UA-WRI Research Station - Historical Archeology
Small town life formed an integral part of the experiences of most Americans into the mid 20th century, even for those who lived on the farm. However, this small town component has often been neglected by historians. Historical archeologists have been working in small towns since the 1930s, as at Williamsburg, but the focus has remained primarily on the Colonial period or on the expression of town life on the Atlantic coast, and usually in fact on the colonial roots of the urban megalopolises of the late 20th century. Such efforts are useful and not only because the rapid redevelopment of inner cities is destroying the archeological heritage of those population centers. However, the constraints of archeology in the city are often enormous, and the results too often ambiguous because of the complexities of urban life and development over the last two centuries.
Since 1978 the Arkansas
Archeological Survey has been looking at one small town, Washington, Arkansas,
in the Red River country of southwest Arkansas. Today it is both a municipality
with a population around 250, and Old Washington Historic State Park (hereafter
OWHSP). Even aside from the true story that famous frontiersman James
Bowie had the first Bowie Knife made in Washington, the town is a treasure
of antebellum Greek Revival houses and 19th century public buildings set
in the surviving town plan from 1824. It has been declared a prime candidate
for heritage tourism by the state-wide preservation organization in Arkansas
(Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas 1989). Among other reasons
for fieldwork, we have been actively involved in convincing everyone that,
in spite of a remarkable complement of period houses, the town is primarily
an archeological site, 3HE236. The town is thus perhaps significant for
more than just the encapsulated architecture, and the "moonlight
and magnolias" and other invented traditions that is prominent in
"Old Washington" today (Stewart-Abernathy 1999; Loewen 1995
and 1999; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).
Rediscovery of the town came with the restoration of the remarkable frame 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1929 (because the structure had served as the Confederate capitol of Arkansas from 1863-1865) (see archeological work by Harcourt 1984 and Guendling 1999). The founding of the Pioneer Washington Preservation Foundation in 1958 assured continued attention. The creation of the State Park in 1973 confirmed official state interest and significance.
Since 1978, archeological fieldwork has been conducted on some ten blocks in the town, and on four other locations on the edge of the platted town, and we have recovered over 200,000 artifacts relating to life in the 1800s (e.g. Stewart-Abernathy 1978, 1984, 1987a, 1987b, 1989a, 1989, 1991, 1992a, 1998, 1999; Cande and Brandon 1999a and b; Ewen 1990; Guendling 1992 and 1999; Harcourt 1994). Sometimes the work was conducted as volunteer projects (for example, the Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program from 1981-1984), sometimes as part of funded environmental impact work, sometimes in association with the rescue and moving-in of historic houses from the countryside.
In doing all this archeology, we have had a chance to think about a number of problems relating to historical archeology all over the state and perhaps wider. At Washington, the goal has been to understand the lives of specific families and the developments on specific blocks of land owned and occupied by those families. Research has produced extensive data on past human experience, particularly the life of Jewish merchant families, of government bureaucrats, of African-American slaves. Studying those families and those developments provided data on many aspects of culture and meaning in the patterns of artifacts and features protected untouched in the ground, recoverable through archeology. Those families and events also generated a different kind of data in a more fragile source as documents now collected in archives in Washington and elsewhere, data recoverable through historical research.
The following is a discussion of research questions and field methods at OWHSP. These were employed particularly during the 1981-1984 field seasons, but have been continued with modifications over the ensuing 15 years. The research was carried out with four research domains in mind.
The first research domain was settlement pattern within the town, expressed as the formation and development of the townscape of Washington. There was too little known, for example, of the locations of town elements in meaningful space, as in determining the existence and definition of separate residential or commercial neighborhoods. Moreover, the nature and extent of intratown separation of commerce or administration workplaces from residence was then unresolved. It seemed clear however, from study of old photographs and initial oral history, that it was incomplete to see the picture of houses now seen as surrounded only by well kept lawn. Instead they were originally embedded in a dense spatial, functional, and symbolic nexus of buildings, and open spaces that provided the occupants with much of their daily necessities in the days before city services could do so. The model of the "urban farmstead" (Stewart-Abernathy 1986) was developed in 1981 to explore residential household organization.
Fieldwork at the Sanders House in 1981 and the Block House in 1982-83 partially tested the model of urban farmsteads, using area excavations at the sites of detached two room, central chimney kitchens at both as the immediate focus of fieldwork. This work was also intended to produce data for use in reconstructing the kitchens including ground plan, foundation, architectural elements employed, changes through time, and use of space within the kitchen building and in the vicinity.
