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May 17, 2006

What's for dinner (cont'd)

In two previous posts (1) (2), I explored what happened when the historical archaeologists Julie Schlabitsky and Kelly Dixon used modern forensic archaeology techniques to investigate what happened at the Donner family encampment. I also described what happened to my edits of the Wikipedia entry on the Donner Party (which has now been edited 34 times since my edit on April 28).

Now I want to explore in a bit more detail what this sort of historical forensic archaeology means for historians. On the surface, it might seem that the techniques used by Dixon and Schlabitsky are largely useful for archaeologists alone or for answering such questions as the Donner family's menu or whether Lizzy Borden actually gave her mother forty whacks. But how significant are such questions to the larger issues historians are interested in? Sure, they might spice up a class lecture, but will they change our interpretation of things we deem more important?

This is where new breakthroughs in genetic archaeology hold incredible promise for historians. As Schlabitsky describes it on her website: "Genetic Archaeology is a specialization that applies forensic laboratory procedures, specifically DNA testing, to artifacts recovered from archaeological contexts. The ability to recover human DNA from artifacts rather than bone and tissue, plant remains, and visible stains, over 100 years old is a breakthrough in the forensic and archaeological fields."

Sounds cool, right?

But how would historians use such DNA evidence? We're all familiar with paternity testing, with perhaps the most famous American case being its use in determining the links between Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson (or at least one of the Jeffersons). But what might historians learn from DNA extracted from inorganic artifacts?

Here's an example from Schlabitsky's site. In her work on Virginia City, she recovered many items from a home at 18 North G Street that was both a dressmaker's shop and a residence until it burned in 1875. The excavation of the site turned up many things one would expect to find in such a structure--the flotsam and jetsam of family life and a commercial establishment. But it also uncovered a syringe that had been used to inject "morphine in at least four men and women, one of whom was probably of African descent." This latter information comes from the DNA Schlabitsky was able to extract from the syringe (as opposed to human remains).

Knowing that people who lived or worked in that house were morphine users and that both men and women (and possibly one of African American descent) raises all sorts of intriguing questions for historians. How common was drug use in Virginia City in the 1870s? What do we know about male vs. female drug use? Was it likely that the drugs were used in the family home or in the commercial establishment? How common was it for people of different racial groups to mix in something as intimate as the injecting of IV drugs? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about the larger history of the West at this particular historical moment?

I think it's safe to say that we can expect many new and challenging questions to arise from the work of scholars like Schlabitsky and Dixon. I for one can't wait.

Posted by mills at May 17, 2006 03:22 PM