Week Five: Archaeology

 

This week the readings focused on an archaeological approach to studying material culture. James Deetz’s book, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Earl American Life, examined the artifacts left behind by colonists in order to see “the spread of European cultures… and their impact on and interactions with the cultures of indigenous peoples” (5). One of the main ways of viewing an artifact, according to Deetz, is in the object’s function, which could be technomic, strictly utilitarian use, socio-technic, social rather than technological use, and ideo-technic, religious or ideological use (74-75). This is important because it shows that many differences in materials arise not just because of technology developments but also because of cultural develops. While Deetz defined material culture as the “sector of a physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior,” and thus was open to even language being classified as material culture, he mostly limited himself to the study of ceramics, houses, and gravestones (35). Deetz focused on these three types of objects because he believed that they reflect most clearly on the people’s live since they all involve universal aspects of life with the first two dealing with subsistence and the third with death (165). In addition to covering information on general American history, such as how the reliance on British important led to different eating habits, in which American use the fork differently in comparison to the British, Deetz saw historical archaeological as allowing one to study the history of African-Americans since there is not much written on their daily lives. Through his study of the Parting Ways, a free African-American settlement in Massachusetts after the Revolution, Deetz discovered ceramics that showed that they were likely second-hand from wealthy townspeople of Plymouth, as well as revealed differences in both their houses and graveyards compared to European colonists. Indeed, by looking at African-American material culture, one is able to see how “its rich and varied form has made a vital contribution to the culture of all Americans as we know it today” (252). This could be seen most clearly in Deetz’s examination of musical instruments and seeing how the banjo came to influence blue grass and other genres of music.

The second reading as a short article on yard decorating in African-American culture. This work by Grey Gundaker was interesting since it showed how this tradition had roots in West and Central Africa and has connections to induvial family history and death (59 & 63). Additionally the examination of the differently types of materials used revealed a number of important themes that the owners were trying to convey such as ideas on cosmology and of religious experiences. The main take away for this article was that objects are both shaped by and help shape the cultural process that people express in their daily lives.

While both of these works were interesting and had useful information, they will likely have little to do with my study of the Becuna since it is well outside the three main objects of universal human life that Deetz focuses on. Furthermore, while looking at the cultural process of yard decorating is quite revealing, the scope of such topic seems quite removed from the single destructive purpose that my object was built for. Indeed, it seems based on all the readings that we have covered in class thus far, that there is little focus on examining objects of war in terms of its material culture, which is surprising since it seems to offer an interesting insight into the human condition.

James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Earl American Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996).

Grey Gundaker. “Tradition and Innovation in African- American Yards,” African Arts 26 (April 1993).

 

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