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Archeology: Preservation's Underground Partner 

12-09-2015 17:35

Archeology has a visibility problem; it`s under ground. Archeologists have a communication problem; we`re unintelligible. Not to each other; we understand each other, but other people don`t understand what we do or why we do it or what the point of doing it is. We know that archeology contributes to our understanding of the past. We believe that understanding the past is important. So do historians and architectural historians.

But archeologists ask different questions and investigate different sources of information. When archeologists, historians, and architectural historians share our complementary information, we produce the richest picture of the past.

Archeology is the study of human culture through the physical evidence of human activity--evidence above ground, on the ground, and under ground. This evidence includes artifacts, the remains of buildings and structures, altered landscapes, and a variety of soil deposits and anomalies that archeologists call features. Archeologists assume that the locations (provenience) of these archeological resources reflect human activity and that the identification and interpretation of the patterns of locations yield information on human actions. These actions reflect individual decisions that were informed by shared cultural values.

Archeology is the only source of information on human culture of the distant past, before values and actions were documented in written sources and oral history. Archeology complements the imperfect documentary history of the centuries since the advent of the written record. No single source tells all there is to know about the past, but by combining information from artifacts, soil layers, written records, drawings, buildings, and landscapes, one learns how the people of the past organized their lives and solved the problems of everyday living.

Archeologists use scientific methods to reveal and collect artifacts and to record contextual data systematically. Interpretation of the data tests scientific hypotheses and contributes to the development of the historical narrative for the site. That is, archeology addresses both questions of science (culture process and patterns of behavior) and history.

Archeology is historic preservation when archeological resources are protected in situ. Protection preserves in place the landscape and above-ground remains as well as the artifacts and features. However, most of the information potential of a site can be realized only through destructive testing. To recover information, archeologists observe surface remains and excavate those below the surface. As soil is removed, excavation destroys the context of the artifacts and features. Yet controlled, scientific excavation is the process of recording relationships and recovering artifacts. Archeology is also preservation when these records and artifacts and the documentation of the information they have yielded are curated.

Although archeologists focus their research on cultural values and patterns of behavior, archeological research also helps us interpret and care for the built environment. Archeologists ask, "What was there?" and "What does it mean?" The floor plan of a building and the layout of a farmstead or a neighborhood show how the designers and occupants defined living space and organized activities. Archeological investigation of the associated yards reveals where specific domestic activities occurred, what was prepared in the kitchen, and how it was served at table. Furthermore, the information sources may shed light on participation in social customs, such as taking tea or serving family dinner.

Archeological investigations of buildings themselves reveal information about construction techniques and alterations. Excavations at several National Trust properties, directed by the National Trust archeologist Lynne Lewis, have contributed to understanding the buildings. Excavation at the base of the exterior walls of Drayton Hall revealed the building`s shallow, double-flared brick foundation. Excavations inside the house documented the sequence of flooring materials laid down during the building`s 250 years of occupation. Information on both the foundation and the floors has informed the interpretation of the building for visitors and helped the staff make decisions about caring for the building.

At Montpelier, architectural conservator Larry Dermody used archeological methods to document the materials used to construct and finish the interior walls. Working from the outermost layer to the innermost, he recorded and removed each layer of wallpaper down to the plaster and lath. Applying the law of superposition (that the layer on top is the most recent), Dermody reconstructed the historical sequence of wall finishes.

Archeology may be the only means of locating outbuildings, additions, and early dwellings, even on well-documented historic properties. Excavations at Montpelier have located the detached kitchen, ironworks, slave quarters, and paved paths associated with the mansion, as well as a root cellar and a well associated with the original Madison dwelling on the property.

At Drayton Hall, where documentary sources are more limited, archeological survey and excavation have located the remains of several buildings, including a kitchen south of the main house, another building to the north, and an orangery. Excavations at the building known as the office confirmed that it had originally been a privy and that a drainage system had been installed about 20 years after construction.

Although archeologists are happy to assist architectural historians in locating outbuildings, revealing foundations, and deconstructing flooring sequences, most archeological research questions are informed by anthropological theory and focus on understanding culture. Archeologists want to know about lifeways of the past: diet, consumer choices of domestic goods, and the organization and use of interior and exterior space, for example. Documents, personal papers, maps, and photographs all provide information on lifeways as well. The archeological record may confirm the accuracy of historical sources or it may contradict them.

Often the archeological record complements written and photographic documents by providing data not addressed elsewhere. Written records are always prepared for a purpose; thus, some information is included, and other information is excluded--unconsciously or intentionally. The selection of a porcelain tea set, for instance, may never be noted in a letter or diary or probate inventory, but sherds of matched cups and saucers in the archeological record document the socioeconomic status of the household`s occupants and their participation in the social ritual of taking tea. Thus, the acquisition, use, and disposal of the tea set represent culturally informed decisions and actions. The archeological record is difficult to read and is by nature incomplete, but it cannot lie. The challenge to the archeologist is to understand its message in the context of culture and history.

Historic preservationists value understanding the past. The sources of evidence to inform such understanding are many. If we are truly committed to historic preservation, we must accept stewardship of all the resources that embody our past, visible and hidden: not only buildings and structures, but also landscapes and archeological resources.

Publication Date: January/February 1996

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Author(s):Donna J. Seifert