Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Geier and Potter (eds): "Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War"

[Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter (University Press of Florida, 2003). Softcover, maps, drawings, photos, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. Pages: 448. ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-2651-0 $27.95]

A fascinating 1980s National Geographic article on the projectile mapping of the Little Bighorn battlefield was my introduction to modern battlefield archaeology. The technology and methodology introduced was truly novel and supplied a professional model for others to follow. Much of this legacy is wonderfully displayed in Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War.

Considering the mainstream popularity of both the ACW and archaeology, it is a bit surprising to see so few books utilize the intersection at depth [Earl Hess's scholarly field fortification studies published by UNC Press immediately comes to mind]. This volume, edited by anthropologist Clarence Geier and archaeologist Stephen Potter, makes a very strong case for promoting the role of inter-disciplinary archaeological study in the examination of Civil War history. Archaeological Perspectives contains a great number of articles that should enlighten interested readers as to method & technique, and how they can be used to draw conclusions about not only battles and battlefields, but also everyday life in camps, hospitals, farms, towns, and forts -- the material culture and lifestyle of both soldiers and civilians.

At the heart of this collection of essays is the view of the Civil War battlefield as a "cultural landscape" that cannot be fully understood without input from a variety of academic disciplines. Historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists take the lead in this cooperative effort. While the focus is on the work of professionals in these fields, it is refreshing to see an acknowledgment of the pioneering work done by amateurs in the use of metal detection technology.

The book's eighteen chapters [see this link for a complete table of contents] are too densely detailed and variable in content to independently cover in a review of this length, but some general comments are in order. The volume is divided into three main parts [I - Tactics and the Conduct of Battle, II - The Home Front and Military Life, III - New Methods and Techniques]. Articles in Part I discuss the use of archaeological data in determining battle lines and tactical movements [at Brawner's Farm and Cool Spring]. Other chapters deal with archaeological issues surrounding the submarine C.S.S. Hunley, field fortifications at Atlanta, and the interdisciplinary approach used to identify individual remains on the battlefield. In Part II, readers learn about artifact analysis and its role in the study of the material culture of military camps, along with farms, towns, and other aspects of domestic life affected by the conflict. Part III details the field's use of modern technology and methodology. Survey techniques (including metal detecting) are discussed, as well as projectile analysis and artifact distribution mapping and analysis. Rarely does an edited compilation cover so much ground, and in such depth of detail and analysis. Additionally, the reader is struck throughout by the practical (and broad) usefulness of the research data obtained by these studies. Rather than providing incremental advancements to narrow specialties, the knowledge gained from these studies overlaps expansively into other fields.

In addition to the quality of the text, Archaeological Perspectives is wonderful to look at. It is profusely illustrated with photographs, drawings, battle maps, tables, artifact maps, and distribution plots. These figures and illustrations are intimately tied to the text, an essential aid to reader understanding.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this fascinating survey of Civil War archaeology to a broad range of readers. It's detailed enough for a specialist to appreciate, yet will not overwhelm the interested generalist with technical minutiae. Highly recommended.


See also, a companion volume Huts and History: The Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War (Univ Press of Florida, 2006).

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