Virginia City: Secrets of a Western Past

By Ronald M. James | Go to book overview

Epilogue
Breathing Meaning Into the Past

If we as archaeologists are to continue our work, it must be in the
context of public understanding and support.
James Deetz

Far below Virginia City’s hectic main street, St. Mary Louise Hospital stands in the midst of a tree-lined oasis. The Daughters of Charity opened the imposing brick structure in 1875, offering a higher success rate in caring for the sick and injured than elsewhere in town. Apartments for the sisters occupied the top floor, with one room unlike the others. The narrow, secluded place has an iron grill on the inside of the window, evidence of when it housed the mentally disturbed. There is not much to be learned here, but the quiet space evokes the past with an unexpected, tormented turn. Virginia City can be imagined in many different ways, but the window with its bars presents a unique opportunity to envision the nineteenth century: the insane residents of the mining community are not likely to come to mind when considering remarkable wealth and technological achievement.1

Material culture does not always lend new information, but it can be—indeed it usually is—a potent means to gain insight. The metal grill on the fourth floor of a historic structure is far removed from the ground, where archaeologists are most at home. It would be a stretch to arrive at a scientific research design that could analyze the iron or the room to deal with this resource in archaeological fashion. And yet it is a powerful place to consider a former time.

Anders Andrén describes several strategies intended to give historical archaeology value when dealing with a literate society. Among his recommendations is to consider ways archaeology can shed light on people who rarely appear in records. These include ethnic groups, women, children, and the poor. The example of the Virginia City hos-

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