History, Archeology, and Interpreting

I’ve been offering my sense of the changing world of reproduction furniture making for a few years now. I won’t repeat it here accept to say yesterday’s reproductions probably won’t be viewed as accurate by scholars (and thus museum visitors, and thus furniture customers) in the future. The reason is that our understanding of period furniture is continuing to grow and change.

Just some quick definitions before I continue. (Please correct me if I get this wrong.) History is the study of the past through documentary evidence. Anthropology is the study of the past through oral tradition and contemporary human behavior. Archeology is the study of the past through found artifacts (like furniture? Does that make us archeologists in a way? I think so).

So if our understanding of furniture is changing, is archeology changing? You bet. Less than a hundred years ago, a pre-eminent archeologist drove his motorcade into the desert with his native porters, interpreters, and diggers. Their goal? Find the treasure and claim it for the British Museum. Howard Carter, the archeologist who found King Tut’s tomb, the archeologist on whom Indiana Jones was patterned, didn’t set up string lines and wasn’t interested in midden pile analysis. Archeology has come a long long way.

For the most part, archeologists don’t generally intersect our sphere. Unless you read Archeology magazine, or National Geographic, you may not know the name of a single archeologist. But one name you should know is Dr. James Deetz. Deetz’ excellent little book, “In Small things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life” provides us with a deeper understanding of the people who made the things we reproduce. It offers explanations of iconographic motifs we may encounter in our work. I think it’s a must read.

In addition to being a fine archeologist, Deetz was also the Assistant Director of Plimoth Planation 1967-1978 where he:

“transformed Plimoth Plantation from a mannequin-furnished commemoration of the Mayflower passengers to a vibrant living history museum replete with accurately-costumed character interpreters engaged in the nitty-gritty of daily life.”
(from Marley Brown, linked above)

Personally, I don’t care for first person interpreting. Exposition, communicating the basic who, what, when, where, and how, can be particularly challenging for both interpreter and visitor alike. Viewed in this light, it seems a step backward, making the topic more difficult to understand instead of less so. But for Deetz, who was at least in part if not wholly responsible for the first person interpretation at Plimoth, the goal was to communicate more than the basic text book facts. He wanted us to get to know the people of Plimoth intimately.

Like many other pursuits, the bar of basic competency is rising for interpreters, and reproduction furniture makers alike. This is the way of things. I think it’s okay to let the bar drift over our heads and continue on as we have. Many of us have started so far under the bar that it’s difficult to see from where we now stand. What I don’t think is okay is denying the existence of the bar. I think a quick read through Deetz’ book, preferably followed by a visit to Plimoth will be all the proof you need.

P.S. I guess I should add that I see the exposition as similar to the dimensions of a piece of furniture. You can get those right and still miss the mark (as many have). My story about Deetz intends to relate the intimate understanding of past cultures to the intimate understanding of objects like furniture. This is in part what “Material Culture” is all about. Grad students taking part in Winterthur’s Masters program in American Material Culture are learning about furniture and expressing values that were unknown to the Carter/Nutting collectors.

5 thoughts on “History, Archeology, and Interpreting

  1. Chuck Bender


    This is a great subject. Thanks for the post. Unlike other sciences, however, this study of "material culture" is somewhat less precise. Let’s face it, we’re not talking chemistry and physics. No mathematical precision here. The interpreters at Plimoth Plantation are working from massive written records by the people they are attempting to portray. Even with all that documentation the interpreters are just that…interpreters because they are not actually the people they portray.

    It is much the same for the reproduction furniture maker. Being a student of 17th and 18th century material culture, I’ve found a much greater impact of other anthropological influences on furniture than I first would have thought. When you start to look at designs, wood selection, construction and ornamentation of furniture throughout the Colonies, and you recognize the regional variations you immediately think "this is a craftsman’s (or group of craftsmen in a regional sense) interpretation of a specific design group". When you expand your study from the narrow scope of furniture alone, you soon discover that the political environment, immigration, trade, religious and cultural traditions, education of both the craftsman and the client, access to tools and training as well as a multitude of other factors influenced the period craftsman’s interpretation of his furniture.

