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Journal of Social Archaeology ARTICLE

Copyright 2002 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
Vol 2(1): 109134 [1469-6053(200202)2:1;109134;020599]

The political economy of archaeological

Marxism and American historical archaeology
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Hofstra University

Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland College Park

Department of Anthropology, Columbia University

The application of Marxist theory in American historical archaeology
has expanded greatly over the past 20 years. More than just a theor-
etical tool, the rise of Marxism reflects an emerging consciousness
within historical archaeology that its subject matter is capitalism, an
interest obviously shared with Marx himself. We propose, however,
that historical archaeology has proceeded to study the emergence of
the modern culture of capitalism without engaging Marxs critique of
the political economy of cultural production in any direct way.
Instead, much of historical archaeology reifies past cultural formations
in place of maintaining a focus on the dialectical social processes
through which those formations emerged. We illustrate how a Marxist


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approach to cultural production improves the foundational historical

archaeologies of the colonial American state and African-American
ethnogenesis and is the basis for archaeologically-based critiques of
dominant American society.

African America archaeology critical archaeology critique
ethnogenesis historical hoodoo lifeworld Marxism Maryland


Marxism emerged in American archaeology in response to the mostly athe-

oretical products of archaeology before the 1960s. During that revolution-
ary decade, archaeologists were challenged to make more meaningful and
sound conclusions about their data through the development and appli-
cation of more elaborate theory. It was argued that theory could advance
just so archaeological stories by making archaeologists elucidate the
logical intellectual processes used to interpret their data. Despite the
volatility of the 1960s, the majority of American archaeologists crafted
approaches that emphasized ecological factors and cultural adaptation at
the expense of social dialectics and conflict. These approaches typically
employed evolution and systems theory. Evolution provided a long-term
understanding of the motivating forces in the past: as populations grew and
environments changed, cultures adapted. Systems theory provided a means
to tie the various parts of archaeological cultures together: artifacts, features
and sites made sense as parts of a whole. These conclusions appeared
logical, as were the intellectual and scientific processes used to discover
them. For some, however, neither theory was satisfactory in light of the con-
flicting cultural forces which occupied the public imagination of the time.
Considering the social contradictions regarding race, gender and class,
the violence which erupted in the United States associated with the Civil
Rights movement and the Vietnam War and its protest, and the increased
scrutiny of academic claims to objectivity, the models of cultural and social
change found in evolution and systems theory seemed less accurate depic-
tions of society than hoped-for ideals of social harmony. For some archae-
ologists Marxism provided a more realistic model of culture and social
change. Rather than seeing an orderly and structured whole, Marx saw
society as an amalgamation of discontinuous interests, often in conflict,
forged and reproduced as an entity through struggle and domination.
Additionally, instead of seeing social change as adaptation to external
forces, Marx asserted that change resulted from internal and historical

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contradictions that influenced the actions of interested agents, guiding them

to seek the satisfaction of their own needs regardless, and often at the
expense, of others.
We feel this approach has great merit, and, especially as historical archae-
ology has in the last decade embraced a more reflexive and theoretically
sophisticated stance, it deserves to be reviewed. It is our goal to show that
Marxism offers a useful and relevant approach to the social formations
considered in historical archaeology. We strongly believe that the Marxist
insistence on political economy as opposed to culture, and social produc-
tion as opposed to identity allows new insights and trains the focus of
archaeological research on those aspects of past material conditions and
social action most relevant to the construction of the modern world.
In this paper we offer a Marxist re-consideration of the two main cul-
tural transitions that have framed research in American historical archae-
ology over the past quarter century: (1) the transition from folk/medieval
to modern/Georgian culture most famously formulated by Deetz (1977)
and since widely adopted by others; and (2) the genesis of African-Ameri-
can culture, a research topic that more than any other has made American
historical archaeology significant to related disciplines and publics outside
the academy. Our approach to these topics is Marxist because we focus on
how these cultural changes illuminate the struggles regarding the processes
of social and cultural reproduction within given political economic con-
ditions. The focus in our reconsiderations is thus not on what cultural
expressions might allow us to define the material record, but on how the
material record is evidence of a transformation in the ways culture was


A Marxist approach moves beyond the reconstruction of past material

conditions to extract from these notions of consciousness that were relevant
to the sorts of social life that produced the archaeological record. True to
Marx, we do not support an understanding that puts the base before the
superstructure, but rather an interpretation that draws a great deal from the
conviction that consciousness derives from the structural order of produc-
tion in a very broad sense. Indeed, Marxism rejected the idealism of Hegel
and others who saw the determining forces of self and society to be ideas,
symbols and abstractions which superseded the events of everyday life and
provided coherent meaning for action. For Marx, these abstractions
obscured the real forces, activities and contradictions that formed and
limited the capacity for social action. At the same time, Marxism distances
itself from other forms of materialism, such as the cultural materialism of

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Harris (1979), because the latter accepted an unreasonable distinction

