Archaeology is Anthropology or It is Nothing

Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) memorably wrote that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” and thereby laid the groundwork for a generation or more of archeological work. I am reminded today that this maxim has great force, but not always in the way it was intended. The Survey (by which I mean half a dozen or more of us, current and former, from stations around the state) has been working with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Arkansas Archeological Society, Delta Cultural Center, and dozens of people in Helena-West Helena, Poplar Bluff, and many other towns around east Arkansas, plus people in Chicago, Atlanta, and elsewhere to locate a small battlefield lost to official history. We’re spiraling in on the site, and today was yet one more step closer to it, thanks to a great lunch meeting. That’s not why I’m taking this moment to reflect, though.

Willey and Phillips said that archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing because they felt that the aims of archaeology should be anthropological, and geared towards answering questions about humans, culture, and society. We should do archaeology to do [cultural] anthropology on the past. Working in historical archaeology, though, particularly on recent(ish) sites, often happens because we bring the interviewing techniques of the cultural anthropologist to the table. Without the connections to the living community (without anthropology), our work proceeds at a snail’s pace, if at all. Without these connections to the community, work simply does not progress. Without anthropology, archaeology is nothing… as it never gets anywhere fast.

Of course, Phillips knew this well, as his foundational work Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 relied heavily on talking with local farmers and others about where they were finding artifacts and where they saw mounds. As was the case then, so it is today that we progress in consultation with non-archaeologists. Arkansas has always been great for this. Let’s hope Arkansans remain so willing to be a part of the process.

References

Phillips, Philip, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin. 1951. Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947. Peabody Museum Papers, vol. 25. Harvard University, Cambridge

Willey, Gordon and Philip Phillips (1958) Method and Theory in American Archeology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Finding Wallace’s Ferry: It’s all written down, isn’t it?

One of the banes of the historical archaeologist is the belief that their work is simple because it’s all in the documents. We’ve literally written books about how much the historical record misses, particularly if you’re not white, male, and rich. The belief that it’s all in the documents holds particularly true for conflict sites, as they seem unusually-well reported, given the Sturm und Drang of the event associated with the site. That doesn’t hold true, either, frankly. The search for the site of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry illustrates this well. We’ve got very little in the way of documentation from the Confederate side, and the Union side is mostly reported in the reports of white officers, with no known memoirs or letters from the men who fought in it.

There are other frustrations that crop up. One is frequently encountered when working with historic maps. We know that the Action at Wallace’s Ferry took place along the road leading from Helena to Little Rock. We’ve done enough fieldwork out there to know that the “Old Little Rock Road,” as it is known today, is not the alignment of the Little Rock Road at the time of the battle. I’ve been working with historic maps, trying to reconstruct the path of the road as a means of finding the battlefield. Currently, I’ve got ten maps dating as early as the original General Land Office maps, which were drawn in 1818 and 1820, and as late as 1935. These all show ostensibly the same road, but have vastly different interpretations of where that road lay. Observe…

SAU58_WallacesFerry

I deliberately removed the scale and geographic reference points to keep possible site locations obscure, but the map you see covers about five miles north-to-south, so not only are there a lot of different routes, they are all over the place. All of these alignments were drawn from maps that have township lines on them, allowing them to be georeferenced with some surety. There are some chronological shifts, particularly in the 1830s-1840s compared to the 1890s-1930s, but no one map before the 1935 Arkansas Highway map really seems to capture the route well.

This makes the process of locating search areas for an engagement that supposedly took place along the Little Rock Road a lot less cut-and-dried than one would expect. This is why the first two attempts to locate the battlefield didn’t achieve their aim (they weren’t without important scientific gains, however). However, with the aid of archaeological fieldwork and additional historical research, the third time should do it.

The Death of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke

I’ve been working through the compiled service records of the U.S. Colored Troops, as black units in the U.S. Army were known. One of the records I was able to track down was that of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke, commander of Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery (Light). Capt. Lembke is of interest to my research in that he was one of the men who fought and died at Wallace’s Ferry, a battlefield I am attempting to locate on behalf of the Arkansas Archeological Survey for the people of Arkansas.

