“Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things” revisited

In 1977 the Society for Historical Archaeology published Leland Ferguson’s Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, and it subsequently has been SHA’s best-selling Special Publication and one of the most influential edited collections in historical archaeology.  In 2012 the SHA is revisiting the basic questions posed in 1977, when Ferguson suggested that his goal was to “concentrate on the importance of archaeological data—material things—and the undeveloped potential of those data.”  The new version dubbed Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things II is a conference session and a new collection edited by Julie Schablitsky and Mark Leone.  When I started thinking through my own contribution to the new collection, I wrote most of this lengthy post as notes working through the impact of the Ferguson volume, mulling over precisely what defines historical archaeology, and assessing the expansive definitions of archaeology that the original volume raised 35 years ago.  These thoughts certainly do not represent anybody else in the volume and the session, and their thoughts are in the new volume, which is available on SHA’s Lulu page.

The 1975 SHA session that produced The Importance of Material Things aspired to skirt separations of theory, methodology, and description and instead celebrate the distinctive social and cultural insights provided by archaeological material culture.  Ferguson’s only unyielding condition was that materiality and the social world must be the shared focus of historical archaeology, and while that point is now a universally shared sentiment, archaeologists have always inevitably viewed materiality and the social world in a variety of ways.  At one pole, some contemporary scholars bemoan reductionist questions and descriptive analyses, pressing for exceptionally broad research questions, an expansively defined archaeology that bends disciplinary boundaries, and a notion of materiality that takes aim on nearly the whole world.  At the opposite pole, others prophesy the death of the discipline in an archaeology that seems to not include any concrete objects, places no clear boundaries on our data, and dismantles the disciplinary boundaries that distinguish archaeological insight and practice.

At least two clear implications of the volume remain essential threads of historical archaeology, one focused on the breadth of material culture and the other on the social meanings that can be interpreted using everyday things.  The Importance of Material Things placed the complexity of materiality and its implication in social life at the heart of historical archaeology, pushing the discipline away from descriptive analysis and arguing that archaeological data provided a distinctive if not unique insight into human social life.  Historical archaeologists accept that proposition today without much debate, but the question is how an increasingly expansive notion of material culture, a radical turn to contemporary materiality, and an assertive analysis of the social dimensions of apparently mundane materiality will potentially transform historical archaeology.  In pressing for a historical archaeology that ambitiously swept up most of the material world and took aim on almost any conceivable dimension of social life, did The Importance of Material Things chart a path that revolutionized the discipline, or was it one that wrote historical archaeology’s own death rites?  North American historical archaeology has continually retreated to finely focused analyses of everyday material life, so was the Ferguson volume’s advocacy of a broader notion of archaeological materiality successful at all?

The Importance of Material Things placed the question of materiality at its heart, and in many ways the volume outlined a more radically expansive notion of archaeological material culture than the discipline has ever embraced.  The volume’s expansive and self-reflective notion of materiality outlined a historical archaeology that could potentially take aim on almost any sort of material thing.  For instance, Deetz (1977:10) ambitiously defined material culture as the dimension of the physical world that is shaped “according to culturally dictated plans,” sweeping up a vast range of products of human behavior and arguing that material culture studies needed to become a central dimension of all anthropological scholarship and perhaps any social science.   Henry Glassie (1977:32) similarly concluded that “artifacts can be transformed into a multitude of structures expressive of mind,” and the limits on material interpretation “are drawn only by will and desire.”  Leone’s analysis of Washington D.C.’s Mormon Temple legitimized itself as historical archaeology because it “attempts to treat a piece of material culture in its whole social context.”  Yet he recognized without any apparent concern that such a view of historical archaeology crossed disciplinary boundaries, acknowledging that the study “could also be called art history or architectural analysis or plain ethnography, but I am interested in calling it archaeology because it allows me to highlight the role of form—built, three dimensional form—in human behavior.”

