Archaeology is the study of the past through its material remains. Historical archaeology is the study of literate societies. In historical archaeology, we use the landscape, the documents left behind as well as the artifacts we excavate to understand the past. The part of archaeology with which most people are familiar is our data collection stage when we excavate sites, but that is only a very small part of our job. Artifacts alone tell us nothing, it is from their context — where they are found, what is around them — and from knowing about the history of the site that we can begin to build an interpretation. After the excavation, more research is done and those artifacts, the maps we draw carefully, and our extensive notes, are analyzed. It is this process that is archaeology. And, is why some archaeologists don’t ever put a trowel into the ground!
Digging Northampton’s History is a public archaeology project, which means that everyone is invited to work alongside the archaeologists as we do the important work of discovering what life was like in Northampton 300 years ago. We are guided by federal and state laws as well as the codes of ethics from our professional archaeology organizations like the Society for Historical Archaeology, the World Archaeological Congress, and the Society for American Archaeology. Archaeologists like to say that archaeology is the only social science that kills its informant. This means that once we excavate a site, it is destroyed and its data — the artifacts and their contexts — is disturbed. For this reason, we should only conduct an archaeological excavation if there is a compelling reason to do so. And, when we do excavate, we need to carefully document everything we do.
Finally, we remember that we are collecting the property of people who lived before us and we must respect their rights as well as those of their descendants. We must be respectful of their wishes and approach our fieldwork with great care.
Are you interested in archaeology? Here are some links that will give you a good orientation to the field and other archaeological sites in Massachusetts and New England.
The National Park Service maintains great websites about archaeology and how to be involved in projects on their parks. Click here to be taken to their site.
- There is always interesting archaeology happening in Massachusetts. Click here for information about the archaeology program in the City of Boston.
- Archaeology in Massachusetts is overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and they host Archaeology Month every October. Click here to find out about this year’s activities!
- The African Burial Ground project in Manhattan recovered over 300 burials from people enslaved in New York between the late 1600s and 1794. Archaeologists working there could see evidence of the brutality of enslavement on the bones of those interred. They could also see that those same people resisted slavery, both physically and through retaining family ties and African practices. You can read the reports on the burials here.
- The Boott Mills Boarding House project was conducted in Lowell, Massachusetts. Archaeological analysis at the site revealed that, while the young women were subject to many rules and regulations, they responded to them in creative ways. Living on the Boott is a book that presents the results of this project.
- Speaking of great books, if you are interested in the historical archaeology of New England, a must-read is In Small Things Forgotten by Jim Deetz. It is also available from your local library.
Archaeology is a great way to learn critical thinking and the scientific method. Even better, it’s a lot of fun! Here are some great websites that allow kids to learn more about archaeology.
- “Dirt Detective” on Colonial Williamsburg’s website is a fun game that teaches kids about stratigraphy and site formation processes. Click here for that game.
- The National Park Service has a great site for kids. Click here to go there!
- Click here to send your friends a buried message that they will need to use archaeology to uncover!