Saturday, May 22, 2010

How James Deetz Changed My Life

One of my friends graduated from university with a degree in Anthropology. She went on, as so many of us do, to do something completely different with her life. A year or so ago she suggested I read a book called In Small Things Forgotten by archaeologist James Deetz. She knew that I researched African American history and mentioned that the book had a chapter on the topic. I remember reading it and being intrigued.

This year she and I are interested in studying gravestone art. My friend mentioned a different chapter in the book. I pulled out the book again and read the chapter “Remember Me As You Pass By.” This time, however, I was completely transformed by what I read.

Deetz looked at cemeteries with a completely different eye than I. He charted gravestone iconography to show when different symbols were in use and then he delved into the visual transformation from one icon to the next. Underlying all this was the history and reasoning behind why these changes were made.

You may think this is not particularly significant but coming from my genealogical point of view it was earth shattering. For me, cemeteries had a significance for who the headstones represented. The names and vital statistics on the stones and perhaps the inscription were of the most importance to me.

Now Deetz was showing me that by understanding the art on the stone I could better understand the people who ordered the stones and carved the stones and how they felt about death and life. And wasn’t genealogy all about understanding better the people we are researching?

Suddenly my viewpoint of the world changed from that of micro to macro. No longer did I want to understand simply how a genealogist would interpret a gravestone or a document but I wanted to know how other disciplines would view it as well.

In a chapter called “Parting Ways” Deetz reconstructed a small African American community in Plymouth, Massachusetts using archeological techniques further proving to me that there is more than one way to research.

I hungrily started reading the other chapters in the Deetz book just to discover that he covered many subjects that I love – old houses, historic cemeteries, probate estate records and African Americans. He re-introduced them to me from his point of view as an archaeologist.

Now as I look at the world I see it from my genealogist’s viewpoint but I also stop to consider how experts from other disciplines would view it as well.

Check out a copy of In Small Things Forgotten and see how it changes the way you do research.


  1. Hi Marian, It is nice to see you blogging again!

  2. I just put this book on my Amazon wish list. Thank you, Marian!

  3. Wonderful post, Marian. I've added Deetz' book to my must reads for 2011 - right behind Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns."

  4. The title of this post caught my eye while I was here today reading another. I wasn't sure why, so I clicked through to see why the name Deetz seemed familiar.

    When I reached the title of the book in the first paragraph, I literally got goosebumps. I read this book in an Anthropology class in college, and while I don't remember the specifics, I do remember enjoying it very much -- the whole class, actually. (I majored in Computer Engineering, so this was just a fun elective).

    Now I need to go on an archaeological hunt of my own to see if I can dig it up out of the boxes of college books. :-)

  5. I loved reading the two volumes of Gravestone Chronicles about our local stone carvers and the stones they carved.

  6. You've convinced me that I've got to read this book. I've ordered it on interlibrary loan. Thanks!

  7. Your post popped up in a Google search for James Deetz. I had heard he died some years ago (in 2000) and I was looking for more information about his later years. I was privileged to study with him twice in my young life -- as a freshman at UCSB crowded into Campbell Hall for his immensely popular anthro 101 and a few years later, when he had moved on to Brown and I joined a graduate archaeology class that involved us with his work on Plimoth Plantation. His lecture on New England gravestones while I was at UCSB influenced my decision to pursue graduate studies in cultural history in New England. I ultimately made a career doing other things, but that connection to cemeteries and cemetery art came back in my genealogical pursuits. Jim Deetz opened my eyes to all that the stones can tell us. Just thought you might enjoy hearing from a "kindred spirit." I must read the book, too.