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Normcore and the dilemmas of archaeological interpretation

I’ve seen a few articles lately about a fashion trend called “normcore,” which involves trying to dress like “normal people” in boring, unbranded or common clothes. My first reaction was to laugh – oh, so now I’m fashionable? My second was to get confused about whether this was an ironic statement about fashion trends, a sincere attempt to romanticize and imitate people who just don’t try too hard to look good, or possibly both. (Still confused.) My third was to laugh again at how brilliantly this illustrates dilemmas of interpretation in archaeology.

Lately, my dissertation research is certainly analogous to finding a pair of jeans from Target and trying to figure out whether the person who wore them was making a statement of resistance against dominant fashion ideologies through “normcore” consumption, or was just trying to buy some affordable clothes that would go with everything. I’m studying a collection of ceramic sherds, which are mostly from extremely common and affordable dinner dishes and tea sets, as well as a few probate inventories, which list the belongings in a household after the owner’s death. These are from Indian and Black whaling households from about 1790 to 1906, but they look much like what you would expect to find in a working class white household of the same period.

This is as normal as it gets. (Image: nautarch.tamu.edu.)

What, then, were consumers in these households trying to show through their choices of perfectly normal dinner plates? Like potential “normcore” fashion items, you could posit and combine multiple interpretations:

  • Perhaps these dishes show the value of consumption as a means of practicing belonging and normalcy in a society in which people of color were not granted full inclusion as citizens.
  • Perhaps the matched sets and tea wares indicate attempts to be respectable and counter stereotypes through emulation of higher-status dining practices.
  • Perhaps the matched sets indicate economic mobility, in that people were able to buy large quantities and (according to probates) purchase entire new sets to replace damaged ones.
  • Perhaps they were the most affordable and readily available options for supplying everyday needs – not a conscious statement at all.
  • Perhaps the absence of rare and expensive items shows continuing economic inequality along racial lines.
  • Perhaps the absence of rare and expensive items shows resistance to upper class white domestic ideologies.
  • Perhaps the absence of rare and expensive items shows an effort to avoid conspicuous consumption despite growing economic mobility, since people of color also faced stereotypes of profligacy and waste.

I’m working through these possibilities now, between my dissertation, an article manuscript, and my upcoming fellow talk at the John Carter Brown Library. But the point is that these issues of interpretation have clear parallels in the present. Both my ceramic collection and “normcore” fashion exemplify the similar material appearance of what Michael Dietler calls “the logic of indifference/rejection” – a lack of concern with certain objects and meanings, and an active rejection of them, look the same. Both present multiple interpretive possibilities as intentional symbolic choices vs. parts of embodied, unconscious habitus vs. economically determined consumption practices.

By nature, consumption is an ambiguous practice. As Dietler writes, it is “an active process of creative appropriation, transformation, and manipulation played out by individuals and social groups with a variety of competing interests and strategies of action embedded in local political relations and cultural perceptions” (Archaeologies of Colonialism 2009: 55). People redefine their possessions beyond the manufacturers’ intentions through acts of consumption and use, and they may always have connections to some referential meanings, but none are absolutely fixed. This is why “normcore” as a fashion choice is inevitably different than less self-consciously “normal” clothing choices: the appropriation changes the meaning.

In the context of contemporary fashion choices, living people yield a variety of important clues to how their social positions influence their consumption, including embodied habits of movement, speech, and self-presentation, contextual hints such as their places of residence, education, and work-related commitments, and the obvious question of whether they are likely to be featured and photographed as fashion icons in the first place. In the context of archaeology, it can be more difficult, since we see objects in a necessarily fragmented and incomplete way, and we can no longer ask their owners about their meanings. Nevertheless, we can try to line up as many clues from as many sources as possible, establishing personal biographies through historical research, looking at artifacts in assemblages as well as individually, and contrasting the contexts in which we do find objects from site to site or study to study. These are our best methods for approximating the contextual clues living people constantly and unconsciously provide. The narratives we end up with are partial and incomplete, but we do our best to interpret the evidence we do have responsibly.

The moral of this story: next time you read about a trend involving ironic (or perhaps sincere) appropriation of something that gives it a completely different meaning, think of the archaeologists.


