The Indian Burial Ground Trope

I guess one of the major reasons I expect people to know what I mean when I say “feelings about archaeology” is that I inextricably connect North American Archaeology with the concept of the Indian Burial Ground or with haunted Indian land, which to me is so omnipresent in American culture. Think The Shining and every other camp fire story ever. It’s official on, so that makes it pretty pervasive in my book.

The thing is, within the time period that I’m looking at, basically New Deal archaeology (which I will define in a post soon, I promise), Indian burial grounds and archaeological sites were not only literally the same thing, they were narratively merged for the American people as well. While the sites excavated in the continental United States in the early 20th century ranged very widely in age (1), all were defined by archaeologists as “prehistorical”(2). From my reading, it would seem that almost all of the sites excavated in the southeastern United States and on the plains were burials, though some were nearly a thousand years old. Others, though, were new, I can only gather. One of the most infuriating things about combing through these super boring accounts of archaeological excavations is that that dating does not seem to be a primary concern of the American archaeologist. I know that because of the nature of New Deal funding, a lot of the sites excavated in the 1930s were unearthed mostly by amateurs under the supervision of a few professionals, but still determining temporal information of any kind appears not to be on the agenda.

In The Land of Prehistory, which I’ve already cited in this post, Kehoe argues that American archaeologists have tended to consolidate prehistory, an already ridiculously termed and defined time period, with the result that the historical development of American Indian civilizations pre-conquest is ill-documented and largely ignored in scholarship. In Shovel Ready, Means describes the 1942 excavation of a Caddo site in Oklahoma (3). No information about the age of the site is provided, but I know from a minute of googling the Caddo lived in Oklahoma until mid 19th century. The site is stated simply to be a burial and while it could have been a very, very old burial, it could have been a very, very new recent too.

I plan to address it in a later post, but the E.B. White poem, after which this blog is title, “An Indian Burial Mound” provides further evidence of the fusion of native cemetery and North American archaeological site. In his 2005 essay, “Through Wary Eyes: Indigenous Perspectives on Archaeology,” Joe Watkins quotes a member of the Pawnee tribe of Oklahoma who says that “public opinion and legal loopholes have until recently enabled white society to loot and pillage with impunity American Indian cemeteries,”(4) so clearly the fusion is more than just narrative and ideological for contemporary native peoples.  I’ll probably talk about all of this more in future posts.

Oh! And here’s a funny link:

(1) Means, Bernard K.. Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013. 8-9

(2)Kehoe, Alice Beck. The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology. New York: Routledge, 1998. xiii.

(3) Means, Shovel Ready, 123.

(4) Watkins, Joe. “Through Wary Eyes: Indigenous Perspectives on Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 34 ( 2005): 429-449. 433-434.


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