Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The World in a Bead

During our June field session with the Archeological Society of Maryland, the PTAP team found what we called a Contact Period site, the evidence being this small glass trade bead (see below). Barrel-shaped and only about 3/8ths of an inch long and a little less than that in diameter (9.5 by 9 mm), green on the interior with bands of green, red, and white on the exterior, this is a classic artifact representing exchange between Europeans and Indians. Associated with Late Woodland pottery (Potomac Creek) and a serrated triangular projectile point in a nearby block of excavation units, there is no doubt that we have an Indian site that was occupied after, and possibly before as well, the arrival of Europeans. Pete has already written about a different trade bead recovered last year next to the Burch House, suggesting an extensive occupation.

Glass trade bead recovered from Unit 13, Stratum 3.

Following common archaeological usage, we referred to this component of the site as Contact Period. The term always bothered me a little...it suggests that Indians and Europeans confronted one another momentarily and then, what? No more Indians, that's what. They disappear from the research agenda. Yet Indians undeniably still live in the Chesapeake region and, while the State of Maryland has not legally recognized any of the descendants of those who first met the colonists, Virginia has. Indians whose families have lived in Southern Maryland for centuries survive and especially their history from the 17th century to the present warrants scholarly study as much as that of any group, perhaps more so because they have received so little of the scholarly attention that other cultural groups take for granted.

The term 'contact' is not solely responsible for scholarly oversight, but it plays a part. Following some ideas put forth by archaeologist Stephen Silliman a few years ago (American Antiquity 70[1]: 55-74, 2005), I propose that we question the use of the concept and, instead, think about colonialism as a process of which Indians were a part. We can look at how local bands confronted colonialism through resistance and acquiescence, surviving racism and retaining or rediscovering their identities. Perhaps we can find the cultural continuity through archaeological remains that links Maryland's current Indian populations with those recorded by John Smith 400 years ago.


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