Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America

By Beaman, Thomas E., Jr. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America


Beaman, Thomas E., Jr., Southeastern Archaeology


Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America. LU ANN DE CUNZO and JOHN H. JAMESON, JR. (eds.). University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2005. x + 255 pp., illus., biblio., index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8130-2796-9.

Reviewed by Thomas E. Beaman Jr., RPA

It is often said that history is a series of stories well told. If this is true, Lu Ann De Cunzo and John H. Jameson Jr. have assembled a volume that lauds historical archaeology as a fresh source of historical tales to tell.

Published by the University Press of Florida with the Society for Historical Archaeology, Unlocking the Past assembles an impressive collection of 30 archaeologists and their research that well illustrates the depth and diversity of modern North American historical archaeology. The material contained within will likely be familiar to many professional archaeologists, as the vast majority has previously appeared in an array of journal articles, numerous technical reports, and even a few popular monographs. Its reuse here is in a jargonfree format of easily accessible, topical summaries that makes this volume highly usable for students, the public and uninitiated historians as a general primer on the contributions historical archaeology can make to the study of the past.

In her introduction, De Cunzo advocates archaeology as a means to education through the thrill of discovery. As described, her first experience with finding artifacts mirrors that of many youths (including many who are now professional archaeologists), that of hunting for arrowheads in agricultural fields with a family friend: "I cared only about discovering those bits of stone that lie scattered on the ground. Someone had shaped them into tools centuries ago and then broken them and thrown them away" (p. 1). De Cunzo continues with this autobiographical trek through her educational journey of discoveries with John Cotter and James Deetz, and through the work of Kathleen Deagan and many others. This theme is carried through the volume by the contributing authors, many of whom also share their excitement in discovery.

Unlocking the Past is broken down into six thematic sections, each of which is accompanied by a brief introduction by De Cunzo. The first section, "Cultures in Contact," presents case studies of how different cultures persisted and often evolved in the postcontact era of European colonialism, all of which are often noted as absent, underrepresented, or prejudiced in traditional histories. Chapters include reflections on sixteenth-century Spanish missions in Florida (Jerald T. Milanich), postcontact forensic changes in native populations (Clark Spencer Larson), colonowares pots as products of creolized Africans (Leland Ferguson), a multicultural society of three ethnicities in nineteenth-century Florida (Terranee Weik), and social and economic status among Asian immigrants (Roberta Greenwood).

Next, "Challenging and Changing Environments" explores different examples of how colonial settlers adapted to unfamiliar environments. One of the outstanding contributions in this volume is William Fitzhugh's review of the material evidence for two unsuccessful early settlement attempts in the Canadian Arctic, by Vikings in the eleventh century, and in 1578 by English colonists under Martin Frobisher. Also included in this section are chapters on late-seventeenth-century Jamestown (Andrew Edwards), the underwater discovery and excavation of La Salle's wrecked ship La Belle (James Bruseth), and isolated western miners (Scott Baxter and Rebecca Allen).

Even with continuous use, in many urban areas the past well survives beneath the present exterior. "Building Cities" provides four examples of how archaeologists have effectively worked with community leaders, planners, preservationists, and cadres of volunteers and students to unlock the urban past in Quebec City (William Moss), New York City (Diana diZerega Wall and Nan Rothschild), Alexandria, Virginia (Pamela Cressey), Charleston, South Carolina (Martha Zierden), and West Oakland, California (De Cunzo and Mary Praetzellis). …

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