Buildings and Landscapes as Historical Documents
In 1953, L. P. Hartley wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Historians and lay readers alike are familiar with the idea that the past is a different place, but often lose sight of the word “place” in that discussion. Like any other place, we can travel to the past. Most often, we do this through the written word. We read primary sources that introduce us to foreign cultures and practices that once existed in the very location (sometimes down to the exact longitude and latitude) we do today, albeit in a place—a historical context encompassing geography, culture, and more—that would be utterly alien.
“Visiting the Past and the Places in Between” is based on a belief that history is inherently place-based and that historical analysis is strengthened by comparison. We attach ourselves (to varying degrees) to the places we come from, the places we live, and the places to which we travel. Among the richest resources for historians of the early modern period seeking thick descriptions of long lost people and places are travel narratives. These accounts are fundamentally the product of comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and to some extent historians produce our research questions from the same cloth. Pairing travel narratives with existing (or archaeological) historic structures, as well as expanding the definition of a “historical document” to include landscapes and buildings, provides an entry point to the past that can allow us to not only answer those questions, but to push them further.
One can make a comparative study between the plantation landscapes in Virginia South Carolina, and Barbados during the 18th century that uses material culture, architectural history, and archaeology to access lost landscapes. That the evolution of the plantation house in these three colonies perhaps reveals how slavery was a key factor in turning British colonists in Virginia and South Carolina into American citizens later, in contrast to Barbados where, despite a much larger population of enslaved individuals, the persistence of a 17th-century built environment reinforced Barbadian planters’ Englishness. To enforce this, not only do you draw on the documentary record through travel narratives, correspondence, household accounts, probate inventories, etc., but you would examine buildings and landscapes from that period and see how they changed over time, all to summize how individuals shaped (and were shaped) by the spaces they occupied.
Why not travel to some of the places and study—first Barbados, then South Carolina, and finally Virginia—to explore how modern people can “read” both an existing modern landscape and a lost landscape from the past. Examine some historical narratives to situate these modern places (and their historic structures) within their historical context, demonstrating how historical actors’ experiences within these tangible spaces influenced their understanding of the societies and cultures in which they lived. Also consider how people in different places remember the past and use it to change the present, most immediately at the historic sites you explore, but sometimes more broadly. Then hope that that this will encourage the historian in you to expand the definition of what constitutes a historical document. In reading landscapes and buildings in less formal ways, and in avoiding the jargon that often makes writing about material culture, architecture, and archaeology impenetrable, and to demonstrate how other historians can use these methodologies in their own work.
Visiting the past as a historian can be as straightforward as following the journey or narrative of some historical actor or it can require stopping over at “the places in between”: historic houses, museums, archives, or archaeological sites. These sites help us anchor our narratives whether we’re writing a book, teaching a class, or leading a tour. The past is another land, and they dodo things differently there, but it is definitely not beyond our reach—especially with a good map and a guide.