Summer kitchens, wives, and the “domestic sphere”

Posted on August 2, 2010

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Summer in the world of US archaeology means field schools: and so the news about archaeology is dominated by stories from local papers in which broader project goals take a back seat to stereotypes of discovery and treasures.

Although one of my purposes in this blog is to critique news coverage of archaeology, taking on this genre of archaeology seems like shooting fish in barrels: unfair to hold against reporters for beleaguered local papers our inability as archaeologists to change the story line.

So it is a pleasure to acknowledge the writing of Caitlin Burns, a Student Intern for the Spring-Ford Reporter & Valley Item in Royersford, Pennsylvania, for her coverage of excavations at the Henry Muhlenberg House in Trappe, PA.

While she could not escape the hand of the headline-writer who titled her story Excavation Uncovers Hidden Muhlenberg Treasures, Burns’ actual article does a good job of representing what household archaeology is actually about, opening with a quote from archaeologist Lou Farrell, site director:

“Our focus this year was on the summer kitchen…We’re interested in the domestic sphere, we’re interested in Mulhenberg’s wife, really.”

The domestic sphere, wives, and kitchens: not the normal stuff of archaeology news coverage. But all themes that not only have flourished since archaeology of gender exploded as a topic, but where US historical archaeology has seen some of its most innovative work.

As Suzanne Spencer-Wood describes, it was work by archaeologists like Anne Yentsch that “unpacked” historical archaeology’s groupings of artifacts to trace the activities of men and women. Historical archaeologists like Deborah Rotman have shown that a “domestic sphere” is something that develops under particular historical circumstances, in part by the segregation of activities (as in a summer kitchen), but just as much through the elaboration of ideologies like the cult of domesticity that would rise in the nineteenth century.

And this is where the newspaper article on the Muhlenberg house dig gets really, really interesting.

After quoting project director Farrell enumerating the artifacts recovered–red-ware, pearl-ware, cream-ware and Chinese porcelain, glass beads, nice buttons and fine cutlery “indicating that they’re not living poorly,” Burns turns to one of the volunteers, Emily Theis, who says

“[Archeology is] kind of sexist…The digs always focus on men”.

Well not this time. And for once, the reporter heard what the participants were saying and reported it.

Contrast this with final coverage of the dig by the Montgomery Times Herald. This story leads with the recovery of a copper coin, and the framing story the reporter elicits is about the minting of the coin in Great Britain, and its likely journey to Pennsylvania “in the pocket of a Revolutionary War soldier”.

Instead of Maria Muhlenberg– wife of Henry, and herself an heiress, a member of another leading family in the community–  this article tries to attract readers with an unnamed and possibly non-existent soldier.

Even finds that likely came from the kitchen are represented as evidence only of the life of Henry Muhlenberg: “We know that Henry Muhlenberg loved oysters, and here’s the shell to prove it”, a volunteer is quoted as saying. The deliberate excavation of the kitchen also ends up being about Henry, not Maria: “We think we can support that the kitchen was here, because in his journal Henry Muhlenberg talked about a fire in the wash house”.

The shift in emphasis between the two articles– one by an intern not yet channeling archaeological news into received forms, the other by a staff writer who probably has written much the same kind of story before– is especially interesting because the Muhlenberg dig is itself not your stereotypical project: it is an especially successful example of community archaeology.

A collaboration between the Historical Society of Trappe,  and  Temple University, the project reportedly engaged forty volunteers, and received community funding as well. Students participating recruited parents as volunteers. Emily Theis, who noticed that archaeology has normally been “kind of sexist”, is described as “a member of the archeology club at Upper Perkiomen High School”. Project director Farrell, a doctoral candidate at Temple University, is a teacher at the school and organizes the archaeology club there.

Farrell has the community participants do presentations at regional archaeology meetings:

“This will be the third year the kids do the presentation,” Farrell said. “They write and do the PowerPoint that goes with it and tell the story from their point of view and I got kids standing up in front of 200 professional archaeologists doing a presentation.”

“I think that’s an important thing. We had a 14-year-old kid arguing with somebody who’s been 20 years in the business over a small point. My kid won, too.”

The enthusiasm of the participants is infectious. A repeated comment is how much they enjoy actually touching the things they are recovering, instead of seeing them in a museum.

This is what public archaeology is all about, as the website of the dig shows in its archive of videos.

I argued in The Languages of Archaeology that the genres in which we write shape the material we represent according to specific ideologies, and in turn, these genres constrain how we can even see the world. Feminist archaeologists were interested explicitly in breaking out of these forms and the narrow perspectives they enforce. In that book, I suggested that engagement with broader segments of the population would force archaeologists into new ways of communicating, breaking us out of old genres,

Arguably, the connections that people can make to women’s lives in the wake of development of an archaeology of gender are especially significant because they open up space for new narratives that escape the stereotypes of so much news coverage.

But rarely is that contrast so clear as it is in the local news coverage of this one small, but innovative, project.