The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

Cultural Dimensions of Ethnicity
in the Archaeological Record

by James F. Deetz

Keynote Address, 28th Annual Meeting of the
Society for Historical Archaeology, Washington, D.C., 1995

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A chief of the Digger Indians, as the Californians call them, talked to me a great deal about the ways of his people in the old days. One day, without transition, he broke in upon his descriptions of grinding mesquite and preparing corn soup. "In the beginning," he said, "God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life. They all dipped in the water," he continued, "but their cups were different. Our cup is broken now. It has passed away." Our Cup is Broken. Those things that had given significance to the life of his people, the domestic rituals of eating, the obligations of the economic system, the succession of ceremonials in the villages, possession in the bear dance, their standards of right and wrong -- these were gone, and with them, the shape and meaning of their life.

-- Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture

These words by Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture have particular relevance in matters concerning ethnicity as a subject to be addressed in historical archaeology. But before we can explore that relevance, we must first give some thought to the fundamental premise of both the passage and the book from which it comes. What is the current status of the concept of culture; is it still healthy, or rather is it suffering from some terminal affliction, or, even worse, has it met with what some would see as a timely demise? There are those who have already erected the grave marker with what seems an almost morbid, and certainly cynical, satisfaction. Remember Kent Flannery's Old Timer, who was forced into early retirement because he believed in culture? This unfortunate event was precipitated by an article by Eric Wolf, in which he said that "The relatively inchoate concept of culture was attacked (during the past quarter century), from several theoretical-directions. As the social sciences transformed themselves into 'Behavioral' sciences, explanations for behavior were no longer traced to culture: behavior was to be understood in terms of psychological encounters, strategies of economic choice, strivings for payoffs in games of power. Culture, once extended to all acts and ideas employed in social life, was now relegated to the margins as: 'world view' or 'values'." I must admit that I find this situation both sad and deeply alarming. Leaving aside the simple fact that behavior can be seen as a product of culture, regardless of which of the many definitions we choose to employ, such a perspective is a reflection of a century or more of thoughtful insight. Are we really prepared to jettison the works and thoughts of people such as E. B. Tylor, Franz Boas, A. L. Kroeber, Leslie White or Claude Lévi-Strauss, to name but a very few? I think not, and would suggest that what might make better sense would be to create parallel and separate agendas, one for those who find the culture concept useful in reaching some basic understandings of the human condition, and the other for those those who choose behavioral explanations. Stephen Foster, in a review of Roy Wagner's The Invention of Culture, says, "Some may see in the book the end of Anthropology as presently constituted, or a demand for changes which may threaten to make anthropology unrecognizable." But why must this be so? Is it a product of western linear thinking, which requires that one thing must replace another? Far better, it would seem, would be to have the two exist in a true dialectic, and then see what the synthesis might be. But beyond this, other problems exist. At the risk of generating a strong and not necessarily positive reaction in my audience, for some will say "Here he goes again!", let's try out a new term for the discipline espoused by those of a behavioral bent -- Anthropography, the writing about people rather than Anthropology, the understanding of people, and all that they represent.

Anthropography as defined here is clearly manifest in much of Post Modernist writing which purposely combines elements of fiction with those of empirical fact. This is certainly true in archaeology. Well, we say, we have these multiple constructions of the past, so why not dodge that bullet by purposely creating a quasi-fictional account? Of course, the most compelling reason for not doing so is that there are a number of people who do this better than any of us will ever hope, and they are not and never were anthropologists. Their names would fill pages, but for now we can only list a few: William Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Herman Melville, the Bronte sisters, John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, John Barth, Lee Smith, Nadine Gordimer and T. Coraghessan Boyle will do for starters. "Fiction," you say, "pure fabrication." Hardly, for these people are a product of their times, and have the wonderful ability to convey an understanding of the people of whom they write, usually with solid underpinning of fact. Moll Flanders is as valuable a source on life in seventeenth century England and Virginia as is any number of probate inventories and related documents, and far more useful than a gaggle of archaeological sites. John Barth spent more time in the Maryland Public Records Office researching for The Sot-weed Factor than many of us here have in an entire professional career. It is for these reasons that I routinely use novels as assigned readings in my courses in historical archaeology: they have their proper and valuable place.

Another problem that I see in the writing of those whom I have chosen to call anthropographers, is a fixation on words, almost for their own sake. One can spot such writing with even the most superficial skimming of the text -- situated knowledge, masking, negotiation, deconstruction, everyday life, hegemony, embedded, to privilege. This liberal sprinkling of text with fashionable words and phrases, like jimmies on an ice cream cone, leads to what Henry Glassie aptly called a "verbal gyre through which criticism descends into cynicism, self complaint permutes into self fascination, political responsibilities evaporate into elitist abstractions, interest in the world is replaced by interest in the academical, and righteous action, numbed by paradox, stops."