In 1981, a number of units totaling 56 square meters were excavated by hand within the kitchen boundaries at Sanders. It was determined that this kitchen was built sometime probably in the 1840s and stood until it was demolished in the 1930s. About 48,000 artifacts were recovered dating from the 1820s to the 1950s. Surprisingly, the kitchen was determined to have been set on square posts planted in holes dug into the ground, an heretofore unknown method of foundation work at Washington. In addition, an extensive area of brick paving was discovered that apparently predated construction of the kitchen itself. The edges of this paving were recycled into a curtain wall to dress up the new kitchen footings. Fieldwork also identified several disturbances to the kitchen site including a concrete-topped privy hole near the center of the structure (made according to WPA standards), a sanitary water line laid through the site, and a large and protected fig bush whose root system blocked further exploration of the location of the central double fireplace chimney column. At the end of the field season a pit feature filled with domestic trash was encountered but full excavation was not attempted.
The complexity and
interpenetration of features in the vicinity of the Sanders kitchen in
fact defeated initial efforts at understanding. It was not until a follow
up project in 1992, involving mechanical stripping followed by hand excavation,
that the fundamental confusion was cleared up (Guendling 1992; Stewart-Abernathy1992).
This fieldwork was funded by a Federal Highway Intermodal System Transportation
Enhancement Authority grant to Arkansas State Parks with additional support
from AASoc members.
Other discoveries in 1996 helped us better understand the kitchen area over a longer period of time. We were able to delineate the complete runs of curtain walls on two sides of the 1840s kitchen, and at least one brick pier that may have been associated with an elevated walkway from the Sanders House to the kitchen. We also found the complete stretch of the sanitary water line, two trash filled pits corresponding to privy locations from the 20th century (the WPA privy found in 1981 was found to be filled with 1930s trash including a souvenir juice glass from the Texas Centennial of 1836), the full extent of an informal septic tank and drainfield system (the tank of concrete culvert sections and the drain lines of ceramic building blocks), and a "measles outbreak" of many dark circular and rectangular stains of fence postmolds that indicated repeated reorganization of bounded spaces.
The Block House
In 1982 and 1983, at the Block House, excavation included limited machine stripping and hand dug units. Several other units were dug adjacent to the house to sample the archeological record of house construction and improvements. This kitchen was built probably in the 1830s and was demolished in the 1940s or early 1950s. The late survival of the structure masked the site from later deposition of midden debris. About 25,000 artifacts were recovered dating primarily from the 1820s to the 1850s. The Block kitchen was also found to have been built on square posts, part of one still surviving in its posthole. Additional work in 1984 examined the foundations under the house itself (Stewart-Abernathy 1986a), and in 1998 further explored the back yard (Guendling 1999).
Of particular interest in the 1982 and 1983 work was the discovery and excavation of a root cellar located under what was the rear room, known as the "quarters". This cellar was about 1.5 meter wide by 3 meter long by 1 meter deep. Much of the fill matrix was recovered and processed through flotation and wet screening. The cellar had been abandoned in the early 1840s and filled with household trash dating no later than the 1840s, including glass, ceramics, faunal material, fireplace clean out, and some building material.
This kitchen site had also seen disturbance following demolition of the building including grading of the ground surface at the chimney column location and below the front or "kitchen" room to make a carport. The rest of the Block backyard had been more heavily damaged by the installation of two septic tanks and the routing of a road immediately behind the kitchen, although work by Guendling in 1999 identified two wells and another trash deposit (Guendling 1999).
Analysis of excavated data, informant interviews and oral history, old maps and photographs, and documentary evidence including tax records and data from the contemporary newspaper Washington Telegraph indicates that the urban households in Washington were largely responsible for much of their food, fuel, water, sanitation, and transportation. When possible an entire block of four lots was acquired to provide the space needed for gardens, stables, smokehouse, barn, and similar domestic facilities. Related data from elsewhere in the state suggest a similar pattern for much of urban and small town Arkansas and probably for much of nucleated settlement elsewhere in the last four or five centuries (Stewart-Abernathy 1986).