between a determining base and an epiphenomenal superstructure (Fried-
man, 1974; Roseberry, 1989). The problem with this sort of materialism is,
as Roseberry (1989: 26) wrote, not that it is too materialist but that it is not
materialist enough. Rather, culture, consciousness, social relations and
ideas, when considered as media and guides for social activity, are as mate-
rially relevant as any environmental or biological forces. In order to be
introduced into the social process and reproduced, in fact, ideas must be
materialized in speech, activity, printing, the creation and use of material
culture, or the engineering of landscapes.
Understood materially, culture is a major factor in the historical con-
ditions which affect and determine action. Marxists agree with many of their
critics that cultural knowledge acts as an ordering principle that allows
individuals to interpret and understand reality. Yet, since Marxists argue
that culture is connected and responsive to action, a Marxian conception of
culture is much more fluid and yielding than most traditional anthropologi-
cal formulations. How we know the world is determined neither by our
material conditions nor our conception of those conditions, but through the
dialectical social process of our engagement with the world, both materially
and intellectually. In any given situation, therefore, cultural knowledge is as
subject to change by action as action is informed and determined by our
preconceptions. Furthermore, this concatenation of culture and action is a
constant process (Roseberry, 1989: 43) and truly the subject matter of
social inquiry.
This point is why Marxists typically relate culture and power. Recog-
nizing culture as a form of social production (rather than a completed
product or text) allows for questions about the social relations which are
being created, contested and naturalized in the cultural process, and how
these relations are employed uncritically in the interpretation of social
action rather than being the subject of social action and analysis. We concur
with Roseberry that if culture is a text, it is not everyones text. Beyond the
obvious fact that it means different things to different people or different
sorts of people, we must ask who is (or are) doing the writing? Or, to break
with the metaphor, who is doing the acting, the creating of the cultural forms
we interpret? (1989: 24).
In this paper we consider these questions in the settings of two dramatic
past cultural transformations with clear repercussions in the present. In the
transition from folk/medieval to modern/Georgian culture we re-examine
previous archaeological work (Leone, 1995; Leone and Hurry, 1998; Miller,
1988, 1994) to explore the process of state inscription in the production of
urban landscapes in colonial Maryland. With this example we demonstrate
that this transition represented a fundamental change in relations of domi-
nance, the centrality of state-system activities to this transition, and how
state-system manipulations and misrepresentations of space produced,

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reproduced and continue to reproduce a hegemonic state-idea. To consider

the archaeology of African-American ethnogenesis we explore the theme
of domination and resistance, a fundamental aspect of social power which
has found abundant elaboration in historical archaeology (e.g., Beaudry et
al., 1991; Leone, 1984; Orser, 1996; Paynter and McGuire, 1991). Here we
seek to better theorize resistance by elucidating how a critique of dominant
culture was an embedded aspect of the way enslaved African Americans
articulated alternative social formations to those of their oppressors.
Finally, we explore how a Marxist critical theory is useful and relevant to
understanding why these main themes in American historical archaeology
have emerged as foundational issues in the discipline. In particular, we offer
a reflection on the relationship between contemporary African-American
political consciousness and our practice of African-American archaeology
in Annapolis, Maryland, to show how the dialogue which surrounds
African-American archaeology (and is tied to the power that has fractured
American society along the lines of race) might be acknowledged, under-
stood and critiqued in archaeological practice.


Although prehistoric archaeologists have spent a great deal of energy

investigating the origins, organization and development of the state, it is
rarely a focus of inquiry in historical archaeology. This is despite the fact
that the consolidation of the modern state in Europe and its export across
the globe could easily be ranked as one of the major haunts (Orser, 1996)
of the modern era, along with more-studied factors such as capitalism and
colonialism. As with capitalism (Wolf, 1982), the worldwide emergence of
states was not a result of the export of a tidy, finished state module to
peripheral areas by Europeans. The European state itself has a complex
history that required much internal reorganization and experiment both at
home and abroad (e.g., Abrams, 1988; Anderson, 1983; Corrigan and Sayer,
1985; Hechter, 1975; Skocpol, 1979; Stolar, 1995).
In general, the study of the state by historical archaeologists suffers for
two reasons. First, the state is often viewed solely as an extension of the class
system. It is believed that since the state is created and manipulated by the
dominant class, that the class system explains the state and there is no need
to study the state separately. Second, the very pervasiveness of the state in
our own societies inhibits its study. The state seems too big, ungraspable. It
is deeply entangled in almost every aspect of our daily lives, from the
numbers on our houses and the codes that govern how they are built to the
layout of our towns and cities, from the health and safety rules in our work-
places to the currency that appears to sustain us and the licenses that seem

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to prove our identities. This penetration of the state into our daily lives
makes it difficult to imagine times and places where this was not the case.
Clearly both preconceptions need to be thoroughly re-examined. As
Skocpol (1979: 28) reminded us, Marx never claimed that states simply were
creations of the dominant class. The state, although closely related to the
class system, is at least potentially autonomous from it; the connections
between the class system and the state have to be investigated empirically,
not prejudged. The second misperception that of the naturalness of the
modern state is more difficult to correct. Abrams (1988) believed that the
conflation of two separate phenomena in the phrase the state is part of the
problem. One aspect is the state-system, the institutions and offices that
exist in a naive empirical sense (Abrams, 1988: 71), in other words the
state that can be looked up in a government telephone book and the state
that we practically experience every day. The other is the state-idea, a
tradition culturally inscribed into everyday consciousness by dominant
forces so that the state-system is viewed as an integrated expression of
common interest cleanly dissociated from all sectional interests (Abrams,
1988: 76). The inscription of the state-idea produces a contradiction because
it attributes unity, morality, and independence to the disunited, amoral and
dependent workings of the practice of government (Abrams, 1988: 81).
A fundamental task for historical archaeologists is to trace the origins of
the modern state, to penetrate its murky history in terms of the appropria-
tion of vast amounts of labor for the state-system and the genesis and repro-
duction of the selective tradition of the state-idea. Both aspects are
fundamentally cultural and fundamentally about power. To illustrate this
point, we re-examine the medieval-to-Georgian transition (Deetz, 1977;
more properly the post-medieval-to-Georgian transition, per Johnson,
1996) in Maryland.
Numerous studies (e.g., Deetz, 1977; Glassie, 1975; Yentsch, 1991) have
identified a dramatic transformation in Anglo-American material culture
around the beginning of the eighteenth century involving a switch from
naturalistic, communal forms (such as shared eating trenchers and asym-
metrical, accretional house construction) to mechanical, individualized
forms (such as personal place settings and precisely symmetrical architec-
ture). This transformation was also a transition from many regional folk
cultures to one encompassing popular culture. The hallmark of folk
culture is its local character: decisions, such as those about building and
adding on to houses, are made on the basis of knowledge rooted in local
conditions. Initially the spatial isolation of Britains North American
colonies (both from the mother country and from each other) generated
and perpetuated localism. Then, around the beginning of the eighteenth
century, the reintegration of British and colonial cultures in the new
Georgian order ended this folk period.
The transition from many folk cultures to one modern culture was far

