Archaeology’s Ultimate Purpose

Recreated row house in Jamestown

The rise in popularity of the History Channel and other similar programs on other channels and networks recently led Bookish Miss to pondering how important the fine details are to the general populace’s understanding of history.

While watching a program on ancient Pompeii, I was nodding along to everything being said; then the narrator stopped and I frowned. But, I thought, what about … ? They didn’t talk about …

The devil is in the details, right?

Well, not always, I was reminded. This led me to my bookshelf, specifically to Stephen Bertman’s Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology — which is not, at first glance, a scholarly book. Even at second glance, its place on any reading list likely appears dubious at best; it is, after all, a compilation of several short sketches about people. In fact, Bertman devotes most of his work to concisely and succinctly reconstructing and understanding the lives of ancient and not-so-ancient people. Accordingly, since the book is about the individual lives of people, there is not much by way of technical details, extensive descriptions of artifacts or discussions relating a particular item to a particular site, feature, zone or level.

Like most of those popular history programs, that’s not the point. The best example of Bertman’s intent is in the final chapter, “Portrait of Pocahontas.” He begins by recalling the myth, then delves into history to detail the ships that sailed for what would become Virginia, including information on their passengers and cargo. There is also discussion regarding the English in Jamestown; he writes “between best of friends and worst of enemies lies the story of Jamestown and the Native Americans … a story written in village campfires long cold and the embers of cottage timbers set ablaze.”

Archaeology is invaluable; some records do remain from this time and the years that followed, but material remains are a viable and much needed resource because they allow us to see a bigger picture. Accordingly, Bertman details the various items recovered and places them in the context in which they are of the most importance — what the final accumulation tells us about their lives.

One of Bertman’s examples is the colonists’ fear of both the known and unknown. He explains this by discussing the sheer volume of weapons uncovered, including crossbows, cutlasses, rapiers and other swords, caltrop (a metal object with four sharp points) as well as muskets, pistols, bullet molds, bandoliers (to hold gunpowder) and grapeshot for a cannon. Other artifacts are also discussed, including how their interpretation illustrates how these people lived from day to day.

For most scholars who skipped or dismissed Bertman’s prologue, introduction, conclusion and epilogue, the most obvious problem with this book is its lack of contextual detail with respect to the artifacts. He does not seek to investigate a certain site or perform a particular test on any given artifact in order to understand a minute part of a culture, but rather he draws on the work of several archaeologists and other scholars to put together a picture of how our antecedents may have lived. Indeed, he is very plain in the beginning and the end — his book was written to be an easily accessible look at the broader swath of history, made fuller by archaeology, and he refuses to allow technical details to weigh down his words. He does provide endnotes, however, for that exact purpose.

However, it is important to the larger discussion about the value of archaeology, history and the use of material culture. What Bertman did nearly 25 years ago is precisely what those history shows aim to do today. Outreach archaeology, public history — it all boils down to collecting information, analyzing it, making the appropriate connections and disseminating it to the public in a palatable format.

This is important and those “buts” don’t always matter. If we don’t do it, someone else (Disney anyone?) will.

Bertman’s own words put it best:

“It is easy for modern archaeologists, surrounded by so many quantitative techniques, to be dazzled into forgetting their qualitative mission. Their purpose is and always should be a fundamentally human one: to discover and narrate with honesty and compassion the story of lives once lived. The archaeologist’s duty is to keep faith with the ghosts, to serve as a medium for those who no longer have voices of their own.”

Bertman currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University in Missouri.

Bertman, Stephen. Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology. Tarcher/St.Martin’s Press, 1986.

2 thoughts on “Archaeology’s Ultimate Purpose”

  1. I really enjoy people who actually who post often, it is really hard to have this kind of understanding any other means. Extraordinary work.

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