About Paul Mullins

I am Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), President of the Society for Historical Archaeology (2012-2013), and Docent in American Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu (Finland). I'm the author of Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture (1999) and The Archaeology of Consumer Culture (2011). All opinions are mine alone and do not represent the Society for Historical Archaeology or IUPUI.

Defining a Global Historical Archaeology

Every historical archaeologist has at some point defined the discipline to the visitors at an archaeological site, a roomful of students, or a colleague or community member.  Most of us have a pretty clear notion of what distinguishes historical archaeology, and while it may diverge from what our teachers once told us, the conventional definitions in reference sources, or even the SHA’s own definition, we do seem to return to some consistent elements:  for instance, material things always seem to lie at the heart of what we do; most of us see ourselves as multidisciplinary scholars; we value rigor and replicability (even if we entertain sophisticated theory or are sometimes wary of being labeled a “science”); and we focus on peoples living in the last half-millennium or thereabouts.

Nevertheless, it is still completely reasonable that we have some distinctive visions of precisely what constitutes historical archaeology (or should define it) (compare the historical archaeology course syllabi definitions at the SHA Syllabi Clearinghouse).  The discussion over what defines historical archaeology has roots reaching over more than a half-century, and the dynamism of the discussion over our field is a good indication of historical archaeology’s dynamism and growth.  As the field now stretches its chronological boundaries into the contemporary world, encompasses an increasingly broad range of intellectual traditions, and pushes its geographic horizons to every reach of the planet, that discussion may be as lively as it was in the 1960s.  The SHA does not need to impose a definition of the discipline onto everybody digging something we might call historical archaeology, and in fact the discussion of the rich range of historical archaeologies is more important than forging a universal definition of the discipline that encompasses every time and place.  Instead, we need to continue to promote a rich discussion that reaches across global divisions, lines of historical difference and contemporary inequality, and moments in time.

The differences in conventional definitions of historical archaeology are perhaps most apparent outside the confines of North America.  As we prepare for our annual conference in Leicester in January, 2013 and then Quebec a year later, it is increasingly evident that what North Americans call historical archaeology goes by a variety of labels in Europe, Africa, South America, or the Pacific World: post-medieval, modern, and contemporary archaeologies all describe some scholarship akin to American historical archaeology.  Historical archaeology emerged at roughly the same moments in North America, the UK (with the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology’s formation in 1966), and Australia (the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology was founded in 1970).  All of these scholarly traditions push the conventional North American framing of historical archaeology in productive and exciting ways.

The most influential definitions of North American historical archaeology tend to revolve around the cultural transformations associated with Anglo and European colonization.  However, that definition looks out at the globe from the New World and has often somewhat ironically not examined the very European and African societies sending peoples to the New World.  For our European colleagues doing archaeologies of the last 500 years, the transformation into a post-medieval world reaches well into the medieval period and reveals dramatic variation from the Iberian Peninsula into central and northern Europe.  Pictures of Africa and Asia likewise have a historical depth that is not easily accommodated to a narrowly defined focus on European colonization alone.

Many historical archaeologists have focused on the ways in which emergent capitalism and colonization transformed the planet and provide an intellectual framework for historical archaeology.  Yet that sprawling profit economy was never utterly homogenous and integrated despite its global scale.  Capitalist penetration into New World colonies, Africa, and the breadth of Europe itself was inevitably variable across time and space, and archaeologists have particularly rich data to dissect the contextually distinctive spread of capitalism and local experiences of capitalist transformations.

The rapid growth of contemporary archaeology encompasses a breadth of research subjects that likewise stretches our conventional notion of historical archaeology.  William Rathje’s garbology studies laid much of the foundation for archaeologies of the recent past and contemporary world, and Americans have conducted a variety of modern material culture studies since the 1970’s taking aim on everything from electric cars to pathways of migration to wartime detention centers.  Archaeologies of the present-day world have been exceptionally active in the UK and Europe, where contemporary archaeologists have conducted creative, thoughtful, and challenging research on everything from wartime landscapes and prison camps (in Finnish, but video images) to Cold War materiality to punk graffiti.  For many of us this scholarship is intimately linked to historical archaeologies that have focused on more distant pasts and should have a clear role in a global historical archaeology that reaches firmly into the present.

The transformation to an increasingly global historical archaeology may be bearing the fruit envisioned by the very first historical archaeologists, whose January, 1966 gathering at Southern Methodist University was dubbed the International Conference on Historic Archaeology” (my italics).  In 1968, SHA President Ed Jelks (1968:3) intoned that “Historical archaeology has much to gain in the long run from encouraging a spirit of concerted, interdisciplinary, international cooperation.”  Many of our colleagues in the nearly 50 years since the Texas conference have been committed to a historical archaeology that always thinks of global systemic relationships beyond our local sites, but we are especially fortunate to live in a moment in which there is a rich international scholarship of the last half millennium that is increasingly accessible thanks to digitization.

