Friday, June 16, 2006

HBO archaeology!

I just finished watching the historical featurette on the ‘special features’ DVD of the second season of the fantastic HBO series Deadwood. It’s really quite striking the amount of historical research that appears to have gone into the making of the show, which surely accounts for a large part of its quality.

Of interest to readers might be the fact that some of the commentators are historical archaeologists who talk about the results of excavations of the Chinese section of the original Deadwood settlement, focusing especially on what the recovered artifacts can tell us about daily life there in the late 19th Century. All in all, a good way to make accessible to a wide audience the kinds of things archaeology offers to our understanding of life in the past.

I wondered about the statement of a South Dakota State Historical Society archaeologist about how “The archaeological record doesn’t lie… it’s there.” While the archaeological record is certainly always ‘there,’ it’s important to emphasize that it only doesn't lie because, by itself, it’s completely silent! Archaeologists and historians can only base their scenarios about life in the past on these data… and on their perspective on a given question. This point, thankfully, is made later on in the featurette when a Black Hills State University historian mentions that “history is itself interpretation.” So true for archaeology as well! Which is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the available data are used to construct sound, empirically-grounded interpretations and that the 'interpreters' are explicit about their biases.

Good job to the creators of Deadwood for emphasizing these elements in the featurettes while still showing how archaeology matters, and for continuously making this one of the most thought-provoking shows out there!

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