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from a neutral change in mindset. Georgian forms were derived from an

inscribed logic that ignored and denigrated local conditions. Symmetry,
order and imposed rules of behavior were made more important than local
terrain, available materials or local habits; variable folk forms and behaviors
were ousted and replaced by standardized abstract practices. It is striking
that this cultural transformation occurred at the same time as a renewed
British interest in regulating and supervising affairs in the colonies at the end
of the seventeenth century (Webb, 1979, 1984, 1995). We thus argue that
Georgian cultural formulations were an exercise in the logic of empire, and
that Georgian culture was introduced and naturalized by the colonial state.
Examination of the role of the colonial state in the post-medieval-to-
Georgian transition provides further evidence that this transition was funda-
mentally about the institutionalization of dominance and class relations.
Evidence from the well-studied example of colonial Maryland (e.g.
Leone, 1995; Leone and Hurry, 1998; Miller, 1988, 1994) provides a con-
crete archaeological illustration of how the new imperial state-system
played a fundamental role in the inscription of a new cultural logic and a
new aggressive and expansionary state-idea. From 1660 to 1710, two sepa-
rate systems operated in Maryland: the essentially medieval proprietary
regime of the Catholic Calvert family from 1660 to 1689, and a Georgian
Royal administration from 1692 to 1710. The study of these systems shows
that each operated effectively through the transformation of common
practical consciousness (Gramsci, 1971; Roseberry, 1989) by manipulating
space in ways that made it necessary for people to experience Georgian
forms. The creation of Georgian spaces also served as the groundwork for
the inscription of state-ideas upon people already exposed to (if not
dominated by) Georgian forms during their everyday experience. However,
the two examples contrast in that only the Royal administration determined
that the most effective means to inscribe a state-idea upon the populace was
in the misrepresentation of the power and function of the state-system
through the manipulation of space.
A first, and largely unsuccessful, effort to inscribe the proprietary state
was the town plan designed for Marylands capital, St Marys City, around
1666. Identified through the archaeological research of Henry Miller (1988;
see also Leone and Hurry, 1998), the baroque plan at St Marys City created
virtually inescapable vistas of authority. The plan (Figure 1) consisted of
two roughly equivalent triangles meeting at a central point. Important
buildings including a state house, prison, a Jesuit chapel and what docu-
ments indicate was possibly a school run by the Jesuits were constructed
at the far corners of the triangles during the 1660s and 1670s. The St Marys
City plan can be considered a bald attempt to inscribe a theoretical under-
standing of the proprietary state. In the state triangle, there was a direct
association between legal authority the state house, which housed both
the assembly and the courts and repression, starkly visible in the form of

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116 Journal of Social Archaeology 2(1)

the prison. Although the church triangle was distinct from the state tri-
angle, there is no doubt that the Calverts intended it to demonstrate the
fundamental importance of Catholicism to the proprietary colony, despite
the fact that Catholics could not even hold office in Britain and over 75%
of Marylands population was Protestant.
The St Marys City example illustrates that state-sponsored inscription
attempts do not always work. Since the state-idea behind the plan was
entirely overt, the symbolism of the St Marys City plan was representative
of the state-system and could be readily considered and accepted, rejected
or ignored by residents and visitors. The high visual profile of the massive
brick chapel and brick prison at St Marys City must have challenged
Protestant malcontents, a difficult strategy where Protestants were in the
majority. This inscription of highly charged local symbols in all likelihood
exacerbated rather than mollified political tensions within the colony.
However, some of the secondary aspects of the St Marys City plan pro-
duced more subtle and enduring effects on the colonial consciousness by
manipulating spaces that were used every day. The archaeology of the

Figure 1 Plan of St Marys City, Maryland, c. 1666

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Countrys House inn site reveals the gradual transformation of property

boundaries in St Marys City (Miller, 1994). In the 1630s and 1640s fence
lines at the Countrys House followed the natural topography, paralleling a
nearby riverbank and ravine. Then in 1666 an official survey (likely a part
of the town plan) formally set the plots boundaries and imposed a rectan-
gular form. Documents show that the surveyor tied his measurements to
locally-named landmarks such as the Highway and a nearby office. In 1678
the property was re-surveyed and its shape was reduced from a long rec-
tangle to a square. This time, the surveyors notes contained no references
to local landmarks; the property is described entirely in terms of compass
bearings and measured distances. Archaeology demonstrates that in both
instances the owners of the Countrys House dutifully built fences that con-
formed to the redefinition of their property.
The change in the surveyors conceptualization of the land was part and
parcel of the emerging Georgian logic. The Georgian order promoted the
replacement of local knowledge with exclusive, supra-local forms in sur-
veying and many other domains: reading a map instead of knowing your
way around, marking time by a clock instead of by the sun, reading written
music instead of playing by ear, designing and imposing a baroque town
plan rather than following natural contours. These rationalizations created
knowledge that was produced and controlled by experts instead of by
common people, and perfectly adequate local sets of knowledge were
superseded by those that required outside assistance. The Georgian order
led to the domination of those who did not have the new forms of know-
ledge by those who did. In this manner the symmetry, order and abstract
rationality of the new fences which followed the town plan hemmed in resi-
dents and visitors and made state-imposed forms more important than the
contours of the landscape in defining daily movement and practice. The
state brought Georgian forms to ordinary people and made them
inescapable natural parts of their daily lives, laying the groundwork for
their later expanded use.
In 1692, proprietary rule in Maryland was replaced by Royal adminis-
tration. Francis Nicholson, the second Royal governor, instituted a sweep-
ing set of reforms that rationalized and centralized the administration of the
colony and tied it more securely to the British empire through the appli-
cation of exclusive forms of knowledge (Jordan, 1966). The state-system
that the Royal governors created in Maryland was definitely a Georgian one
based on rational precedent, codified law and centered around the pos-
sessive individual (MacPherson, 1962). It clearly has ties to the idea of a
unified, non-sectarian state expressing the general will, the same state-idea
that underlies many modern state-systems, including that of the USA. The
introduction of Georgian landscapes and practices in the proprietary period
laid the groundwork for the successful introduction of such a legitimating

