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Archaeology, History, and the Problem of “Early America”

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The Omohundro Institute and the University of Southern California-Huntington Library Early Modern Studies Institute are pleased to announce the fourteenth in a series of William and Mary Quarterly-EMSI workshops designed to identify and encourage new trends in understanding the history and culture of early North America and its wider world.

Participants will attend a three-day meeting at the Huntington Library (May 9–11, 2019) to discuss a precirculated chapter-length portion of their current work in progress along with the work of other participants. Subsequently, the convener may write an essay elaborating on the issues raised at the workshop for publication in the William and Mary Quarterly. The convener of this year’s workshop is Robin Beck of the University of Michigan’s Department of Anthropology and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.

Early America refers to a time, a place, and a vast field of interaction. Its starting point has traditionally been defined by Columbus’s 1492 arrival in the Western Hemisphere, though different dates pertain in different places, depending on when Europeans first intruded into local sequences: 1519, 1534, 1539, 1598, 1607, 1620, and so on. Regardless of the particular date, we all too often base our ideas of what is and is not early America on a seemingly Eurocentric foundation. Robust literatures in a variety of disciplines have challenged founding narratives of this sort, but those same disciplines conceive of and interrogate the temporal limits of early America differently. Nowhere, perhaps, is the disconnect more pervasive than in the ways that archaeologists and historians approach these limits. Archaeology—traditionally the realm of so-called prehistorians—works toward foundational dates, while history—with its emphasis on text—works away from them. The methods and tools that enable scholarship in either direction are often difficult to transfer across the divide.

This workshop will invite archaeologists and historians of early America for a conversation about bridging such long-standing divides between our respective disciplines. How might archaeologists draw from the tools of history (narrative, for example) to better people the pasts we reconstruct through analyses of material culture? What are some of the practical challenges for archaeologists seeking to shift from a dependence on general typology to more historically grounded frameworks? How might historians better incorporate archaeological approaches into their own analyses and interpretations? How can they better use archaeological data, and how could archaeologists more effectively present such data to interested historians? How do the perspectives of Native historians and archaeologists contribute to these goals? We aim for richer, more inclusive narratives, ones that are not constrained by artificially truncated chronologies of early America.

Proposals for workshop presentations should include a brief abstract (250 words) describing the applicant’s current research project, an equally brief discussion of the particular methodological, geographic, or historiographical issues they are engaging (which will be circulated to all participants along with the chapter or essay), and a short c.v. The organizers especially encourage proposals from midcareer scholars; graduate students who have not defended their dissertations by the application deadline are ineligible. Materials should be submitted online at the conference website, [], by November 9, 2018.

Questions may be directed to Joshua Piker, Editor, William and Mary Quarterly, at