Historical Archaeology: Why the Past Matters. BARBARA J. LITTLE. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2007. 216 pp., illus., biblio., index. $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59874-022-6; $29.95 (paper); ISBN 978-1-59874023-3.
Reviewed by Thomas E. Beaman Jr.
With the publication of Historical Archaeology: Why the Past Matters, Barbara Little provides a short but substantive overview that offers a critical approach to its present status.
Practitioners of historical archaeology will most likely be familiar with Little's work from her previous publications on public archaeology. While acknowledging her colleagues "don't always see things the same way," Historical Archaeology is based on her perspective on a discipline she has watched "grow and change remarkably" throughout her career (p. 17). In the preface, Little initially notes her motivation in crafting this text is for a reader to journey through an exploration of the ambitions and successes of historical archaeology yet later acknowledges her actual vision of this text "as a call for the international archaeology profession to reengage and reinvogorate discussions about site significance and public involvement" (p. 207).
Yet what starts as a promising journey of exploration quickly becomes a descent into a post modern advocacy of archaeological interpretation as a socially responsible equalizer, able to reveal and understand the past as a way to improve the present and future. The concept of sankofa, an idea of West African origin centering on "reclaiming the past and understanding how the present came to be so that we can move forward," is introduced early into the text as a "useful concept for thinking about the way that we can relate the past to our current and future needs" (p. 15). Little thematically revisits the concept of sankofa many times throughout the text as a reminder that the practice of historical archaeology need not be just an academic exercise but can have real relevance to the past and its conveyance to .the public. The book's subtitle, Why the Past Matters, is certainly significant in directly addressing the importance of sankofa as the overarching structuralist theme of this work.
Equally as important as Little's perceived need for active descendant or local community involvement in archaeological projects to achieve sankofa, Historical Archaeology also concerns how our perception of the past is problematically constructed. She asserts that despite the common "ownership" of the past, we actually learn very little from it, largely due to its interpretation being based on what we know or want to believe. As such, excavated information is seen to offer hope and renewed perspective in its ability to generate actual knowledge that can interpretively challenge the lies, misperceptions, and partial truths of the past that create modern social injustices, such as prejudices and fear.
After these concepts are covered in a preface and introductory chapter, the remaining text is organized into four thematic sections. Each section contains multiple brief chapters that explore or expand on a particular theme. In the first section, "What Are Our Ambitions?" Little outlines the interdisciplinary goals of historical archaeology, which are reflective of the mixed academic parentage of the discipline but do complement each other well. Section 2, "What Do We Care About?" explores the types of subjects of which historical archaeologists are interested. In addition to stressing the importance of conserving the archaeological record, it also branches into ethical considerations to diverse modern cultural groups as well as for general public outreach. The third section is by far the largest in the book and contains chapters that illustrate "examples of a wide variety of questions for global archaeology done one site at a time" (p. 79). Little couches this section as a "Windshield Survey," noting that it only "hints at the depth and breadth of the work that has been done" (p. …