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118 Journal of Social Archaeology 2(1)

The Royal administration also created an intentional landscape that

attempted to inscribe its own state-idea. This was initiated by moving the
provincial capital from St Marys City to Anne Arundel Town on the Severn
River, which was re-christened Annapolis. Nicholson designed a baroque
town plan for the new capital that appears to be quite different from that
of St Marys City (Leone, 1995; Leone and Hurry, 1998; Reps, 1972). The
three main elements in Nicholsons plan (Figure 2) were State Circle, 520
feet across and on the highest knoll in the town; Church Circle, a smaller
circle on the second highest point; and Bloomsbury Square, an intended
cosmopolitan residential district that was never built. Major thoroughfares
radiated from the two circles, a brick state house and school were built in
State Circle and an Anglican church was constructed in Church Circle.
The plan was clearly an attempt to associate state and church visually;
however, this time the state was unquestionably at the apex of the spatial
hierarchy. The area of State Circle is 2.25 times as large as that of Church
Circle, and the State House occupies the most prominent hill in the city. The
schoolhouse was placed within State Circle, rather than near the church as

Figure 2 Plan of Annapolis, Maryland, present day

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in St Marys City, providing unambiguous evidence for Nicholsons con-

ception of the expanding role of the state. However, in contrast to St Marys
City, the prison was located off Church Circle in a visually insignificant
position (Reps, 1972: Figure 81). Nicholson also mandated that tradesmen,
such as bakers, brewers, tanners and dyers, place their shops on the out-
skirts of town, a sufficient distance from the said town as may not be annoy-
ance thereto (Reps, 1972: 132). Through state control over the use of space,
there was a distinct cleaning-up of the center of town around the State
House and church. This cleaning-up had the effect of misrepresenting the
state-system and in the same stroke making it appear natural and timeless.
Viewing and moving through the center of Annapolis, ones conception of
the state-system could only be in the abstract, formed by a vision of grand
public buildings untainted by the more unpleasant reality of a highly visible
prison and not acknowledging the ebb and flow of economic enterprise, the
state-systems fundamental underpinning.
The Nicholson plan thus misrepresented and continues to misrepresent
social reality. Unlike the St Marys City plan, the Annapolis plan con-
tributed to its own legitimacy by making the physical experience of being in
Annapolis the experience of the centrality of the state. It achieves this effect
by making that experience timeless and neutral and by convincing a person
that s/he is not subject to the everyday expressions of state power. The
empty rationality of the depiction of the state-idea in Annapolis lulls any
fear of or mistrust in the state, instead providing a foundation for the states
active expansion.
Through the process of imposing a centralized, rational system of
administration and cultural domination, the state-systems in Maryland
encouraged the growth of the Georgian mindset by making people engage
in Georgian practices in Georgian settings. State-sponsored manipulation
of space and behavior thus played an important role both in the transform-
ation of post-medieval to Georgian culture and in laying the groundwork
for the expansion of modern state forms. The most effective of these
manipulations of space was the Annapolis plan that provided and continues
to provide a misleading everyday experience of the state.


We turn now from a consideration of the state-system forces that shaped

the dominant culture in early America to a consideration of those most
dominated by that system and culture: enslaved African Americans. We
show here how a Marxist perspective may contribute to the current under-
standing of African-American resistance through the development of a new
interpretation of several distinctly African-American features of the

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archaeological record that acted as a critique of dominant culture. While the

systems produced by colonial states in America structured life increasingly
from an abstract, non-local perspective, those subject to those systems and
sets of cultural knowledge found in their material conditions contradictions
and ruptures in the systems order that enabled resistance and critique. We
argue here that the genesis of African America results from a series of these
ruptures that were created as the dominant culture incompletely organized
the structures of everyday life and oppression.
To organize this discussion we employ the notion of separations pro-
posed by Barnett and Silverman (1979). Dominant cultures order lives by
explaining how and why experience might by separated into distinct
phenomenal categories. The purpose of anthropology, Barnett and Silver-
man argued, is to identify these categories and show how the actions that
result from their organization produce and reproduce culture and domi-
nation. In this sense, domination is reproduced by action which is itself
informed by and responsive to the cultural categorization of the elite, while
resistance may be understood to be action which, although acknowledging
the dominant order, is informed by and responsive to a critical and poten-
tially alternative cultural formation. In this consideration of African-
American resistance the point is to demonstrate how resistance was a
critique of the dominant order which dialectically bred new ways of living
in America.
Deetz (1994) indicated that the archaeological record of late seven-
teenth-century Virginia plantations shows an increase in locally-made
colonoware vessels attributed to African-American potters correlating with
a reduction in the average number of rooms per house. The smaller houses
are said to reflect a resolution of social tensions between masters and their
white indentured servants by the construction of separate houses for ser-
vants, thereby reducing overall house size. However, an additional aspect
of late seventeenth-century Chesapeake society (Jordan, 1979; Morgan,
1975) was the rise to prominence of the first sizable generation of native-
born, white property-owning men. Rather than accumulating capital
through servitude, these men inherited it, allowing them to expand into new
investments. So, even as white labor challenged the consolidation of an elite
class, masters subverted this challenge through the replacement of white
labor with more expensive enslaved Africans. This strategy not only sub-
ordinated labor but complicated the social order by creating a material dis-
tinction defined simultaneously by race and class. Deetzs finding of a
greater number of colonoware vessels during this period is evidence of this
transformation since, within the new slave-based system of production,
these vessels identify the emergence of a racially-framed social distinction
which segregated blacks and whites both physically and categorically
(compare Epperson, 1990, forthcoming).
The new racialized culture demonstrates a reconstruction of the