Local frontiers: the romance of whaling ports

New Bedford Harbor, 1903, from LOC.gov

I’m starting to write about perspectives on the nineteenth whaling port of Sag Harbor, NY, as a frontier outpost, vs. as a small town connected to larger colonial and Native American hinterlands. I’m having a wonderful time beginning with quotes romanticizing the global connections of the whaling industry, and I can’t resist sharing some in their full glory.

On Sag Harbor:

“Picture, if you will, a whaleboat sailing right up to the foot of Main Street – and this could be any day of the week or month of the year – loaded with several fortunes and God knows how many great stories, while at the next dock another hopeful is being outfitted with ten tons of bully beef for the captain alone, and all the hardtack they can eat for whatever rogues and dreamers, slaves and novelists (Melville was here), Queequegs and Ishmaels, the company has managed to con or dragoon into serving under him.

“It’s a small town, twenty-five hundred tops, but the number is forever being augmented by passing Fijians, Sandwich Islanders, and whatever else the wind has blown in.” (Zaykowski 1991: vi)

Queequeg’s brief impression was not positive:

“But, alas! The practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens. Arrived at last in old Sag-Harbor; and seeing what the sailors did there, and then going up to Nantucket, and seeing how they spent their wages in that place also, poor Queequeg gave it up for lost. Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan.” (Melville 2009 [1851]: 54).

On Nantucket:

“As a nation beside a nation, Nantucket was (and is) both a microcosm of America and an exception to the rule: a tightly knit community that took its special brand of provincialism all across the world, becoming, in the process, one of the most cosmopolitan places in America. On an island of paradoxes, the Quaker whalemen were perhaps the most paradoxical….” (Philbrick 2011: xv)

On New Bedford:

“The whale-ships recruiting at the Sandwich or Society Islands brought back, besides oil and bone, not a few tattooed natives, with the sound of whose astonishing language I was familiar, though I did not understand a word of it. These Kanakas, as they were called, were harmless, simple, fond of rum, and, I suspect, often swindled out of the little money which their voyages brought them. Ships, indeed, came to us from all parts of the world. We had often walking about swarthy Portuguese sailors, and mariners of the true broad-bottomed Dutch type, puffing their long pipes mildly. I knew by sight, almost as soon as I knew anything, the flag of every important sea-going nation….All these nations wanted oil and candles, and came to New Bedford in pursuit of these commodities. Sometimes, when the wharves were full of ships, our streets – there were only two or three of much consequence – were really brilliant and bustling.” (Congdon 1880, in Grover 2001: 9)

Whaling history is such a hit around here that I know I’m not alone in enjoying these descriptions. They also resonate with me as mirrors of how we experience physical and technological connection today, though. Even in small towns in the northeast, or cities where we make our homes in smaller spaces and networks, we face outward, accessing views of a larger world with its industries, injustices, and diversity in our everyday interactions. When is home for you a cozy village, and when a frontier?



Grover, Kathryn. 2001. The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Melville, Herman. 2009 [1851]. Moby Dick, or The Whale. Plain Label Books (available on Google Books).

Philbrick, Nathaniel. 2011. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and its People, 1602 -1890. New York: Penguin.

Zaykowski, Dorothy Ingersoll. 1991. Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty. Sag Harbor: Sag Harbor Historical Society.

Archaeology, etc.: Friday links, 10/11/13

After a week of frustrating shutdown news and attacks on archaeology funding, I am sharing some fun reading. Here are links that are either directly related to material culture and archaeological methods, or are tangential but very fun.

eHumanity: lovely site for exploring Native American material culture

Digital maps of Philadelphia: simple but elegant interface for overlaying historic maps of Philadelphia – I can imagine this would be a great teaching tool

Archivist creates geocaching treasure hunt to explore local history, which I now want to do

Aliens’ Guide to the Ruins of Washington DC exhibit – to quote from the Slate article:

Harvey, British-born and Brooklyn-based, says the exhibition sprang from a fascination with the omnipresence of classical and neoclassical architecture, styles that have meant all kinds of different things to all kinds of different people over 2,000 years. “It has been an architecture people have seen as representing democracy. It was also totalitarian. Stalin loved it. The Fascists loved it. It was connected to slavery. Plantations in the South—they look like mini Parthenons. In Britain, there was an imperial aspect to it. If neoclassical architecture was a virus, it would be the flu,” she says.

