Monday, February 8, 2016

Anthropological Approaches to Material Culture

Don’t read what we have written; look at what we have done” (Deetz 260).

            Anthropologist James Deetz advises his readers to approach the past from a different kind of historical record. Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (1977) reconstructs what we think we know about early American settlements in New England and Virginia by using archaeology to show the relationship between objects and the culture to which they belonged. He looks at several different objects including ceramics to tap into changes in dietary habits in early America; New England gravestones that tell us about the shift from communal Puritan ideology to an emphasis on the individual as a result of the Age of Reason and; housing structures and how they conveyed changes in social structure over time. As Deetz substantiates how objects can tell us about larger cultural functions, he takes great care to make several important points. Most importantly, Deetz addresses his contemporaries by reinforcing the definition of historical archaeology. A relatively new field for his time, Deetz makes his case for its usefulness by going to great lengths to distinguish it from prehistoric archaeology so as to make it its own subfield. He explains that historical archaeology helps to uncover “stuff” that textual evidence is silent on, especially historically marginalized groups. We’ve talked about this quite a bit in class, but Deetz shows us how objects help to uncover some of those silences created in the historical record, but also perpetuated by historians. 

            This is best exemplified in his chapters on excavating information about the African-American past. He traces the history of Cato Howe, who was freed from slavery after his military service in the Revolutionary War. The excavation of the community of Parting Ways helped to shed light on Cato’s life and others. Deetz concludes this chapter by explaining that a culturally relativistic approach is necessary to understanding Parting Ways because an Anglo-American cultural context does not explain Cato and the African-Americans who lived outside of that context.

            This important tenet of anthropological study is explored in Grey Gundaker’s “Tradition and Innovation in African-American Yards.” Gundaker employs an anthropological perspective as he asks questions about the types of meanings that African-American yards convey. Gundaker explores spatial relationships, organizing principles, and variations in themes as a way to make sense of these types of meanings of the objects displayed in the yards he studies. He writes about the objects in yards as having a “vernacular language” and a “flexible visual vocabulary” (Gundaker 59). Deetz likewise explains the idea that objects all have a grammar that governs them, “a set of rules for the creation of artifacts mutually accepted by the members of the culture producing them” (Deetz 154).

            An anthropological approach to understanding my own object is helpful, though challenging when I have rarely applied it in my own approach to history. However, archaeology helps me to think about provenance. Where, how, and why was the license plate found? Anthropology serves as a tool to listen to the language and vocabulary that the license plate communicates. Maybe this is in the structure, or the function, or understanding how it communicates with other license plates or even complementary objects of identification. Employing these methods is a gateway to reaching Deetz’s point that objects speak, too. 

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