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dominant cultural order in response to a rupture in the system, but this was
only the first of a series of ruptures relevant to the ethnogenesis of African
America. Another stage is represented by the vessel forms of the
colonoware pots recovered from Virginia. Africans in Virginia were sub-
jected to white domination longer and under different conditions than in
other southern colonies, and Virginias colonoware vessels were more often
made in shapes resembling European forms than elsewhere. The presence
or absence of these copy vessels is usually attributed to the level of inter-
action between whites and blacks or Native Americans (Deetz, 1994;
Ferguson, 1992), with the greater number of copy vessels occurring in
areas of more intensive contact. Such a calculus, however, reduces the com-
plexities of social interaction to a factor of relative acquaintance. Such an
approach fails to consider that the production of these vessels may have not
been the result of market demands or cultural familiarity, but part of a con-
tentious cultural process of resistance. Rather than just reproducing famil-
iar forms, we suggest that Africans in Virginia were attempting to assert a
position within society that challenged the racial foundations of slavery. It
was certainly clear to enslaved Africans that Europeans were a different
sort of people based both on their superior economic, political and social
positions and their different cultural habits. To be more like them, such as
through the use of similar vessels, may have been a way to capture some of
what Europeans were and close the gap that not only differentiated
Africans from Europeans but subordinated them as well. These vessels
were thus used by Africans to critique the structures of domination and
challenge the cultural separation of blacks from white society. From the
dominant perspective, however, this practice identified another rupture
within the system and produced a new reaction that further removed blacks
from whites, through the invention of the slave quarter and the insti-
tutionalization of racism this represented and supported.1
We thus turn to consider the archaeology of racism (compare Babson,
1990) understood through the lens of cultural hegemony. The Marxian
notion of cultural hegemony articulated by Gramsci (1971) argued that
inscribed meanings such as state-enforced social order or the naturalness of
racial difference may be sustained even when such inscriptions are truly
contradictory to lived experience. In this sense, a belief in dominant cultural
ideals may outweigh and lead to a misinterpretation of actual material con-
ditions. Given this possibility for conflict between inscribed meanings and
lived experience, it is also true that the structured order of domination is
always positioned for change. The transition to a social order based on
racism in the Chesapeake exemplifies this process. The new order, never-
theless, was no more stable than the one it replaced. The new emphasis on
race simply required different positioning and thus opened new avenues for
critique. Now a social foundation, racism became an interstice in the social
system through which power could move from one group to another.

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The archaeological implications of this social construction are found in

the many examples that have been recently brought to light concerning
some potentially subversive religious practices associated with enslaved
African Americans and their descendants. At the heart of this research so
far has been evidence of the autonomy of African Americans, even given
the oppressive social conditions in which they lived. At this point we feel
there is the possibility for the incorporation of these data into a broader
theoretical framework than the assertion of limited autonomy allows. We
identify these activities, artifacts and features of African-American his-
torical material culture as a critique of the dominant white cultural order.
Upton (1990) argued that early Virginia landscapes bear the marks of
both white and black cultural orders, and he opposed these landscapes as
articulated versus informal constructions of space. The white gentry, backed
by the colonial state, created a landscape in which their houses, churches,
courthouses, and other public structures, as well as the roads and ways
which linked them, were conceived as an articulated spatial network
(Upton, 1990: 72). It seemed as if an order was cast over the whole of space
that marked their domination. Nevertheless, Upton showed that the actual
use of space by slaves reflected a separate power. Near to and inside their
houses, around utilitarian plantation buildings and in the fields, woods and
waterways space was under their control. These breaks in the articulated
white landscape reflect the interstices created by racism; exploring the
activities which occurred there allows us to explore the sources of differ-
ence and how these were used to critique the dominant order.
The current archaeological depiction of African-American cultural
autonomy has pointed to artifacts representative of a world-view with ties
to West Africa and a sort of spiritualism in which forces taken to be static
by the dominant ideology were instead believed to be quite active in the
construction of reality. Here we speak of the archaeological interpretations
of marks on colonoware vessels, root cellars, beads, crystals, coins, bones,
mirrors, cowrie shells, rings, gaming pieces, figas, reworked glass, stone and
ceramic sherds, as well as other objects (Brown and Cooper, 1990; Emerson,
1999; Ferguson, 1992; Jones, 2000; Leone and Fry, 1999; Logan et al., 1992;
McKee, 1992; Orser, 1994; Samford, 1996; Singleton, 1995; Stine et al., 1996;
Wilkie, 1996, 1997; Yentsch, 1992; Young, 1997). Taken as a whole, these
features comment on the notion of boundaries. For example, Ferguson
(1992) suggested that incised marks on colonoware vessels reproduced a
Bakongo cosmogram, and the fact that many of the vessels were found
under water indicated the practice of ritually pushing these vessels across
the boundary between land and water, which in Bakongo religion is inter-
preted to represent moving from the world of the living to the world of the
dead. A similar example can be made of the interpretations made concern-
ing color. Stine et al. (1996) argued that blue beads were more commonly
associated with African-American sites than others because of the special

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significance of the color. Blue, as it represented the sky and, thus, heaven,
was used by African Americans in different media such as house paint and
decorative beads to ward off ghosts and evil spirits.
We highlight the evidence these examples provide of the piercing of
boundaries. The actions undertaken were done in order to extend the
control of living people into the realm of the dead. The interpretation of
these efforts argues that these are examples demonstrative of the unique
development of African-American culture as a creolized version of West
African cultures in America. To date, however, there has been too little
emphasis on the American context in favor of understanding these practices
as continuations of West African traditions. Reconnecting these practices
to the attempted destabilization of institutionalized racism by African
Americans is important. We suggest that a Marxist perspective which argues
that if these actions represent resistance, then they must be a critique of
racial subordination, allows for an extension of this interpretation. The
boundaries being crossed were constructed in African-American belief
systems that spiritually animated physical features of the environment. On
the one hand, then, these practices reflect a distinct cultural order. However,
because these same physical features also acted, albeit in different ways, to
organize and determine the dominant white cultural order, we should not
overlook the social critique that was embedded within and shaped the form
of the African-American alternative.
Land, water, color, coins, stones and bowls were mute commodities in
the white, capitalist culture. Any enhanced meanings were, through a
cultural separation of the material from the spiritual, condensed and lost.
The meanings applied to these objects by African Americans, on the other
hand, reflect more than their utilitarian and exchange values and, in their
association with spiritualism, destabilized dominant meanings and chal-
lenged the legitimacy of the dominant order. Crossing spiritual boundaries
by venturing into forests and waterways and animating supposedly static
objects like earth, plants, water and sky did two things. First, it established
a new idea that the difference resulting from racism was as much a creation
of black as white action, in the sense that the creativity of Africans in
America identified alternatives to dominant sensibilities. Having suffered
in their earlier attempt to be like their masters, African Americans sought
to be increasingly unlike them as a way to challenge the claims to univer-
sality embedded within white cultural foundations. Second, these activities,
as they challenged the separations of the white cultural order, critiqued and
undermined the forces which established and relied on those separations.
We conclude this section with examples of this process.
Among others, McKee (1992) has shown that root cellars acted as hidey
holes in slave quarters where objects of special significance were stored or
stolen goods hidden. These features were common in slave quarters across
the American South, suggesting that they were a part of the African

