The proper study of Mankind is Man.
As a sub-field of anthropology, American archaeology is always concerned with the width and breadth of humanity and with the individual lives of its progenitors. As detailed in other entries on this blog, this year’s field cohort have pursued this basal goal in line with the thrust of Archaeology in Annapolis and its research goals; having finished our work in the urban basements and backyards of Maryland’s capital, we will conclude the season on the Eastern Shore, investigating the dwellings of individuals enslaved in a rural setting.
Archaeological digs have clear probative value in terms of addressing historical knowledge problems (and provide gristle for the dissertations of hard-bitten grad students), but they can be said to affect the people who carry them out in ways that might not be reflected in the discipline’s literature. The fieldwork currently being done at Wye House is nothing if not manual, and it demands of its practitioners a certain modicum of physical vitality and mental stamina, especially when taking place during a Chesapeake summer. In essence, the fieldworker’s task is to manage concrete materials (including artifacts and the earth and other debris that shroud them) in such a way as to produce data on their positions, dispositions, and relationships to each other and to the larger venue of the dig. The diligent archaeologist selects her site on the landscape and circumscribes its boundaries, then peels back and sifts through its layers of silt, sand, and clay, then parcels out notable items, then weighs and discards less notable ones, then retains the excised soil so that it can be replaced when the unit’s anthropogenic materials have been exposed and collected.
The historical archaeology of the sort carried out by AiA relies as much on information gleaned before and after excavations from written records, photographs, maps, ethnographies, and contemporary interviews as it does on what is liberated from the ground. The archaeologist simultaneously fills the roles of detective, juror, and journalist by collating evidence concerning the circumstances of the past, assessing the intricacies and subjective validity of these (ultimately flawed) data, and reporting the results to their colleagues and to the public.
This dig, then, involves the marriage of the physical and the cerebral and the sublimation of objective but disordered items into an architecture of meaning. Contemporary lives and those that are studied archaeologically can be patterned by these same strokes: a human existence is a procession of physical actions, be they tap dances or trowel strokes, situated in and bolstered by a shared tapestry of culture. This dynamic and investigations undertaken in relation to it are central to anthropology and its sub-disciplines, but the poetry herein is striking nonetheless. All this in mind, it is clear that archaeological digs are supremely human endeavors, that the theory and actuality of anthropological fieldwork vindicate the existence and superlative importance of the very human qualities they seek to elucidate, and that the anthropological practitioner may be as much a mystic as a social scientist.