Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Archaeologists Dig Art

by Drew Martin

I have heard people speak passionately about the arts but the former resident archaeologist and social historian of Colonial Williamsburg, Ivor Noël Hume, once wrote about finding the right image to support his unearthed artifacts as a carnal chase..."pursuing the proof with all the intensity of a hunter, the adrenalin flowing until the moment of the kill; then an instant of high elation and it's done."

My first ancestor to arrive in Virginia came from London in 1619 (a couple years before the Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth). He was killed by the natives during the massacre of 1622 (probably for pestering the tribes about their arts). This relative was a Hancock and was on the Berkeley Hundred at the time.

An elderly artist in Connecticut heard a little bit about my ancestry and assumed I descended from the Martin's Hundred. He felt compelled to give me his copy of Hume's book, Martin's Hundred, which is a very detailed description of the archaeological dig, full of interesting notes, such as Hume's preferring to be assisted by the College of William and Mary's football team for moving soil
in the steamy woods of the Virginia summer instead of getting help from his more sensitive and bookish students.

What is quite interesting, is that the colonial American objects, which Hume was finding in the tidewater clay but was having difficulty properly identifying and dating, were depicted in art produced in that period from northern Europe, where the items were created.

Hume explains:

...we have spent long hours trying to find parallels for our artifacts in the genre paintings of Dutch and Flemish artists. From the late sixteenth century until the 1670s, scores of painters fed an art market drawn from farmers and shopkeepers whose taste ran less to great religious and allegorical canvases than to simple tavern scenes-drunks fighting, soldiers playing cards, peasants dancing, and old men making the most of young milkmaids. The drunks have pots in their hands, the soldiers carry weapons, the peasants have laid aside their tools, and the milkmaids have jugs. Thus do we see our artifacts in contemporary settings, playing a part in the life of their time.

The importance of the art extends beyond the simple objects used as illustrative props. Engravings and paintings inform Hume and others about how fences were made, how settlements were planned and, sadly, how and when people were buried. One of the riddles of the Martin's Hundred site was a set of skeletons found with nails laid down their center like buttons. The wood coffins had disintegrated. From European engravings prior to that period, Hume could deduce that the colonists were using gabled coffins, which required nails to be hammered along the central pitch line.

The sources for Hume were eclectic. An engraving, which solved a fence construction problem came from a 1750 copy of The Country Housewife's Family Companion.

Hume reveals some more sources:

For the past thirty years Audrey (his wife) and I have been collecting copies of sixteenth- to nineteenth-century genre art (pictures of paintings clipped from magazines; postcards, slides, sales catalogues) and we have assembled a fairly catholic library of pictures books that run a gamut from European museum catalogues to a pictorial history of ladies' underwear. Thus our approach to most archaeological problems is to turn to the pictures.