We are blogging as we dig into the archaeological records archived at Independence National Historical Park (INDE) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. These records were created over the past 50 years as archaeologists researched sites within the park's boundaries. The Independence Park Archives is currently creating a Guide for this vast collection of documents. This blog serves toward that end. It functions as a platform where archaeologists, archivists, and the interested public can share ideas about how to make these materials more widely available and more useful to the user.
Read more about this project blog...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Where do archaeological records come from?

Archaeological research generates a lot of documentation. Even before a site is excavated there is either a contract or agreement, a request from a private or public entity, and or a written research proposal produced by an archaeological researcher. In this initial stage, and in response to it, background research is conducted, laws and regulations are consulted, and a plan of action (including a budget) is drawn up. All this planning generates documentation before any dirt is even touched.

Once on site, the archaeologists record every bit of information possible. Why? Because we get only one chance to dig a site. Once a site is dug it is gone -- it no longer exists (except for features that might be left in place in the ground). Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources.

Proper archaeological work therefore produces, as accurately and comprehensively as possible, a detailed descriptive picture of the excavation. This description is compiled as the site is excavated -- as it is, effectively, taken apart and removed (i.e., destroyed). We only get one chance to make this description complete.

While excavation is underway, the archaeological field crew recovers artifacts and locates features (perhaps walls, privies or wells, fire rings, etc.). The location and position of such finds are closely measured and recorded --and these actions are themselves, in turn, recorded in bag lists, feature number logs, etc. There are also many field sketches and maps drawn to show what has been discovered. Drawings also document for posterity the soil layers encountered while excavating (each of which represents a different time period or activity episode), and the associations between artifacts discovered at the site. Photographs and other imaging mediums (e.g., video, laser scans) are employed to document each stage of the exploration, and these activities too are themselves documented --for example in photo logs, GIS records, etc. And finally, from day one, before the first shovel full of dirt is made, until the last (after the site is back-filled), the field crew members working at the site rigorously and religiously record every step of their actions, all observations, and each working conclusion in a field notebook.

All this documentation is what is used to make sense of the site and its evidence once the site is finished and analysis has begun in the lab. Without the archaeological site documentation to accompany the artifacts, all you have is a bunch of objects 'lost in space'. You don't know where anything was found, nor what it was found next to, and you will never be able to decipher 'what' happened 'where', or 'why'. You can't identify activity areas nor changing behaviors over time. With maps, photographs, sketches, and notes you have archaeology and thus human history. Without them you have only treasure hunting or collecting. The artifacts become a set of objects stripped of cultural context with no way to reconstruct their role or purpose in the past.

The archaeological records are more important perhaps than the artifacts found at a site. On the other hand, archaeological records are themselves artifacts: Archaeological records are the 'artifacts' of the 'archaeological process'. They stand in for the archaeological site after the excavation is done when the site no longer exists.

Image caption: "Archaeological Remains of Benjamin Franklin's House" mapped by B. Bruce Powell and Jackson Ward Moore. Area C, NHPP-IND 2772, 11 Dec. 61. National Park Service. Independence National Historical Park Archives.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Some Say Tomayto...

Most archaeologists spell archaeology with two ‘a’s (‘aeo’) but, generally-speaking, federally-based archeology does not (being spelled instead as ‘eo’). However, not even the feds are consistent in this. For example, the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 used ‘eo’ but it was followed by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 with ‘aeo’.

In blogging personal thoughts and observations here I will be using ‘aeo’ as I am not a federally- based archaeologist. But others commenting informally here may do otherwise. I will of course retain the shorter ‘eo’ version where appropriate -- namely in recording literary references and official titles and when transcribing original text.

I will likewise conform to the National Park Service standard of ‘eo’ in making the finding aid at the base of this project – except in those cases where to do so is inappropriate. For example, if the early dating archaeological documentation under study uses the more common ‘aeo’, then their original form will be retained – that is, unless the INDE archivist wishes otherwise. Cataloguing systems are cultural artifacts and collections are routinely accessioned within larger inventory structures (central repositories) under the nomenclature and organizing principles of that host.

