Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Letters to the Editor





In "defining" historical archaeology on the pages of the SAA Bulletin, various writers clearly describe the field from their own very personal viewpoints. The lack of breadth in their perceptions suggests to me a narrowness of focus that I find peculiar within this archaeological context, if one considers archaeology to be one of the fields of anthropology. At the risk of exposing my own limitations I should like to present a few thoughts on "What historical archaeology means to me!"

Lawrence Moore (SAA Bulletin 13[1]:3), responding to Mark Leone and Parker Potter (SAA Bulletin 12[4]:14-15), suggests that "The one thing that all historical archaeologists have in common is that they study sites that were created within the last 500 years..." This is an extraordinarily Eurocentric view even for someone focusing on the New World. Leone and Potter see capitalism as a unifying concern, and I believe that they are much closer to providing a central theme than Moore would like to acknowledge. My own view of historical archaeology has always assumed that the critical variable was the existence of written records, or "historical documents" that provided a complementary research vector to the archaeological recovery methods central to this field of anthropology. Thus "historical archaeology" involves the excavation of either historic sites, at which the peoples studied were producing their own written records, or of "proto-historic" sites. The latter excavations would involve a population that was not producing documents of their own (a non-literate people), but that population would be noted in the written records of other peoples who were literate.

The unifying theme for historical archaeology simply seems to me to be "history." This is why there continue to be attempts at redefining various aspects of this sub-field of archaeology, but no one can avoid the basic requirement that there are historical or written records of some type potentially involved in the interpretation of archaeologically recovered data. Whether these written records are in the form of tax accounts, inventories, letters between individuals, or attempts at writing their own or other people's "history" is not relevant. In this sense the society doing the "writing" must have elements of complexity in their production and trade systems that require record keeping, and this may look like capitalism to most of us. But I am not at all certain that pre-historic trade systems were pre-capitalist or non-capitalist, but I will not pursue that point here.

Archaeology in Mesoamerica has always attracted an enormous amount of attention for reasons that include impressive architecture and elaborate systems of art and technology. The astronomical achievements of these people long have been recognized as extraordinary. However, not until ca. 1960, when Tatania Proskouriakoff "discovered" Maya history, did we come to recognize that much of what we were doing in the Maya area was "historical archaeology." That historical archaeology is what Mayanists have long been doing is evident from two simple points. Both before and after 1960 the interest in the Preclassic Period of the Maya was sustained by a very small number of serious archaeologists who were plying their trade without "going for the gold" (or jade, as the case may be). A second point supporting my assertion that much of Maya archaeology is purely historical is demonstrated by the rapid and enormous development of interest in these historical texts as critical in the interpretation of the archaeological record. At the very point in time when our classical archaeologist friends are learning that there is more to "archaeology" than digging up texts, Mayanists have become impressively focused on these written accounts. What we appear to have done in the Maya area is to demonstrate that complex society commonly employs some type of writing or record system, and I propose that these documents are what makes historical archaeology historical.

Let me also note that I had always been amused that many people who considered themselves "classical archaeologists" generally knew nothing about excavation techniques, theory, or even simple drafting. Architects with drafting skills were brought in to do these kinds of chores, in exactly the way Mesoamerican archaeologists did in their first century or so of excavation. Many people working in the classical world had been fixated on texts and what these texts told them about every site. Yet these people had and have no idea what a "historical archaeologist" does, in the Americanist tradition. Insofar as these classical archaeologists had no ability to use the archaeological "record" to interpret or complement their texts, but used these documents as the ultimate record, they are plying their trade badly. But I believe that their trade is still "historical archaeology." In the New World these classical archaeologists are paralleled by those historical archaeologists who do a wonderful job with their archaeology, but a remarkably poor job of digging in the documents.

One may wish to divide historical archaeology into dozens of areas and specialties (post-medieval, Classic Maya, Han Dynasty, etc.) but without some relationship to a written record, it simply isn't "historical."

