Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Defining Historical Material Trends and Consumption Groups through Artifact Density

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Defining Historical Material Trends and Consumption Groups through Artifact Density

Article excerpt

At its most basic level, archaeology is a science of time. Archaeologists reconstruct material trends and identify cultural developments that transpired during intervals of time in the past (Willey and Sabloff 1980). In addition to artifacts, historical archaeologists rely upon written documents to more fully contextualize and understand the material record of the past that is recovered from excavations. Within the history of North America, the development of consumerism is a major trend that transpired during the past 500 years, having direct and significant implications upon the material record investigated by historical archaeologists. The development of consumerism is historically grounded within several larger cultural-historical trends-the Industrial Revolution, the growth of capitalism, and the transition from producer-consumer to exclusively consumer households (Orser 2004).

All historical archaeologists undoubtedly recognize the significance of these historical-cultural processes. An important challenge for historical archaeologists, however, is to develop effective methods of exploring and identifying the influence of these processes upon households in the past. As discussed in the following article, artifact density calculated from site survey and testing investigations is a very simple and effective yet overlooked method of archaeologically tracking material consumption and discard trends among households. In this paper, artifact density is used to identify changing trends in consumption levels within a sample of study sites. Using a diachronic approach, increasing levels of consumption are quantitatively defined from the early 1700s to the mid-1900s within a study sample of archaeological sites. In addition to artifact density, functional analysis is used to identify changing consumerism within the study households at the artifact group level.

Although consumerism has been a prevalent material trend over the past 500 years, households in the past possessed varying levels of access to commercial goods. Access to commercial goods and the level of consumerism practiced by households in the past are based on interrelated variables such as the specific time period that a site was inhabited, the geographic region, household occupation, income, race, gender, and ethnicity. Given the importance of differential access to commercial goods based on sociocultural factors, in this essay artifact density is also used to define consumption groups in a study area. Identification of consumption groups provides a quantitative research baseline and framework that in turn can be used to systematically pursue a broad range of additional research topics. The interpretive theory used in this study is presented in the following section. Archaeological data and analysis methods are then described, followed by a discussion of the analysis results. Suggestions for future studies are presented in the conclusion of this essay.

Exploring Consumption within Medium-Interval Time

A central goal of archaeology, historical archaeology included, is to interpret and explain culture change and continuity through time. Within prehistoric archaeology, this objective has traditionally been achieved by constructing culture histories for specific regions and identifying major developmental trends that transpired in the past during relatively substantial periods of time, such as the emergence of sedentism and food production (e.g., Willey and Sabloff 1980). Although not explicitly articulated, historical archaeologists rely upon periodization and an implicit culture history approach, in which the history of specific regions, such as the American South or Midwest, for example, is usually divided into the colonial, antebellum, and postbellum/modern periods.

Historical archaeologists segment time in their research, yet they do not always specifically address issues related to exploring and explaining cultural and historical processes as they transpired during and across different historical periods. …

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