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  • An Archaeology of the English Atlantic World, 1600–1700 by Charles E. Orser
  • Kenneth Morgan
An Archaeology of the English Atlantic World, 1600–1700. By Charles E. Orser, Jr. (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018) 486 pp. $135.00

Drawing together information from numerous seventeenth-century texts and the findings of modern archaeological research, Orser examines the historical meaning of artifacts excavated throughout the seventeenth-century English Atlantic world. The coverage encompasses England, Ireland, western Africa, the Caribbean, and native North America. Where appropriate, he also makes forays into the non-Anglophone world, including a section dealing with the impact of the Portuguese on west central Africa. He places the archaeological evidence about housing, fortifications, delftware, and stoneware in its context through consideration of the networks of people and their skills that shaped English connections with the Atlantic's diverse seaboards. Orser is as concerned with evidence associated with those people who were disadvantaged by colonial expansion, such as Native Americans and black Africans, as he is with material generated by English craftsmen, builders, and planners. He acknowledges that archaeological findings for some areas of the English Atlantic world are underdeveloped, which is why only a few pages are devoted to the Caribbean. [End Page 592]

The book is divided into two parts. Part I focuses on the foundations of the seventeenth-century English Atlantic. Conceptual and interpretive ways of examining archaeological findings in relation to this geographical space are followed by a chapter devoted to the landscape, regional zones, population, farming areas, and hierarchical social structure of England between 1600 and 1700. The next chapter concentrates on the disparate and geographically diverse spread of English colonization to Ireland, coastal west Africa, and North America's east coast.

Part II is comprised of four chapters. A chapter about the material culture of boats and ships ranges widely within a few pages to deal with dugout canoes in North America and the construction of merchant and navy vessels. Other chapters in Part II focus on the philosophical attitudes of selected seventeenth-century writers dealing with themes of glory, wealth, and capital accumulation, as well as on fixed and portable material worlds. The fixed material artifacts that Orser examines include fortifications and housing; ceramics and commodities are the main portable materials that he discusses. The chapter about portable materials contains interesting reconstructions of commodity chains from producers in England to consumers in North America, as well as a section dealing with peddlers active in smaller commodity chains.

The book misses some opportunities, and some sections stray from the book's evidential base. Chapters 2 and 3 have illuminating sections about the differential progress of delftware in England and Ireland, but they would have benefited from comparative analysis about the reasons for the much swifter development of this form of ceramics in England than in Ireland. The treatment of housing and fortifications could have built upon Fischer's concept of "building ways" to analyze the persistence of architectural forms in comparative settings.1 The discussion of navigation in Chapter 4, which considers the Atlantic's winds and currents—providing information about the circular patterns of gyres, the problem of the doldrums, and the regular threat of hurricanes in the western Atlantic—may hold interest for maritime historians but has little to do with archaeology or material culture. Chapter 5, focusing on Eurocentrism and what Orser terms the "racialization" of thought, is a disquisition on political and social thinking rather than an analysis of archaeological evidence. Orser justifies it by stating that its ideas inform Chapters 6 and 7, but its main points could have been condensed and included in those chapters in relation to material evidence.

Nevertheless, Orser has produced a capable, well-informed book that will prove useful as an up-to-date consideration of central issues pertaining to the seventeenth-century Atlantic's material world. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists will all find thoughtful sections in this interdisciplinary book. In Orser's book, scholars will find a skillful synthesis of much archaeological research that explains the [End Page 593] evolution of networks and social chains throughout the seventeenth-century Anglophone Atlantic world.

Kenneth Morgan
Brunel University London




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