Lessons for Historical Archaeology from the Career of W. Raymond Wood

By Majewski, Teresita | Plains Anthropologist, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Lessons for Historical Archaeology from the Career of W. Raymond Wood


Majewski, Teresita, Plains Anthropologist


When I first expressed interest in presenting a paper at the 2004 Society for American Archaeology symposium honoring W. Raymond Wood, I struggled with selecting a paper topic. I certainly did not have anything new to contribute to Plains archaeology or ethnohistory or in any of the other geographic or topical areas in which he has worked (to illustrate how I have followed successfully in his footsteps). After much introspection into how my own career as an anthropologically trained historical archaeologist has developed, I decided to share some of my ideas about Ray Wood's impact on historical archaeology. It is partly a personal story, but I think it is much more. I imagine that most of those who have been influenced by Ray Wood have similar stories. Many of his students went on to specialize in the anthropology and archaeology of the Plains, but his impact has gone beyond one geographic region.

I came to the University of Missouri in the fall of 1973 to study Mesoamerican archaeology with Richard A. Diehl, but because the department was small, we tended to take classes with many of the other professors. Ray was one of the first professors I met, and I took almost every class that he offered. I completed a Master's degree on a Mesoamerican topic and then began working in the Guatemalan Highlands on my doctoral research. Dick Diehl was my advisor, but when he left to go to the University of Alabama, it was only natural that Ray took over in that capacity (Figure 1). I had long considered him my mentor anyway. In the late 1970s, political unrest in Central America made it impossible to continue my fieldwork and finish my dissertation research in Guatemala, and I returned to Columbia wondering where I would rum next. I was fortunate to land a job at the Missouri Archaeological Society, and through the generosity of Michael J. O'Brien was able to switch dissertation topics from the Postclassic Quiche Maya to a historical archaeological topic - the ceramics used by nineteenthcentury settlers in northeast Missouri. That was over 20 years ago, and I am still a practicing historical archaeologist.

Unfortunately, because historical archaeology is a relatively young field, there has been considerable "angst" over the past several decades about the field's lack of theoretical direction and methodological rigor. In a "Forum" dialogue appearing in the journal Historical Archaeology entitled "Historical Archaeology Adrift?," Charles E. Cleland (2001:1) notes that:

Most of the SHA founders who gathered [in 1 967] were not historical archaeologists. Most were prehistorians and some were historians, all drawn together by an interest in sites occupied during the era of written history as well as the artifacts they contained. None of these founders had ever taken a course in historical archaeology, and few had any formal instruction in historiography.

Cleland (2001:4-8) goes on to note his perception that the field has tended to focus research on the unique event at the expense of cultural regularities and that it has failed to take full advantage of its unique potential to use both archaeological and documentary sources to understand the archaeological record of the more recent past. Many historical archaeologists have contributed to the discussion of the field's lack of theoretical direction, and several have proposed that the overarching research emphasis should be topics such as cultural pluralism, global colonialism, capitalism, and modernity (Lightfoot 1995; Little 1994; Orser 1996:26-27).

In the 1970s, there were probably few if any anthropology departments (or history departments for that matter) that actually had what we today would call an academic "program" in historical archaeology, and although the Society for Historical Archaeology had been founded in 1967, it remained for many years a very small group compared to prehistorians. Despite the lack of training in a "formal" historical archaeological program, many archaeologists who trained primarily in prehistoric archaeology during the 1970s have made meaningful contributions to the field. …

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