Why Conflict Archaeology Matters

The response to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s attacks on social science funding in the NSF continues to build. Paul Mullins, president of the SHA, put out a letter today on the subject, as have a number of bloggers. As such things are wont to do, the message discipline has suffered a little bit, changing from a focus on the NSF and social science to a more generalized defense of the necessity of the field. That’s OK, as it’s something that archaeologists should always keep foremost in their mind, particularly those of us whose livelihoods depend on public funding (which is, largely, ALL of us).

Various historical archaeologists have weighed in, but I can shed a little light on my own special research area, conflict archaeology. This includes battlefield archaeology, the archaeology of earthworks and fortifications (sometimes battlefields, sometimes not), POW camps, other military sites, and civilian sites with some kind of discernible imprint of conflict on them. As a set, these various conflict sites are some of the most emotionally-evocative in the discipline. The link to recent wars makes these sites intimately valuable to many within the regional and national communities in which they live. The fact that the American Civil War, fought 150 years ago, remains with us in many popular (and some unpopular) forms, is testament to the power that such conflicts may have.

Conflict archaeology can contribute to the process of commemorating and celebrating past conflicts through several means. First, our ability to commemorate a battle requires us to know where it actually is. A surprising number of these have been, well, not exactly lost, but our understanding of where and how extensive they are may not be as sharp as we would like. For example, I am currently working at nailing down the location of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, in Phillips County, Arkansas. We *think* we have a good idea of where it is, but we need archaeological evidence of the battle to be sure. Knowing allows us to mark it (like, literally with iron markers saying “The Action at Wallace’s Ferry occurred here”), which lets us commemorate and celebrate the men who fought and, for an unfortunate few, died there. Ditto for better-known fields, such as Jenkin’s Ferry and Poison Spring (as mentioned and depicted in the opening of Lincoln). Arkansas alone had over 700 battles, sieges, actions, skirmishes, etc., during the Civil War. There’s a lot of work to do here.

Aiding in such commemoration serves many purposes. First, the soldiers who fought in these battles, regardless of why they fought, deserve to be remembered for their service, and we can do that and pay honor to their sacrifice and loss through maintaining in our collective conscience the places of their most trying times.

Second, ours is a history of war-making, for aims we hold as noble as well as those that we were and are less united on. Battlefields, as places to remember (Pierre Nora refers to these as les lieux de memoire), offer an opportunity for us to recall the issues and personalities that led to, and resulted from, such conflicts. People who visit Civil War sites cannot do so without confronting, on some level, the issues we perceive to be the reason such battlefields exist. Expunging these from our collective consciences helps us lose the memory of those debates. I have often wondered how our approach to modern foreign interventionism could have been different had some portion of the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 been fought on American soil. I have been to San Juan Hill, and can tell you that the legacy of that conflict, as told through its monuments, is very fresh for its Cuban visitors. That we don’t have such a durable sign of that conflict on our own soil contributes to its loss from our common discourse.

Finally (for why commemorate battlefields), heritage tourism is a growing industry, and its patrons tend to be bigger spenders than other kinds of tourists. If you only can measure something in dollars and cents, there you go.

Archaeology can put all of these processes in motion. However, it has purposes beyond that of simply commemorating the field. It adds a personal, emotive dimension that no other kind of study can deliver. Sure, historians can offer the letter home after a battle, the diary account, or the memoir. Archaeology can offer you the finger bone found encircled with a wedding band (found at the Little Bighorn), testament to the husband who never came home. I have held in my hands bullets covered with the waffle-print impressions of a surgeon’s forceps, betokening the pain of broken bones and torn flesh and the hope that the man survived (why else would they be removing it on the battlefield?). Buttons recovered on numerous fields have been interpreted as marking the spots where soldiers’ bodies laid after the battle, their unburied corpses swelling with gasses, popping the buttons off, or men (still-living) tearing at their clothes, trying to see where they were shot. These tangible signs of the terrifying short hours of combat confront us with a view of the battle very different from the distanced general’s view of the conflict we generally get from history books.

Many conflict archaeologists have looked to drawing lessons from our work that feeds into modern military science. Several of us have developed tours, staff rides, and learning modules for the modern armed forces (some of which uses the modern KOCOA approach used widely in the U.S. Army), or completed work on fortifications and other military sites that have fed into training opportunities for today’s soldiers. Our ability to locate units on the landscape based on the detritus of conflict, and show how groups moved about and either maintained or loss cohesion offer a window onto the flow of the battle unavailable in historical documents.

Finally, conflict archaeology gives us a material means to study the growth and elaboration of the military-industrial complex, a sector of our life and economy greatly expanded since World War II. The technologies of war, our preparations for it, and the scientific and human resources put towards perpetuating and growing it in service to national, racial, and other aims, is a subject desperately needs an archaeologist’s input. Here in Arkansas, the Southwest Proving Grounds re-wrote the road network around Hope, and the Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot lives on as Southern Arkansas University Tech, host to a rocket industry that is basically a holdover of its previous military existence. Wars are the signposts on this long, firey road, and conflict sites among the most durable tangible avenues to its study.

