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Historical archaeology: Speaking truth to long-lived cultural narratives

  • History beneath history:
    History beneath history:  Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Audrey Horning is one of a group of scholar-scientists that use multiple sources — written history, remembered history and material culture — to work toward assembling a more accurate picture of the past.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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Written history doesn’t always get it right.

“What written history tends to tell us is the narrative about what was supposed to happen,” Audrey Horning says. And the gulf between what was supposed to happen and what actually happened can be particularly wide when the topic is the early days of colonial development.

Horning is a historical archaeologist, and in fact was recently named to the Board of Directors for the Society for Historical Archaeology. She is one of a group of scholar-scientists that use multiple sources — written history, remembered history and material culture — to work toward assembling a more accurate picture of the past.

Horning is a 1989 graduate of William & Mary and left a faculty position at Queen’s University, Belfast in 2016 to serve as Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at her alma mater. She is one of a very small number of historical archaeologists to work with the two great English colonial adventures of the early 17th century — the Ulster Plantation in the north of Ireland and the Virginia Company settlement of Jamestown.

Her 2013 book, Ireland in the Virginian Sea: Colonialism in the British Atlantic, published by the Omohundro Institute, compares the two colonies and explores the connections between the two.

“When people have looked at those connections, they’ve either looked at it from being versed in Irish history or in North American history and I’ve been lucky to have worked in both places,” she said.

Horning said an understanding of her work should start with an understanding of terminology.

“‘Plantation’ refers to planting people, rather than tobacco or cotton or things like that,” she explained. “Jamestown was settled in 1607. The Ulster Plantation was launched in 1609. It was an effort to increase British control over the island of Ireland through planting colonies of people.”

 The English had made similar plantation efforts in 16th century Ireland and Horning said the long-standing understanding among American historians held that the English learned how to colonize in Ireland, then applied those lessons here in America.

“When you look at the evidence, none of that is actually true — except for the fact that the English were involved in both places,” she said. “And Ireland was never successfully colonized in the classic sense of an incoming population outnumbering and displacing local people: the Irish retained a majority on the island.”

Ireland and Virginia were quite different challenges for the would-be colonists. Ireland was nearby and its peoples, laws and customs were familiar to the English. Ireland maintained close connections with the continent, as well.

On the other hand, Virginia was literally a new world with extensive commercial opportunities. The investors that made up the London Companies knew about the treasures found in what became Latin America, but Horning notes that “the native societies of eastern North America were far less familiar to the English.”

The Ulster Plantation and the Jamestown Colony were contemporaneous, and Horning said the two initiatives were actually competitors in an important way. James I wanted to establish a new colony in the north of Ireland — the Londonderry Plantation, a component of the larger Ulster Plantation. This new initiative required investment and the crown turned to the London Companies, who had committed considerable assets to the Jamestown Colony.

“They had no interest in doing that, but the king said ‘You must do this,’” Horning explained, adding that James also required the reluctant investors to build towns — and to plant loyal British Protestants — in return for grants of land.

“So when they were compelled to invest in the north of Ireland, they withdrew their investment in Jamestown,” she said. “Fifty-five out of 56 companies who were investing pulled out. That was, not coincidentally, 1609 — which was the Starving Time.”

The English were anxious that their colonists — in Virginia as well as Ireland — remain thoroughly English. People living in distant cultures had a way of “going native,” and the king and his advisors were familiar with the saying about how the Hiberno-Normans of an earlier age became “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”

Accordingly, the colonists were given strict guidelines that London believed would discourage assimilation — and encourage displacement of the natives. For instance, Horning said they were required to build and live in English-style houses, eating English/Scottish fare cooked in English/Scottish ways among their fellow Scots and Englishmen. The companies were barred from having any Irish tenants at all.

“That’s what’s written down,” she said. “And people have taken the recommendations for plantation regulations for what actually happened.”

But what’s written down is not necessarily what actually happened. Horning explained that the historical record allows a scholar to ascertain to a certain extent how closely the plantation recommendations were followed, but archaeology allows for the telling of a fuller story.

“What the archaeology shows us is that the English and Scottish planters who are coming over bring things with them, but they also are using things that are made locally,” she said.

For one thing, the archaeology shows that the planters were cooking in Irish ceramics. Horning explained that Irish ceramics are hand-built and meant to be put into a fire. English and Scottish ceramic cookware was designed to be hung over the fire.

“It’s a different way of cooking, which is fairly significant,” she said. “They’re living in Irish-style houses, which they were specifically told not to do. So you see a material blending, which tells you something about the proximity of people. It doesn’t say that they all got along great every day, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that it’s mortal combat.”

The archaeology of Jamestown tells a similar story. Horning says that she believes that the most important revelation to come out of the Jamestown Rediscovery excavations is “the imprint of Native Virginia.” She points out that excavations from the early James Fort period show that more than 80 percent of the ceramics were native-made.

“Eighty percent — that’s a lot,” she said. “That’s not the occasional pot coming in. That’s evidence of daily contact, and it shows a certain willingness on the part of the English to engage in ways that history hasn’t always allowed for.”

Historical archaeology is rewriting narratives much more recent than Jamestown. Another aspect of Horning’s work deals with the families who were displaced in the 1930s during the creation of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

“These people were portrayed —even in print —as backward, not of the 20th century. And the best thing you could do for these people is remove them,” she said. “That continued to be the narrative there into the 1990s in terms of official presentations of the park’s history.”

Her book In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain contains an examination of the material culture left by the relocated families. Archaeology revealed tangible evidence of automobiles, medicines, store-bought clothing —the whole range of modern consumer goods, challenging the decades-old portrayal of them as uneducated, poverty-stricken hillbillies. The archaeology was bolstered by interviews and other research that revealed memories of the displaced people and their descendants.   

The 1930’s pity-the-hillbillies narrative no doubt made it easier to clear the mountain population for the park, but the scholarly, journalistic and administrative writings that assembled the narrative became the basis for history. It was, of course, a false history and Horning notes that it managed to persist for decades in 20th century America.

Horning said that people can become attached to unchallenged historical narratives, braiding elements of the true, the false and the doubtful into their cultures. The persistence of parallel narratives related to the Ulster Plantation contributed to the 20th century division of the island into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, as well as the sectarian friction known as The Troubles. Even today, individual understandings about the events surrounding the plantation lead to what she terms “very challenging conversations in Northern Ireland.”

Americans, a much younger people, have nonetheless a considerable supply of dubious historic narratives. The Jamestown experience gave rise to the Pocahontas myth, a narrative that has largely resisted correction for four centuries. Horning experienced a peculiar overlap of historical archaeology and popular culture in the mid-1990s. She was working at the excavations at Jamestown when the animated Disney “Pocahontas” movie came out.

“And every day we would break for lunch and go to Burger King, so we could collect all the action figures,” she said, pointing to a miniature John Smith standing guard on a bookshelf.