In Small Things Forgotten

Decoding the Past

At the start of his classic 1977 book on archaeology, In Small Things Forgotten, James Deetz offers the reader seven vignettes of daily life from 1658 Plymouth, Massachusetts to 1932 Independence, Virginia. In each, he describes individuals going about the familiar tasks of their daily routines. In one from 1765, a gravestone maker sets down his hammer and chisel after completing a “new”, more popular design. In another, a banjo player experiments with a form of finger picking he had heard on the radio. And lastly, Deetz tells of a tax appraiser itemizing the worldly goods of someone recently deceased. The appraiser’s final entry listed some of the less noteworthy items as, “In small things forgotten, eight shillings sixpence.”

As Deetz writes, “Such a concern for the material objects of the past, the ‘small things forgotten,’ is central to the work of historical archaeology. Archaeology is the study of past peoples based on the things they left behind and the ways they left their imprint on the world. Chipped-stone hand axes made hundreds of thousands of years ago and porcelain teacups from the eighteenth century carry messages from their makers and users. It is the archaeologist’s task to decode those messages and apply them to our understanding of the human experience.”

View Some of the Artifacts of Carroll's Hundred