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The Archaeology of Institutional Life

April M. Beisaw

Publication Year: 2009

Institutions pervade social life. They express community goals and values by defining the limits of socially acceptable behavior. Institutions are often vested with the resources, authority, and power to enforce the orthodoxy of their time. But institutions are also arenas in which both orthodoxies and authority can be contested. Between power and opposition lies the individual experience of the institutionalized. Whether in a boarding school, hospital, prison, almshouse, commune, or asylum, their experiences can reflect the positive impact of an institution or its greatest failings. This interplay of orthodoxy, authority, opposition, and individual experience are all expressed in the materiality of institutions and are eminently subject to archaeological investigation.
A few archaeological and historical publications, in widely scattered venues, have examined individual institutional sites. Each work focused on the development of a specific establishment within its narrowly defined historical context; e.g., a fort and its role in a particular war, a schoolhouse viewed in terms of the educational history of its region, an asylum or prison seen as an expression of the prevailing attitudes toward the mentally ill and sociopaths. In contrast, this volume brings together twelve contributors whose research on a broad range of social institutions taken in tandem now illuminates the experience of these institutions. Rather than a culmination of research on institutions, it is a landmark work that will instigate vigorous and wide-ranging discussions on institutions in Western life, and the power of material culture to both enforce and negate cultural norms.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Baugher, Chapter 2. I wish to thank the editors, April Beisaw and James Gibb, for inviting me to be part of this book and for reading and commenting on drafts of this chapter. They also deserve many thanks for their dedication and perseverance in taking an SHA symposium, expanding the papers, and then transforming them...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-4

“The minor Myrtle Solomon will be henceforth regarded and treated in all respects as a child of the said Lorenzo Basile and Maria Antonia Basile, his wife,” ordered surrogate court judge Abner C. Thomas, Borough of Manhattan, New York. His ruling was the last in a series of decisions made by a small group of individuals whose prior contact...

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2. Historical Overview of the Archaeology of Institutional Life

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pp. 5-13

An institution is “an established organization or foundation, especially one dedicated to education, public service, or culture or a place for the care of persons who are destitute, disabled, or mentally ill” (American Heritage 1992:936). For archaeologists, “institutions” encompass communal societies (e.g., Shaker settlements), almshouses and...


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3. On the Enigma of Incarceration: Philosophical Approaches to Confinement in the Modern Era

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pp. 17-32

While the origins of the modern institution trace back to European monastic settlements of the late medieval period (Casella 2007; Evans 1982; Gilchrist 1994; Markus 1995), a “Golden Era” unfolded over the first half of the nineteenth century. As a distinct “carceral enthusiasm” (Hirsch 1992) gripped the popular and governmental climate...

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4. Feminist Theory and the Historical Archaeology of Institutions

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pp. 33-48

Most histories and historical archaeologies of institutions are ungendered. Yet institutions materially construct, maintain, and transform cultural gender ideologies, identities, practices, and behaviors (e.g., Spencer-Wood 1996:427). Many institutions were designed and built by the dominant social group for gender socialization or to materially...

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5. Constructing Institution-Specific Site Formation Models

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pp. 49-66

Archaeological site formation processes often are studied after a site has been excavated and the artifacts analyzed. Models of site formation processes, however, can guide excavation when based on site-specific, or in this case institution-specific, knowledge. These models can be created from a general understanding of the institution type and...


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6. Rural Education and Community Social Relations: Historical Archaeology of the Wea View Schoolhouse No. 8, Wabash Township, Tippecanoe County, Indiana

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pp. 69-85

This archaeological investigation of a nineteenth-century schoolhouse in west-central Indiana seeks to understand how the community chose to construct and modify this public landscape. The building functioned not only as a locus of education but also as a civic center for the community it served. The research questions for the Wea View School...

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7. Individual Struggles and Institutional Goals: Small Voices from the Phoenix Indian School Track Site

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pp. 86-102

Each of us possesses an identity that results from the struggle or mediation of a collective of identities that are often imposed. Children acquire their identities through formal and informal education and usually have to reconcile input from their families, neighbors, and religious and social leaders. The history of Indian education demonstrates this struggle...


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8. The Orphanage at Schulyer Mansion

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pp. 105-116

Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler built Schuyler Mansion on the outskirts of Albany, New York, in 1761. It remained in the family until 1806 before passing through a series of owners. By the late nineteenth century, Albany’s growth had created...

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9. A Feminist Approach to European Ideologies of Poverty and the Institutionalization of the Poor in Falmouth, Massachusetts

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pp. 117-136

Classic histories of American institutions for the poor often neglect European ideologies of poverty (e.g., Katz 1986; Rothman 1990; Trattner 1984). Analysis of records from Falmouth, Massachusetts, reveals debates about competing European practices for addressing poverty. The European ideology of segregating the poor in institutions...

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10. Ideology, Idealism, and Reality: Investigating the Ephrata Commune

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pp. 137-150

From 1993 through 2003 I was privileged to direct summer archaeological field programs at Ephrata Cloister, a German religious commune founded in 1732. In the process of researching documents and histories pertaining to this National Historic Landmark site, I became familiar with many primary and secondary accounts of the historic...


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11. Maintaining or Mixing Southern Culture in a Northern Prison: Johnson’s Island Military Prison

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pp. 153-171

Prisons are challenging resources for archaeological study. Marginalized from society, their isolation creates a place with which neither the institutionalized nor their guardians are completely familiar. To understand these human experiences, we need to be open to multilocal and multivocal dynamics. “For each inhabitant, a place has a unique reality, one in which meaning is shared with other people...

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12. Written on the Walls: Inmate Graffiti within Places of Confinement

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pp. 172-186

Places of confinement are scattered with the testimonies of their reluctant inhabitants. Painstakingly scribbled, inlaid, painted, carved, scratched, and pecked into the basic architectural fabric of the institution, graffiti offers a hint at the traumas of everyday life “inside,” as distilled through the “anonymity of a murmur” (Foucault 1984:119). While...

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13. John Conolly’s “Ideal” Asylum and Provisions for the Insane in Nineteenth-Century South Australia and Tasmania

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pp. 187-205

The archaeology of institutions presents unique challenges to the archaeologist; the use of the institutional buildings, the use of institutional material culture, and regulations limiting the possession of personal items may make the task of linking artifacts discovered during excavations to particular groups very difficult. The archaeological...

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14. The Future of the Archaeology of Institutions

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pp. 206-213

In my first college archaeology course, I learned from David Hurst Thomas about the complexities plaguing and energizing our efforts to “predict the past.” As aspiring scientists, we memorized Thomas’s (1974:4) dictum that “systematic examination of alternative explanatory hypotheses” would bolster our predictions. The year 1974 was a long time ago. Today we struggle with the extent to which we live as captives of...

References Cited

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pp. 215-241


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pp. 243-244


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pp. 245-249

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381189
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355166

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2009