Well, folks, I still have a healthy interest in the world, real or not, and like the Old Timer, I still believe in culture, whether it is fashionable to do so or not. In the words of Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other." So, having made my position clear, we can proceed to consider in what ways the concept of culture can be of use in the way we view the archaeology of ethnicity in America. Of the many definitions of culture put forth since E. B. Tylor, the one I prefer, and find most useful in my work is that of Walter Taylor, in his 1948 Study of Archaeology. Taylor sees culture as a mental construct, not directly observable, but understandable through its various objectifications, be it ritual practice, social structure or the material world. It is that set of plans and concepts used by any group, national, ethnic or tribal, to order its existence, to make sense of it, and to come to a happy and effective accommodation of the outside world, social as well as environmental. Certainly it serves an adaptive function, but more than that, for those "psychological encounters" can only come about if there is an underlying coherence to a culture's way of coping with the world. Furthermore, this definition permits a structuralist perspective. All of those things below the double line in figure 76 on page 161 of Glassie's Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, in their mediation, give a culture its distinctive form and character.

Now the relevance of all of this is best made clear through a specific example. I will restrict my observations to a single African-American site: Parting Ways in Plymouth, Massachusetts, although what we see there will almost certainly obtain at other African-American sites, if we know what to look for, and how to go about observing it. Parting Ways was a small community of free African-Americans established in 1794 when the town of Plymouth granted ninety-four acres of land to Cato How. He and his family were joined on the property by at least two other families, those of Plato Turner and Quamany, and possibly by Prince Goodwin and his family as well. The town reclaimed the property in 1824, but the residents remained, in one case into the early twentieth century. Parting Ways is known to archaeologists only through a single brief chapter in my book In Small Things Forgotten. It was excavated as part of the bicentennial celebration in Plymouth. Initially a project under the sponsorship of the Plymouth Bicentennial Committee on Afro-American History, and involving the cleaning up of the grave lot where the former occupants supposedly were buried, it evolved into a full scale archaeological project which took two whole summers to complete. But, to be honest, it was as much as anything, an effort to heighten the visibility of African-Americans in Plymouth Colony and later Plymouth County and their history, one that reaches back to at least 1634, when a "blackamoor" by the name of Abraham Pierce appears in the Muster of Duxbury, Massachusetts, just across the bay from Plymouth. So, when we began excavations at Parting Ways, it was not, unfortunately, with any explicit research design directed at defining distinctive characteristics of African-American culture. But it was not long before we realised that we were dealing with something very different. Upon re-reading a passage from Small Things, I am struck by its prescience. "A large amount of dirt was moved in the name of solving this and that problem formulated from prior experience (on Anglo-American sites) and nothing came to light. The occupants of the site constructed their houses differently, disposed of their trash differently, arranged their community differently. But because the artifacts themselves were so familiar to us, the essential differences were disguised behind them, and only when a more basic consideration of different perceptions of the world was made did the picture come into focus." Well, the focus was not all that sharp even at the time, and it has taken some eighteen years for it to fall into place, and even that would not have happened, I suspect, had Marley Brown not asked me to present this paper, forcing me to rethink not only Parting Ways, but its significance to African-American archaeology, and how we go about practicing it.

A bit of history is in order here to make understandable why some very important information on Parting Ways has been so slow in forthcoming. Excavations were carried out at Parting Ways during the summers of 1975 and 1976 under the direction of myself as a Plimoth Plantation archaeological project. But the project was an official part of the program of the Committee on Afro-American History, with the Plantation acting in a consultative capacity. By the fall of 1976, the Committee had been reconstituted as Parting Ways: The Museum of Afro-American Ethnohistory. At a town meeting that fall, a motion was passed to return fifteen acres of the original land grant to the Museum, thus providing the land base necessary for submitting grant proposals and seeking National Register nomination. As a part of the nomination process, an archaeological survey was conducted on the fifteen-acre tract, and in the process, several concentrations of cobblestones were encountered, with broken containers of ceramic and glass scattered over them. By then, I had left New England for California, via Williamsburg, the Plantation's research priorities were reordered in such a way that archaeology was no longer a central part of the program, and all collections were placed in dead storage. Furthermore, unreconcilable differences of opinion between myself and the Board of the Museum regarding editorial control of any published material on the site lead, understandably, to nothing at all being produced. New teaching and research demands at Berkeley, and involvement in the Flowerdew Hundred project, pushed Parting Ways to the back burner and beyond, where it has reposed these past twenty years. But all the while, it became increasingly evident that the whole story had not been told, and the time has come to do so. I am presently attempting to assemble a number of manuscript reports, and hope to publish new material on the site, including a much more intensive treatment in an extensive revision of In Small Things Forgotten which I expect to complete this coming summer.

