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In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life

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James Deetz’ book, probably the most influential and broadly-read book in historical archaeology, was published first in 1977 and revised in 1996. In Small Things Forgotten uses studies from several different regions and populations to demonstrate Deetz’ general approach to historical archaeology: to use the material culture of the American past to characterize shifts visible historic American material culture, influential regions and populations, and to examine the meaning of this material culture to the people who used it. Specifically, Deetz discusses shifts in material culture particularly related to architectural styles, ceramics, and gravestone imagery in New England and the southern plantation states of Virginia and the Carolinas. In sections added in the 1996 edition of the book, he also discusses the influence of West African house styles and cooking practices on African-American material culture and architecture, partially in response to criticisms of Euro-centrism. In some areas Deetz’ work has become dated since it was originally published in 1977, particularly on its emphasis on Anglo-American communities compared with native peoples, African Diaspora descendants, and communities founded by other European countries. However, in general this book is excellent as an introduction to historical archaeology or for scholars interested in examining Deetz’ material culture focus.

In the first chapter Deetz defines historical archaeology as “the archaeology of the spread of European cultures throughout the world since the fifteenth century, and their impact on and interaction with the cultures of indigenous peoples,” which he describes as a popular definition of historical archaeology but which is now widely ascribed to Deetz himself. In his discussion of this definition he focuses on the importance of having a global perspective when interpreting historical findings. While this is a critical aspect of historical archaeology, Deetz fails to adequately critique the Eurocentric core of this definition, in which he characterizes native peoples solely as groups impacted by European contact rather than being engaged in their own processes of change or as having extensive impacts on European colonists. Neither is this Eurocentric view limited to his definition of archaeology. In his examination of African-American house architecture and cooking practices, for example, Deetz problematically suggests that high-status but out-dated ceramics were likely charity provided to the African-American family at Parting Ways, rather than suggesting these dishes were purchased by members of the family in order to play the same socio-technic roles as Deetz has described ceramics playing in Anglo-American contexts.

Major emphasis in In Small Things Forgotten is placed on technological advances, like mass-produced creamware, or shifts in fashion, like the colonial shift away from using trenchers to ceramic vessels. While this focus does a good job of describing how a need to “keep up with the Joneses” is visible in the historical record, it does not address questions of why styles would shift in a particular direction, cases in which a change in material culture is more practical than stylistic, or cases in which a community might be purposefully rejecting the dominant fashion or be using it in a subversive manner. Deetz does touch upon ideological causes of ceramic style change where he discusses Puritan restrictions on the elaboration and variety of styles of ceramic vessels. However, he is much more effective at examining the ideological implications of material culture where he discusses shifts in gravestone style in Chapter 4. Here Deetz argues that styles were in some cases heavily circumscribed by the strength of Puritan ideology in a given community, and that shifts from death’s head gravestones to cherubs or willow and urn designs can reveal the decline or maintenance of Puritan values, which varied by region in New England. In this case, he exclusively mentions the ideological implications of tombstones without giving much consideration to families whose economic situation might have prevented a stone marker, or the presence of communities like Christianized Native groups that might have been rejecting this trend or displaying it in a different manner. However, there are many strengths to Deetz’ focus on material culture, one being that he places analysis of artifacts back into their context of use – describing foodways when he discusses ceramics, for example, and integrating folk culture studies in with archaeological data regarding excavations of lower-class sites. Additionally, the trends described in this book are still being reacted to in many ways in historical archaeology, and some of the frameworks laid out are still considered to be generally valid.

Despite the reservations described above, with In Small Things Forgotten Deetz has done an admirable job of writing an engaging yet detailed introduction to the ideas of historical archaeology. Deetz’ focus on the uncelebrated ‘common man’ of history ensures that the theories of material culture serve as a sort of social history, illustrating broad trends that would have had many impacts on the lives of working and middle class groups in colonial America. While he has underplayed the influence of certain European and African migrant communities and Native Americans, he has also demonstrated the impact that regional differences had on the development of material culture in early America. In several places in the book Deetz describes scenes from the past in a somewhat romantic fashion but that is deeply grounded in historic and archaeological data. Such an expressive, mentalistic view of past people is one at which historical archaeology excels and which is very effective to make archaeology relevant to members of the public. It is interesting, however, that so much of a book ostensibly dedicated to “small things” focuses so heavily on the importance of ideological concepts like the Georgian order to the lives of colonial Americans.


Written by diggingellen

March 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm

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