There is a lot of speculation within the field about why there are the different spellings for archaeology/archeology. My own favorite rumor (which is erroneous) has the government taking the action to save money because dropping the second ‘a’ eventually means a large savings of ink and paper. If you want to dig deeper into this weird aspect visit the following:

K.C. Smith (1995) I say Tomayto: You say Tomahto. In Archaeology & Public Education 5(4):7.

Little, Barbara (2006)
Why are there two different spellings: archaeology and archeology? at "Archaeology for the public".

K.K. Hirst Archeology VS. Archaeology: A Poll at archaeology@about.com.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Looking Forward...

In just a few days I start a new 'excavation' into the history of the making of Independence National Historical Park, and I couldn't be more jazzed! Yes, I am an archaeologist, but this time around I am going to be digging into documents, not the ground. This is not as odd as it seems as I am an historical archaeologist and we study the more recent past using material culture, including written evidence, that has been left behind by people in the past.

For the next several weeks I will be turning that historical archaeology methodology up a notch by 'excavating' artifact residues left by some of my own colleagues. I will be trolling through documentary artifacts created during their archaeological fieldwork. Specifically, I will be evaluating and organizing the documentary evidence of a generation of archaeologists, active circa 1950-2000, who helped to locate, identify, and interpret colonial American history in Philadelphia.

I refer to this type of endeavor as 'the archaeology of archeology'. I have an on-going, research interest in the archaeological history of Independence Park and I jumped at the chance when I learned that the Archives at Independence Park wanted to create an archival finding aid for a vast set of early dating archaeological records.

You see, our nation decided to develop a national park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that would commemorate the birthplace of American democracy. Some of the earliest historical archaeology, also some of the first urban archaeology, ensued in the development of this National Park Service (NPS) unit. Since the time of the American Bicentennial in 1976, millions of US and foreign residents have annually viewed the end results of these historical archaeology efforts and those of their like-minded colleagues -- among others, historical architects, historical landscape architects, historians and curators. These cultural resource specialists brought to life a landscape with several historical sites and buildings that now serves as an important touchstone for understanding how 'we became us', the U.S.

I will be blogging as I bring my historical archaeology training (a BA in Anthropology at UC Berkeley and the MA PhD Program in Historical Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania) to the task of developing an archival tool that others can use to access this archaeological documentation. I will evaluate a heaping pile of file boxes and create a descriptive catalogue, or inventory, of this specialized, documentary collection. These descriptions will be contextualized, or placed within the history of Independence Park's development and within the history of historical and urban archaeology. The final product, the finding aid, will be a guide to this archived collection of fieldwork documents. Included will be a summary of the collection's composition and size, a history/biography for the collection, a list of the subject matter involved, and a key for locating items.

This effort could in many ways be seen as regular old archaeology in that it is akin to an archaeological study (of sorts). It includes a site description and location, boiler plate regional historical context, an artifact catalog, and an interpretation. The finding aid will ultimately be published online at the NPS web pages so that current and future researchers and interested members of the public can find their way to and through this primary documentation.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More about this blog...

The Independence Park collection of archaeological documentation includes, among other items, field notes, site map sketches, reports, and photographs -- all of which are housed at the Park's headquarters in the Merchant's Exchange Building. These residues of archaeological practice tell stories about the search for colonial American history and also about the creation of Independence National Historical Park.

Like the finding aid under development, the intent of this blog is to help make the history of this archaeology more accessible to researchers and the interested public.

This blog is part diary and part professional brain-storming platform. It comprises a working space for collaborative archaeology and archival science. We muse about the archaeological history under study and we post copies of the interesting discoveries we find while we dig through the boxes and files.

We welcome all those with an interest in archival science, archaeology, public history, and Philadelphia history to participate in this online forum.