Historical archaeology is a branch of study that pairs traditional archaeology methods with study of written or oral histories to provide context to the finds. Unlike prehistoric archeology, in which researchers have only the found artifacts to provide clues as to the nature of a civilization or social group, historical archaeology provides a much broader picture of the subject. In some cases, these studies have even challenged or overturned the traditional historical explanation of events.
The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 is one of the most studied military engagements in American history. Gen. George Custer's last stand, however, became a great mystery, with no surviving U.S. accounts remaining of the battle's last moments. For decades, historians ignored American Indian accounts of the battle, basing their inferences only on what physical evidence remained at the site and creating a decidedly incomplete picture of the action. Only after archaeologists began comparing the physical evidence to the written and oral accounts passed down by the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes involved in the conflict did a complete picture of the two-day battle's sequence come to light.
Historical archaeology also helped create a more complete picture of the slave experience through the 19th century. Because most slaves could not read or write, most of the documents related to the experience of slavery came from the plantations and plantation owners and presented a biased and incomplete view of what happened. Comparing the narratives passed down from slaves to their descendants with physical artifacts from the time period helped historians flesh out their understanding of the practice of slavery in America and how those subjected to such brutal treatment managed to survive and support each other.
King Richard III of England was always depicted as a hunch-backed, twisted figure, although historians had difficulty determining how much of this description was true and how much was the invention of later occupants of the throne trying to demonize the monarch. His tomb was lost during the Reformation, and more than five centuries passed before an archaeological dig in Leicester, England, discovered a particularly distinctive set of remains beneath a car park. DNA testing using genetic material from his descendants proved that the skeleton belonged to Richard III, and its pronounced scoliosis proved that his enemies had not made up his physical deformities.
The Rosetta Stone
In some cases, a single discovery can unlock an entire field of archaeology. Until the 18th century, archaeologists studying ancient Egypt were unable to decipher the hieroglyphs covering tombs and monuments. In 1799, however, Napoleon's army discovered a stone inscribed with a decree rendered in hieroglyphs, demotic Egyptian characters and Greek. This proved to be the key to unlocking the symbolic language, giving archaeologists the ability to decipher texts they never thought they would understand and revealing much of the story of the ancient pharaohs.
- Smithsonian Magazine: How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won
- Journal of Interdisciplinary History: Historians and Historical Archaeology: Slave Sites
- New Georgia Encyclopedia: Slave Narratives
- University of Leicester: Richard III: Archaeology
- HistoryNet: Discovery: The Bones of King Richard III
- The British Museum: The Rosetta Stone
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images