The Archaeology of Wealth: Consumer Behavior in English America

By Kern, Susan A | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Wealth: Consumer Behavior in English America


Kern, Susan A, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Archaeology of Wealth: Consumer Behavior in English America. By JAMES G. GIBB. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology. New York and London: Plenum Press, 1996. xvi, 283 pp. $49.95.

JAMES G. GIBB applies consumer behavior theory to archaeology using as a case study the results of excavation from two midseventeenth-century sites, Compton and Patuxent Point in Calvert County, Maryland. He augments material culture theory, which assumes that goods reflect the needs and motivations of the people who use them, with consumer theory, "the patterned decisions that people as individuals and as groups make in the use of wealth" (p. 238). To reveal how people's choices about their material world identify them as participants in a larger cultural group, Gibb must "contextualize" these sitesthat is, create culturally and historically meaningful categories by which to gauge the use and production of wealth in early Maryland.

Gibb defines broad categories of material culture through which to study the allocation of wealth: plantation siting, architectural form and space, food-related vessels, and burial practices. He then carefully deconstructs and redefines ideas of household, his basic unit of analysis, and wealth, anything consumed or produced on the plantation, including labor. Gibb's redefinitions of wealth and household are especially useful and important. He constructs a model of how people used their wealth in the seventeenth century and then tests his two sites for evidence of what he has identified as early Marylanders' basic priority, producing wealth to preserve the household in an ethnically important, patrilineal manner.

Gibb acknowledges that his results are constrained by what archaeologists found and reported on each site. But two other constraints, one theoretical, one historical, affect this study. The author's emphasis on choice as the primary determinant of material culture obscures strong documentary evidence that suggests that choice was often limited in this frontier environment, where the tyranny of the tobacco trade turned would-be artisans into planters, where people diversified their farming to put food on the table, and where material culture reflected what happened to arrive aboard the last ship.

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