Anna Mueller | SCDNR Heritage Trust Program | Archaeology Intern
“It’s just pieces of junk, why does it matter?” I’m sure archaeologists have heard this question from the public countless times. Even an undergraduate student like myself has been asked this by family members, friends, and strangers. These questions became even more prevalent in my conversations when I told people I was an archaeology intern at the SCDNR Heritage Trust Program this summer. So, what is the answer? To archaeologists, it may seem like an obvious answer, but how do you convey the answer to the public without going on a professional jargon spiel?
I came into this internship optimistic about finding a good answer to this question. I wanted to find an emotional avenue to help people understand the importance. A few other interns and I were assigned to wash and sort the artifacts from the 2020 excavation of a home site at the Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve on the coast of South Carolina. We began water screening and rough sorting the materials, which mainly consisted of countless oyster shells and pieces of a tabby mortar. Initially, this just looked like a pile of rocks and broken shells, and I was questioning what this could tell us about the people who lived in this home site. There were other artifacts, small in comparison to the mountains of shell and tabby, that made me hopeful for an answer to the question. Small clay marbles, pieces of clay pipes, metal and bone buttons, sherds of ceramics, nails, animal bones, and a handful of buckles appeared in the mix. How can these pieces, forgotten or thrown away by their owners, spark some sense of connection in us with the past? When learning about history, the big events and lives of famous people tend to take up much of the narrative. But what about the common people? They also had lives and memories that were important to the history of humanity.
Although these artifacts are broken, you can still imagine their place in their owners’ lives. By looking at them together, you can picture a domestic scene where they all fit: small children play with clay marbles while their supervising parents smoke their pipes, calling the children to come to eat, using the ceramic plates, bowls, and cups. Maybe a bowl was dropped and broken, or a marble rolled out of sight during playtime. An old pipe could have been put down during a deep conversation and forgotten about. Maybe a nail was broken and thrown down out of anger during a repair on the house. One can think of many different stories as to how these artifacts ended up where we found them, and creating a narrative makes these small bits of artifacts more personable, and therefore significant.
After all, their owners were people with families, interests, emotions, and most importantly, lives similar (in some sense) to us. We might not have any written record about their lives, so looking at what they left behind, broken or not, shows us their day-to-day. By thinking up these hypotheses for each of the artifacts, I felt more grateful for “mundane” activities and tasks people do every day. So, next time you accidentally shatter a nice plate, lose a button on your shirt, or misplace a game piece, think about the significance that item could have when future archaeologists try to understand our everyday lives.
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