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124 Journal of Social Archaeology 2(1)

adaptation to slavery in North America. Clearly, root cellars pierce bound-

aries, and the structures of white domination, and, like the other examples
given, can be seen as a critique of the dominant order through the practice
of alternative activities. However, McKee related that one of the goals of a
highly successful reform movement before the Civil War was to raise slave
cabins off the ground. This obviously eliminated the possibility of using
hidey holes and exemplifies the ongoing struggle for power between masters
and slaves. Embedded within a reform movement that led to changes and
improvements in the treatment of slaves including their housing was a
reassertion of master domination which directed the changes that were
made, often with the end of solving ancillary problems such as root cellars
being hidey holes for pilfered and sacred goods.
Eliminating root cellars re-asserted the dominance of masters over
slaves. Singleton (1995: 134) provides a comparable example, suggesting
that a decline in the use of colonoware vessels in the beginning of the nine-
teenth century reflects changing African-American resistance strategies
more so than assimilation. Perhaps, even more to the point, it reflects the
ongoing power relations that framed the contexts of slavery in which resist-
ance was, as she suggested, shifted to aspects of dress and personal adorn-
ment. The possibility that slaveowners encouraged slaves use of European
ceramics to assert their conformity to white domination is a question worth
exploring as long as this action is understood to be part of the struggle for
power in the contexts of slavery and racism.



This article has thus far reviewed applications of Marxist analysis in two
central problems in American historical archaeology. Here we wish to show
that the problems discussed have been embraced in historical archaeology
because they are relevant to defining the position of the discipline in the
modern world. Archaeology, as a way of constructing the past in the
present, is always entwined with current political contexts. Marxist critical
theory seeks to cast light on the origins of these modern conditions, specific-
ally those conditions that surround the information being interpreted within
the living, political context of its current use. Critical archaeology employs
Marxist critical theory to examine the tie between present and past so that
the politics of the research context are made visible in the routines of
archaeological practice. This is not normal either in prehistoric archaeology
or, far more particularly, in American historical archaeology.
Within historical archaeology, in addition to the examples presented
here, there have been several attempts to elucidate past social practices that

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Matthews, Leone & Jordan The political economy of archaeological cultures 125

are early versions of practices today, which are themselves both invisible
and operate to preserve class relations and the modern state-system. Orsers
work on tenancy (1988), Mullins work on the contradictions of African-
American consumerism (1999), Purcer on marginal Western farmers (1999),
Epperson on the foundations of North American racism (1990, forthcom-
ing), and Deetzs famous, but not class-conscious, work on the origins of
time and work discipline within the Georgian order (1977), all illustrate the
beginnings of current repressive social practices.
The type of critical theory that invokes such archaeological studies was
outlined by Lukacs (1971) who sought to justify the place of the historian
in socialist society. As a Marxist, he saw class as a fixture of capitalism and
the historian as the creator and sustainer of elements of the consciousness
that would act to facilitate knowledge of allies among exploited but divided
groups. He believed that such knowledge among members of the middle
and working classes could produce an understanding that life could be
different, and that this socially catalytic tie could occur if people saw life
when, or before, it became fixed as it is now. Historical archaeology, for
example, could show life before the modern state, before racism, before the
five-day working week, before the clock and alarm bell, before the fork,
napkin and manners arose as measures of civility. It could also show how
these practices bred their own critiques which survive in the present.
In the hands of some scholars, ideas like those proposed by Lukacs pro-
duced powerful descriptions of what life could be like separated from the
modern institutions which structure our lives. If we look at the work of the
Leakey family and other researchers on human origins in the context of
over a century and a half of the operation of Darwins theory of evolution,
we can see a profound, popular reorientation of an answer to the eternal
question: Where do we come from? These discoveries have made estab-
lished Christianity uneasy and have dislodged the Bible as the sole and
unquestioned answer. No American historical archaeological study yet is
among this class, even though one could be. In fact, American historical
archaeology is poised to choose knowledge of domination, slavery and
emancipation as the domain which could be analogous to human origins.
The field has not, however, picked the questions its scholarship will address.
Will it be: Is American society also African?, Does racism have to exist?,
Are class and poverty inevitable in modern capitalism?, Can American
society be truly democratic? Even though the question has not yet been
isolated, we are sure the discipline will choose from among these and answer
by producing archaeological knowledge of what created African and other
subaltern Americas.
To explain, we illuminate the place of current political relations in our
own conception of archaeological cultures. Our use of critical theory,
although firmly planted in the Marxist critique of capitalism, explicitly
chooses to also advocate for greater participation in democratic institutions.