The 1984 work sampled
workplace and multifunction blocks across the town. Survey techniques
included controlled surface collections using judgmental and unaligned
random sampling (following rototilling of the predominantly sod-covered
ground surface), low level aerial photography, remote sensing, auger transects,
and test pits. Two blocks were examined. Block 6, across from the 1836
Courthouse, saw primarily commercial uses from the 1820s-1880s including
the site of the Block family store from the 1830s-60s. Since the mid 1970s
this block has been used for various Park living history programs including
camps of both Civil War and Fur Trade re-enactors. We discovered that
much remains archeologically of the spatial integrity of the 19th century
intensive use of the half of the block facing Franklin Street and the
1836 Courthouse across Franklin. Fieldwork on Block 6 also discovered
two previously unknown dug wells and a prehistoric Native American site
consisting of a work area in which stone tools were produced.
Washington thus provides a localized focus for answering numerous questions about small town life. Even looking for a useable definition of what constituted a "town" in contemporary terms through turning to bare statistical data can introduce problems. For example, census data does not itself show how many people lived within the platted town but only those people who claimed Washington as their residence. Detailed residence studies suggest that some who are counted as Washington inhabitants, about 1000 in the mid 19th century, actually lived as much as a mile from the town. Simple methodological issues of separating "town" from "rural" may thus make too concrete a situation that was conceptually fluid at the time. The urban/rural dichotomy can thus be quickly shown as an analytical construct that obscures rather than illuminate relationships.
A Biracial Society
The second domain was ethnic variability, expressed as the working out of biracial coexistence within the context of antebellum slavery and post bellum putative freedom. The detached kitchens in Washington provided both a food preparation facility and the slave/servant quarters. Thus fieldwork directed at understanding the attributes of the Block and Sanders kitchens was also intended to begin the process of examining the nature of town slavery, and to begin to bring African-Americans into the interpretive program at Washington.
The primary context of North American African-American slavery was rural agriculture, and this has been the focus of nearly all historical archeological studies of the African-American experience in the antebellum South and in historical research in Arkansas. Wade's account of slavery in the cities, though showing a bias in favor of the larger population centers, indicates that an important component of slavery overall was the experience of whites and blacks in nucleated settlements (Wade 1964; and see Lack 1982 and Taylor 1958). Wade suggests that conditions in nucleated settlements undermined the system of slavery, that the contact by town blacks with whites and other slaves and the additional opportunities offered town slaves worked against the rules and habits of control designed for agricultural production and white planter social and economic dominance in general. He also notes that town slavery was not static, and rapid changes were constantly possible in the antebellum years. Especially after 1845, changes included a decline in the proportion of urban slaves and slave owners and a gender shift in the slave population toward females. In general, suggests Wade, the urban slave experience was quite unlike that of the rural slave.
For Washington, the nature of slavery in Washington provided numerous questions for further documentary and archeological work. The actual proportion of whites to blacks and the gender ratio among blacks in Washington are uncertain and need to be established. Moreover, the general question must be answered as to how did black slave experience in small town Washington compare to the urban centers. Did town slavery decline in demographic and economic importance? Was the African-American experience in Washington more like that of rural household slaves? Was control harder or easier to maintain than in the big urban centers? What sort of legal and even ecclesiastical efforts were made to maintain separation on public streets, in churches, in jails and even cemeteries, in spite of close daily contact (cf. Wade 266-278).
The Block and Sanders fieldwork offered some answers at least relating to the experience of African-American slaves on urban farmsteads. For the Blocks and the Sanders', their most constant personal contact with slaves was through a handful of domestics, primarily females and no more than two to four at each household at any time. Unlike field hands who might find rest or an opportunity for work at crafts or in their own gardens, domestics faced a work day that never finished because of the "handmade" nature of housekeeping and food preparation in the 19th century. Faunal analysis at the Block House suggests there was no distinction maintained in foodways practices as might have been the case if the Jewish Blocks had retained the "kashrut" system of prohibitions while permitting their slaves to follow typical Southern food patterns.
A deliberate attempt was made to limit intimacy of interaction by confining the Blacks to the second or "quarters" room of "kitchen" structures that were at least away from the main body of the house. Using that space for slave housing may have avoided some of the problems associated with "living out", i.e., residence away from the owner's property. Separate but nearby residence may also have allowed at least some control or supervision, while at the same time the spatial separation did provide some freedom and independence for the slaves when the Blocks and Sanders were not looking. This segregation of cooking and the cook was maintained at the Sanders and Block houses until the demolition of the kitchen building in the second quarter of the 20th century.