The service records shed a little more light on Capt. Lembke’s life and death than the after-action reports filed by U.S. officers following the engagement, which tersely note that Capt. Lembke died during the engagement. I’d like to share a little bit about what more I know about this man.

First, we know that Capt. Lembke was a Swedish immigrant who settled in Chicago before the war. He stood 5′ 11″ tall, had a light complexion and light hair, and had blue eyes (I’ve heard Swedes tend to have those attributes). In 1861, he joined Battery B of the 1st Illinois Artillery. As a member of that unit, he would have fought at several major battles in the Western Theater, including Shiloh, Arkansas Post, Jackson, Champion’s Hill, and the Siege of Vicksburg. In the fall of 1863, then-corporal Lembke, an experienced artilleryman, put in for command of an African-American unit, when it formed. He was given the task of organizing and commanding a black artillery unit, to be formed in Helena, Arkansas. He took with him a fellow member of Battery B, 1st Illinois, named Edwin Bancroft. Bancroft made the leap from private to Lieutenant, and we can suggest that the two men had some level of rapport or friendship to be making this move together.

Captain Lembke recruited, trained, and equipped Battery E (originally known as the 3rd Battery, Louisiana Colored Infantry), and was for a time commander of Fort Curtis, one of the installations built in Helena to defend it from Confederate attack [since reconstructed near the original site].

On the day before the battle, Capt. Lembke took one section (two guns) of his unit to accompany Col. W.S. Brooks’ expedition towards Trenton. This expedition wound up with the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, where Lembke met his end. We know from the report of Lieutenant H.T. Chappell, who took command of the artillery after Lembke died, that the captain was killed instantly by a bullet through the forehead.

Lieutenant Bancroft drew up an inventory of Capt. Lembke’s effects after the battle, which show us the kinds of things a battery commander had with him. In addition to the expected clothes, and personal items (shaving kit, mirror, watch), Capt. Lembke carried a clock, copies of books on military law and heavy artillery tactics, a birch broom, and a music stand and book (no instrument listed).

Lembke Signature

While much of the documentation is the usual Army bureaucracy, there is one extremely poignant aspect to it. Capt. Lembke’s effects were sent to Chicago, and the last document in the file carries an acknowledgement of the receipt of them, signed by his widow. Her signature, written a few weeks after Capt. Lembke’s death, looks as though it were written by an almost-uncontrollably shaking hand.

Rank and the Service Records

It also strikes me that part of why we have learned so much about the life and death of Capt. Lembke is that as a white officer, his death entailed much greater levels of documentation than did those of the men who served under him. I have also been working to find information about the enlisted men in the unit, particularly looking for references to being wounded or killed at Wallace’s Ferry, because we don’t have a good casualty list.

Not surprisingly, the information available on the enlisted men is much less rich. We know names, birthplaces, and the barest of information about service records. Where men died (mostly of disease), there was a simple form filled out and filed with the government. Several men were noted as having “no effects.”

There are hints at stories that offer a tantalizing, though maddeningly incomplete stories about the men in the ranks. Private Harrison Beal, for instance, was recruited for another regiment in September of 1863, but within the space of a month was in serious trouble. On October 25, he shot a man named Peter Young. Two days later, he cut off “the forefinger of his right hand” [trigger finger] “to be discharged,” and deserted the following day. The severance of the offending figure speaks of guilt as much as it does of disloyalty.

Most of the stories are, based on these records, fairly mundane. The vast majority performed their duties with no ill marks recorded against them. A few deserted, a few died, and a few transferred or were promoted. It does strike me as interesting that a large number of them list Virginia as their place of nativity. Within African American history, the forced movement of people of color from the eastern seaboard to the western states in the antebellum period is a harrowing time often referred to as “The Second Middle Passage.” These Virginians who showed up in Helena to serve are mostly ex-slaves from the area around the Mississippi River. Their enlistment in Arkansas bears quiet testimony to the reality of this traumatic pilgrimage.

These happy notes are just some of the loose threads that tie into our ongoing archaeological work at Wallace’s Ferry.