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126 Journal of Social Archaeology 2(1)

In this sense, we embrace the ideas of Habermas (1979, 1984) about reform
through the understanding and preservation of lifeworlds which are at the
edge of, or perhaps beyond, capitalism. This kind of critical theory takes a
given relation and shows that it does not have to operate as assumed
because alongside it exist other possibilities for living. As the struggle to
resist domination spurred the developments that make up the history of the
subaltern, critical archaeology optimistically seeks to identify archaeologies
that may produce work that challenges the status quo through the investi-
gation of alternative histories and an engagement with the present where
those alternatives are being put to use.
The example of Leones recent research on African-American Hoodoo
is a powerful illustration of this kind of critical archaeology. Hoodoo, long
understood to be a North American variant of Caribbean Voodoo and West
African Vodoun, is a set of religious practices that combines things as
metaphors and metonyms to manage the spirits of the dead. Hoodoo uses
charms called mojos, hands or tobys to get spirits to heal specific illnesses,
induce good luck, reverse bad luck and thereby control the future, as well
as to punish those who have unacceptable intentions. Hoodoos meaning is
revealed most completely in autobiographical narratives from the 1930s
collected from former slaves throughout the country (e.g., Rawick, 1972,
19729). The narratives describe why charms were made, who made them
and for what reason. The effects of curing, bringing luck, discovering the
source of bad luck or disease and bringing ill on someone are all clearly
available. The descriptions contain a world of mistresses, masters, wives,
neighbors, husbands, children, disease and hardships; a distinct world ready
for and filled with magical practices. Significantly, Hoodoo was neither
bound by slavery nor properly a slave religion; rather, it is best understood
as a lifeworld unconquered though shaped by plantation capitalism.
Hoodoo shows that African heritage survived in North American
slavery, that European Christianity has an alternative, and demonstrates a
way of thinking and acting that escaped white domination. Furthermore, in
its survival, it consistently contributed to the contours of the dominant
culture in America for its practitioners are frequently Christian themselves
and thus introduced critiques and reforms (through intended actions or not)
that mark the history of American Christianity.
Over the course of the 1990s sets of caches were excavated by Leone and
his colleagues throughout Annapolis by members of the Archaeology in
Annapolis project. These caches consisted of pins, crystals, ceramics, stones,
coins and other objects buried in the ground near doors and in corners. They
were identified as African American and to be Hoodoo artifacts. Hoodoo
operated using material culture (Leone and Fry, 1999; Leone et al., forth-
coming). To make and use a charm, several items were combined and placed
somewhere or on someone. Usually the combination included a metaphor
for the problem to be dealt with, such as a bent pin or nail for an aching

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Matthews, Leone & Jordan The political economy of archaeological cultures 127

joint. Something was then added representing the person to be protected,

cured, gifted or harmed, like a coin, a sock or piece of cloth. Finally grave-
yard earth, a fragment of glass or crystal or a piece of red flannel was added
to control a spirit employed to deal with the hoped-for event. Because the
spirit of a dead individual is believed to be captured and directed in this way,
the process is sometimes called spirit management. The items representing
the hoped-for event and the person to be affected are metaphors. The item
directing the spirit, a more powerful representation, is a metonym because
it is capable of either directing or containing the spirit.
In Annapolis, Hoodoo was unknown to the preservation community that
sponsored Archaeology in Annapolis. Additionally, standard scholarship in
Annapolis was unable to conceive of a lifeworld such as Hoodoo because
the African-American community was believed to be too small and too
urban, now or in the past. As is typical in any American community that
had only a mild interest in its history and virtually no resources for engage-
ment in sustained historical scholarship, African Americans were thought
to have no source of material to compose a history of their own. There were
local heroes, folklore, oral histories and photographic potentials, but no
celebrated, detailed historical presence that could support widespread
historical discourse and consciousness. Perhaps, most significantly, there
was no tie to Africa that was or could be empirically revealed.
Around 1990, as Archaeology in Annapolis began to investigate the
archaeology of African Americans, a local African-American museum
director asked us whether there was anything left from Africa? In her pos-
ition, she was aware both of the lack of substantial local African-American
history and of the potential for archaeology to identify that which was
missing in the documentary record. Working together, she and a mostly
white team of archaeologists recorded oral stories from neighbors, whose
former houses we were excavating, that could be used as evidence in the
interpretation of the past (Leone et al., 1995; Leone and Logan, 1997). This
early collaboration was solidified by the archaeological discovery of sets of
bundles used for spirit management in the work spaces of three homes in
Annapolis (Jones, 2000: 5660; Harmon and Neuwirth, 2000: 295319;
Logan et al., 1992: 12022, 131). These materials were quickly identified by
scholars who knew them to be the result of West African religious practices
used by people of African descent. Thus, we were able to say that there was
African-American history in Annapolis and a part of it was from Africa.
The tie to Marxist critical theory in this method of discovery is two-fold.
The first is the identification of the origins of modern practices showing
that people have a history that had never been acknowledged or verified.
The second is the effort to show that modern exploitative relationships do
not have to be the way they are because they, too, may have a history which
can illuminate how they are arbitrary and can be undone. The second part
of critical theory in our illustration builds on the discovery that a part of

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128 Journal of Social Archaeology 2(1)

the history of Africa is in Annapolis. Since the archaeological record

showed that Hoodoo was widely practiced from 1790 to 1920 we could
demonstrate that below ordinary white visibility there was a set of prac-
tices that cured, divined and protected by fending off masters, helping to
find lovers and the lost, and helping to treat the socially significant pains of
arthritis, heart ache, oppression and hard luck. It was a faith from home
and for relief.
We have also learned that this faith was and still is practiced by some
Christians. Theosophus Smith (1994) argued that West African ideas of
spirit management entered the Christianity practiced by some people of
African descent and formed the characteristics attributed to Moses, Jesus
and the saints. Smith showed that Moses, Jesus and the saints work as
African spirits in that they are immediately available, always there to help
and are so powerful that they can get God to do their will. They are the
spirits who manage God. According to Smith, this way of understanding
Christianity is derived from West Africa.
We wish to conclude by showing how this example of Hoodoos redis-
covery in Annapolis allows us to retain the basis of critical archaeology that
demands that we seek to connect the past to the present by examining how
people got to be in their condition now. Our archaeology discovered that
Hoodoo in Annapolis was whole, widely practiced and present from 1790
to about 1920. African-American scholarship (e.g., Smith, 1994; Thompson,
1983) provided the idea that Hoodoo and Christianity were linked, a linkage
also revealed throughout the narratives themselves by practitioners who
were devout Christians (Rawick, 1972, 197279; Smith, 1994). But what
happened to Hoodoo after 1920? Where did it go? Did this element of
African heritage disappear? Was this part of Africa lost? The answer is no.
During Black History Month 2000, Leone and his colleagues announced the
archaeological discovery of a West African-derived cosmogram in one
Annapolis house. Catherine Yronwode called from northern California,
having learned of our discovery in the mass media, to tell us about her firm
that produced and sold lucky mojos. For the last 25 years, she had used the
1930s narratives to grow, make and merchandise mojos and to discover what
the caches were and how they were made. Now, having produced at least
20 of these ingredients, she has an extensive website of over 600 pages that
describes and sells her products along with authentic descriptions of how to
use them (Yronwode, 2001). Her large clientele is about 80% African
American and 20% of European descent, mostly in the American South.
Yronwode told Leone about a client in Hyattsville, Maryland, who was a
regular church member, but who did not want her use of mojos known to
her fellow church members. At this moment Smiths ideas on Christianity
took on a different reality. Hyattsville, about a mile from Leones office, is
a mixed black and white community that has a great number of churches,
and a large, locally-famous Catholic high school. It is 15 minutes from

