History and Archaeology

I am a historian first and foremost. I spend my time in libraries and archives; I read through deed books and city directories; I survey buildings and structures (and yes there is a difference). But, I also have experience in the field as an archaeologist, albeit somewhat minimal. There is no need for me to outline the countless differences between the methodologies of these disciplines and yet they are wholly intertwined. Anyone can look at the basic definition of these fields and conclude that they both study humankind’s past, but how do they interact in practice?

When people find out that I am a historian they become immediately bewildered at what it is I actually do if I don’t teach. That is when I attempt to explain the world of cultural resource management to them, which is never an easy task. I explain how I analyze the historical significance of buildings and their architecture and what projects require these studies. I then go on to explain how I conduct research to supplement archaeological investigations in order to properly evaluate the sites. A little insight into this process is what I am going to explain here.

When archaeological excavations identify a historic site, research must be conducted in order to uncover as much information as one can from the resources available. When dealing with a more rural area, this often begins with in depth deed research, where I seek to figure out who owned and presumably lived on the site in the past. This can often reveal a great deal about the property, from whether the owner was likely to have lived there to how long they owned it and can answer many other questions that are often pertinent to the relevant history of the site.

Image of a deed dating back to 1906

If the site is located in or around a larger city, then I begin my research in city directories. In many cities, city directories were created each year and list the residents’ names, addresses, and occupations. These can unveil more about a site because they show who was actually living at each location, whereas deeds just show who owned the property. The actual occupant is more important when evaluating a site’s significance because the overall key is to determine what research potential each site has and the archaeological deposit can only display remnants of occupation.


Example of a 1908 Louisville City Directory Page

As the researcher, I then take the information collected on the individuals associated with the site and search census records and other research material, such as birth and death certificates, to learn more about those people. These records can tell me when these people were born, what they did for a living, who their spouses and heirs were etc. This is all relevant info!


Example of a 1900 United States Federal Census

After all of the available information has been gathered, the archaeologists then take the historical data that I collected and analyze it alongside the archaeological data that they uncovered. Together, the written record and the physical one can be examined to determine a site’s significance. This analysis also determines whether or not any further excavation would be necessary based on the information that could be potentially uncovered (pardon the pun). All in all, the historical research is there to supplement the archaeological investigation and provide a more comprehensive look at a site. I have assisted on projects that have identified turpentine camps in Florida, a railroad bed in Mississippi, and countless residential properties in both rural and urban areas. It is truly exciting to see artifacts from the earth work together with the written historical record to create a picture of lives and events of the past.


By: Wes Cunningham, Historian, Amec Foster Wheeler


The deed reference and census record are from research completed in conjunction with an archaeological excavation where an African American woman was deeded a property by an older white man. It was alleged that this woman was the man’s bastard child, as he was listed as her father on her death certificate, who was possibly conceived with a slave, given the timing and location, and the two had a lasting relationship as evidenced by the deed and her care for him in his later years.