How important is dating?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

This is the website of the Society for Georgia Archaeology, so the dating we’re talking about is “how old…” not a kind of courtship behavior.

Deetz In Small Things revised cover

Current cover of the 1997 revised edition of In Small Things Forgotten.

James Deetz, in his famous book In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life, first published in 1977 and still in print, wrote (page 16 of the original Doubleday Anchor Books edition):

Chronology in archaeology is one of the cornerstones for all analysis. The determination of the age of this or that archaeological site is critical before any consideration of process through time can be attempted.

Chronology refers to establishing the order of events or perhaps objects. Chronologies are often presented in tabular form, often in a vertical or horizontal timeline. The clock, whether analog or digital, is a kind of timeline. Consider a the chronology of a class…students and instructor arrive, class begins and later ends, and subsequently all depart.

Dating, then, is crucial to developing chronologies—which events happened before which other events. And chronologies of multiple places are the way to learn what happened before, after, or at the same time. Historical archaeologists like Dr. Deetz may be able to refer to documents to coordinate with archaeological information in developing chronologies. Similar information is not available to archaeologists investigating the remains of human activities that date prior to the written record.

Dr. Deetz’s book is a small, slim volume often listed as required reading in beginning courses in archaeology. The title refers to Dr. Deetz’s assertion that the story of the past is found in the small things, things that are so unimportant that they are often ignored. Indeed, the small things that indicate history extends to our own lives; as he noted on page 136:

The power and depth of the impact of the Renaissance is all around us, but in ways we rarely appreciate. The sense of loss experience when one of a set of dishes is broken and the pattern is no longer available, the elaborate filing of silver, glassware, and china patterns with stores so that proper wedding gifts may be purchased, the bilaterality of most mantelpiece arrangements, the positioning of the master of ceremonies and contestants at the Miss American Pageant, and the food we consume and its arrangement on the plate—these and countless other aspects of twentieth-century material culture bear witness to how complete and profound the effect has been.

Of his examples, the way he talks about dishes in complete sets may be foreign to you. People often are still familiar today with registries at stores, which are common ways to show your friends and family what you’d prefer they buy you—lists that many examine and order from online, without every entering the store—which wasn’t possible when Dr. Deetz wrote his book in the late 1970s!

Had you realized that the way people put objects on the mantel above a fireplace is a tradition of long-standing? Movie sets are careful to follow—or purposefully ignore—this tradition, even today.

So, look around you and think about things you do in your own life. What customary behavior patterns you are aware of may date back over several generations? Consider behaviors that are similar in different households you’ve visited or seen on television shows or in movies….

Also, think about how behaviors that carry on over several generations may affect chronologies. This is the “process through time” that Dr. Deetz mentioned in the first quote above.