Eggshells from Block Six, 2012

I spent part of this morning picking eggshells out of a screen. I know, riveting stuff. These weren’t just any eggshells, though. These were 150-or-so year old eggshells recovered from last year’s Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program dig at Block Six, in Historic Washington State Park.

Eggshell is not the most common find on an archaeological site. The fragility of the shell itself, the sale of chicken eggs off-site for side money (Peres 2008:99), and the likelihood that most of it will fall through the 1/4″ screen we use to sieve excavation fill means most of it, if present, will end up going unnoticed. We were lucky that the excavators last June noticed it and bagged the associated fill, allowing me to pick it out in the lab.

Now, obviously finding eggshell suggests egg consumption, but the explanatory possibilities inevitably blow past this meager insight. I wanted to get a little bit of a handle on what other historical archaeologists have done with eggshell finds, so I got on the SHA’s Publications Explorer and did a search for articles from Historical Archaeology that talk about eggshells. It returned a fair number of hits, and since this isn’t a formal paper, I’m only going to touch on a few of them.

As every credible archaeologist should agree, context is everything…

Returns included a number of articles that simply mention the recovery of eggshell as evidence of dietary preference. These contexts ranged from a 19th-century bordello in St. Paul, Minnesota (Ketz et al 2005) to an early integrated community at New Philadelphia, Illinois (Martin and Martin 2010) to privies in North Carolina (Carnes-McNaughton and Harper 2000), and finally (to return to a red light district) the Five Points area of New York City (Milne and Crabtree 2001).

But let’s go farther.

Markell, Hall, and Schrire (1995:28), working on a mill at Vergelegen, on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, found quantities of ostrich eggshells in their excavation units. In addition to being an indication of the consumption of ostrich eggs by the site’s residents, historical data suggest that such eggs were collected by hunters as roamed the surrounding veld, and were subsequently traded to Vergelegen residents. These eggshell fragments, are not just food, they are evidence of local exchange networks that tied together hunter and miller.

Brown and Cooper (1990:15) worked at the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria County, Texas. They found eggshell throughout the site’s deposit, suggesting eggs were consumed at a fairly steady clip throughout the site’s history by African-American slaves and later tenant farmers. This gets more interesting when compared with other food remains. While eggshell remained a constant part of the fill, fish bones and scales, along with turtle remains, decreased over time, suggesting that domesticated species such as chicken were a staple of local diet, whereas wild species became less important over time. The fishing and collecting (“turtle hunting” doesn’t seem to be particularly challenging) that wild species’s bones suggest were less and less-frequently pursued over time.

Eggshells also relate to economic status. Rather, eggshells in comparison with chicken bones. What, isn’t that relationship immediately obvious? No? Basically, the way it works is if you have some disposable income, you can afford to buy chicken to eat, and an archaeologist, rooting around in your refuse decades later should find a goodly amount of chicken bone in addition to eggshell. However, if you don’t have the money to buy chicken (and we’re talking back before fast food made “chicken” cheaper than salad), you’re not going to eat chicken often. You might have some chickens scratching around in your yard, but you’re not going to eat them until they quit laying eggs. You do get to eat the eggs, though. As a result, your household refuse will have a lot of eggshell fragments, but only a few chicken bones by comparison, testimony of the meals made from aged hens (Peres 2008:99; West 1995:29).

So, what does this all mean for our eggshells from Block Six? Well, we’ve got an interesting interpretive opportunity here. Since Block Six was a commercial district, and most of the studies cited here relate to residential sites, we’ve got a bit of a task teasing out what these shells mean. They could have been someone’s lunch, could have been for sale in one of the stores, or some other as-yet un-researched possibility. I don’t have anything more concrete at this point, largely because my doctoral defense is coming up, and I’m up to my elbows in Dooley’s Ferry for the next few weeks. We’ll get back to this one soon, though.


Brown, Kenneth L. and Doreen C. Cooper
1990     Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community. Historical Archaeology 24(4):7-19.

Carnes-McNaughton, Linda F. and Terry M. Harper
2000     The Parity of Privies: Summary Research on Privies in North Carolina. Historical Archaeology 34(1):97-110.

Ketz, K. Anne, Elizabeth J. Abel, and Andrew J. Schmidt
2005     Public Image and Private Reality: An Analysis of Differentiation in a Nineteenth-Century St. Paul Bordello. Historical Archaeology 39(1):74-88.

Markell, Ann, Martin Hall, and Carmel Schrire
1995     The Historical Archaeology of Vergelegen, an Early Farmstead at the Cape of Good Hope. Historical Archaeology 29(1):10-34.

Martin Terrance J. and Claire F. Martin
2010     Courtly, Careful, Thrifty: Subsistence and Regional Origin at New Philadelphia. Historical Archaeology 44(1):85-101.

Milne, C. and Pamela J. Crabtree
2001     Prostitutes, a Rabbi, and a Carpenter: Dinner at the Five Points in the 1830s. Historical Archaeology 35(3):31-48.

Peres, Tanya M.
2008     Foodways, Economic Status, and the Antebellum Upland South in Central Kentucky. Historical Archaeology 42(4):88-104.

West, Barbara
1995     The Case of the Missing Victuals. Historical Archaeology 29(2):20-42.