Marshall Joseph Becker, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology
West Chester University

To Top of Page

Lawrence Moore (SAA Bulletin 13[1]:3) has criticized the use of a Marxist perspective in historical archaeology as a defunct, failed strategy because "Communism has collapsed in eastern Europe and its ideology has shown itself to not be a viable option in the real world of political economics." He further advocates the use of a Modern Period concept that would allow archaeologists to examine the transformations and developments that have occurred in the past.

Moore has sown the seeds of his own destruction in his argument supporting the Modern Period concept. If the Modern Period is to study all of the transformations and developments of the historic era, then surely a Marxist perspective of the 19th century could be an appropriate research path. The modern day collapse of the Soviet Union's government does not imply that the production and consumption trends described by Marx and Engels did not occur in the 19th century. The failure of the Soviet economic system was a transformation and development that can be studied by anthropologists. Just because failure occurs does not mean that the theoretical underpinnings of that system cannot be used to organize a study of its context and operations.

The error of Moore's argument and the seminar described by Leone and Potter (SAA Bulletin 12[4]:14-15) comes from the assumption that historical archaeologists can provide a unifying concept for all 500 years of its focus. Cultural patterns that historical archaeologists examine were not uniform nor widespread for all history and all geographical locations. It is the interplay and contrasts between these competing systems that provide information for archaeologists. The multifaceted nature of human responses to myriad events and trends will defy all of us from proscribing a single term for describing them. Not only will we always find exceptions to general patterns, but we will also see successful adaptations and failures of systems. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union was a momentous event, I doubt if the political leaders of China and Cuba consider it to be the death knell of their form of Marxism and its continuing evolution.

Mark Hackbarth
Cave Creek, Arizona

To Top of Page

The June-August 1993 issue of the SAA Bulletin featured an article entitled "Native Americans and Archaeologists Working Together Toward Common Goals in California" by P. de Barros. In the subsequent September-October 1993 issue of the Bulletin a new column, "Working Together: Exploring Avenues for Cooperation between Archaeologists and Native American Peoples," was introduced as a regular feature. These two articles heralded a series of articles addressing the contemporary relationship between Native American communities and the archaeological profession.

I applaud the Bulletin's insight in establishing this column and the coinciding efforts in disseminating information regarding the many cooperative working relationships between Native Americans and archaeologists that exist throughout the Americas. I have followed the Working Together column with a great deal of interest for the past year and a half. Yet, as I review the past year and a half of articles I am struck by the fact that only one of the many articles presented a Native American's critical perspective of archaeology (see "Exploring Ancient Worlds" by Roger C. Echo-Hawk, SAA Bulletin 11[4]). The majority of these articles tend to illustrate the working relationships between Native Americans and archaeologists as "warm and fuzzy."

While this may have been the original intent of the column, it is my understanding that this may represent the exceptions and not necessarily the rule regarding the relationships between Native Americans and archaeology. I recognize the importance of disseminating information about those positive working relationships, but I feel it is also beneficial and sometimes more constructive for the archaeological community to hear the critical and sometimes not too pleasant comments from Native American communities regarding our profession. If this column is to continue to serve a useful purpose and not gradually become a self-serving, "pat ourselves on the back," column, and if we, as a profession, are truly interested in fostering a greater partnership role for Native Americans in American archaeology, then this column should seek to present articles that display wide and diverse perspectives.

One suggestion is that perhaps the Bulletin could pursue articles from various Native American individuals who have had both positive and negative experiences with archaeology and also have suggestions on how to make American archaeology more relevant and responsive to traditional Native American perspectives. Additionally, articles by archaeologists who have experienced both positive and negative working relationships with Native Americans and/or have had to deal with confrontations by "neo-traditionalist" or people representing a "pan-Indian" perspective would be useful and informative. The viewpoints and suggestions of these archaeologists regarding how to change potentially negative situations with Native Americans into positive ones, or how they could have handled a negative situation differently given what they now know would be extremely useful to the Bulletin's readership.

I encourage broadening the perspectives presented in the Working Together column and suggest that only through the sharing of these various perspectives can we begin to understand each other's diverse cultural views of the objects of our study.

Kurt E. Dongoske
Tribal Archaeologist
Cultural Preservation Office, The Hopi Tribe

To Top of Page


Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page