(Written 11/1/12, posted 11/6)
Happy beginning to Digital Writing Month! I am writing from a seaside town on the east coast where school has been canceled for the week, electricity is still out at home, and the library has power but no internet. The library has a surge protector on every table for people to charge their phones and computers, and it’s pretty busy; in the quiet area where I am, someone just asked a student and her mother, “Could you maybe talk any louder?” It is, ironically, the deprivation of online distractions and the inaccessibility of the archives and cemeteries I would normally visit that makes it the perfect time to start blogging; without my regular research activities, and with the added motivation of writing along with many others for Digital Writing Month, it can move to the top of the to-do list.
For today, I will introduce myself. I am a graduate student in anthropology, conducting the early stages of my dissertation research in historical archaeology. While I’m doing this research in what is today a rich resort area, I’m really concerned with the less famous but more representative parts of American history that are well preserved here: the growth of working class, ethnically mixed communities and the strategies families and households used to navigate economic instability and change. For two months I’ve been trying to piece together the landscape and demographic histories of two neighborhoods where people marginalized in Anglo-American society – Native Americans, African Americans, and Irish immigrants – made their homes. From the early 19th to early 20th centuries, they worked at sea, on farms, for wealthier households, and in a growing tourist economy. They faced discrimination, indigenous land loss and legal disenfranchisement, and economic upheaval of the decline of a major local industry, which employed at least one member of most families.
Through history and archaeology, I hope to learn about the formation of modern inequalities and identities in the United States by exploring three questions in these communities:
1) Whether families with different ethnic backgrounds employed different household-level economic strategies,
2) Whether patterns of residence and material culture mark shared experiences of class or occupation during and after the whaling era, and
3) How people engaged the material culture of everyday life, including “above ground” remains like historic photographs, architecture, and tombstones, to symbolize different facets of their individual and cultural identities within their diverse community and toward their broader society.
In the process, I am aiming for a collaborative research design with a public history component. This fall I have been working to make contacts and communicate with local and descendant communities, which can be a long and uneven process. I have also been working more closely with a small local historical society whose members have been wonderful advisors to my research and collaborators in making that research something concretely useful. In preparation for a community planning forum in about two weeks, we are creating tour maps of the neighborhood and documentation of its historic sites that combines the society’s past and my current research with the wealth of local knowledge of the society’s historian. I am excited to work with the society on other projects in the future, since it has been such a pleasure this fall.
Soon I’ll write more about my goals for this blog, since they actually do not involve writing about my research constantly. But because I do anticipate writing a lot about the contemporary world, I hope that explaining how my research relates to the development of “modern life” hints at why an archaeologist might be interested in the recent past, or even the present. If you have suggestions on how better to phrase what is the written version of an elevator pitch to non-specialists, or questions that you’d like me to address here or in the future, your comments are welcome!