Historical Archaeology: Why the Past Matters/The Archaeology of Collective Action

Article excerpt

Historical Archaeology: Why The Past Matters. By BARBARA J. LITTLE, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California, 2007. 205 pages, 11 illustrations, $22.95 (paper).

The Archaeology of Collective Action. By DEAN SAITTA, University Press of Florida, Gainesville. 2007. 140 pages, 5 maps, 18 illustrations, $24.95 (paper).

With the recent publication of Historical Archaeology: Why the Past Matters by Barbara J. Little and The Archaeology of Collective Action by Dean J. Saitta, historical archaeologists have been presented with a feast of food for thought. Both of these authors take as their core concern the relationship between the past and the present. Both acknowledge what is now a truism in archaeology; that our choice of topics and interpretation of data are shaped by present day concerns. Both volumes move beyond these observations, however and explore how our understandings of the past can shape our contemporary ideas, attitudes and relationships. Little and Saitta also review how archaeologists have successfully reclaimed aspects of the past that have been ignored, hidden and obscured. Both authors argue that knowledge created by archaeologists is pertinent today because it helps contemporary people understand how the present came to be and stimulates creative and alternative visions of the future. Finally, both Little and Saitta examine the role of archaeologists as public scholars and interlocutors in the social struggles of our time. While both books are treats for the mind, they are each feasts of a different sort. Barbara Little's book is like a buffet of tapas; nuggets of insight and concise examples of important archaeological work. Saitta's on the other hand, is more like a hearty panini. Substantial chapters on theory, collective action and public memory provide the bready framework for the featured case study, the Ludlow Massacre archaeological site.

The different "flavor" of these books probably emerges from the fact that they are intended for somewhat different audiences. Historical Archaeology: Why the Past Matters, is aimed primarily at undergraduates and professionals unfamiliar with historical archaeology. As such, Little structures her work as an introduction to the field. She divides it into four sections, each of which includes between six and ten chapters. In total, the book consists of 31 short (3-7 page) chapters. It is wonderfully convenient that this number mirrors the approximate number of meeting times for a typical course that meets twice a week during a 16 week semester. In each of these brief chapters, Little writes artfully, cutting to the heart of the matter while also providing concrete and clearly articulated examples. By using this type of organization and keeping the length of each chapter short, Little makes it possible to easily use this text in conjunction with journal articles or other case studies for an introductory course in historical archaeology.

In the first section (Chapters 2-7) Little sets out to define historical archaeology by exploring the primary goals of the discipline. In Chapter 2 she discusses how historical archaeology is situated within the field of anthropology and how it relates to the discipline of history. Little is able to precisely define the field while also acknowledging the great diversity within the practice of historical archaeology that covers a variety of temporal periods, geographical contexts, and professional objectives. Chapter 3 focuses on issues of preservation and site interpretation. Here, Little describes some of the major legislation designed to protect cultural resources and provides examples of how archaeology has been used to facilitate public interpretive exhibits, reconstructions and programs. Chapter 4 challenges the powerful notion that historical archaeology is merely the "handmaiden of history." In some instances archaeology has successfully supplemented and supported historical narratives. By revealing the lives and experiences of socially disenfranchised groups, however, historical archaeology has just as often challenged and complicated written narratives of the past. …