Documents, Dirt, and Diaspora

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Marley Brown '65 is one of the greats of historical archaeology
From the Spring 2009 Caller

The past still lives under the ground, and archaeologists explore and interpret the past through their excavations. Sometimes they uncover the remote past, from before the written record. But Marley Brown III ’65 has spent his work life engrossed in what he sees as a deeper intellectual challenge: unearthing the material evidence of the documented past—in his case 17th and 18th century America—and seeing where it fits in the puzzle of historical evidence. And in most cases historical archaeology vividly reveals new and sometimes startling information about the lives of our forebears.

Right from junior high school Marley was intrigued by archaeology. In high school he learned more about archaeology and excavation through the Oregon Archaeological Society, along with his good friend Henry Dick ’65. Inspired by beloved CGS Latin teacher Ora Belden and others, Marley believed that he would become an archaeologist of the classical world.

He continued to move in that path as a student at Brown University—until a great teacher crossed his path. James Deetz was a founder of the new field of historical archaeology, and when he came to Brown he and Marley hit it off, the start of a 34-year-long friendship. Deetz invited Marley in 1968 to his summer field school in Massachusetts at Plimoth Plantation. “I didn’t look back,” says Marley. “That was the end of Latin and Greek and classical archaeology for me.”

Marley earned his BA and PhD at Brown. He worked bicoastally for several years, founding the historical archaeology program at Sonoma State University. While visiting Deetz in Virginia in 1982, he landed a job as archaeological director of Colonial Williamsburg (and married Kathleen Bragdon), and shortly after became an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary.

Marley has led historical archaeology studies since then in Jamestown, Bermuda, Barbados, and many sites in Virginia. One of the most important aspects of his research has been the archaeology of the African Diaspora of 17th and 18th century Virginia, a formerly neglected field. One of his most fundamental discoveries was that enslaved Africans were living in separate quarters on a site in Virginia as early as 1640—a finding that shook up historians, who believed that slaves weren’t there until about 1680. “Archaeology challenged that narrative and took it back a generation,” says Marley. “It showed the extent to which Africans were doing things their own way and had an impact on the way they were allowed to live and how their masters lived—all part of the bargain you make when you run a plantation.”

These days Marley teaches full time at William & Mary; his position at Colonial Williamsburg was eliminated last year as the result of the economic situation. He will still run the summer field school as a William & Mary professor and dig in the historical area of Williamsburg. “I’ve had several hundred students, and my major sense of fulfillment has been getting MA and PhD students excited about the subject,” says Marley. “Being able to teach full time now is great. And now I don’t have to obey the formal dress code of Colonial Williamsburg and can wear my jeans for digging.”