Archaeology and the hidden community

Dr Sarah Newstead, School of Archaeology and Ancient History 


About Sarah Newstead

Dr Sarah NewsteadSarah Newstead received her Bachelor’s degree at Simon Fraser University (Canada) and her Masters at Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada).  She completed her PhD at the University of Leicester (supported by a Graduate Teaching Assistantship) at the end of 2014 and began a Teaching Fellowship in the School of Archaeology & Ancient History in January 2015. Sarah is an internationally-known ceramics expert and she is currently working collaboratively with colleagues in Canada, the US, Portugal, Spain and the UK to study the widespread movement and use of Portuguese goods in the 16th through 18th centuries.  She is particularly interested in alternative approaches to research and is developing a new project exploring how people have interacted with the smell of ceramics through the ages.


Communities are varied entities making them a difficult topic for research.  Even in the recent and familiar past, communities can be hidden or even unexpected as groups negotiate the social, economic and political contexts influencing their lives.  Some communities easily pass in and out of the written record, making a purely historical approach, focused on the surviving documents, inappropriate for capturing the full range of a community’s composition and lived experience.  Early modern maritime communities in Europe, for example, saw a huge range of people from many different places converge on port settlements.  Connections to highly-developed ocean-based socioeconomic networks and freedom of movement meant that individuals and groups could, both passively and actively, avoid being recorded, therefore vanishing from the historian’s gaze.

Sarah’s research used an alternative and holistic approach to explore a small Portuguese community living in Plymouth, UK in the late-16th through early-17th centuries.  These people do not appear in the city’s documents and yet they certainly played a part in the dynamic maritime community thriving in the port during this period.  Plymouth’s rich archaeological record, combined with an in-depth study of the port’s social and economic connections around the Atlantic world, revealed clues of a Portuguese presence which may have been actively concealed from the documentary record, due to persecution both at home and abroad.  Their presence reflects long-standing connections between English and Portuguese ports which weathered conflict and embargos, with a continuity stretching from the medieval period until the present day.  This research provides a framework for the future study of hidden communities, particularly those with minimal presence in the documentary record.  These communities play an important part of European society and history and require a research approach expanding beyond the traditional historical narrative. 

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