The Regional Review

Volume I - No. 2

August, 1938


By Arthur Woodward,
Director of History and Anthropology,
Los Angeles Museum

It is very difficult for many people to look at a few old pieces of iron, shattered bits of glass bottles broken white clay pipes and perhaps a few dull looking glass beads and see anything in them but mere trash.

In effect, of course, that is really all they are, discarded fragments of the material culture of a bygone phase of history: junk and intrinsically speaking, not worth a dime. To the trained eye, however, those uninteresting objects may tell a story which has a far-reaching and even romantic implication

All over the United States laymen and students alike are uncovering the remains of our forefathers and those of the aboriginal tribesmen who occupied the land before we took it away from them and converted it to our own use. Within the last few years the National Park Service has had an active part in the excavation of a number of these sites. At Jamestown, for example, the digging crews under the supervision of archeologists have laid bare the foundations of the first houses of the land, the trowels have brought to light hundreds of specimens of metal porcelain, glass, bone etc. These are stored in the laboratory erected on the spot and it will be years before competent students have finally sorted over and properly identified and classified all of them. When this is done, Jamestown the forgotten will live again in a more realistic manner. We shall know more of the construction of the houses in which Captain John Smith's men and their descendants live. We shall be able to see and handle the very tableware from which they served their simple meals. Perhaps those reconstructed clay pipes with the very small bowls, or that home-made pipe fashioned after the local Indian product were used by the men of whom we all have read.

Here are portions of the leaded window frames and there are green glass wine and rum bottles. All these have a mute story to tell. Only the archeologist and the historian who is interested in the way people live can ferret out the secrets of those broken shards from the scrap heap of history. Hence, the excavation of such sites in a careful and methodical manner is all-important. No scrap of material is too small to be saved. Even as a trouser button is valuable in saving a man from some embarrassment, and consequentially is quite important to his peace of mind, in like manner a rusty nail, a trade bead, a battered gun flint or a brass thimble is valuable in aiding the archeologist and historian in making decisions concerning dates and the habits or knowledge poss essed by the former occupants of that particular site.

Haphazard diggings, careless note-taking, absence of photographic detail and the heaping together of recovered specimens irrespective of their location in the site are the crimes of the amateur student or adventure-loving layman. In times past, many important sites have been ruined by heedlessness and ignorance. Until quite recently the professional archeologist working in the American field considered the presence of any European material as relatively unimportant and having no place in the cultural scale of aboriginal archeology. He forgot that we have had several hundred years of active contact between the European and the Indian. He did not stop to think, although he knew, that every year of contact provided the Indian with so much more of the white man's culture. Nor did he consciously think of the changing tempo in the material culture of his own white forefathers and the subsequent reflection of these changes within the fluctuating cultural complexes of the Indian.

Objects recovered from Redoubt No. 9, Colonial National Historical Park

Hence, your archeologist of yesterday was able to dig blithely away in an Indian site and when he encountered a brass kettle, a handful of glass beads, a rusted iron ax, a corroded sword blade or tarnished silver ornaments, he merely snorted: "Pah! More of that contact junk . . . . Antiquarian stuff. That isn't what I'm after. I want the honest to John Injun stuff. Here buddy (to the ever-present small boy at the dig), you can have this for your collection." Perhaps that is a bit exaggerated, but it was the general tendency to belittle and discard European trade material found on Indian sites, as being relatively worthless and certainly not as important as a stone celt, a broken clay pot or some shell beads.

In the light of present-day knowledge of such things it behooves us all therefore to consider more carefully these items of the historic period, i. e., the remains of the material culture of our European fore-bears when they are found either in Indian graves or in the abandoned trash heap of some 17th or 18th century farm house. Those glass bottles, clay pipes, glass beads, pewter spoons, remnants of brass kettles, gun and sword furniture, buttons, nails, agricultural tools, etc., all are living documents of an interesting past. It is only with these undeniable, concrete scraps of history that we are able to reconstruct with any reasonable degree of accuracy the days of long ago. With them we supplement the pitifully few written records and by them are we able to judge the knowledge of our fathers, and by the same yardstick, our own ignorance in the common things of life.

boys at park

Hard Labor Creek Recreational Demonstration Area, Georgia

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Date: 04-Jul-2002