Essentially the beginning of archaeology . . .Archaeology Inktober 2020 Prompt #11, ‘Act’
Archaeology Inktober prompt #5, ‘Land.’
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Issues of Alt-Right and White Nationalist Groups Co-Opting History
White supremacists and the alt-right often use of history and archaeology as a mechanism to ‘legitimize’ their claims. Join us as we discuss this trend from the misrepresentation of Norse history to the misbelief of a racially pure Greek and Roman world. These groups have twisted the past to their agenda in dangerous ways. What can we do to combat this trend?
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**featured image copied from the Gertrude Bell Archive  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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There are those who yearn for the days when life was ‘simpler,’ the chance to flounce around in pretty dresses, running through fields of heather on a dusky moor to pine away for lost loves. I’ve certainly fallen into that trap before, especially while watching (okay, re-watching) Pride and Prejudice, but all one needs to do is open a history book to realize that nostalgia is stupid. And, if you’re going to read a history book, why not delve into one describing the almost unbelievable Victorian attitudes towards women? Oneill’s delightful book rips the lacy veil from the Victorian era to highlight the ridiculous rules and concepts imposed on women. For example, women were thought to be addicted to menstruating. Seriously. The book opens with an invitation and a warning: “I can take you there. I can make the past so real it will bring tears to your eyes.” Oh, she does.
There are rules that will make you laugh out loud to stories that will make you want to want to stomp your foot at the sheer stupidity of the past. To be a woman in the nineteenth century must have been a constant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of situation. As an archaeologist, I want to know the nitty-gritty aspects of life, and Oneill does not disappoint when it comes to detail. How on earth did women take care of business in 20 pounds of petticoats and lace? Now I know. And then there are all the details I did not necessarily need to know, but those facts are burned into my memory now. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this delightful romp through the past—it will make you appreciate the small things in life, like flushing toilets, pads and tampons, modern medicine, and basic human rights.
Perched on a remote mesa on the Uncompahgre Plateau lies one of the last standing examples of a vanadium-radium-uranium mining camp in Colorado: Calamity Camp. This historic site, which contains a variety of well-preserved structures, housed the men and their families that mined the area from 1916 to 1980. I’ve had the opportunity to explore the structures on two occasions, one to monitor the condition of the structures, and one to help establish a protection plan in the event of a wildfire. Calamity Camp is a unique site, providing a window into the lives of the families who lived in this remote location; it would have been a harsh existence. No running water, no electricity, etc. into the 1950s! All that remains are a couple of rock structures, including a bunkhouse, a rock and cedar post barn, outhouses, and wooden cabins, as well as hundreds of historic artifacts. When visiting places like Calamity Camp, keep in mind that it is illegal to remove any artifacts or harm any structures on public lands. Furthermore, if you see a sign warning of numerous open mine shafts, keep your distance.
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Historians can trace the living-history movement as far back as 1881 to the European open-air museums and farms. Trying to highlight the past in the United States can be seen after the Civil War (Anderson 1982). This effort was rooted in the need to preserve what civic leaders and middle-class professionals considered to be traditional American beliefs and cultural values, especially with the influx of European immigrants. Those within groups like Sons of the American Revolution tried to find ways to best display examples of their ancestral and national values. Hoping to create a sort of shrine to the past, these places (mostly historic houses and landmarks) made history a place to visit. A few traditional historic houses and farms later evolved into living history museums, but for many years these sites espoused and aimed to glorify the cultural values of the Founding Fathers through costumed interpreters and activities.
The most influential living history museum is Colonial Williamsburg. In 1926, John D. Rockefeller was convinced to fund a project that would restore the entire Williamsburg community to the time of the American Revolution, since it was considered the birthplace of American liberty (Leon and Piatt:66). Once completed, Colonial Williamsburg gained a reputation for authenticity, with restored houses and recreated activities. As early as the 1930s, costumed interpreters guided visitors throughout the museum. Everything was neat and orderly (i.e. no representation of slavery or other grittier aspects of history), representing a bygone time lost to the urban post-industrial world. Spurred by the national fervor created by Williamsburg, many more outdoor living history museums were created during the 1950s. Again, a nostalgic era was portrayed with costumed hosts and craftspeople demonstrating life as it supposedly once was.
A more realistic interpretation of the past was born out of the cultural uproar of the 1960s and 1970s that spurred the deconstruction of outdated historical theory and the rise of ‘new social history.’ Long neglected subjects would become the new focus of this theoretical revolution: women, African Americans, working classes and confining political and cultural strictures. The past was being explored in a variety of novel methods, from experimental archaeology to revolutionizing how the past would be presented.
Emphasis on the elite figures of the past (i.e. Founding Fathers) shifted to the common and ordinary. As for living history museums, interpretive presentation shifted from simple craft demonstration to the social, economic, religious and political standing of various figures within the community. The concept of first and third person interpretation was taken to a higher level: many living history sites strived to move from simply having guides give a passive interpretation of history to a more authentic experience by having history literally come alive. There is still the trend at many historic houses and museums to keep an idyllic and comfortable sense of history, forgetting that the past had weeds and filth littering the roads, and that the people themselves carried a fine layer of dirt. Interpretative programs continue to evolve and positive change has been seen at museums like Colonial Williamsburg by bringing the more uncomfortable aspects of history to life.
[Keep an eye out for Part 3: Criticism of Living History]
Anderson, Jay. “Living History: Simulating Everyday Life in Living History Museums,” American Quarterly 34 (1982), 290-306.
Leon, Warren and Margaret Piatt, Chapter 3: “Living-History Museums,” in Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History through Performance. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007.
Marshall, Howard Wight. “Folklife and the Rise of American Folk Museums,” The Journal of American Folklore 90 (Oct-Dec 1977), 391-413.
Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Tivers, Jacqueline Tivers. “Performing Heritage: the use of live ‘actors’ in heritage presentations,” Leisure Studies 21 (2002), 187-200.
I can only hope that my future hypothetical child will be this delightfully disruptive during social studies.
During the winter, I used to volunteer a NPS visitor’s center. We would get a lot of international visitors who thought the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans still lived at the ruins (to be fair, they didn’t know the history of the southwest). They were genuinely perplexed why no one was there, which took a great deal of explaining how the site had been abandoned 500-600 years earlier (and I am TERRIBLE at speaking French and German). It was all well-intentioned, but I think I left both the visitors and myself confused.