Before you begin reading this brief little post of mine I feel that I should come clean with you about one very important thing. I’m a history major, which as I have learned over the pasts few weeks means that I am just about the least qualified person around to write about anthropology. So rather than repeat in a far less informed fashion what my colleagues and instructors have already detailed here I thought I would try something a little different. Instead I’ll tell you a little bit about what I have learned as an aspiring historian about archeology and anthropology. And hopefully, along the way, convince some of my fellow history majors to take a rest for a moment from reading textbooks, or even written primary sources, and take a look at what we can learn from what is buried in the ground.
I first became aware of how archeology contributes to historical narratives last semester, when my Roman history professor described how much our understanding of Roman history has improved since the end of the Second World War due to an increase in archeological projects in Europe. I most especially remember a story about an archeologist who discovered a rock in Romania with a dedication to a Roman general for saving them from barbarian invasion. Prior to this discovery no one had even known that such a war had existed, let alone the name of the men involved. This realization combined. with empty summer plans led me to enroll in the University of Maryland’s field school for the summer, working in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore.
I began my work digging in an Annapolis backyard, learning basic troweling technique and how to document and record what we found. All this was about what I had expected, though I was somewhat surprised with how much attention we paid to the changes in the color and texture of the earth. However when we started to talk theory I was down right confused. It seemed to be so ridiculous to me the kinds of things we were trying to work out: analyzing pipe stems and fish bones, pouring over maps of utility lines, what kind of picture were we trying to paint? Where was the artifact that would all by itself uncover another layer of history? Where was my stone with the hitherto unknown war hero’s name carved on it? I quickly learned that we would find no such artifacts and I briefly despaired and resigned myself to digging away and not worrying about what we were really looking for.
Fortunately my ignorance didn’t last forever and I eventually learned that one of the great powers of archeology is telling the stories of the those who don’t have them neatly written down. I realized how little we knew about how so many people lived, like the slaves who worked at Wye House. Standing on the foundations of where they likely lived and holding things in my hand that they had held I could see they had stories everywhere, but the stories were hollow, I knew they were there but not what they were. I wanted badly to understand them and I realized that that is why we pour over fish bones and nails and marbles. I’m still not ready to embarrass myself trying to explain how these artifacts add up to stories and I certainly don’t understand all the theories, but I do finally understand why they matter. A historian’s primary teachers are the written primary sources left to us from the past, but only so much makes it into these documents. Far too often the average man (and certainly the average woman) are left out, and archeology is our only means of understanding who they were. If we only have the history of the kings we only have a thousandth of our history.
So here I am after six weeks of digging, and I don’t think I have ever gained an appreciation for something so fast. I’m not a complete convert, I’m still a history major and I’m still thrilled about it. But I wouldn’t be too surprised to find myself digging again in summers to come, especially now I know how many untold stories there are left to dig up.