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October 22, 2009
By Mary Hunton
In the field of archaeology, individuals tend to get overlooked in favor for the broader population. However, in her new book “The Materiality of Individuality,” Professor Carolyn White and the 11 other authors whose works compile the piece are doing just the opposite.
“It’s looking at the individual in the archeological record,” White said. “Usually archeologists end up studying how groups of people did things so I was interested in exploring how we can look at the individual scale as opposed to the big picture.”
The point of the book is to emphasize and study the individual through material culture by studying personal objects. There are many different ways to approach this. White, for example, wrote her addition to the book on shoes, while others have looked at more unusual artifacts, such as bodkins and Spanish toothpicks.
“Archeologists love things that you find all over the place, like ceramics and glass,” White said. “This is the chance to look at the things that we don’t find in very big numbers. By looking at these particular objects you get to focus attention on things you haven’t gotten to focus on before. It’s a lot more object centered as opposed to looking at sites more broadly.”
By using objects, White and the other authors are attempting to show people a different way to look at people in the past on a more personal level.
“In this sense I think it’s just trying to look at objects in the way that they were used, trying to make people think about how people used objects in the past,” White said. “It forces you to think of the things that we study in the past as owned by specific people.”
Looking into the individual nature of objects can also help in the bigger scheme of things. According to White it is more of a “treat” to view the individual through these material means, but it is also important when looking at the broader scope of an archeological site or population.
“Groups are composed of individuals,” she said. “I think that by looking at individuals you get a much better sense of the diversity of the group and of the individual composition of all of those people.”
“The Materiality of Individuality” has been in the works for three years. White first presented the idea at The Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting in 2006 and the idea took off. The authors who contributed come from all over the world, and they have written pieces on a variety of different subjects and locations, ranging from colonial Louisiana to Hawaii to the World War II warfronts in Europe.
“It’s a broad cross section, which I think is cool,” White said. “Historical archaeology is a really blossoming field in a lot of different places so it’s moved on from being very focused on a regional perspective and it’s becoming a lot more global. I think that anyone would find someone of interest in (the book). It has a broad appeal.”
The book will be available at the University library soon, and White intends to use selections from it for her classes and a seminar she is holding next spring.