Indeed, that global historical archaeology may well be SHA’s next horizon for growth in terms of both the society’s literal membership numbers and the discipline’s more significant expansion as a scholarly voice throughout the world.  Historical and post-medieval archaeologists are researching nearly every corner of the world and bring rich scholarly traditions distinct from North American anthropology.  That global historical archaeology is profoundly shaped by the concrete connections made possible through online scholarship and communication across a wired planet, and it bears significant debts to the SHA’s own commitment to conduct international conferences.

The Society for Historical Archaeology is only one steward for this rich international scholarship, and that scholarship is inevitably richer for including a broad range of global archaeological methods, scholars, and approaches.  International historical archaeology provides increasingly rich possibilities for the scholarly growth of historical archaeology that is increasingly globalized, compelling, and intellectually rigorous.

Jelks, Edward B.

1968 President’s Page: Observations on the Scope of Historical Archaeology.  Historical Archaeology 2:1-3.

Historical Archaeology in Central Europe

Western Bohemia has a rich archaeological heritage and a scholarship reaching back well over a century, but virtually none of that archaeology has examined the post-medieval period.  In the wake of the Velvet Revolution, though, Pavel Vareka began a historical archaeology project at the University of West Bohemia that ambitiously reaches over most of the past millennium and pays particularly close attention to the last 500 years:  In the present-day Czech Republic this ranges across the 30 Years War (1618-1648) to the Revolutions of 1848 to two world wars and 41 years as a Communist territory in the Eastern Bloc.   Pavel is committed to partnering with global historical archaeology scholars, and an astounding number of well-preserved sites dot Western Bohemia.  Many sites along the border have continuous occupations since the 14th century into the 1960’s, and few places can make a more persuasive claim for being transnational and multicultural than the Czech Republic, with Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic peoples migrating into the region in prehistory and more recently Moravians and Poles among the flood of peoples settling in the region.  Many Czechs migrated to the US beginning in the 1850’s, with one Chicago community dubbed “Pilsen” in reference to Plzen, the home of the University of West Bohemia.  In 1900, only Prague and Vienna had more Czech residents than Chicago, and the US today claims about 1.6 million people of Czech descent.

The ruins of this church near Plzen were used well into the 20th century.

The shadow of World War II and communism hang over the contemporary Czech Republic, but they provide an exceptionally powerful setting to weave consequential historical narratives driven by archaeological materiality.  Last week Pavel and his colleague Michal Rak took me and my University of Oulu colleague Timo Ylimaunu to see some of the numerous sites scattered between Plzen and the German border about 55 miles away.  Pavel and Michal are documenting the cyclical abandonment of villages in the region during the 17th-century, when numerous residents were driven from their homes by the invading Swedish Army and in many cases left villages standing with a rich range of domestic material culture in place.  Ironically, after World War II the communists consolidated many of the villages in the region and razed those close to the border, some of which had been continuously occupied a half-millennium.  The architectural and archaeological preservation on these sites is absolutely remarkable, and scores of such villages dot the region awaiting archaeologists.  Nevertheless, as in many places in the world, the archaeological resources themselves are endangered, poorly protected, or not valued by some scholars and communities.  While we were surveying a community cleared in the 1960’s, a metal detectorist was rooting through the ruins, casting aside nearly everything in search of World War II artifacts.  At a remarkable medieval church ruin with 20th century burials near Plzen, graves had been opened by looters seeking valuables.

Part of a 14th century village, this house stood until the 1960′s, when the residents were forced to move because of its proximity to the German border. The University of West Bohemia recently excavated this home.

The opportunities for global scholars to partner with Czech colleagues are immense, and the groundwork laid by Pavel and his colleagues—and their commitment to work with international scholars—makes such work much more practical.  Learning the history of a whole new place can be truly exciting, and living in places like Plzen can be much less expensive than many American cities.  Liberated by Americans at the end of World War II, Plzen also is especially warm to American visitors today, and reminders of the Czechs’ appreciation for American troops are all over the present-day city.   Many historical archaeologists bring methodological training, material culture training, and a commitment to public engagement that can expand central European archaeology significantly.  The scholarship that can be explored in the Czech Republic and in global connections between Western Bohemia and North America are enormously important to expanding a truly global historical archaeology.

Western Bohemia had an exceptionally traumatic 20th century history. At the very close of World War II, prisoners from concentration camps were driven on desperate “death marches” that claimed one in four prisoners. During one of these marches, 37 people were killed and buried in this mass grave near the current Czech border; the grave was exhumed and the victims moved in 1946. Michal Rak and the University of West Bohemia directed recent excavations of the the site, recovering 22 shoes and a spoon in the former mass grave.

