Dig It

How Archeology Gives History a Makeover

Excavating the Revolutionary War battlefield at Saratoga, archeologists helped rewrite the battle’s history in surprising ways, including their determination that women fought.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

In 1972 I began a research program at the Saratoga National Historical Park in New York at the request of the National Park Service. The national bicentennial celebrations were only a few years away, and there were some open questions about the proper interpretation of the archaeological landscape where the two pivotal battles of Saratoga took place in the fall of 1777.

Documents and oral tradition told a plausible story about what happened at Saratoga, but some recorded events did not seem to make sense in terms of the lay of the land. The area of investigation was huge by usual archaeological standards, and the surviving evidence of the American and British armies that had fought there was thin. But we used what were at the time some innovative techniques in aerial photography and magnetometry (detection of tiny local variations in the earth’s magnetic field) to overcome those problems. These techniques allowed us to make some important discoveries.

We found that a major British fortification called the “Breymann Redoubt” had been misplaced by about a hundred yards. We also discovered that the body of British Brigadier-General Simon Fraser, who was mortally wounded on October 7, 1777, had been removed from his grave soon after burial. In the second case, archaeology provided the evidence to confirm a claim found in a document written by a man whose credibility on other matters has been challenged by modern historians. In these and other cases, archaeology resolved some important questions.

Most people have never observed archaeologists in the field. When they do, their first question often is, “How do you know where to dig?” The question implies that we know what we’re looking for. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark also often imply that we are searching for something specific and known. The truth is that we are usually sampling sites that we already know something about, but are trying to refine and improve our knowledge. Consequently we are frequently surprised when new knowledge is not quite what we expected.

But the movies do get some things right. Some popular assumptions turn out to be true, which is news in an era of rampant myth busting. As an archaeologist, I must confess that we are detail oriented to a fault. Yes, the stories about excavating with tiny brushes and grapefruit knives are true, even though shovels and backhoes would get the job done quicker. The stories about obsessive photography, data recording, sampling, artifact recovery, and general record keeping are also true. The underlying reason for these quirks is that archaeological search and recovery can often simultaneously acquire evidence and destroy its context. That being the case, we are honor bound to document the process well enough to allow some future researcher to use discoveries not just to test our conclusions but also to help answer new questions that have not yet occurred to us.

Archaeology is often the only way to understand the distant past. Literacy and documentary history are only a few thousand years old. Humans have been around a lot longer than that, so much of what we know about our past is based on a combination of finding what our ancestors left behind in the ground and our general knowledge of how people live.

When most people think about archeology, they usually imagine our research on distant cultures like ancient Egypt or Greece. What they often overlook are contributions to our understanding of more recent history. Written documents contain only what their writers thought was worth recording, so the assumption that documents alone can reveal everything we need to know about the not-so-distant past turns out to be false. Historical archaeology can supplement documentary history by telling us things about the past we would not know otherwise, and can even sometimes correct misunderstandings resulting from incomplete or incorrect documents.

The apex of the British line in October 1777 was a fortification called the “Balcarres Redoubt.” Here the archaeology largely confirmed earlier conclusions based on maps drawn by a British officer. What was missing was a detailed understanding of the fortification, which had been reduced by erosion and farming over the course of two centuries. What the park historian expected us to find was evidence of an external ditch with a parapet to protect soldiers defending the redoubt. This is what fortification manuals of the period recommended.

What we found was a much simpler arrangement, one that made sense given the very temporary nature of battlefield entrenchments. Instead of a big external ditch there was an internal foot trench, which gave soldiers the same amount of protection from fire. Although attacking forces would not have to cross a ditch, the solution afforded quick construction, which proved to be good enough when the time came.

Our excavation also uncovered a new and unexpected mystery to solve, one that confounded me for a long time: a burial in the Balcarres foot trench. We found the individual lying face down, and the presence of buttons indicated that their clothing had not been stripped (as was often the case with fallen soldiers) before a burial party covered the body with some planks and shoveled a portion of the parapet down over them. The burial location and some buckshot in the cranium indicated that this person had been a casualty of the fighting on October 7, and that death had been instantaneous. Closer examination revealed that if the remains had been found almost anywhere else we would have concluded that the individual was a woman, and an elderly one at that. But this was a battlefield, and the burial was clearly that of a 1777 casualty. What could an older woman be doing in the midst of this ferocious confrontation?

The expectation that any casualty was necessarily male led me to disbelieve the evidence for a long time. But the scientific method is self-correcting, and a combination of documentary evidence and peer reviewing eventually persuaded me of a more reasonable explanation. Documents indicate that there were at least 215 women with Burgoyne’s British army at Saratoga, many of them wives of noncommissioned officers. The Balcarres Redoubt was assailed by thousands of Americans on the afternoon of October 7, 1777, and we should not be surprised if at least one of those wives helped stave off the attack and fell dead as a result. There were American women present as well, and it is remotely possible but much less likely that this was one of them. The archaeological discovery that an older woman had been a casualty in the Battle of Bemis Heights refuted the myth that women were not directly involved in combat. It also prompted new searching of obscure documentary sources for additional evidence. At least two such cases were reported for Saratoga, adding to our growing understanding of the roles played by women in the War of Independence.

It is not surprising that as women have rapidly come into professional archaeology over the last half century the roles of women in the past societies we study have drawn increasing interest. Silent assumptions about the dominance of males in the creation of the archaeological record have been challenged and often disproven in many contexts of the past, both distant and recent. This has sometimes been easier to do in historical archaeological situations because we have documents to clarify what might otherwise be ambiguous cases. But such problems can be addressed even in the very remote past if the right techniques are applied. Technological advances have dramatically improved our abilities to detect and recover archaeological information, but our knowledge of the past also remains dependent upon the questions we choose to ask about it. Archaeology is still our only access to most of our shared past, and we are fortunate that as the resolution of the big picture improves, so does the breadth of our vision.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Dean Snow, professor emeritus of anthropology at Penn State University and past president of the Society for American Archaeology, is the author of 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga (Oxford). His previous books include Archaeology of Native North America and The Iroquois.