Winged Death’s Heads, Broken Pottery… and Wood.

“Building in Wood in the Eastern United States” by Fred B. Kniffen and Henry Glassie imparts to the reader that overall, there is much to gather from studying material culture, and specifically there is much to learn from studying the materials and methods of home construction between 1790 and 1850 in America.  Kniffen and Glassie highlight construction trends, such as dove-tailing or V-notching, to determine regional cultural identities.  Placing these trends in context permitted Kniffen and Glassie to track the pathways of cultural diffusion and construction method shifts throughout Colonial America.

This piece offers a useful example in tracking archaeological information to make connections and understand historical fluency.  The map on page 174 is particularly useful in visualizing material culture patterns over time to make an argument.  Still, Kniffen and Glassie leave us with plans, stating, “The next stage of our work should shed greater light on the cultural meaning of the several methods of timber construction, on their associations with different groups of peoples, on their place in the westward movement, and on their relative importance during the change from frontier to settled community,” (178).  Arguably, Kniffen and Glassie leave us with more study to do.

James Deetz does much the same as Kniffen and Glassie throughout the pages of In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, by examining ceramics, gravestones, timber homes, eating utensils, even mountain and bluegrass music.  However, while Kniffen and Glassie note the need for further cultural analysis in their findings, Deetz offers many conclusions on how changing world ideals influenced each of the material items discussed.  Specifically, he cites the isolation of America and the rise of individualism due to the Renaissance as direct causes for the patterns in material item usage in the world and in different American regions over time.  He also identifies that certain material culture objects offer more insight to culture than others; for instance, ceramics can offer more substantial data than chairs.

Deetz also offers insight on the strength of material culture study to understand African American history in the same time periods because the objects are the best documents available to understand this group within culture context.  Excavation and analysis done on sites like Parting Ways in Plymouth, Massachusetts, helps to create a more encompassing view of American culture as a whole.  The most exciting moment for me in reading In Small Things Forgotten is at the description of the presumed gravesites at Parting Ways—how interesting it was to hear of the huge variation in African American gravesites of these freemen (broken pottery as decor over field stone!) compared to the Plymouth cemeteries of winged Death’s Head and cherubs.  To me, this is where material culture shows us its power: to demonstrate true cultural difference and expression of self within the seemingly compacted Anglican-dominated culture of Colonial America.  This was my, “I want to go to there” moment.

After reading these works, I found myself wondering where historians draw the line in cultural analyses.   I thought to myself a few times during the reading, “But couldn’t that just be coincidence?”  For example, on page 124, Deetz generalizes on gravestones and pottery, writing, “We see, then, that at just the time when New Englanders were beginning to use ceramics in the English fashion, with a new emphasis on individual matched services, thery were also revising the manner in which they disposed of their dead.  In two diverse practices, the change was very similar and might well reflect a wholly new way of looking at the the world in which they lived.”  Surely this could be so.  Still, how do we as historians know when we are taking completely justifiable conclusions too far? How do we take risks with new arguments while also avoiding the emphasis of simple happenstance?

When I look at these readings in context of our research project in partnership with Drexel’s Historic Costume Collection, I want to be sure that I do not explore the dolmanette as “more than what it is,” but I also want to dig deeply into the cultural constructs surrounding my object to place it within context and make an argument– to get to the sort of point that Deetz makes about graves of all residents of Plymouth.  Referring to Deetz can serve as an example of effective research and analysis, helping me to understand where connections in history and material culture are seamless as opposed to contrived.


James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

Fred B. Kniffen and Henry Glassie, “Building in Wood in the Eastern United States: A Time-Place Perspective,” in Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, eds., Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

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