Reviews in Colorado Archaeology, Volume 3 (Article 2): 23-46

Methods Report

Tangled Transmissions: The Differentiation of Historic Telegraph and Telephone Lines through Material Culture

Joshua Birndorf (Colorado College) and Scott E. Ingram (Colorado College)


Historic telegraph and telephone material culture are frequently encountered but seldom differentiated during archaeological site and survey work in Colorado. The poles, wires, and insulators that comprise these cultural resources are often recorded simply as transmission lines. The research reported here is the first archaeologically focused comparative study of telegraph and telephone material culture designed to help archaeologists differentiate between the two communication systems. Differentiating and documenting these systems fills gaps in an inadequate historical record of their spatial and temporal evolution and contributes to site and survey area interpretations. We find substantial material culture similarities due to shared hardware and the temporal overlap of the introduction of these systems to Colorado. We also identify several material attributes to help differentiate the systems. Accurately identifying cultural resources is a mainstay of archaeological work and we make progress by understanding the possibilities and challenges of differentiating these poorly documented resources.

Keywords: telegraph, telephone, material culture, historic, transmission lines

Link to the complete article

Supplementary Material

Supplementary Resource A: Link to Map of American Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company local and long-distance lines in the U.S.

Supplementary Document B: Recommended Field Documentation of Communication System Material Culture and Notes on Interpretation (Adobe PDF, 782KB)


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