Judaism in Washington
The third domain was the nature of ethnic visibility. Archeology can provide new perspectives on the understanding of ethnicity by looking at material culture through time. Archeological studies of ethnicity in North America offer an opportunity for substantive and theoretical contrast because of the data now in hand about the basic Anglo-American traditions and developments. Identification of ethnicity in the historic archeological record can be difficult however, even if one uses as a broad definition of ethnicity that ethnic groups define themselves by their differences from the majority. The non-Western cultural traditions and distinctive phenotypic characteristics of the Overseas Chinese make them more easily visible in the archeological record. The Spanish/Mexican presence in the Southwest and Southeast can be recognized archeologically because ethnicity is synonymous with religion, language, foodways, and other components of culture.
Less visible are ethnic groups which are in the mainstream of Western Civilization but which cross the bounds of nation states, and whose members differ most clearly not by phenotype but by religion. The best example in the United States may be the Jews, who represent neither a country, nor a vernacular language, nor a phenotype, but who have nonetheless been stereotyped according to all three categories with comic and tragic results.
The Block family of Washington figures in the hagiography of Judaism in the United States, because Abraham Block, through his participation in the founding of the first Jewish congregation in the Mississippi Valley in New Orleans in 1827, has become famous in Arkansas and American Judaism as a very early Jew on the frontier (Korn 1969:198; American Jewish Archives 1956:67-69; LeMaster 1994:3-8, 32-33). In 1827 Abraham, originally from Bohemia by way of Virginia, was already living in Washington with his wife Fanny (also from Virginia) and a large and still growing family. For the Blocks, taking advantage of the social and economic opportunities that frontier Washington offered, also meant that for much of the antebellum period the Blocks were isolated from their fellow believers and separated from the fundamental congregational basis of Judaic ecclesiastical organization. Research at the Block family house provided an opportunity to examine how one family acted within and upon their Jewish traditions and beliefs to create a way of life that held to sacred tenets but also accommodated secular conditions.
Recovery of a sealed trash deposit dating to the early 1840s and containing faunal remains from the Block period provided an opportunity to closely examine Block attitudes and adherence to a major tenet of traditional Judaism, the system of kashrut relating to meat consumption directly reflected by the animal food bones in the trash. When analyzed, the faunal data indicated that by the 1840s the Blocks had set aside prohibitions regarding eating pork and catfish (Ruff 1985). When this finding is taken in conjunction with documentary evidence, including obituaries of Abraham Block published in 1857 in New Orleans, in Arkansas, and in a national Jewish newspaper, it is apparent that Block family efforts to adapt their Judaism to frontier conditions led to sometimes painful results closely similar to the currents and experiences that in turn led to Reform Judaism (Stewart-Abernathy and Ruff 1989).
Role of Local Elites
The fourth domain was the nature of hierarchical social organization in small communities, expressed here as the role of local elites in structuring the physical, social, and symbolic landscape. The Blocks were prominent merchants and entrepreneurs and through their store had a key role in bringing the products of an industrializing world into the local sphere. The Sanders' were important in town, county, and later state and national government and were involved in all aspects of political and administrative affairs. Examining their houses, sites, and archeological assemblages, and their roles in the community of Washington and the surrounding region provided an opportunity to establish a baseline for the identification of high status individuals and families and examine the ways in which these individuals worked to set the bounds of social organization.
The ceramic assemblage
recovered from the Block trash pit, for example, defines what an elite
household had access to for comparing with other households in Washington
(Stewart-Abernathy 1988), much as the Block faunal data indicates aspects
of elite meat procurement and consumption (Ruff 1985). Comparable ceramic
and faunal material from Sanders remains to be analyzed, although analysis
has been made much more likely with the reconsideration of both the Block
and Sanders collections as part of grants from the Arkansas Natural and
Cultural Resources Council (Candee and Brandon 1999b). A recent contribution
to the planning for an interior restoration of the Block House is also
a major contribution in trying to understand elites in the context of
Washington (Witsell 1999).
American Jewish Archives
Brown, C. Allen
Cande, Kathleen H.
and Jamie C. Brandon
1999b "An Old Washington for a New Millennium: Archeological Collections Management and Research Design for Old Washington Historic State Park, Hempstead County, Arkansas". report prepared by the Sponsored Research Program, Arkansas Archeological Survey, for Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, Little Rock, AR. (limited distribution report)
Ewen, Charles R.
