AHA 2017: Laboring on the Plains of Factoria

The Arkansas Historical Association meetings in 2017 will be way up in Pocahontas. I’m going, in part because I’m on the AHA’s Board of Trustees, plus they’re a fun group to be around, and as a historical archaeologist, I work closely with both historians of Arkansas and the documentary record. The call for papers is out, and the deadline is this week, so this morning, I sent off my title and abstract. They are:

Laboring on the Plains of Factoria: War, Work, Migration, and Industry at the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant during World War I

The Great War brought great changes to many parts of Arkansas and, individually, to many Arkansans’ lives. One great change to the face of Little Rock was the construction in 1918 of a plant for the making of picric acid, a chemical used in munitions. Though a short-lived facility, the Little Rock Picric Acid created a series of conflicts and collaborations between laborers, on the one hand, and plant administrators, local authorities, and federal officials, on the other. This paper delves into those interactions, and shows how the development of war industries in central Arkansas placed demands on the state and people that both united and divided, and built connections between Arkansas and the wider, modern world of the 1910s.

The conference theme is “Great War, Great Changes,” so a World War I-themed paper was most apt. I’ve been doing some work on the Picric Acid Plant, and this seemed like the most interesting writing project at hand. It’s got everything from work stoppages and strikes to arrests for violation of the Sedition Act to importation of Puerto Rican laborers and on and on and on.

Perhaps at some archeological conference I’ll do a paper on the actual, physical location of the plant, itself (now thoroughly developed over).


The Folly Island Cannonballs and the Value of Context

Hurricane Matthew wended its way up the Eastern Seaboard this week, wreaking havoc and taking lives. One of the few, well, not exactly happy, but perhaps “huh” stories to come out of the storm’s aftermath is the discovery of a number of cannonballs on the beach at Folly Island, South Carolina, south of Charleston.

I’m absolutely not going to second-guess the decisions made to destroy or curate the items, as it seems that some were exploded in place while others were carried back to an unspecified U.S. Navy facility for destruction. Bomb squads do what they need and are trained to do.

What I do fine somewhat troubling is the news coverage and the lack of context for what Folly Island meant during the war, and why exactly Civil War cannonballs would be showing up there. Those that gave any context noted only that “The first shots of the Civil War were fired at nearby Fort Sumter in 1861.” The only source to really do better was Hudson Hongo, writing for Gizmodo, who offered that “During the Civil War, Folly Island served as a key staging area for Union troops attacking nearby Fort Morris. Since then, remnants of the occupation have periodically been discovered in the area, including a black regimental cemetery found during a construction project in 1987 and military artifacts uncovered by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.”

Folly Island was a major piece of the U.S. Army’s attempt to take Charleston from the seaward side, coming overland from the mouth of the Stono River and working through the coastal swamps toward the city. This is the area where Fort Wagner, on adjacent Morris Island, stood (yes, THAT Fort Wagner, from the movie Glory). The cannonballs that washed out of the sand yesterday were a part of a major, complex, combined-arms effort by the U.S. military, and their location and recovery should not be taken as some surprising, improbable discovery. Our “iron harvest” pales in comparison to what France and the Low Countries deal with from World War I, but it is, nonetheless, an ongoing hazardous legacy of conflict.

Total credit to Mr. Hongo for tracking down the previous work on Folly Island (you can download the text of the report here). That mentioned “black regimental cemetery” was an excavation project by James Legg and Steven Smith that recovered the remains of 19 U.S. soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry (organized in the District of Columbia), and 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry regiments. Their presence is more than just a component of the U.S. Army’s contingent in the area. They were laying the groundwork for the 14th and 15th Amendments and the first round of African-American voting rights. The campaign for Charleston, involving black and white regiments, was about more than military strategy, and that should not be lost in the shifting sands of the beaches of Folly Island. Cannonballs are interesting, but the people that put them there, the movements and campaigns (in multiple senses) that they were engaged in, and their place in our heritage is what really matters. That’s the context. Context matters. Ask any archeologist.

On Trigger Warnings and Conflict Archaeology

My Twitter feed is blowing up with stories trolling University College-London students who are taking Gabe Moshenka’s modern conflict archaeology class. Apparently, consistent with UCL policy, students were told if they were feeling overwhelmed by the material, they could step out of class without penalty. Much of the backlash has been laced with derision assuming that students are basically coddled softies that can’t cope with reading books and journal articles. Too whatever extent that caricature reflects reality… okay. But, here’s the thing. People seem to be assuming that all students are of the same demographic with similarly sheltered upbringings.