At its heart, the 1977 volume’s struggles to define materiality illuminated the knotty issue of what distinguished historic archaeology from a range of disciplines like prehistoric archaeology and history.  The collection’s aspiration to define the discipline came a decade after the establishment of the Society for Historical Archaeology (and the simultaneous 1967 emergence in the UK of the Society for Post Medieval Archaeology), so in many ways it was part of very broad and even international intellectual trends to establish how archaeology would be conducted on the world of the last half millennium.  Through much of the 1960s and 1970s historical archaeologists focused on refining methodology and establishing foundational knowledge of specific artifact types, periods, and regional groups, which in many ways simply extended prehistoric archaeological techniques into the colonial world, and it was this particularism on which Ferguson was attempting to expand.  Ferguson aspired to imbue the discipline with a range of concrete theories that systematically pushed beyond function, chronology, and identification, asked substantive questions about the social dimensions of materiality, and distinguished historical archaeology from its kindred disciplines.

The Importance of Material Things is cleverly ambiguous about precisely what distinguishes archaeological material culture, and in fact it seems to chart a path that suggests scholars can contextualize almost any material things as appropriately archaeological data.  That ambitious vision of materiality may in part be an artifact of the moment in which the volume was created.  Within a few years of the Ferguson volume, the 1981 Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer volume Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us made a comparable claim that archaeological insight and methods could be used to dissect the contemporary world.  William Rathje (1981:52) confidently argued in the Gould and Schiffer volume that archaeology should “focus on the interaction between material culture and human behavior, regardless of time or space.”  In hindsight, this position foreshadowed a broad social scientific turn to material culture studies in the 1990s that began as a trickle in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Nearly every social science has now staked a claim to material culture studies, often thieving archaeological insight or simply ignoring its power entirely.

This raises the question of why a contemporary archaeology appeared poised to emerge in the 1970s, rejecting facile divisions between past and present, taking aim on a broad range of material culture outside conventional archaeological sites, and in many cases potentially politicizing archaeology, only to largely disappear for the next two decades.  As Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas (2001:4) recognize, many of the initial modern material culture studies in collections like Gould and Schiffer’s were simply pedagogical mechanisms to instruct students in archaeological technique, so they were not critical studies of contemporary materiality.  Nevertheless, the historical archaeological literature has rarely granted entrance to studies of contemporary materiality, idiosyncratic things, or material that did not come from the ground, instead consigning such scholarship to other journals, if not interdisciplinary purgatory.

A decade after the Ferguson volume, Nicholas Honerkamp gathered together a 1987 SHA plenary inspired by Ferguson’s and revisited many of the same issues as The Importance of Material Things did in 1977.  The volume “The Questions that Count in Historical Archaeology”  (link to JStor subscription only; published in Historical Archaeology 1988 22[1]) is telling both for its repetition of many of the 1977 volume’s questions and for its simultaneous turn away from Ferguson’s focus on broadly defined materiality.  Honerkamp’s ambition to identity the “questions that count in historical archaeology” was as much an effort to define the discipline as Ferguson had made a decade earlier.  Where Ferguson’s volume revolved around broad materiality, though, Honerkamp’s contributors left materiality itself unexamined.  Honerkamp (1988:5) instead signaled new ambitions for a historical archaeology that would be relevant outside archaeological circles, decrying what he referred to as a “`normal science’ phase, by which I mean that a great deal of research has become highly routinized.”

