Historical Archaeology

Archaeologists do more than study the ancient remains of Native Americans; they are also interested in the lives of the explorers, colonists, settlers, and their descendants who contributed to the more recent history of America. Even during periods when written records were kept, not everything about the past was recorded. The details of everyday life often are neglected in historical accounts, but archaeologists believe that these details contribute to a fuller understanding of the past. This more recently developed field of archaeological study is called historical archaeology, and perhaps its greatest strength is its partnership with other fields of study, including history, archival documentation, architectural studies, and folklore. When combined, these different approaches provide a richer and more complex understanding of the past. In Arkansas, historical archaeologists have studied a number of historical sites to broaden the understanding of the lives of the people who lived at those sites.

The Search for Arkansas Post
Historical archaeology began in Arkansas in the late 1880s when Edward Palmer investigated the site of a Spanish fort on the lower Arkansas River. Now recognized as the last of the seven locations of Arkansas Post, it is commemorated as Arkansas Post National Memorial, located at Gillett (Arkansas County). From the 1950s through the 1970s, the National Park Service conducted archaeological research at the site, which included the 1971 University of Arkansas Museum field school that uncovered the early nineteenth-century remains of Jacob Bright’s Trading House and William Montgomery’s Tavern. Although little remained of the structures, numerous artifacts suitable to each site—such as bottle fragments, dishes, smoking pipes, gunflints, and glass beads—were recovered.

The search for the first Arkansas Post, which existed intermittently from 1686 to 1749, may have ended with the discovery in 1998 of a site named Wallace Bottom #2, on the lower reaches of the Arkansas River in Arkansas County. Associated with the Quapaw village of Osotouy, the site also contained colonial European artifacts—including delftware, French faience pottery, green lead-glazed French Saintonge bowl fragments, dark green bottle glass, lead musket balls, and pieces of German stoneware mugs—which unambiguously dated the site from the early to middle eighteenth century. Native American–made artifacts found with the European trade items indicated that the French and Indians lived together at the same site.

Old Davidsonville: An Early Town Site
Settlement in Arkansas burgeoned in the nineteenth century. By the 1820s, Americans from eastern states seeking opportunities in land and business were moving to Arkansas. Towns were quickly established at hospitable locations along old Indian trails, pioneer roads, and riversides. County seats and a state capital were soon designated, and they became centers of trade, business, and politics. Some of these early towns have become sites of historic parks, and historical archaeology has been employed in reconstructing buildings and landscapes and in interpreting the lives of the community.

The first archaeological investigations were undertaken at Davidsonville Historic State Park near Pocahontas (Randolph County) in 1979, where archaeologists discovered the remains of an 1815 town that once existed along the Black River. Remnants of early buildings include the limestone foundation of the two-story courthouse and the stone foundation and collapsed brick chimney of the first territorial post office. Excavations conducted in 2004 found a trash pit, probably associated with a “tavern,” that contained broken pieces of hand-painted teacups and plates, clay pipes, brass buttons, and bone-handled forks. The information uncovered by historical archaeologists at Davidsonville Historic State Park will help the park tell the story of the town site it preserves.

Historic Washington: Preserving History Above and Below Ground
At the opposite corner of the state, Historic Washington State Park preserves the town site of the once-thriving county seat of Hempstead County. Established in 1824, the town of Washington quickly grew to strategic importance along the Southwest Trail, serving as a commercial center for outlying plantations and as a supply center for settlers moving into Texas.

Washington was prominent during the early years of Arkansas’s history and through the Civil War but declined after the railroad bypassed it in favor of Hope (Hempstead County). Today, the state park preserves many of the original buildings from the town and interprets life in antebellum Arkansas. Historical archaeology has been employed for more than two decades at numerous places in Historic Washington to guide the reconstruction of early buildings, as well as to locate remains of now-missing structures such as free-standing kitchens, smokehouses, and the clerk’s office.

At the Block House, the home of Arkansas’s first prominent Jewish family, evidence was found of the detached kitchen and a trash pit sealed below it. Broken tea sets and dishes, along with remains of meals, were found in the pit, allowing researchers to study consumer choices made by the Blocks, as well as the expression of their Jewish faith. For example, the food remains indicated that the Blocks ate in a manner similar to their non-Jewish neighbors, including foods such as pork that are traditionally avoided. This may indicate that the Blocks adopted a “reformed” lifestyle when faced with the lack of a Jewish community. Detached kitchens also served as houses for slaves working as domestic servants, and study of the kitchens allows researchers to explore the nature of slavery in Arkansas towns. At the Sanders House, the home of the county clerk, archaeologists studied an example of the urban farmstead model. Evidence indicated the self-sufficiency of town dwellers who kept and processed livestock, grew vegetables, and pursued other farm activities in an urban setting.