And that’s where I think they lost some perspective.

See, we’ve got these wars going on, which means we have a new generation of veterans coming back and transitioning to civilian life. Some of them are going to college, and some of them are going to college. If you’re a veteran in a class on modern conflict studies, and the course material is dealing with subject matter that brings out something you’re still dealing with from Iraq or Afghanistan (or the various other conflicts we’re embroiled in that don’t rise to the level of a declared war), then I would much prefer you be able to step out without penalty than feel like you have to sit there and have your situation get worse.

Also, if your childhood involved enduring genocide or political terror in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, or You-Name-It-Because-It-Happens-Too-Much-These-Days, and the class starts talking about excavating mass graves of people you knew as a child, please God step out if you need to. The people who seem to be gleefully castigating students who might need to step out from class assume that no one’s life has actually involved the modern conflict that these classes focus on.

Check. that. privilege.

EDIT: Alix at The People’s Republic of Mortimer took more time with this, thinking along the same lines. Give her a read.

Why I’m (Absolutely) Voting “Yes” on the SAA Ethical Principle #9

So, the Society for American Archaeology rolled out a new addition to its Statement on Ethics, putting before the membership for a vote. It “focuses on members’ obligations to ensure safe and supportive instructional, workplace, and collegial environments for archaeological work” (quote from e-mail to membership 09/19/2016). Specifically, it reads:

Principle No. 9: Safe Educational and Workplace Environments: Archaeologists in all work, educational, and other professional settings, including fieldwork and conferences, are responsible for training the next generation of archaeologists. Part of these responsibilities involves fostering a supportive and safe environment for students and trainees. This includes knowing the laws and policies of their home nation and institutional workplace that pertain to harassment and assault based upon sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, national origin, religion, or marital status. SAA members will abide by these laws and ensure that the work and educational settings in which they have responsible roles as supervisors are conducted so as to avoid violations of these laws and act to maintain safe and respectful work and learning environments. (Text from letter to membership, 09/19/2016)

As the SAA states in its cover letter, this is an ethical principle that is not focused on artifacts and sites, but that “archaeological work is quintessentially social and collaborative,” and this proposed addition to the Statement on Ethics reflects that.

I’m definitely voting for it. Here’s why:

  1. Recent efforts to document sexual harassment by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (Barreis and Henry 2015; Meyers et al. 2015) show that this is a massive, if tremendously under-appreciated, problem for the discipline, and it’s something we need to take steps to rectify. This is a start, but it also opens the door for more progress down the line by providing an institutional and professional directive to fix this problem. With the directive comes justification for organizations across the discipline to focus on this more clearly and take steps particular to their situation to improve.
  2. What objections there are out there (looking at you, Michael E. Smith, from Publishing Archaeology), suggest that this is not an “archaeological” matter, as though we can separate artifacts from the process of research. The “ology” part of “archaeology” points to the process of study, not the subjects of that study (the things/artifacts), so matters that pertain to the conditions under which findings are developed are ABSOLUTELY archaeological. Who is party to that, their voice in the process, and the power relations that govern the production of knowledge, of course, affect how the process progresses, and discriminatory or harassing relationships can only make archaeology less than it otherwise would be.
  3. Matters of science aside, what kind of person would object to a professional statement censuring people treating colleagues in such manner?
  4. Smith also objects to Principle #9 on the grounds that it does not have the force of law, and that the SAA has no regulatory teeth. Sure, technically, he’s right. The SAA isn’t going to be locking anyone up, but that’s not the point of ethics statements. Ethics statements guide behavior among practitioners, and can censure things that are otherwise considered illegal. If my side business was trafficking in battlefield artifacts that I looted from privately-owned battlefields off the clock and with my own equipment, I would be acting within the bounds of the law, but outside the bounds of archaeological ethics, and could reasonably expect to be kicked out of the SAA or SHA for doing so. I wouldn’t go to jail, but I would rightfully face the destruction of my professional esteem and risk my employment. An ethical statement on sexual harassment gives some foundation for tangible and visible censure for those who egregiously transgress them.

So, I’m voting yes, and I’m doing so for the above reasons. I’m also writing this post to give support to those who worked to bring together the ethical statement and those who have been looking at the breadth of this problem and bringing attention to it. I’m a straight, white, able-bodied, American male, and I strongly support this measure. I have the privilege to work with now, and to have worked with over the years, many people who fall into the categories that this principle seeks to provide some support and protection to. I will be thinking about all of them, and thanking them for being part of my life and career, when I click “yes.”


