Ways to make the past a story

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

History is often told in one of two ways. First, and most commonly, it is told in a time line, starting with the early days, and proceeding, as a lifetime would, building myriad threads over time. A second common way history is told is to pick a theme or topic, and discuss that, which means other topics and threads need to be incorporated to fully tell the story of the narrow topic. Of course, when each version is finished, a more comprehensive history has been generated.

Archaeology is like history in that it is often discussed as a timeline or via a topic. This website has two versions of Georgia’s archaeological past, both presented in a sequential form. Scott Jones’s “Reconstructing the Past: Archaeology and Experimentation” is an excellent and readable summary of Georgia’s past. On this website, we also offer a summary of our state’s past in a table, “A summary of Georgia’s archaeological sequence.”

History and prehistory can also be told from a narrower perspective. A place or person can anchor a summary of the past; this introduces the quirks and idiosyncrasies that happen in one place, but are eliminated in a more global version. The past can also be told using a topic as the anchor.

Caldwell 2011 cover

In 2011, the University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology Series Reports published (online only; scroll down) Survey and Excavations of the Archaeological Resources of the Allatoona Reservoir, by Joseph R. Caldwell as Report Number 63. This document was constructed by Mark Williams and a raft of graduate students, using Caldwell’s notes and drafts. Lake Allatoona, as it is now known, is a large reservoir north of Atlanta on the Etowah River; construction on the dam began in the summer of 1946. As Caldwell notes on page 109:

As stated in the beginning, the approach to the Allatoona materials was to define the prehistoric cultural groupings in this portion of the Etowah Valley and to find out their chronological sequencing and other relationships. In attempting to pull the Allatoona material together, and to ascertain various relationships, the data are presented as a chronological narrative. If nothing else, this will delineate the limitations of present knowledge.

Thus, Caldwell’s report is the story of one section of a major river in the Georgia Piedmont. By reading it, you will also understand the human past in the Piedmont, and in Georgia in general.

Fraser Rimas Empires cover

Contrast Caldwell’s report on the cultural resources that would be flooded by a US Army Corps of Engineers dam with Evan D.G. Fraser’s and Andrew Rimas’s 2010 book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Free Press/Simon & Schuster). Fraser and Rimas have chosen to tell a story of the past by focusing on food. This is an excellent choice because we all eat, and, given the chance, we often eat foods that are not immediately available around us, at least sometimes (e.g., during special or ritual meals). This volume, the authors say (page xiii), “is about how food, economics, agriculture, and human empires are all strands of the same narrative.” They continue on page 7:

Food empires are the subject of this book. The are what urban societies create to feed themselves. In their simplest formation, they’re webs of farms and trails, rivers and vegetation, all of which function to deliver food from a piece of tilled land to a cluster of interested eaters. To do this well, more food must be created than the producers themselves wish to eat. The food must also be preserved and shipped on the winding journey from farmer to diner. And the food empire needs a mechanism for exchanging the food between these parties.

So, Caldwell discusses the past via a place, the land along a section of the Etowah River. And, Fraser and Rimas discuss the past anchoring their story in a theme, food, and the economics of food production, distribution, and exchange. Both tell an interesting story of the past.

A powerful exercise is if you can get these two tales, both interesting on their own, to intersect. Putting aside how urban the settlements are that Caldwell discusses—since that is a critical element of the “food empires” that Fraser and Rimas detail—how does focusing on food production and distribution help us understand the past in the Allatoona area better? Conversely, how do the details about material culture that Caldwell reports give us insight into food production and exchange patterns, which Fraser and Rimas discuss for other parts of the world, along the Etowah River?