Saturday, December 14, 2013

In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz

Why I read it: Local historical ties. Couldn't resist.

Summary: "An Archaeology of Early American Life"; a study of the minutiae in which historical archaeologists work to piece together the early days of Amercan history.

My Thoughts: Yum, yum, yum.

This book is just full of the stuff I wonder about when I visit old, historic homes. Knowing that the written record is so poor, that so few early Americans wrote down their observations, and even fewer thought to write about the mundane aspects of the day (do we write about how we shop at grocery stores? about how we mow our lawns? Ok, different age.), I often want to know, how do we know what life was like?

It turns out that in many cases it's the material culture, not the written word, that tells about what life was like. But it's the combining of several differents bits of evidence - the dates on the tombstones, the symbolism carved into them, the bore hole sizes on pipe stems, the type of pottery found at house sites - that bring us to the right points in history.

For me, living on the South Shore of Boston, working in the history realm, this book speaks volumes. Plymouth, Kingston, Plympton, all places mentioned in the text, are my historical playground. Reading about the Parting Ways settlement was eye-opening (and why it got its name never occurred to me, one of those local history overlooks we all suffer from). To find out that the first fork ever mentioned in a probate inventory in Plymouth County was in Marshfield, where I worked for the last decade, was pretty cool, and the fact that the fork was an Italian invention was even better. It's a refreshing thing to read a chapter in a book about a historical or archaeological site and say, "I think I'll drive by and check it out."

But it goes even further. How do we play musical instruments today? Like our European forbears, or like those of the African-Americans who came over as slaves? How do we hold our forks? Like whom do we design our houses? It's those questions that we can answer through a book like this one.

I was utterly fascinated form end to end.


  1. This does sound fascinating.

    At our camp in Maine, we have what I will refer to as a midden. Though small and dating only to the last 80 years or so, I still find it fascinating. Lots of broken glass and wire, but occasionally a shard of pottery. The pieces have worked their way to the surface and under the guise of protecting the kids from the broken glass I start "cleaning it up". But really, I get addicted to seeing what I can find. (Nothing of real historical value, trust me).

    As the genealogist in my family, I also think this book would provide some real insight into the lives of my ancestors.


  2. One of my favorite passages concerns the idea of "borning" rooms in historic house museums. The word was never used in seventeenth century documents, but is widely used in such museums today; it's the result of nineteenth centuries mores being placed on the act of seventeenth century childbirth. "Surely the windowless room was designed to give privacy to the mother-to-be..." No evidence, yet the interpretation blindly rolls on.

    I got my copy at Plimoth Plantation (always love to spend on a nonprofit) but I've seen it online as well. Be sure it's the updated or revised edition.

  3. Interesting on the "borning" rooms. I don't remember that at the museum in my town, but I do remember (I'll call it) the mourning room. There is a special door on the side of the house to get a casket in and out.

    My grandparents' house (in Manchester-by-the-Sea), as far as we know, was built in the 1700s. I can't think of where they would have something like a borning room, but I am sure houses changed significantly between the 1600 and 1700's. I loved that old house.

    I decided to get the book through interlibrary loan and I made sure to get the updated one. Thanks for the suggestion. I'm looking forward to reading it.


  4. Hope you enjoy(ed) it. The point about the borning room was that with such small houses and large families, they couldn't just set aside that much space for something so irregularly occurring.