1999 Archeological Investigations at Old Washington Historic State Park, Arkansas: The 1836 Courthouse Block (3HE236-0) and The Block-Catts House Block (3HE236-19). report prepared by Sponsored Research Program, Arkansas Archeological Survey, and submitted to Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, Little Rock, AR. (limited distribution report)
J., Kathleen H. Cande, Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy, and Dawn Novak
Harcourt, James P.
Alliance of Arkansas
Hobsbawm, Eric, and
Terence Ranger, editors
Holt, Mamie Belle
Korn, Bertram Wallace
Lack, Paul D.
Loewen, James W.
1999 Lies Across America:What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. The New Press, New York.
Medearis, Mary, Editor
1981a "A Chronology of Events in the History of Washington, Arkansas". Old Washington Historical Research Report, on file, Old Washington Historic State Park, Washington, Arkansas, reprinted in Witsell and Evans and Arkansas State Parks, 1985. (limited distribution report)
"A History of Block
32 in Washington, Arkansas". Old Washington Historical Research Report,
on file, Old Washington Historical State Park, Washington, AR. (limited
1985b "History of the 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse", Journal of the Hempstead Country Historical Society 4(1, Winter):22-34.
Praytor, Frank D.
Reed, Germaine M.,
Ruff, Barbara L.
1981 "Historical Archeology and the Williams House Complex: An Archeological Survey of Portions of Block 59 (3HE236-59), Washington, Arkansas". report submitted to Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, copy on file Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
"The Sanders Kitchen
Site: A Preliminary Report of Excavations at 3HE236-32", on file
at Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution
1986a "The Block House Piers: A Contribution to the Archeological Underpinning of Historic Preservation in Washington, Arkansas. report submitted to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, copy on file at Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
1986b "Urban Farmsteads: Household Responsibilities in the City". Historical Archaeology 20(2):5-15.
1987a "Archeology in the Commercial Core: A Visit to the Washington Hotel Site (3HE236-14:1,4), Washington, Arkansas". report submitted to Arkansas State Archeologist, copy on file at Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
1987b "Reconnaissance to the Hempstead House Site (3HE236-200), Washington, Arkansas". report submitted to Arkansas State Archeologist, copy on file at Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
1988 "Queensware in a Southern Store: Perspectives on the Antebellum Ceramics Trade from a Merchant Family's Trash in Washington, Arkansas". six panel poster session with paper presented at annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Reno, NV.
1989a "Archeological Implications of Reuse of the Norwood Property (3HE236-JR1), Old Washington Historic State Park". report submitted to Arkansas State Archeologist, copy on file at Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
1989b "Archeological Implications of the Proposed Improvement of the Highway 4 Corridor, Old Washington Historic State Park". memorandum report to the Director, Arkansas Archeological Survey, copy on file at Survey Station, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
1991 "To Make It, To Market, To Buy a Fat Hog: Three Case Studies in the Construction of Meaning in the Material World". paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Richmond, VA.
1992 "Cutting Christians into Shoestrings in the Twinkling of a Bedpost: Urban Archeology on the Cotton Frontier". paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Kingston, Jamaica.
1992 "Major Constraints on Relocating the Sanders Kitchen, 3HE236-36)". memorandum report prepared for Director, Arkansas Archeological Survey, copy on file at Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR. (limited distribution report)
1995 "Separate Kitchens and Intimate Archaeology: Constructing Urban Slavery on the Antebellum Cotton Frontier in Washington, Arkansas". paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Washington, D.C. (earlier version presented 1992 at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Pittsburgh, PA).
1997 "'Just putting it back the way it was': Constructions of an Antebellum Townscape in Washington, Arkansas". annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Corpus Christi, TX. (also presented at the annual meeting of the South Central Historical Archeology Conference, Memphis TN, September, 1999)
n.d. "The Sanders and Block Kitchens (3HE236-32 and 3HE236-19), Washington, Arkansas". manuscript on file, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Russellville, AR.
Leslie C., and Barbara L. Ruff
Taylor, Orville W.
Watkins, Beverly S.
White, Dena Deanne
Witsell, Evans, &
Rasco P.A., Historic Planners, and Arkansas State Parks
Witsell, Becky Rogers
Worthen, William B.
Other Outdoor Museums:
©2001, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Revised - Summer 2007