Digging New Jersey’s Past

Archaeology. The word conjures up images of Indiana Jones, lost Mayan temples hidden in the jungles of Central America, and treasure beyond compare. Seldom do we think of New Jersey when it comes to archaeology, which is a shame since there are plenty of knowledge to be found once you dig beyond the surface.

In Digging New Jersey’s Past: Historical Archaeology in the Garden State, archaeologist and historian Dr. Richard Veit takes us on a tour of some of the notable – and some of the obscure – archaeological work done in the State of New Jersey.

One of the things that impresses you when you read the book is it’s plain, straightforward style of writing. One might expect a book written by an academian to be a bit on the dry side, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Veit uses “shop talk” to describe various archaeological terms; however he does an excellent job of explaining the tools and procedures used by the professionals.

The book flows in chronological order. We first start with the earliest settlers to New Jersey, and the work done on a Dutch traders house on Burlington Island, work our way up through the Revolution, learning about the winter camp at Pluckemin, learn about some of the early industry in the State, such as the glassworks at Batsto, and end at the transformation from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, and work done at the so-called utopian community at Feltville. These are just some examples of the sites that Veit explores – each chapter follows a theme, and goes into detail on three or four digs each.

One chapter I found fascinating was devoted to gravestones, and how much archaeological information can be found above and below ground in cemeteries. For example, North Jersey tended to have elaborately carved headstones, with Purtian style ominous epitaphs, whereas South Jersey headstones tended to be simple, undecorated affairs due to predominance of the Quakers who made up a significant part of the population.

Another dig that I found interesting was the work done at the Old Barracks in Trenton. Many historians and archaeologists spend much of their time learning about the Continental side of the war, and spend much less time on the lives of the British troops who were quartered here. The Barracks in Trenton, long neglected – to the point of even having a street put through the middle – was reconstructed in 1917, but didn’t have any proper archaeological work done until 1983!

Archaeology is one of the best ways for us to reconnect with the lives of our forbearers. This book gives an excellent overview of archaeology in New Jersey, and gives us a glimpse of the history that is hidden just below the surface.

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