Incorporating Photographic Exhibits into the Anthropology Classroom, a meditation on Elena Geroska’s “Traces” project

Alondra Nelson on the social life of DNA:  good methodological discussion of how “following things” depends on what you choose to follow, and an interesting topic

Deep History: a colleague just introduced me to this provocative “neurological turn” in history. I haven’t read enough to speak on it yet but it seems like it definitely intersects with anthropology, so oh, I will have thoughts….

“15th century Flemish style portraits recreated in the airplane lavatory” : this is more tangential, but it’s great

What is archaeology worth?

Archaeology’s value, defined in dollars, is now a subject of debate on the national stage. Given political attacks on specific programs and research grants funded by the National Science Foundation in the last few years, it was really only a matter of time. Still, when representatives in Congress are questioning why we fund archaeology rather than spending those dollars on “projects that could save lives,” archaeologists have to answer.

For thoughtful, well-thought, longer responses on the value of archaeology for our long-term national interests and sense of humanity,  and detailed critiques of the representatives’ attack, check out posts by James Doyle, Rosemary Joyce, and Paul Mullins. I, for now,  just want to make a few comments about how archaeology serves our short-term national interests, in the simplest economic terms.

First, archaeology creates jobs, which can even include politicians’ silver bullet, STEM jobs. National Science Foundation grants are part of this. They fund elements of research ranging from sophisticated scientific equipment, to field survey and excavation, to laboratory analysis, to undergraduate and graduate education. As Dr. Doyle notes, it also provides jobs for field technicians in areas where their alternatives could be quite harmful to US national interests. Since not all archaeology is government-funded – in fact, most archaeologists in the US work for private companies in the cultural resource management sector – investing in the development of new scientific methods and the training of new archaeologists also leads to private sector employment.

Second, archaeology gives back economically as well as culturally and scientifically. Think of the tourist sites that develop around sites with long-term or high-profile archaeological projects in the US, from Colonial Williamsburg to Cahokia Mounds to the African Burial Ground in New York City. Think of the small businesses like cafes and hotels, located near closed National Park Service historic sites and federal museums, that are currently losing visitors and income every day due to the government shutdown. (As a seasonal National Park Service employee, I am also personally saddened to think of the dedicated colleagues I know who are currently unable to do their jobs or earn their living. Federal employees have jobs that matter, too.)

Not convinced? Read about the economic impacts of historic preservation, state by state. Historic, archaeological, and environmental sites that give visitors a sense of place and history have an important economic role to play in an increasingly service-driven economy like ours. Archaeology creates rich narratives about the past that enable us to explain why American destination sites are worth visiting.

It also helps to preserve the past for the long term. It is often archaeologists’ job to determine site significance, which means researching the history and location of sites, deciding what should be investigated and preserved, and laying out plans. These plans include well-documented survey and excavation, so that even when artifacts or features are removed, it is still possible to figure out how they fit together; cleaning, conservation, and laboratory analysis, so that we can learn as much as possible from archaeological collections; and long-term curation, so that people with new questions or techniques can learn more from them in the future.

Once an archaeological site is destroyed, it is a truly non-renewable resource. At the most basic level, it is in our interest to steward our unique and limited resources well.

“The accounts o…

“The accounts of Philip’s wars would be highly entertaining, but for the unfeeling barbarities, and cold, calculating horrors of savage warfare which mark every stage of their progress.”

Benjamin Thompson, The History of Long Island (1843), Vol 1. p. 78

I ran across this while conducting research at the John Carter Brown library this morning. It’s not going into my dissertation (Jill Lepore already wrote that book!), but the contrast between the first and second parts of the sentence is so odd that I can’t let it go, either.  

This neglected blog may become a temporary home for orphan research fragments.

