4.2 Archaeology and the Individual

Unlike for many other periods it is a practical proposition in the modern period to identify individuals archaeologically. This capability provides a very useful way of hooking into public interest in the past and it creates the possibility of writing sophisticated histories that show how broad historical processes have affected particular people’s lives. However, this potential should be used as a means of researching historical processes and practices, rather than simply as a way of popularising archaeological work by hitching it to individual celebrities known from the historical record. In fact, celebrities are not always necessary: the identification of ‘ordinary’ people in the past can be an attractive entry point in public and interpretative archaeologies, especially if those people are then used as starting points for a discussion of aspects of their historical and archaeological context. There is great potential for the development of ‘microarchaeologies’ akin to microhistories, which take a single life, artefact or incident as a point from which to spiral outwards into the consideration of the great tides of history. Such micro-archaeologies would use archaeology’s recognised strengths in analysing the articulation of the global and the local and of general historical metanarratives with personal lives.

The identification of individuals also provides an opportunity to correct popular misconceptions or unbalanced received histories. There has been a considerable bias in the popular history of the period, for example, in favour of Jacobites at the expense of others who did more to shape the nation. Detailed study of the biological individual (see below) can give an insight into the actual lived experience of the body, identifying nutritional and health statuses and common patterns of activity, which might not be the same as popularly supposed.

See also the ScARF Case Study: Searching for Scipio




Case Study: Searching for Scipio

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