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downtown Washington, 30 minutes from Annapolis, and part of Prince

Georges County, home to the largest and wealthiest middle-class African-
American community in the United States.
With one well-announced archaeological discovery, we discovered what
many, if not most, African Americans already knew: the basis of Hoodoo
was still alive and being used by practicing Christians. We were the only
ones in this context who did not know this. However, archaeology helped
to complete the circle by providing details of the history, variety, location
and full range of materials used in past Hoodoo practices. These facts were
only available in the archaeological record and could be revealed only
through collaboration between archaeologists and other interested persons.
In public, we linked the practices dating from 1790 among slaves to the same
practices among some free African Americans. Further, we linked the
changes in the practices that occurred in the nineteenth century to the twen-
tieth century, and then to a large, practicing community in Annapolis well
after emancipation. African-American scholars led us to the narratives for
meaning. Use of popular media (essential for users of critical theory) led
Catherine Yronwode to us, and led us to the widespread, current use of
Hoodoo, and its existence among Christians on our own doorstep. Through
this work we have come to understand that in Hoodoo, both past and
present, West Africa lives within the Christianity of the neighborhood
where we work. Showing that Hoodoo did not go away illustrates that
Africa molded Christianity, something many Westerners believe is the
Wests most precious cultural creation. Seeing this allows both white
American and African-American Christians to reconsider the contours of
their religion as one more uniquely American and one formed closer to the
historic interstices of race and racism than typically believed.


Marxism and critical theory are based in a grounding of culture in its

material conditions. The point is to allow material practice (whether
religion, architecture, or other sorts of social action and discourse) to illumi-
nate consciousness and its sources rather than letting our preconceptions
about consciousness guide interpretation. In this paper we have used
Marxist theory to rethink the two most dominant problems in American his-
torical archaeology: the development of the modern state in the American
colonies and the ethnogenesis of African America. We have then reviewed
how the practice of historical archaeology may also be redefined by a criti-
cal Marxist approach that mediates the structures of power that define
archaeological research and its public responsibilities.
A key point in this work has been to assert the significance of history and

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130 Journal of Social Archaeology 2(1)

contingency in making conclusions about social action and consciousness of

both those in the past as well as ours as we practice archaeology in the
present. Similarly, the answers for what comes next? do not come from a
free-floating Marxist critical archaeology. Rather, they come from using
critical archaeology to understand the historical conditions that exist today
and striving to produce new, or hitherto concealed, ways of considering the
means and sorts of social discourse that are useful, given those conditions,
for going forth. A Marxist archaeology helps us to define a politics through
our work that we can live with.

We would like to thank Randall McGuire and the other anonymous reviewers for
the comments on an earlier draft of this article. We trust that they will see their
advice put to use in this revision. Matthews and Jordan would also like to recognize
the guidance and influence of Joan Vincent and Nan Rothschild of Barnard College
whose comments on versions of some sections of this article helped to bring focus
and caution to some of the interpretations. We also thank Henry Miller, who pro-
vided us with Figure 1, and Les Graves, who created and provided us with Figure 2.
Finally, we thank Lynn Meskell, Jeremy Toynbee and Matt Palus who aided us in
preparing and finalizing the article.

1 This approach to material culture is reliant on an understanding of the deeply
situated perspectives of those actors who made, used and discarded what are
now archaeological materials which embraces the possibility for ambiguity
(Hodder, 1983; Howson, 1990). The meanings of objects, even more so than
words, are malleable and slippery, and a material thing can have many
meanings. However, given certain circumstances, some meanings may stand out
over others and many meanings may be condensed or lost. We suggest here that
racism, as an ideological construction formed to heal the rupture within the
dominant order of plantation slavery, produced such conditions. This is not to
say that the ambiguity of meanings is replaced by those defined in response to
racism, rather, that racism, as a structured manner of thinking (a distinct and
historical form of consciousness), brought about conditions which directed the
interpretation of the meanings of things.

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Christopher N. Matthews is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at

Hofstra University. He has directed historical archaeological excavations
and public archaeology programs in Maryland and Louisiana. He is the
author of the forthcoming book An Archaeology of History and Tradition:
Moments of Danger in the Annapolis Landscape (Kluwer/Plenum). [email:]

Mark P. Leone is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the

University of Maryland College Park. He directs Archaeology in Annapo-
lis. His edited volumes include The Recovery of Meaning (with Parker B.
Potter, Jr, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988) and Historical Archaeologies
of Capitalism (with Parker B. Potter, Jr, Kluwer/Plenum, 1999). He wrote
Invisible America (with Neil Silberman, Henry Holt Co., 1995). [email:]

Kurt A. Jordan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology,

Columbia University. He has worked extensively on historic Native Ameri-
can sites in New York State and since 1996 has co-directed excavations at
the Iroquois Seneca Townley-Read site near Geneva, NY, the results of
which form the basis of his upcoming dissertation. [email: kj23@colum-]

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