By Nicholas Densley
Archaeology is the study of past human behavior through the lens of material goods. What we leave behind can be used in the study of who we were. The Moon-Randolph Homestead in Missoula, Montana is a site that is pretty well documented historically and the dearth of material goods at the site act as varied time-capsules of human occupation. When we study this past and the treasures left behind, we can’t help but add in our own interpretation of the narrative. Our biases, world-view, and experience are all bundled into how we see the world we are attempting to study, and the Moon-Randolph Homestead is a working example of how individuals can interpret a site. In the book, Butterflies and Railroad Ties: A History of a Montana Homestead, Caitlin DeSilvey writes what feels like an invitation, “Every person who visits and stays long enough to listen and look – naturalists, researchers, artists, neighbors, children – becomes part of our unfolding awareness of this storied landscape” (2002:5).
At the outset of this field school I brought my own biases and experiences to the study. As we began our orientation day, we walked around the site with the caretaker, Caroline Stephens, and got familiar with the buildings, material goods, and the landscape where we would be taking on the task of measuring the Main Cabin with the goal of building a preservation strategy for the structure. But on this first day as we walked the grounds, just outside the Moon cabin, I noticed a curious artifact - a bicycle that had been secured to a metal frame. Was it some type of re-purposed machinery, I wondered? My biases and world-view in this case is greatly influenced by my love for bicycles and cycling. This influenced my interpretation of the site whereas others may have noticed different objects and been drawn toward the study of those.
This bicycle apparatus consists of a Phillips brand butted steel frame and the unique design can aid in setting it into a temporal place. The type of frame and the way in which the pedal arms are secured to the bicycle tell us that the bike was built before the 1970’s. This is helpful in establishing a timeline for when this object entered the timeline of the Moon-Randolph Homestead. This bike (now an artifact) was located near a well and had been pushed into the trees, seemingly to make way for public foot-traffic.
The location of this object, its modification, and the potential age of the building materials, all help to take a snap-shot in time of the goings-on at the Homestead. Interpretation is an essential component of this type of study as it helps to flesh out or tell a more holistic story. If archaeologists were to simply rely on measurements, geometry, scatter patterns, and various other metrics, the human elements of our study of the past would surely suffer. As Caitlin DeSilvey aptly noted; “Every visitor to the homestead sees the place through their own curious lens, picking up on the details that others had overlooked” (2002:49). I think that is beautiful.
DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2002. Butterflies and Railroad Ties: A History of a Montana Homestead. North Missoula Community Development Corporation, Missoula, MT.
Photos by Nicholas Densley