Public Archaeology at Independence National Historical Park
Patrice L. Jeppson, West Chester U and Cheyney U Pennsylvania
Independence National Historical Park is a US National Park Service site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, dedicated to commemorating the birthplace of American democracy. Millions of people have consumed the historical archaeology interpretations presented at this major national and international tourist destination and the park’s archaeological research has, in turn, contributed substantively to the development of US historical archaeology (the study of the recent past using material culture evidence). Independence Park’s preserved ruins and mounted exhibits are likely some of the most visited sets of historical archaeology resources in the United States.
This high rate of site visitation and interpretation warrants delving into the ways that archaeologists practicing at Independence Park have generated their knowledge, if only to glean insight into what does and does not translate effectively into a useful resource meeting public needs. But given the mission of the park, and knowing that archaeology and nationalism have a long and often sordid past — whereby archaeological story patterns are regularly appropriated to promote, advance and achieve goals — it is important to critique the archaeological-related narratives presented at Independence Park not just as scientific hypotheses but also as literary texts. It behooves us to consider whose hand is on the trowel at this place where a major meta-narrative of the nation’s founding is celebrated and that constitutes, in turn, a site of both collective memory and contested heritage.
The connection between past and present resonates strongly at Independence Park because of the civil religious role this federal property plays in US society. The park’s cultural resources are deployed in remembering what the idea of America is about and are used to educate children, students and other visitors about that understanding. This place of remembering, by default or intention, also involves forgetting important aspects of the nation’s past, including the early decades of slavery. US citizens visiting the park engage with the symbolism and rituals of the civil faith of American democracy, which in turn helps to regenerate the social order. Other citizens avoid the park or come in protest of this same (presented) social order.
Preserved archaeological foundations and excavated artifacts provide these visitors with a touchstone to the time of the nation’s founding. However, which touchstones are selected for interpretation has rarely been the archaeologist’s decision. Archaeological research informed the park planning and development phases, 1953–76, and did again during a recent period of renovation and upgrades, 1998–present. But social, economic and political factors beyond the specter of archaeology have determined the sites to be researched and interpreted.
The park emerged in a confluence of interests. Local business owners desired revitalization of a deteriorated neighborhood while an upsurge of patriotism in the aftermath of World War II (and its threats to the US way of life) created an interest in protecting buildings associated with the beginnings of the country. The Historic Sites Act of 1935, meanwhile, charged the National Park Service with the acquisition and management of historic properties such as those that became part of the park. These factors helped set a mission for the park that centered on a series of historic structures significantly associated with the American Revolution that would help visitors understand the men (sic), events and ideas of which these buildings are living memorials. During the park’s early development phase, historical archaeology, then in its infancy as a sub-disciplinary concentration, supported this agenda operating as a handmaiden to historic architecture. However, intense interest by the public in the archaeological discoveries of the time also helped to establish the preservation and interpretation of original fabric (ie, ruins) in favor of fabricated reconstructions.
The park’s major phase of construction coincided with the nation’s preparation for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations. Archaeological investigations during this period contributed rich information about the emergence of the colonial urban city and the lives of its hoi polloi masses. But this broader context for the birth of the nation was not a park theme and was thus not interpreted. Juxtaposed against the Cold War, a nation divided by the Vietnam War and civil rights upheaval and the Nixon impeachment proceedings, the park’s mission involved celebrating the character and unique achievements of the young nation’s founders. This national narrative was being countered elsewhere at this time by a Peoples Bicentennial Celebration and an Afro-American Bicentennial that protested against a “famous white men history” interpretation. It was also countered by the disciplinary scholarship of the time: The 1976 National Book Award went to David Brion Davis for The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution with Edmund S Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom as runner-up. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States was produced in response to the bicentennial-era narrative as well.
Given the backdrop for the park’s creation and mission, it is no surprise that three decades later a rapid ethnographic assessment study commissioned by the park documented a lack of public support for the park’s interpretive agenda. Responses reported “a lack of cultural representation for African Americans,” “little about the working class in the area” and “a need for more generalized representations of liberty and freedom in the American experience” (Dana Talpin, Suzanne Scheld and Setha Low, Human Organization 61: 90–91).
In recent years the presented themes, historical landscape and interpreted sites dating to the bicentennial-era have undergone substantive renovation. A more mature historical archaeology discipline is central to recapturing the erased histories and social landscapes long excluded from the park’s interpretations. Independence Park is no longer considered just a white space emphasizing deeds of famous men (see Talpin et al, 2002: 90) as was made clear when 300,000 people — a large percentage of whom were local and African American — visited the President’s House site excavation during four months in 2007. At this public archaeology venue visitors (and citizens) saw evidence of slavery and freedom side by side at the birth of the nation. Notably, the visitors came to watch as their past was researched, just as in the early years of the park’s development (when that evidence was left not interpreted). Tens of thousands of visitors have also been drawn to the Independence Park Archeology Lab where one of the largest and most diverse assemblages dating to the late 18th and mid-19th century is being processed in public view. These artifacts represent a vast swath of the colonial-era city and its inhabitants and form a significant material culture sample from the birth of the modern, global, world. The public lab offers citizens immediate access to new history data otherwise unavailable during its (long) period of study and, significantly, allows visitors to observe the process of the making of history. This transparency is no small matter given that the park’s interpretive storyline hasn’t suited the needs of all of US society.
The US national narrative, as presented at Independence Park, has evolved to include not just famous founders but We the People. Today, Independence Park’s historical archaeology has a role in helping people remember some of the forgotten, ignored and denied history of the nation.
Patrice L Jeppson is a historical archaeologist with an interest in public archaeology. She teaches at West Chester University and at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.