Much of that routinization may actually have revolved around the increasingly unexamined meaning of material things that had been consciously at the heart of the 1977 collection.  The Ferguson collection was still struggling to define historical archaeology a decade after its birth, and its contributors were in some ways liberated from any clear stereotype of precisely what should define historical materiality.  Unfettered by any especially suffocating definitions of archaeological materiality, Ferguson’s contributors quite creatively embraced a breadth of material forms and aspired to see all of them through a broadly defined archaeological perspective.  Yet by the time Honerkamp gathered his contributors just over a decade after Ferguson, the discipline had apparently defined archaeological data in a way that clearly focused on a particular constellation of everyday material things.  The Honerkamp collection accepted that the discipline had established a firm foothold, and it at least obliquely seemed to recognize that historical archaeology’s unique data revolved around mundane everyday goods.  However, its contributors bemoaned a continued tendency toward particularism, at once acknowledging that everyday materiality was the focus of the discipline but simultaneously championing an ambitious picture of the everyday that was linked to bigger questions.   For instance, Robert Schuyler (1988:37) argued that “Within its own boundaries historical archaeology is impressively productive,” pointing to the expanding number of university programs and the already-massive cultural resource management literature.  However, he was skeptical that the discipline’s highly specific scholarship had yet reached outside a narrow circle of archaeologists, suggesting historical archaeologists had “failed to cross over and are now running the risk of turning back on ourselves in an involuntary dead end” (Schuyler 1988:38).  Kathleen Deagan (1988:7) similarly concluded that “historical archaeology has not produced the original and unparalleled insights into human cultural behavior or evolution that we might expect to result from the unique perspective and data base of the field.”  Stanley South (1988:25) added to the chorus, criticizing pattern recognition that was particularistic and failed to connect patterns with underlying cultural processes.

All of the contributors to the 1988 collection pressed to tackle broader questions than the discipline apparently had examined, which they believed would underscore the relevance of historical archaeological insight, and most of those questions were rooted in the relationship between local data and global systems.  Schuyler (1988:41), for example, recognized that individual archaeological sites were very modest divisions of such global systems, and he challenged historical archaeologists to develop site-specific data that would gradually be woven together into synthetic analyses.  Yet he also soberly recognized the formidable challenge of piecing together an analysis of the grandest global scales from countless site-specific reports grounded in the most prosaic of objects.  He concluded that “historical archaeology will always make its major contribution at the site level of analysis.  Certainly there is no way to approach a higher scale, a higher historically connected scale, a region for example, until several `historic ethnographies’ have been produced within its boundaries” (Schuyler 1988:41).

The Importance of Material Things championed an anthropologically and historically rigorous discipline that used the most modest materiality to dissect the weightiest dimensions of social and cultural life.  However, archaeologists have routinely rhetoricized that archaeology risks doing nothing more than document the prosaic details of what was already known, with Deetz (1991:1) fearing that “historical archaeology is the most expensive way in the world to learn something we already know.”  This perception reflects in some measure that historical archaeology’s densely descriptive and intellectually distinctive picture of the everyday world sometimes appears to be utterly prosaic, irrelevant, and even boring.  In 1981 Mark Leone (1981:13) laid the blame for this tedium at the feet of archaeologists, suggesting that “we are primarily concerned with accurate meaning and feel no obligation to notice the boredom our own interpretations communicate when made public.”  For Leone, a relevant archaeology must be firmly rooted in contemporary life, because “when boredom accompanies archaeology, it is because the facts and the data are not tied to the present the way they should be.”  Leone saw all questions of relevance coming from contemporary archaeologists’ self-reflection, not from refined methods, sharpened theories, or more accurate data recovery.

Perhaps the Ferguson volume’s focus on materiality is where the discipline needs to return, rigorously and critically confronting precisely what defines archaeological material culture and stepping beyond narrow notions of materiality and everyday life.  Since the 1990s material culture studies has spilled over into nearly every discipline, yet North American historical archaeology remains surprisingly peripheral to that discourse when historical archaeologists really should be leading the discussion.  Increasingly, contemporary archaeologies in the UK and Europe have rejected any systematic distinctions for archaeological material culture and instead embraced a broad view of materiality much like those made in 1977 by Deetz, Leone, Glassie, and Rathje in particular.  Yet North American historical archaeology’s materiality has been persistently distanced from the present and revolved around the minutia of everyday life.