Baires, Sarah E. and Edward R. Henry
2015     Gender Roles and Archaeologists in the Southeast: Working Toward Equality. Horizon & Tradition: The Newsletter of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference 57(1):14-18.

Meyers, Maureen, Tony Boudreaux, Stephen Carmody, Victoria Dekle, Elizabeth Horton, and Alice Wright
2015     Preliminary Results of the SEAC Sexual Harassment Survey. Horizon & Tradition: The Newsletter of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference 57(1):19-35.

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.


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.

Conflict Archaeology in North America: The Grand Challenges

So, it’s been a while since I posted anything here, but I was asked to contribute to the Blog Carnival (#blogarch), so here we go. There may not be candy, but at least there aren’t clowns.

Other contributors have defined their area of expertise on which to comment. See Lisa-Marie Shillito on geoarchaeology, Lucy Shipley on Etruscan archaeology and Alice Gorman on space age archaeology. I’m writing about conflict archaeology in North America, as that’s what I know best… but it immediately opens up some challenges. So, let’s start there.

What is This Thing?

When reading works on the archaeology of groups-of-people-doing-violent-things-to-other-groups-of-people, you are presented with a multitude of ways to describe this focus. We see the archaeology of warfare, conflict archaeology, archaeology of violence, archaeology of trauma, combat archaeology, battlefield archaeology, military sites archaeology, and a host of others. Some of these were run up a flag pole once, and no one saluted, so they didn’t stick. Amongst those that remain, pre-contact specialists seem to like to talk about the “archaeology of war” (see Arkush and Allen 2006; Rice and LeBlanc 2001), which post-contact archaeologists use along with “military sites archaeology” and, increasingly, “conflict archaeology.” “Conflict archaeology” appears in Europe associated commonly with modern and ongoing conflicts (see Saunders), and contrasted with “battlefield archaeology” of pre-modern conflicts… otherwise known as that which conflict archaeology in North America focuses on. This jumble of words is both confusing and makes it difficult to centralize discussion into fruitful cross-disciplinary collaborations.

This is a really grand challenge in that we should be collaborating. Pre-contact studies work well with landscape and regional-level data for site distribution and recognizing the archaeologically-recognizable long-term effect of warfare and conflict on societies. Post-contact archaeologists need to do better with this, as our interest to study conflict must go far beyond the battlefield and look at the cumulative effect of warfare on post-contact societies, something we have not done well (though, with great hubris, I might point you towards my dissertation [Drexler 2013]). This is not to mean only looking at U.S. society (which is a massive need), but on post-contact indigenous societies as well. In this last, I mean not just sites where there are recognizable traces of fighting, but site location, as well. I live and work in southwest Arkansas, where we have a handful of Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee sites. The only reason for their being is their connection to both white-Indian and intratribal conflicts in the 19th century. The movements of people as connected to conflict (mapped to capitalism, colonialism, and modernity) should be better-served within our scholarship.

Looking forward from the very violent 19th and 20th centuries, we can and must connect conflict archaeology to studies of modern warfare, as the former presages and gives foundation to the latter. The technology of war has changed, but the structures that support it, the philosophies that drive it, and the ends to which it has been put have not changed that dramatically in the post-contact era.

Which brings me to another issue. How many books on archaeology and capitalism, modernity, etc. are out there? A lot, right? How many of them treat warfare and conflict as an integral part of their interpretive strategy? Yep, that’s right, it’s just about none of them. The best that we might hope for at present is a nod to Saitta’s work on the Ludlow Massacre, where the links between conflict and capitalism are undeniable. This must change for American archaeology to do its job right, and it may fall to conflict archaeologists to lead on this. To do that, we need the expansive understanding of conflict and its role that comes from working with pre-contact studies, modern conflict studies, sociological work on militarism and the military, grand histories, and cultural anthropologists working on conflict.

Call of Duty: Trowel Edition

But, of course, there are barriers to getting to that point. One of the other grand challenges, and one that creates a hurdle, is dealing with militarism and its opponents within anthropology. I have to go into anecdotal data here, but when I mention that I do conflict archaeology to someone else, I get one of two replies. Amongst the general public, I tend to get a lot of enthusiasm and a recitation of their or their family’s connection to the war under study.  As the descendant of two German-American Yankees living and working in southern Arkansas, discussions of the Civil War often get weird. More important to this post, however, is the response I get from academics. It tends to be some form of rejection or revulsion, basically that “war-is-icky.”