    What you’ve discovered, my friend, is that these very things are influencing contemporary craftsmen in the same ways. Wallace Nutting, with his seemingly antiquated views, has much to offer to students of period furniture today. His works are still the foundation of many contemporary scholarly works on period furniture. When one considers the technological advances our culture has made over the last 200 or 300 years, it would be seemingly impossible for a reproduction to be mistaken for a period piece. If you trek on down to Winterthur and ask to see a certain Windsor high chair, you’ll soon discover that Mr. Nutting had a greater influence on the piece than any other person in history. It was created in his shop. That said, the vast majority of pieces that came out of Nutting’s shop are not of the same caliber. Much like his period predecessors, Mr. Nutting was a capitalist. His production methods, production schedule, profitability, education of the intended audience and the abilities of his cabinetmakers had a profound influence on his interpretation of the pieces he “copied”.

    Mr. Carter and Mr. Nutting were pioneers of their day, much like you. They had a passion that was driven partly by their love of the "historical" and, in great part by the many other influences of their lives. Just like the period cabinet makers you and I try to emulate today.

  2. John Sanford

    Methinks the division you make between anthropologists, archeologists and historians isn’t accurate, although it does have some value.

    A better way would be to examine how they seek to answer this question: "What did all them folks in the past do?" The anthropologist approaches this from the study of how they organized themselves, explicitly through laws, and implicitly through customs, traditions, and culture. The archeologist from the study of what they used and created. Remember, the key difference between an archeologist and a backward looking "technologist" is the archeologist seeks to put the found objects into context, whereas the technologist is solely interested in the technology the object embodies. What’s important is the consideration that an archeologist is rarely equipped to deal with non-physical forms of technology. Laws are one such form, the technology inherent in a corporation is another. These forms of technology fall more into the realm of the anthropologist, but the anthropologist rarely has a macro perspective.

    Finally, we have the historian, who is more concerned with WHAT people did. The impacts of their technologies, the impacts of their social organizations, these are all considered, but it is the study of the processes of human events that consumes the historian, rather than the discrete technologies or cultures. Historians also are far more likely than either of the other disciplines to be studying entire societies, nations, civilizations and the arcs through time that they take.

    Each of the disciplines depends upon the others. The "dirty fingers" of the archeologist would be clean without the historian’s (even if its simply the archeologist’s "inner historian") research in the bowels of dusty archives and maps, identifying WHERE to go digging. (Let’s not even get into the plight of the orphaned geographer here!) Each discipline also has certain stereotypes. The anthropologists generally are seen as folks who study primitive cultures, often up close and personal. The historian, leafing through old documents, poring over musty photographs, and finally, the archeologist digging in ancient ruins to discover the "truths" of long dead civilizations. The truth though is more expansive. Some historians get first person accounts from those who lived through events rather than waiting until long after the participants are dead and gone. Some track the changes wrought by technology, changes in cultures and societies, while others track the changes to technology driven by other events. Some anthropologists study modern gangs and corporations and other subcultures within our larger culture, while "urban archeologists" uncover and study OUR grandparents artifacts, not those of the ancient Greeks.

    The living history movement, whether first or third person, is, I think valuable in large part because ultimately history is the study of CHANGE. For us today, change is so rapid that even many of the "artifacts" common during our childhood wouldn’t be recognizable to our own children, much less what makes up the totality of life 100, 200, 300 or more years ago. Combine that with our culture’s greater visual orientation (courtesy of the TV) and SEEING is much more powerful than simply reading. So, I applaud you Adam for bringing some living history to others, and simply wish that I had known about the Penn house when I was back thataway a few years ago.

  3. Adam Cherubini

    If I were a first person interpreter, I’d have to say things like "hi ho dear friend. Good morrow to ye" and other stuff like that. And when I’m asked a question, I just answer it. I don’t say, "my but the clothes ye wear be queer. What land dost thou hail from?"

    In terms of communicating culture, I try to do that through my work, methods and products.


  4. Chuck Nickerson

    The question of the dividing lines between history, archeology, and anthropology is an interesting one. Since I grew up reading National Geographic, I tend to regard historians as coasting along on the dirty fingernails of anthropologists and archeologists.

    But, but, but, Aren’t you in some sense a ‘first person interpreter’ in terms of your skill-set and tools?

    All the best,

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