From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

All historians are at heart detectives, carefully sifting through the records of the past we find in archives, museums, and sometimes musty attics. But letters, diaries, and speeches are far from the only sources that provide us the clues we need to reconstruct the past. Material culture—the “things” that survive long after the people who made or used them have vanished—also holds critical clues to the past. Much of what we know about ancient civilizations, and more recent ones as well, comes from those intrepid archaeologists who meticulously examine the brick and mortar records of cultures long buried from our sight. In this issue, History Now focuses on the remarkable work being done by these detectives—many of them high school and undergraduate students—who, armed with trowels and sieves and determination, uncover the unwritten records of civilizations.

Facing south, glaciers and alpine summits surround Cascade Pass, seen far below, in photo one-third up from bottom center (Photo courtesy of Robert R. Mierendorf, July 2006)Robert R. Mierendorf takes us to the far west in his essay, “Archaeology as History in the North Cascade Mountains.” Here, on these steep and snow-covered mountains, historical archaeologists studied the culture of the Skagit peoples, Native Americans who still speak the dialects of “Salish” and who have sustained many of their ancestors’ traditions. Mierendorf reminds us that the past can be preserved in multiple ways; charred animal bones, storage pits dug in the ground, and remnants of old houses tell these stories just as letters or diaries preserved in archives do. Artifacts found in the soil layers at Cascade Pass—including stone knives, spears and arrow tips, and charred plant parts—show that these people hunted animals and collected berries for food. Mierendorf notes that his team’s discoveries did not surprise the Skagit community of today; their oral history has kept their past alive for them.

Artifacts from the Lovelace Tavern (NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, NYC Archaeological Repository)In their essay, “The Archaeological Excavation of the Stadt Huys Block in Lower Manhattan,” Nan A. Rothschild and Diana diZerega Wall give us a remarkable inside look at archaeologists as practitioners of their craft. We can follow the difficulties of excavation, the study of a site’s stratigraphy, and the meticulous and time-consuming tasks of processing what was found. These items are recovered from sources most of us would never expect: wells, cisterns and even privies—that is, the trashbins of the past. The success of their project had political and legal consequences as well as providing a window onto a long-gone New York: regulations were passed on the federal, state and local levels that protect archaeological sites.

The African Burial Ground upon its opening in 2007. (Photograph courtesy of Michael L. Blakey.)In “New York City’s African Burial Ground,” Michael L. Blakey takes us through the steps involved in saving a burial ground discovered by construction workers in the busy financial district of New York City in 1991. Blakey describes the interdisciplinary expertise and the technological tools employed to explore the history of this site and of the city’s African American population who labored as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The burial ground project was able to determine the life span, health, and sex ratio of those in this resting place, and it traced their African origins from warring societies and empires including Calibar, Asante, Benin, Dahomey, Congo, Madagascar, and others. Public pressure saved the cemetery from destruction, and a national monument dedicated to these early enslaved and free ancestors of African Americans was constructed. Visitors to the site can learn more in the interpretive and educational center and in three volumes published by Howard University Press, which expand our understanding of the burial ground's history.

Excavations within Cabin E-11, conducted during the 2011 University of Florida archaeological field school at Kingsley Plantation. (Courtesy of James M. Davidson)In “Historical Archaeology, Kingsley Plantation, and the Construction of Past Time,” James M. Davidson reminds us that archaeology reveals the “alternative voices” of the past and rescues its silent voices. In the wake of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., a group of undergraduates and their professor at the University of Florida began the first excavation of a slave cabin in the United States. This project opened up a new opportunity to understand slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. “Plantation archaeology,” as it came to be called, has expanded its range since the 1960s to include other aspects of the African Diaspora, from the 1500s to the Cold War era. In his essay, Davidson focuses on the eight summers he spent running field schools at the Kingsley Plantation in Florida. Together with over 120 students, Davidson was able to excavate four slave cabins and an African burial ground. The discovery of religious paraphernalia—especially personal and house charms—helped him uncover the religious beliefs and practices of the enslaved. In this essay, he shares some of the fascinating revelations provided by these charms.

Archaeological evidence of war and peace in the Rio Grande Valley during the Civil War era. Left: A sherd of shell-edged white ware manufactured during the early to mid-nineteenth century in Devonshire, found on October 13, 2017, in what was, during the Civil War era, the riverbed in front of the John Vale/Noah Cox House in Roma, Texas. Right: Lead bullets collected during the 2001 archaeological project at Palmito Ranch, now at the Museum of South Texas History. (Courtesy of the Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley)In his essay, “The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail,” Christopher L. Miller traces the history of a project that just last month made stunning discoveries. The trail is the mission of the Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools Program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The idea for creating this trail in Texas came in 2012, during the sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War. Miller tracks the role of local communities in gathering information on more than fifty people, places and events that went into the webpage created by the project. Soon “traveling trunks”—miniature portable museums—were created and made available to schools. The project’s work has revealed the “complexity of the racial/ethnic composition” of the Rio Grande Valley during the Civil War era and the critical role that Mexico played in the war in this region. But excavation by the project is also producing artifacts of great significance: in late October, archaeologists on the project verified a 9,000 year old projectile point made from chert, proof that people lived in the region during the paleo era. Soon afterward, Miller reported that local archaeologists had found a manufactured tool that was 9000 to 10,000 years old. Miller’s hope is that further excavations will help rewrite the entire migration record of North America.

This issue is also chock-full of special features. You will find “Cotton Times,” a 2017 documentary film that focuses on the passage of tons of Confederate cotton through South Texas. You will also have access to two Gilder Lehrman videos: “America before Columbus,” a lecture by author and historian Charles Mann, and “Inside the Vault: Slave Tags, 1838,” a presentation by Beth Huffer, the curator of books and manuscripts at the Gilder Lehrman Collection. You can also dig deeper by reading three essays from the Gilder Lehrman Institute archives.

Our next issue, “Frederick Douglass at 200,” honors the famous abolitionist with essays by noted scholars in history and literature.

Carol Berkin, Editor