the Hadley, killing nine of the twenty man
The Thomas Wilson
Diver taking photos