Saturday, July 05, 2008

In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz

"In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life", author James Deetz shows us how the little things of history: post holes, trash and even building styles, can show us a great deal about the details of history. Though his book mainly deals with American Archaeology, I would imagine it also holds true for Europe and Asia as well. Perhaps even all over the world.

Deetz shows us how even something simple like shards of pottery and household wares recovered from a trash pit can tell us if a household was prosperous, or how long a house site was occupied. Pipes, too, are a great indicator of the age of a property, and since houses were usually occupied for many decades, pipes (or broken pipes) found in a trash pit can tell us the dates between which the house was occupied.

Specific examples are given, such as the remains of a structure on an island known to be part of the area where whaling went on. It was variously thought to be a house owned by a pirate, or a tavern, though why a tavern would be located on a small island far from shore in the Atlantic wasn't known. Due to the number of whalebones located on the island, and the location of the island near a then-fishing and whaling ground, it was shown to be a tavern where local whalers and mariners could watch the ground for their prey to come swimming by, and then go out and catch them.

Other items that can be used to date areas are, strangely enough, gravestones. The decorations on gravestones in the New England Area are indicative of not only when they were carved, but the artist who did the carving, many of which are known, as the job was passed down through the family, from father to son. The artists also influenced each other and copied each other's styles, but stylistic differences remain. Changes in decoration from a skull to an angel over time show how the styles slowly changed, and how you can differentiate individual artists or families.

All in all, this is a fascinating book that gives a small overview of how archaeologists date sites, and the kinds of things found in American sites. From houses to trash pits to cemeteries, readers get a glimpse into the past, a glimpse that will certainly engender a desire to know more.

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