Parting Ways is a very special site, in that it was occupied by at least three families of African-Americans who were free of those constraints which might have been imposed on them under the institution of slavery. At the same time that the African-American residents of Mulberry Row, Carter's Grove, and Cannon's Point were attempting to cope under what must have been very difficult conditions imposed by Plantation slavery, the occupants of Parting Ways, marginal as they may have been to the dominant European-Amencan community, at least were able to organize their world on their own terms, and the material evidence of this organization is to be seen in the archaeological record. Each constituent element of this record, taken alone, is not totally convincing, although powerfully suggestive. Taken as a group, as an expression of African-American culture as it was to be seen in early nineteenth century Massachusetts, it is, in my opinion, not only convincing, but an expression of a set of beliefs not only different from the dominant European-American culture, but coherent in its own right, and attributable to the African heritage shared by Cato, Plato, Quamany and their families.

The concentrations of cobblestones, just across the road from the site of Cato and Plato's homes, were strewn with ceramic and glass fragments, presumably broken in place, since in most instances they were fully restorable. Included were West Indian earthenware pots of the type found in one of the cellars, a cut glass decanter, pressed glass tumblers and saucers, and stoneware jugs. These features were in a wooded area, and covered with a thin layer of soil and leaves. They seem not to have been significantly disturbed since they were placed there, some time during the first half of the nineteenth century. Our knowledge of African-American grave ornamentation would strongly suggest that these features are indeed graves, and they may well be, although no excavation was carried out to establish this.

Rendering of a Congo Chieftain's grave, from E. J. Glave, Century Magazine, Vol. 41, p. 827 (1891), in J. M. Vlach, By The Work of Their Hands: Studies in Afro-American Folklife, p. 44, 1991

Click to View Illustrations

What they did force us to do, however, was to question the identity of those individuals buried beneath the stumps of green slate gravestones in the cemetery always traditionally identified with the Parting Ways settlement. As so often is the case, that which after the fact is obvious is not often so before. Given the dates of death of the occupants of Parting Ways, it is most unlikely that their gravestones would have been made of slate, marble having long since replaced slate as the universal material for grave stones. Furthermore, the cemetery at Plympton, a few miles away, has one eighteenth century cenotaph commemorating people who had died of smallpox, and been buried elsewhere. Several small groups of green slate stones, three or four in number, are to be found in the woods around Plymouth, marking the graves of smallpox victims, and it seems very likely that the Parting Ways cemetery is but one more of these. But whether the cobble features are indeed grave markers, as I strongly suspect they are, they certainly have something to do with an African cosmology. John Vlach and I inspected them in the fall of 1977, and he stated that they bore a strong resemblance to ritual compounds of the Akan in Ghana.

At the time of excavation, one of the more perplexing aspects of the Parting Ways site was the almost complete absence of artifacts in the area between the two houses excavated. Accustomed as we were to comparable European-American sites, with their thin layer of refuse surrounding the houses, this came as something of a surprise. Of course, we now know that the tradition of swept dirt yards is to be found not only among African-Americans, but also in West and Central Africa.

The cobble features and managed landscape have not been reported upon before. When they are added to those features of the Parting Ways site that have been published, one is presented with an impressive configuration of material culture which speaks strongly to its creators' cultural heritage, one quite different from that of the dominant culture of which they also were a part.

Parting Ways is probably a special case, in the way that the various components of a distinctive culture are expressed with such clarity. But this should not deter us from seeking such a body of evidence elsewhere. But to do so requires that we critically examine the way in which we conduct our inquiry. The constant search for and identification of individual objects as evidence of an African-American presence which is already known from documentary sources has become something of a red herring. For no number of pierced coins and shells, blue beads, quartz crystals or cowry shells can provide absolute proof of such a presence, when taken in isolation, in the absence of independent documentation. And when such a presence is documented, what is the need for the archaeological substantiation? True, they can be seen as "africanisms" -- survivals -- but given what we know now, this comes as no great surprise. Rather, I believe, a more fruitful approach would be to select a site which is known to have been occupied by members of one ethnic group or anther, and consider the full assemblage, in toto, to see to what degree its objects and faunal material are indicative of another, different cultural order. Adrian Praetzellis' Study of Chinese Merchants in Sacramento is an excellent case in point. Through a combination of archaeological and documentary evidence, he was able to show that these merchants maintained a cultural tradition, seen in architecture, foodways, and town layout, in a manner which calls into question several naive assumptions about acculturation as it can be seen in the archaeological record. But he certainly was not seeking to identify the assemblage as Chinese. This was the given from which creative analysis was derived. The important question which must be asked, and isn't nearly often enough, is how ethnic groups manage their ethnicity in the face of adversity, and this can only be accomplished if we consider their culture as an integrated whole, and not a thing of shreds and patches, where one shred or patch seems sufficient to our needs.

So it is that we see in the leavings of different people in the past the shape of their cup of culture. And the critical question to be asked is this: Is the cup reasonably intact, or has it been fractured beyond mending? Or, has it been transformed into another kind of cup, one better suited to the circumstances at hand? We should not, on the other hand, be overly concerned only by the form of its handle, or only the designs which may have been inscribed upon it, for these are nothing more than individual attributes which, when combined, give the cup its distinct form. Culture is a totality, and it is that totality which we should strive to delineate and understand.

© 1995 Copyright and All Rights Reserved by
James F. Deetz

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