Archaeologists have routinely valued quantitatively commonplace materiality over the things and practices that are less common in the archaeological record, and this has yielded a rich picture of bedrock patterns that has sometimes provided very little sense of the broader textures of material life.  In this sense Ferguson and Honerkamp each recognized the key challenge of persistently pressing for new perspectives and methods that resisted normalizing and routinizing archaeological interpretation.  Combating such normalization seems much more effective when archaeologists embrace a breadth of material forms like those outlined in The Importance of Material Things.  The dilemma is not that the exceptionally expansive notion of materiality painted in 1977 will dilute the power of archaeology’s vision of the apparently mundane dimensions of life.  If anything, a broader range of material things paints a richer picture of the everyday world that lies largely beneath our awareness despite its profound significance.  The danger is that archaeology itself risks rendering commonplace things newly mundane through the methodological and interpretive normalizations that Ferguson reacted against and Honerkamp returned to just over a decade later.

Historical archaeology has enormous power to dissect the details of everyday material life, those patterns that have become invisible yet are packed with social and cultural symbolism.  Nevertheless, a fixation on the most prevalent patterns and processes, an arbitrary elimination of some materiality as not “archaeological,” and reluctance to embrace the contemporary conditions that shape archaeological insight and practice risk undercutting the rich picture of everyday life that archaeology can paint.  A distinctive disciplinary niche will be carved out by archaeologists crafting highly focused pictures of everyday material patterns, but like life itself those pictures risk being dull and irrelevant without clearly argued linkages to structural and global influences and simultaneous dissection of the idiosyncracies within every material assemblage.  The Importance of Material Things most firmly underscored the richness archaeology can produce when its attention encompasses a vast range of material culture that is critically, rigorously, and creatively interpreted, and it is that expansive notion of materiality that may still harbor historical archaeology’s most interesting insights.


Buchli, Victor and Gavin Lucas
2001 The Absent Present: Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past.  In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, editors, pp. 3-18.  Routledge, New York.

Cleland, Charles E.
1988 Questions of Substance, Questions that Count. Historical Archaeology 22(1)13-17.
2001 Historical Archaeology Adrift?  Historical Archaeology 35(2):1-8.

Deagan, Kathleen A.
1988 Neither History Nor Prehistory: the Questions that Count in Historical Archaeology. Historical Archaeology 22(1)7-12.

Deetz, James
1977 Material Culture and Archaeology—What’s the Difference?  In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, Leland Ferguson, editor, pp.9-12.  The Society for Historical Archaeology, Special Publication Series No.2.
1991 Introduction: Archaeological Evidence of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Encounters.  In Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective, edited by Lisa Falk, pp.97-112.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Ferguson, Leland
1977 Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things.  In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, Leland Ferguson, editor, pp.5-8.  The Society for Historical Archaeology, Special Publication Series No.2.

Glassie, Henry
1977 Archaeology and Folklore: Common Anxieties, Common Hopes.  In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, Leland Ferguson, editor, pp.23-35.  The Society for Historical Archaeology, Special Publication Series No.2.

Honerkamp, Nicholas
1988 Questions that Count in Historical Archaeology. Historical Archaeology 22(1)5-6.

Leone, Mark P.
1977 The New Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C.  In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, Leland Ferguson, editor, pp.43-61.  The Society for Historical Archaeology, Special Publication Series No.2.
1981 Archaeology’s Relationship to the Present and Past.  In Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us, Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer, editors, pp. 5-14.  Academic Press, New York.

Rathje, William L.
1977 In Praise of Archaeology: Le Projet du Garbage.    In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, Leland Ferguson, editor, pp36-42.  The Society for Historical Archaeology, Special Publication Series No.2.
1982 A Manifesto for Modern Material Culture Studies. In Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us, Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer, editors, pp. 51-66.  Academic Press, New York.

Schuyler, Robert L.
1988 Archaeological Remains, Documents, and Anthropology: a Call for a New Culture History. Historical Archaeology 22(1)36-42.

South, Stanley
1988 Whither Pattern? Historical Archaeology 22(1)25-28.

Posted on December 27, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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