Musings on a conference

A conference like the recent Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) one in Boston can be pretty overwhelming – it’s attended by 1200 people and there are multiple concurrent sessions. Even perusing the lists of papers and all the abstracts can take some serious time, not to mention actually deciding which papers to go to, and working out whether it’s better to attend one whole session (my preference) or to duck from session to session to catch particular individual papers (which I find a bit exhausting!). And there’s almost constant FOMO, not to mention the complete inability to think straight that comes after a full day of listening to papers. But it’s a fantastic opportunity to be able to hear archaeologists from all around the world talk about an incredible diversity of topics, to meet new people, to hear about different approaches and new theories and learn about different places. Such as Iceland. I learnt a lot about Icelandic archaeology this year – not directly relevant to my own work, but still entirely fascinating. Such as the story of a feud between two villages that lasted something like a thousand years (no, that’s not a typo) and the way this played out in the different ceramics they used, with one village using significantly more ‘modern’ ceramics than the other, in spite of the two being pretty geographically close.

One of great things about SHA is the chance to hear a whole lot of ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. So this year I attended a session on archaeology as social activism, another about the politics and memorials, one about queering archaeology (including possible evidence of cross-dressing from early 20th century Washington D.C.), another (Jessie’s session!) about the archaeology of retail and a rather lovely session all about unusual ceramics found on American archaeological sites that was perfect first thing on a Saturday morning. This included a fascinating paper about Mary Washington (George’s mother…) and how she used ceramics to keep up appearances following the death of her husband, which left her with five children and in somewhat reduced circumstances at Ferry Farm, Virginia. Archaeologists working there have found evidence of homemade glues being used to repair ceramic dishes – once repaired, these dishes would not have been watertight, but could still have been used as display pieces. Rather fantastically, the presenters described Mary as having “a strong tea game”, in an era when hosting guests for tea was an important social ritual.

The replica of Mary Washington’s house built at Ferry Farm. Image: Wikipedia.

Buildings archaeology doesn’t loom large at the SHA conference and there were just a handful of papers that really focused on buildings as archaeological sites, although quite a few others that mentioned buildings along the way, including one about what the presenter called “ghosts in the walls”, another phrase I loved. This was about deposits deliberately hidden around the doors and windows – the “liminal spaces” – of Bacon’s Castle, a c.1665 building in Virginia, perhaps by slaves. These objects included a shoe that had deliberately been cut in half, along with more mundane bottles and fragments of glass.

Bacon’s Castle, the oldest surviving brick building in North America, built by Arthur Allen. Image: Wikipedia.

Two papers were much more explicitly about buildings archaeology (there was a third, but it was on at the same time as one of the other two). Sarah Breiter looked at the building materials used in houses in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in the 14th and 15th centuries while Chris King looked at the similarities and differences between merchants’ houses in Norwich and New England in the 17th century. Sarah Breiter’s paper considered the “entanglements” of the building materials used, and how these building materials reflected what else was going on in that particular time and place – such as the dissolution of the monasteries, or how oak forests were being managed, or how certain people might have controlled access to a particular resource. The basic premise of this paper was that you cannot understand a building properly unless you understand what it was built from and, more importantly, why, because the availability of building materials was governed by the social, environmental, political and economic context in which the building was built.

Chris King’s paper examined the use of merchant’s houses in 16th and 17th century Norwich as civic spaces, explaining how merchants used and decorated them to help in their quest for local political power, not just for themselves but for their families as a whole. What perhaps intrigued me most about this paper was his comparison of these houses with the merchants’ houses of New England, and how these houses in fact have parallels with Protestant meeting houses in Europe. These parallels can be linked to their shared Protestant beliefs. The other fascinating element was that, when the Puritans arrived in New England, they built houses with what was, for the time, a relatively new, modern layout, but with an exterior that was somewhat out of date, with prominent gables and jettied first floors. My own work means that I’m particularly curious about what people build in a colonial setting and how that relates to where they’ve come from – and what it says about how these people saw their place in the world. New Zealand’s British settlers, for example, largely retained a typically British layout, but what they did with the exterior of their houses depended a lot on when they arrived, and varied from person to person.

Pettus House, Norwich. Image: Wikipedia.

What I love about going to SHA is not just the diversity of papers and topics covered (I’ve barely scratched the surface here), but the political nature of so many of these papers. So many papers deal with power imbalances in society, whether that’s in relation to gender, ethnicity, class or status, etc, and they discuss this in quite explicit ways. Some of these power imbalances are in the past, but others are in the way archaeology is carried out today – for example, the powerful keynote presentation from Whitney Battle-Baptiste, exhorting us all to read more work by black female archaeologists, which led me to think about my own reading. It’s not something we do a lot of in Aotearoa, in part because there’s currently no historical or modern world archaeology academic position here and in part because so much modern world archaeology gets carried out in a commercial setting (where there is little time or money for carrying out detailed research, and where you don’t get to choose the sites you’re working on, so you can’t select a site to try and answer a particular research question). Historical archaeology, as has been acknowledged almost since the discipline’s development, has a particular power to reveal the stories of the marginalised, but it’s also important to be conscious of our own privilege in carrying out this work.

With thanks to the UC Doctoral Overseas Travel Scholarship, which enabled me to attend this conference.


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