Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In Small Things Forgotten - James Deetz

If you’re interested in a more complete and colorful understanding of the lives of the Jamestown (and other) colonists, you should get to know the works of James Deetz (1930-2000).

Deetz was among the earliest, and probably foremost, historical archeologists – who explain and give us a better understanding of what archeological findings tell us of the times when they were used.

We learn much about the way our early American colonial ancestors lived and were memorialized, in both the New England and southern colonies, from his In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York, Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 1996). This is an updated and expanded edition of a classic of modern archaeology first published in 1977.

Deetz gathered, interpreted and published information about the daily life of the American colonists, including women and blacks, based on the analysis of domestic objects and architecture.

According to one reviewer, “This book…has something for everyone. It is written in a casual, accessible style that won't scare off a popular audience. The individual chapters offer primary evidence and gentle arguments in essay formats that are short and useful — perfect for high school or introductory undergrad reading assignments. Professional scholars with a background in material culture might not find much to chew on, but more traditional historians could benefit from an introduction to the possibilities of historical archaeology. All in all, more useful than many more ‘serious’ tomes.”

Others say, “History is recorded in many ways. According to…Deetz, the past can be seen most fully by studying the small things so often forgotten. Objects such as doorways, gravestones, musical instruments, and even shards of pottery fill in the cracks between large historical events and depict the intricacies of daily life. In [this] revised and expanded edition … Deetz has added a chapter addressing the influence of African culture on America – a culture so strong it survived the Middle Passage and the oppression of slavery – in the years following the settlers' arrival in Jamestown, Virginia.” “This book colorfully depicts a world hundreds of years in the past through details of ordinary living. New interpretations of archaeological finds detail how minorities influenced and were affected by the development of the Anglo-American tradition.”

Among Deetz’s observations:

• Evidence shows that until the 1660’s white and black servants lived on equal terms, often in the master’s house. Slavery based on race evolved over time.

• Subtle changes in building long before the Revolutionary War hinted at the growing independence of the American colonies and their desire to be less like the English.

• Records of estate auctions show that many households in Colonial America contained only one chair – underscoring the patriarchal nature of the early American family. All other members of the household sat on stools or the floor.

• The remains of clay smoking pipes in Maryland and Virginia demonstrate the intermixing of African and European technologies.

• The wide porch or veranda that has been such an important feature of early Southern homes (and absent from those in Georgian-style and colonial New England) and, later, all across America, was derived from a constant element of African architecture used in farm and plantation workers’ cabins and houses.

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