More Than Just Artifacts

It has been a tiring but fun six weeks with the field school. There is nothing quite like the excitement when, after spending days bent over a hole in the sun, you manage to find a brick wall, or a mostly-intact cellar, or even something small like half of a teacup.

But what’s more exciting about our artifacts is that as anthropologists, these things we find are so much more than just ‘cool old things’, because we can never forget that at one time, each one of these was used by a person, as real as you sitting there reading this, and can hopefully be analyzed to tell us something about their life.

So the hundreds of pieces of window glass found in Unit 72, on the edge of a former building used as a slave quarter, are meaningless if you see them as pieces of glass lying in the dirt. But if you see them forming a window, formerly having a use in someone’s life, many more questions arise. Was the window a part of the slave quarter, or was it deposited there at a different time? Why would expensive glass windows have been put on a slave quarter? What does this say about the relationship between the slaves in that quarter and the master? Or does it speak only to the master’s wishes to display his wealth to those who might pass by the quarter?

And the rusted pitchforks we found are meaningful because they surely were used at some point, and become more meaningful when we learn that just a few feet away many other iron tools were found. The tools were found right along the line where we believe the edge of the slave quarter to be, as if stored just under the building. Did slaves store tools under their quarter when they weren’t using them? Were they hiding their tools as a form of resistance against slavery? Or were the tools simply deposited there at a later time as trash?

We may never know the answers to questions such as these; we can simply speculate. But keeping an anthropological mindset and asking these types of questions takes us from the field, where it is easy to be a ‘treasure hunter’ simply looking for those cool old things, to acting as real anthropologists by drawing conclusions about what the objects we find mean. And hopefully, we are able to use the many small things found to discover something about the actual people who used them, such as catching a glimpse of their daily lives, finding out how they viewed and interacted with the world around them, and seeing how people’s perspectives changed over time, even leading up to the present. Because without these discoveries, without drawing connections between the material objects we find and the people who used them, the archaeology is meaningless. It is only through our attempts to answer these sorts of questions that we can truly give a life to the people that we study.

And so it is with this thought that I bid a fond farewell to my classmates of the AiA Field School of 2012. Happy digging!

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