Steampunk’s alternate pasts and futures


Last weekend’s steampunk showcase in Providence’s Old Stone Bank, run by a group called the Red Fork Empire, really highlighted the fantastic and dystopian elements of a subculture that I’d thought was mainly historically inspired. (Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert or even regular follower of steampunk. This is an outsider’s view. )

Many paintings drew on horror and sci-fi cliches like  plastic masks, tentacled monsters, and Frankensteinian undead. The Victorian influences seemed mainly in the aesthetic elements of gears, skirts and hats, and horror fiction – with an unexpected smattering of Soviet realism, as well. My favorite piece of art at the exhibit was the room full of giant metal insects, which a wall panel explained were drones that collected resources for humans living underground in a postapocalyptic landscape. Nevertheless, what steampunk aficionados and I have in common is an interest in the meanings of being modern – now, then, and in the nonexistent future.

My favorite moment was walking past a table of boxes and knick-knacks, decorated with gears and shiny elements: their creator said, “These are artifacts from an exploring expedition. We don’t know what they were used for.” I love this idea of consciously alienating one’s own creations, and even collecting discarded, familiar objects like old keys with the intention of making them strange. It struck me as a tongue-in-cheek commentary of how archaeologists transform everyday things into scientific objects through that simple deployment of language. Bonnie Clark noted this in her 2011 SAA talk on public archaeology at a Japanese internment camp in Colorado, when she talked about a survivor telling her that what she called “artifacts” were his childhood toys. What kind of authority does that word give us to stand apart from the world and define it? Isn’t it ultimately more important to take our understanding down into the world and really know how our finds were part of human experience?

As we left the exhibit, my companions and I talked a little about the ethical questions inherent in deploying the past in an alternate fantasy world. Is it glorifying the British empire and all of its colonial oppressions to celebrate the clothing and mechanical aesthetics of the nineteenth century, or do those implications vanish when you take them out of context? Can you create an alternate world in which women and people of color can be full and equal participants using the symbols of a world in which they most definitely were not? How could people draw in contributions from non-western cultures without being stereotypical or appropriative?

I lean toward the idea that playing with symbols of the past and taking them out of their historical context helps to deconstruct, rather than uphold, grand narratives of world domination and cultural superiority. On the other hand, I would appreciate seeing more diverse interpretations of nineteenth century “art” and “science,” considering how explorers and early social theorists of the time were actively expanding the boundaries of Western knowledge about the rest of the world at the time. I’m just not sure how this could work in a respectful and nuanced way.

Ideas for future posts

Because I’d like to get back to this.

1. What I’ve learned about giving tours

2. How tours will influence my teaching

3. Review: More Than Freedom

4. Review: The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism

5. Review: The Body Multiple

6. Mapping modern large scale phenomena (e.g. prisons, factory farms)

7. Ask for suggestions for teaching high schoolers

8. Review: Hayes book

9. Delle and Underground Railroad

That’s all for now…back to work!

The Final Word: 3 ways cemeteries reveal “hidden” histories

When I started looking at nineteenth century headstones in Sag Harbor and East Hampton, NY, this spring, it was after months of reconstructing local demography from census schedules, church records, deeds, probates, and any other historical sources I could find. Yet they still surprised me – there were names I didn’t recognize, and the images of communities they gave me were definitely distinct from the ones I’d formed from written records. Here’s how I’ve found that cemeteries can be really useful historical sources.

These were two of five children buried in the Consor family plot in Oakland Cemetery, Sag Harbor, NY. Photo: Emily Button Kambic

These were two of five children buried in the Consor family plot in Oakland Cemetery, Sag Harbor, NY. Photo: Emily Button Kambic

1) Infant mortality. In my research, I spend a lot of time looking at households, kinship networks, and labor, wondering about the lives and responsibilities of women in African American and Native American whaling families. Seeing rows of children’s headstones is the only sign I have found of an incredibly common and painful part of life.

Many children who die at young ages are invisible in other historical sources, perhaps because they were born and died in between census collections, because church records of their baptisms or funerals may be nonexistent, or because their families and communities only made their way into written records in contexts of property, pay, or legal trouble.

On another note, children are not the only people whose headstones mark their presence when official records don’t. While burial doesn’t necessarily prove residence in an area, it can certainly be a sign of social connection.

