Reading Scrapbooks: A Day of Archaeology
Today is the second annual Day of Archaeology, a single day when a broad range of archaeologists document their day. My day was exceptionally mundane and spent in an office, but of course this is how many other archaeologists were spending their days as well, sequestered in front of computers and hunkered over lab tables. For instance, Bernard Means discussed his day scanning a spoon at George Washington’s boyhood home; Clair Woodhead detailed the conservation of the Blackmoor Hoard’s Cow-Bell; Michigan State University archaeologists related their week and broader project digging on campus; Carole Nash actually was in the field excavating an 18th-century German home on an oppressively hot Virginia day; Carl Carlson-Drexler did a fascinating excavation of his own desk; and Terry Brock dissected his backpack.
The patterns visible in the Day of Archaeology postings reflect that archaeologists are stepping well beyond narrowly defined fieldwork, which is not really surprising to archaeologists, but what we actually do is a bit of a mystery to plenty of people. Most of my day was spent thinking and writing about a relatively obscure class of material things that might seem a little outside the purview of archaeology: I’m examining how scrapbooks use the most prosaic objects like prom programs, placemats, ultrasound images, and dried corsages to weave narratives about the self. All archaeology attempts to make things like this “speak”; that is, we impose narratives on assemblages, spaces, and objects, but some dimensions of materiality simply exist outside completely satisfying expression and are very difficult to articulate. Things like a good cup of coffee or your neighborhood landscape are difficult to capture in text or oral testimony, and in many ways they are profoundly meaningful to us even if we cannot completely outline precisely why we adore chocolate or a favorite garment. Gathering those things in a self-authored book has a distinctive power to tell a story about one’s own life and implicitly stake a claim to the meaningfulness of that experience.
Many of us do archaeology because we are attracted to and perhaps even enchanted by things, regardless of whether they’re covered with dirt or not. I’m looking at scrapbooks because they aspire to convey a tale about the consequence of somebody’s life, but they often tell such profoundly important stories with counter-intuitively mundane things. Oral testimony and text alike often struggle to capture the meaning of things because many of those things are largely outside our expressive consciousness. Archaeologists spend much of our time focusing on how people define things socially, and scrapbooks certainly try to impose coherence and a particular perspective on a life experience, but scrapbooks often convey those stories simply using things to evoke memories, trigger stories, and create meanings in ways even a scrapbook narrator cannot completely control.
Scrapbooks recognize how powerful things can be and implicitly acknowledge that a ticket stub, graduation program, or SHA conference name tag can silently tell stories and evoke complex experiences. This was probably not a day of archaeology that fits archaeological stereotypes, but then many of the days recounted on the Day of Archaeology blog break from those narrow caricatures.