The Growth of Historical Archaeology and Its Impact in Arkansas

By Kwas, Mary L. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Growth of Historical Archaeology and Its Impact in Arkansas


Kwas, Mary L., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


THIS SPECIAL ISSUE OF THE ARKANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY showcases some of the most exciting work in historical archaeology being conducted in the state. The topics range widely, covering early towns, transportation and commerce, the Civil War, and cemeteries. To provide a context for understanding this work, this introduction briefly traces the growth of historical archaeology nationally and in Arkansas.

From the perspective of American archaeology as a whole, the archaeology of historic sites is a relative newcomer to the discipline. While interest in the subject can be traced back to the nineteenth century, critical mass had not been reached until 1967, with the founding of the Society for Historical Archaeology. The earliest professional societies for American archaeology had appeared in the late nineteenth century, and today's leading professional organization, the Society for American Archaeology, was founded in 1934, but their focus was largely directed toward prehistoric Native America. Thus, it is not surprising that the earliest interest in historic sites involved post-contact Native American sites or frontier forts and trading posts.1

The Historic Sites Act of 1935, which created a "national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance," aligned historical archaeology with the movement for preservation of historic places. Initial work at such places as Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown laid the groundwork for future archaeological research, but the architectural focus of those sites unfortunately defined only a limited role for historical archaeology through the 1930s and 1940s. Salvage archaeology during the 1950s-a program of federally funded emergency work in advance of the construction of highways, pipelines, and reservoirs-renewed interest in the archaeology of historic sites. Most historical archaeology of the 1950s, however, continued to serve the purposes of site reconstruction and visitor interpretation.2

Historical archaeology came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, with the interest in "undocumented" people and the recognition that the study of material culture could provide insights into, and understanding of, groups whose ways of life and experience had often gone unrecorded in familiar historical sources. The rise of the "new" social history in the 1960s influenced the choice of topics for research. Barbara Little notes, "Much of the research starting in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s was focused on subcultures of American society. Ethnicity was embraced as a subject to which the discipline could make real contributions." At the same time, historic preservation legislation of the 1960s and 1970s-such as the National Historic Preservation Act (1966), the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act (1974), and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979)-proved instrumental in the growth of historical archaeology. These laws required the survey and excavation of sites from all time periods, so the volume of research on historic sites exploded, and the resulting data stimulated new research questions.3

During these same decades, historical archaeologists sought to create a profession distinct from that of prehistorians, which resulted in the founding of the Society for Historical Archaeology and the publication of the first volume of its journal, Historical Archaeology, in 1967. Articles in the early issues dealt with historic site restoration, eighteenth and early nineteenth-century sites, and material culture. Historical archaeologists were also concerned with the development of methods and theories specific to their concerns. In the most influential book of this period, Method and Theory in Historical Archaeology, Stanley South promoted both an anthropological perspective, which sought an understanding of cultural context and patterns of past human behavior, and a scientific basis for studying artifacts of the more recent past, which encouraged quantitative studies to reveal material culture patterns. …

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