I get that it is not palatable, but the fellow-traveler to this response is the patronizing air of superiority or maturity that comes with it. To not be into warfare and conflict is to be either cleaner or more balanced of an individual. Conversations often lead to the intimation that I, personally, am really excited about war and fighting (spoiler: I’m not… thank you, Quakerism), and that what I do is some kind of academic equivalent of one of the host of ultra-violent war-based video games, such as the Call of Duty series.

This comes from two things, one of which we cannot control. The uncontrollable end is that anthropology turned pretty hard against warfare in the 1960s and created a stigma against research that has been a brake on the development of conflict research. This has received a jolt in the past decade with the (quite justified) concerns about Human Terrain Teams and other engagements between anthropologists and the military. Yet, to study something is not to endorse it, and shutting off interest weakens the ability of scholars to critique and amend, if that’s your thing. That’s not really something we can deal with right now (though in the long term…).

The other contributing factor, however, is something that comes out of our present state of research. We are getting very good at focusing on single sites (usually, single battlefields). But, until we get to synthetic understandings of conflict-making and do better at drawing links between warfare, one the one hand, and capitalism, gender, race, modernity, and the other topics that lie at the heart of post-contact archaeology in North America, we are not going to dispel the illusion that we are not war-obsessed wanna-be soldiers. Viewing it from the inside, I will tell you that this area of research is far from being the archaeological equivalent of the Call of Duty video game series, but we are fighting a perception that feels very, very real.

So, who cares if we look like we’re playing soldier? I do, for one, because that’s not how I see what I do. The larger concern is that the Call of Duty conflict archaeology is not one that will encourage diversity within the research community. The SAA was 36% female back in 1994, and SEAC’s recent survey of its membership found that 71% of archaeology students are female. Looking at the conflict sessions at recent conferences, it’s a pretty masculine room. We are fortunate in having a number of female archaeologists doing very good and important work within the research area (look up work by Michelle Sivilich or Allison Young, for instance), but the disparity is marked. Does anyone want to even get into race? It’s always a nearly-exclusively white room, which is not necessarily that different from the rest of post-conflict archaeology in the U.S., but it’s still a thing. I think this is tied to a kind of deeply culturally-ingrained kind of violent masculinity associated with making war in the U.S. that is brought heavily into conflict archaeology by a focus on battlefield research.

Structuring Conflict Archaeology

The final grand challenge facing us is… who’s going to teach and guide this field? The places in the U.S. where one could go to get training in conflict archaeology were never numerous, but we’re losing them quickly. The places where we could go consisted significantly of the University of Nebraska (home of Doug Scott, of Little Bighorn fame, and some others), East Carolina (Larry Babits), Temple (Dave Orr), and South Carolina (Steve Smith). Of these, Scott and Babits have retired, and Orr and Smith are getting there. What academic program is poised to take this up now? Heidelberg College has a nice program with Dave Bush, but it lacks a grad program. A lot of the more active members of the younger crowd within the field are working in CRM or some agency or other. While they are producing good work, it doesn’t produce the next group of students, who need to be schooled in doing conflict archaeology. Conflict research is not simply historical archaeology with different documents. It requires a lot of specific areas of expertise that arise best from an institution who is willing to make conflict research its thing. We’re a handful of retirements away from not having that in the U.S., and that’s a terrible thing. Compare this to the UK, where the University of Glasgow has a program steeped in conflict research that is producing students trained in the field. A number of other schools in the UK teach conflict archaeology, even if they don’t make it their focus. We have no analog here.

Finally, we are going to have to roll out a specialist group; some kind of association for conflict archaeology. Not only for promoting and developing the field, but to represent our collective voice to colleagues and the public. Regarding the public, the birth, growth, and refusal to die of metal detecting shows, such as Nazi War Diggers, should push us to create such an association. While I applaud the SAA’s condemnation of the resurrection of NWD, a professional organization dedicated to conflict studies would carry a different and valuable kind of impact in the fight to have the people and sites associated with past conflicts treated with dignity, instead of some treasure trove.

So, that’s my take on what conflict archaeology in North America is facing in the coming decades. It’s my view, based on about 15 years working in this area. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, but we’ve got a long road ahead.

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…


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.