Little Rock in the Nineteenth Century
Historical archaeologists have also worked on several prominent sites in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The Historic Arkansas Museum employed archaeology (1996–1997) to search for remains of the Arkansas Gazette print shop, which once stood at the corner of Cherry (now 2nd) and Cumberland streets, and to uncover details (1981, 2004–05) of former outbuildings (a kitchen and a smokehouse) once associated with the Brownlee residence. The renovation of the Old State House Museum in the late 1990s also utilized archaeology to discover unrecorded details of the building’s construction and to compare archival records with physical evidence. The museum’s Pillars of Power exhibit details the discoveries.

Studying a Variety of Historic Sites
Besides town sites, historical archaeologists in Arkansas have explored a wide range of other kinds of sites, including cemeteries, isolated farmsteads, industrial sites, and boat wrecks. The first historic cemetery ever accorded National Register status, Cedar Grove in Lafayette County, was excavated, studied, and reburied by historical archaeologists in 1982. Archaeologists have mapped and recorded African-American cemeteries in the Delta, producing brochures to aid descendants in finding their ancestors. The expansion of Lake Fort Smith in 2001 required the relocation of the Becky Wright and Eddy cemeteries in Crawford County. Archaeologists provided the careful removal of the human remains and, through the use of period catalogs, identified kinds of clothing worn by the deceased and analyzed the cost of coffin hardware. These studies provided insights on differential treatment of the dead based on status, age, sex, and ethnicity, through both folk and commercial treatments, and revealed that the communities were not isolated but participated in the national “Beautification of Death” movement.

When the Mississippi River was at record low levels in 1988, remains of sunken river boats were exposed. Archaeologists worked quickly to record construction details, such as smokestacks, and recover nautical artifacts, such as a steam pressure gauge, before the river rose to reclaim them.

Industrial sites, such as Van Winkle Mill in Benton County, are also of interest to archaeologists. Van Winkle Mill, the first steam-powered mill in northwest Arkansas, sawed lumber and milled grain from the 1850s to the Civil War. Archaeologists began work there in 1999, addressing the often forgotten subject of African-American heritage in the Ozarks. In addition to work in the industrial complex, archaeologists excavated portions of an antebellum slave quarter and the home of a freedman and his family who continued to work at the mill after emancipation. The information will be used to interpret the site through exhibits and public programs by Hobbs State Park, which manages the property.

Other recent archaeological work has included the early 1990s excavation of the Mount Comfort Presbyterian Church building in Washington County (circa 1842–1864). Archaeologists determined the basic architectural plan of the building, as well as its use as a school before the Civil War and hospital during the Civil War. Work on the Lakeport Plantation site in Chicot County will guide the reconstruction of the historic building, which will be used for Delta tourism and as a distance learning center for Arkansas State University. A study for the Ozark and Ouachita national forests produced an inventory of early farmsteads, while an excavation of the Moser Farmstead in Benton County provided details of the worldly connections of an independent Ozark farm family, helping to counter the myth of the backward hillbilly. For example, artifacts from the farmstead included commercially manufactured items, such as glass canning jars and pharmaceutical bottles from the Midwest, ceramic dishes from England and Ohio, buttons and shoe parts, and even a badge or souvenir marked “Columbia Exposition Chicago 1893.” These items indicated the family’s access to worldly goods through general stores, traveling peddlers, and mail-order catalogs, thus dispelling the notion of isolation from the wider world.

Uncovering the Details: Searching for the Big Picture
Through the specialized methods and research interests of historical archaeologists, long-forgotten details about the past are brought to light. Historical archaeology informs us about aspects of everyday life not recorded in books or other documents, providing us with insight into the practice of religious beliefs, consumer choices, ethnicity, domestic life, and technology. At the same time, historical archaeologists attempt to place their work at specific sites into the broader issues of historical research, attempting to add understanding to studies of frontier settlement, transportation, industrialization, and ethnic and gender relationships, among others. The work of historical archaeologists at many sites throughout Arkansas has enriched our understanding of the state’s history and its peoples.

For additional information:
Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Drexler, Carl G., ed. Historical Archaeology of Arkansas: A Hidden Diversity. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016.

Kwas, Mary L. Digging for History at Old Washington. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.

Kwas, Mary L., ed. “Historical Archaeology in Arkansas.” Special Issue. Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Winter 2008).

Proebsting, Eric Louis. “Economy and Ecology on the Edge of America: The Historical Archeology of Three Farming Communities in the Arkansas Landscape, 1820–1860.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2009.

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C. “From Famous Forts to Forgotten Farmsteads: Historical Archaeology in the Mid-South.” In Arkansas Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Dan and Phyllis Morse, edited by Robert C. Mainfort Jr. and Marvin D. Jeter. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

———. Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past. Popular Series No. 4. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 2002.

———. “The Other Four and a Half Centuries: Historical Archeology and the Arkansas Archeological Survey.” In Arkansas Archeology in Review, edited by Neal L. Trubowitz and Marvin D. Jeter. Research Series No. 15. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 1982.

Mary L. Kwas and Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Arkansas Archeological Survey


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