Next year the European Association of Archaeologists’s annual conference will be held in Plzen and hosted by the University of Western Bohemia, so for those who are curious to visit the region and see these exciting sites this will be a valuable chance to visit and to meet our post-medieval colleagues in central Europe and beyond.  The world is covered with enormously fascinating places to do archaeology, and West Bohemia’s rich prehistory, medieval landscapes, and sobering wartime and communist heritage rank among those places to which historical archaeologists should turn.

Mothballing Heritage: Closing the Georgia State Archives

Historical archaeologists have long recognized that some of the most compelling biographical and historical tales can be told about prosaic folks, and we understand that many of those people who we think we know best have complicated and even challenging biographies.  Imagine the complex accounts of American life that could be spun around the life stories of Jimmy Carter, Ty Cobb, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Button Gwinnett, Fanny Kemble, Margaret Mitchell, James Ogelthorpe, Ma Rainey, Otis Redding, and Alice Walker.  That seemingly random assortment of people includes the mother of the blues, an American President, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a reviled gangster, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Their common link is that they spent most of their lives in Georgia, the last of the original 13 colonies, one of the seven original Confederate States, and one of the centers of the civil rights movement.  Now imagine that the historical records of Georgia spanning nearly three centuries, including the details of all these famous figures and countless more people, were suddenly removed from the community’s reach.  This is in fact the quite startling threat that now faces archaeologists, genealogists, and historians who were shocked when the Georgia Secretary of State announced that the State Archives would lay off seven of its 10 full-time employees on November 1st and discontinue public hours.  In his September 13th press release announcing the closing, Secretary of State Brian Kemp (whose office administers the Archives) somewhat awkwardly and optimistically admitted that appointments to access the Archives “could be limited based on the schedule of the remaining employees.”  Should this proposal be approved, Georgia will be the only state in the country with such restrictive access to state archival records, effectively closing one of the nation’s first State Archives (opened in 1918) and balancing a $732,626 budget reduction entirely on the state’s archives budget.  Anybody wanting access to such records will be required to arrange an appointment amongst a flood of genealogists following new leads, neighbors documenting property lines, lawyers tracing historical precedents, and archaeologists researching sites throughout the state and region.

Kemp indicated in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the “Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) instructed my office to reduce our budget by 3 percent ($732,626) for the coming year,” outlining the fiscal realities that face many archives, cultural institutions, and arts organizations facing a quite difficult financial climate.  In September, 2010 the Archives had gone from a five-day week to a three-day week as a cost-cutting move, and it eventually moved to being open only on Fridays and Saturdays before the recent decision to close the facility.  After November 1st the remaining archives’ employees will be responsible for nearly every dimension of archival maintenance in an operation Kemp indicated is currently “unsustainable,” ranging from monitoring air conditioning in the building (leased for $2.7 million each year) to entering new material into storage to administering patrons visiting the archives on appointments.  Kemp acknowledged that this move essentially “mothballed” the state’s archives and reduced the staff to only monitoring the most critical state documents.  Since the State Archives received 14,624 reference questions in 2010, we can reasonably assume that even the three most energetic archivists in the world cannot manage even a modest trickle of those requests and the state will essentially provide no access to public records.

The news that the Archive would now be open only by appointment was greeted with a flood of complaints by a vast range of constituencies who use the Archives.  At a somewhat ironically timed signing for a proclamation marking Georgia Archives Month on September 19th, a back-tracking Governor Nathan Deal awkwardly indicated that “We’re still working on our budget proposals right now,” he said, “but the archives will stay open.”  Kemp cautioned afterwards, though, that “the governor did not tell him about his pledge before it was made. `If he funds it to keep it open, that’d be great,’ said Kemp.  The secretary explained Deal would have to `tell me we weren’t going to have to come up with a $733,000 cut’ in order to fulfill the promise to keep the archives’ doors open.”

This would be an exceptional loss for Georgia and the nation alike, and it risks taking fiscal sobriety to an exceptionally draconian level.  Archivists have pointed out that Georgia law does actually legally require the state to make all public records “open for a personal inspection by any citizen of this state at a reasonable time and place, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen.”  Yet at an ethical level, archives make governmental processes transparent and accountable to citizens, so they are not merely research institutions.  Such a move essentially risks writing a whole state out of the nation’s historical narrative.  Such archives are not simply the province of a handful of scholars and genealogists; instead, a vast range of citizens documenting property transactions, legal actions, and community historical details consult the state’s archival resources.

A facebook page Georgians Against Closing State Archives has over 3200 followers today and includes links to Georgia state officials for those of us who can stress how important such resources are to myriad community scholars; an online petition has been posted on change.org; and the Friends of Georgia Archives and History have followed the discussion closely.  In the wake of the stunning cuts at Parks Canada and similar discussions throughout the country if not internationally, it is important for historical archaeologists and community scholars to register the profound consequence of such resources to all of us within and outside Georgia alike.  It is impossible to interpret the nation’s narrative if we remove one whole state and countless people’s stories from the historical record, so this risks being a profound loss for all of us who respect heritage.