Prime family monument, St David AME Zion Cemetery, Sag Harbor, NY. This obelisk lists both W.J. Primes on different sides. Image: E.B.Kambic

Prime family monument, St David AME Zion Cemetery, Sag Harbor, NY. This obelisk lists both W.J. Primes on different sides. Image: E.B.Kambic

2) Namesakes. One of the tricky parts of researching families is when people name children after their parents, siblings, or other relatives. You can easily run across two people with the same name, living in the same neighborhood, at the same time – or, in places with prominent family names, three or four. Sometimes it’s possible to tell these people apart in government records if they’re listed in the one census year as different ages, or if you can find individual probate or marriage records. But sometimes, multiple headstones might be the first sign you find that you are dealing with more than one person!

This was the case for me with the two William J. Primes in the AME Zion Cemetery in Sag Harbor, NY. I knew William J. Prime was one of the founders of the church, but he was elusive in other records, and I was confused by his age. I learned from the cemetery that he, in fact, named his son William J. Prime as well.

Prime family monument and individual markers, Sag Harbor, NY. Image: EBKambic

Prime family monument and individual markers, St David AME Zion Cemetery, Sag Harbor, NY. Image: E.B.Kambic

3) Relationships. Family plots or compound monuments like the Prime family obelisk, which memorializes eleven people, can help reconstruct relationships that aren’t as visible in other sources. They might use kinship terms like “mother” or “son,” making it obvious, but they might also put unexpected names in proximity. For example, the Prime family monument also includes people with the last names Williams, Denham, and Nicoll.

This may be a sign that I need to do further digging in genealogical sources,  looking for connections, but it also makes me consider that perhaps the relationships the monument represents weren’t based in blood. After all, the elder William Prime did help form an AME Zion Church in 1840, and the surrounding neighborhood had become home to many African American and Native American families within a decade. Could this monument be a testament to the families people built around common experience, faith, and mutual support, rather than the ones into which they were born? Research will tell!

Field Update


I’ve let the blog lag because I’ve been running around gathering and hoarding data like a squirrel preparing for winter. Since most of that data is from archives or archaeological collections, my research project in some ways feels like filling a box with puzzle pieces to put together later, even though I’m not sure how many puzzles the pieces belong to, and some of them have broken edges.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time in graveyards. In the classic tradition of American historical archaeology, I’m taking advantage of the free and highly accessible sites in the neighborhoods where I’m working, recording monuments. I visited them at the beginning of my research here, but after spending the better part of a year reconstructing these communities from censuses and other records, walking past a headstone with a familiar name gives me a sense of recognition and sometimes even affection. Yet at the same time I realize how little I will ever know about them – they were real people who walked on the same ground, and we will never meet. My images of them are imagined.

One thing I’ve noticed is that across categories of class and race, in 19th century Sag Harbor family monuments were very popular. These were usually columns or obelisks, with small individual markers surrounding them. In the small cemetery of the AME Zion Church in Eastville, there are only a few such monuments, and most of them have fallen, but in the larger multi-denominational Oakland cemetery (pictured above), they’re quite striking.

More to come on this – at the Eastville Community Historical Society we’re planning a series of cemetery-related events that should be interesting, and after I’ve finished my data hoarding it will be interesting to see what else becomes evident about the sites. I’m also pretty excited about some patterns I’m starting to see in my increasingly giant demographic database, and thinking about translating them into maps, so I look forward to sharing that effort as it progresses.





The Anti-Jargonator

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor” challenges you to try to explain a complex idea using only the top ten hundred most used words in English. Given that in my writing, I’m constantly struggling with limiting jargon and expressing the relevance of ideas outside of anthropology, I thought it would be worth a try.

Here’s what I came up with to describe what I do as an archaeologist:

I look at old houses and find old stuff from them to find out how people used to live. When their houses and things are different from others, that means they did not live in the same way. I try to understand why: maybe some had less money, or were from different family groups or races, or had different kinds of jobs. It helps to look at these things next to things from people and houses in the past that we already know about, because if we can find ways that the things are like each other, maybe it means the people were like each other in some ways too.