The Reconstructed Past, Reconstructions in the Public Interpretation of Archaeology and History
Lees, William B., Southeastern Archaeology
The Reconstructed Past, Reconstructions in the Public Interpretation of Archaeology and History. JOHN H. JAMESON, JR. (ed.). AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2004. x + 307 pp., biblio., figs., index. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7591-0375-5; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7591-0376-3.
Reviewed by William B. Lees
Through a collection of 16 essays by leading scholars, editor John H. Jameson Jr. examines "one of the most controversial topics and challenges in historic site management," namely, whether or not to reconstruct. The answer is relative to a wide range of intellectual, political, and cultural factors, and the opinions of key decision makers who probably are not archaeologists. If there is a single lesson from this volume, it may be that "reconstruction happens" regardless of how we may feel about the proposition, and it is up to us to make the most of the opportunity presented.
In his introduction, Jameson sets the stage for the ensuing discussions of reconstruction as a tool for public interpretation and the promotion of heritage tourism. Using a historical perspective, he illustrates the tensions between the intellectual need for accuracy versus the forces that drive reconstructions; between the honesty of preservation versus the complexity, controversy, and cost of reconstruction; and between what is real versus what may be perceived as real by the public.
Part 1, "Definitions and History," begins with an essay by Donald W. Linebaugh tracing the career of self-educated archaeologist Roland Wells Robbins. Robbins conducted numerous excavations with the expressed purpose of informing reconstruction projects. Marley R. Brown III and Edward A. Chappell discuss the relationship between archaeology and reconstruction at Colonial Williamsburg, and Barry Mackintosh discusses the long history of the U.S. National Park Service's reconstruction policy. Each provides a useful perspective on the history of archaeology's service to reconstruction and of the struggle for archaeology to be seen as more than a source of foundation plans and hardware details. The essays by Brown and Chappell and by Mackintosh examine the current direction of reconstruction archaeology for the United States' leading public history programs and begin to frame a finding encountered throughout this volume: reconstructions are essential for the success of many heritage tourism destinations.
Part 2, "Measuring Effectiveness for Interpretation and Site Management," contains valuable case studies dealing with the process of reconstruction. Using the example of George Washington's Blacksmith Shop, Esther C. White illustrates the difficulty of negotiating what type of baseline information is necessary before a reconstruction is determined feasible. Of equal importance is her illustration of the dogged persistence of reconstruction as a desired outcome, even in the face of insufficient data.
Moving to Britain, Harold Mytum shows that despite intellectual issues with the process, the act of reconstruction at Castell Henllys was essential for people to understand and embrace their indigenous Welsh culture; the archaeological site itself was not enough. Peter Fowler and Susan Mills discuss the success of a total creation, using archaeological analogs, of an idealized Early Medieval landscape, also in Britain, underscoring in the process the importance of the reconstruction as an educational tool essential to draw visitors to a heritage tourism location.
Anne E. Killebrew's discussion of a reconstruction project in Israel is interesting on several levels, not the least of which is her acknowledgment that reconstruction planning forces us to recognize just how little we really know about a site's past. Another is the importance of politics in determining what to reconstruct and how it will be interpreted.
In a discussion of the Iroquoian Longhouse of North America, Ronald F. Williamson provides an important illustration of our tendencies to place too much importance on things that may ultimately be unknowable. …