Historical archaeology uses archaeological techniques to investigate relatively recent societies that kept and preserved historical records. Historical records include newspapers, census documents, diaries, property deeds, taxation records, and birth, marriage, and death certificates and registers. The point at which such record-keeping developed varies, of course. In Europe, the earliest historical records date from the emergence of city-states such as Greece and Rome. For other parts of the world, the historic period has typically been set as beginning with colonization, although historical documents were produced by Mayan and Aztec civilizations prior to contact.
The methods used to find historical archaeological sites and field techniques used to survey and excavate them do not vary much from the methods and techniques used by prehistory archaeologists. However, it is important not to understate the usefulness of historical documents in archaeological analyses. Documents can lead archaeologists to sites and allow them to refine their research questions based on demographic information regarding past occupants and uses. Furthermore, the archaeological analysis can often extend far beyond a basic understanding of the site and its uses.
When historical documentation is available, one can sometimes identify an individual’s behaviors—where, for example, a person worked, slept, and ate and even what the person ate in some cases. In San Francisco, California, a woman conducting construction on her home discovered an early-1900s burial of a child in a glass coffin. Archaeologists combined relatively new archaeological techniques and extensive research of historical documents to positively identify the young girl and tell her story—that she had wound up isolated on the property because the cemetery there had been moved and her coffin had been unintentionally left behind and that she had suffered from a disease that caused her body to waste away, explaining why she appeared to have been malnourished for some months prior to her death.
Similar work was done in Sacramento, California, investigating a store owned by several individuals and families for decades. Archaeologists used original advertisements of the shop to identify how its inventory and focus had changed over time from goods for miners headed to the gold fields to a junk shop in its later days. By analyzing the remains of food at the site, they determined that a Jewish family and a Chinese family had once owned the store based on the types and cuts of meat. The archaeologists examined the zooarchaeological evidence (determining whether the meat was beef, pork, or chicken, for example) and researched the types of meat cuts sold at the time. The frequency of occurrences of certain types of meat and meat cuts relative to remains of meat at sites nearby revealed the ethnicity of the owners.
So historical archaeologists often dig up stories of people who were previously lost to history or were not represented in history books. It is important to remember that most of those books were written by colonizers, the “winners” in historical conflicts, and that many groups, including indigenous communities, immigrants, the poor, slaves, and other colonized populations generally were left out of those books or misrepresented because of bias.
Archaeologists acknowledge the bias inherent in historical documents, especially diaries, newspapers, and reports from colonizers, and can test the accuracy of those types of documents by comparing them to archaeological remains. It is common for their excavations to reveal that many historical accounts of people’s behaviors and practices are inaccurate. Artifacts found during ongoing excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, for example, have been rewriting the history of the first British settlers in what would later become the United States. Extensive excavations, led in part by the National Park Service, have uncovered millions of artifacts that represent the daily lives of the people who lived and worshiped at Jamestown. Through their research, archaeologists have tested numerous “eyewitness” accounts from the 1600s and proven that the fort was not actually located where it was described. They have also uncovered evidence of the first Africans to arrive in the new world in 1619. Perhaps most surprising was their discovery of a skeleton of a young girl among bones from various animals. Her bones showed signs of extreme mutilation, likely as a result of cannibalism during a particularly rough winter. Work is ongoing at the site, and new information is constantly coming to light that adds to and changes the existing narrative about the original inhabitants of Jamestown.
Another example of the effect of historical archaeology involves rewriting the story of the Donner Party, the infamous western settlers who got caught in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Nevada and California during winter and were said to have survived, barely, by eating the remains of their fellow travelers who had perished. Historical archaeologists have been studying the supposed area of the Donner Party’s winter encampment to determine the accuracy of the many stories surrounding it. These tales had led many, including employees of the National Park Service, to believe that a particular tree in a meadow was the camp’s location. Later excavations revealed, however, that no one had camped near that tree in the mid-1800s. More recently, historical archaeologists have been looking at the types of bones found at confirmed Donner Party camps. Most of those bones were tiny and difficult to analyze, but bones large enough to positively identify were not human; they came from horses, oxen, deer, dogs, rabbits, and rodents. While this evidence does not rule out cannibalism, it does indicate that their food sources were varied and that they had not subsisted entirely on human flesh as sometimes said. Stories passed down to Native American inhabitants of the area also do not refer to cannibalism by the Donners.
Historical archaeology is often more accessible to the public than prehistoric archaeology, and they can more easily identify with people who are relatively similar to themselves. It is also exciting to learn about specific people from their communities’ pasts. While historical archaeology presents unique challenges, it also offers many fascinating topics for research.