Reading old archaeology scholarship…

In perfect alignment with Kohl’s assertion that settler-colonial archaeology will focus more on natural history and with Fabian’s theory of allochronism and temporal manipulation, the scholarship from the 1930s is largely written from a “natural history” perspective. Albert Reagan’s 1933 article, “Indian Pictures in Ashley and Dry Fork Valleys, in Northeastern Utah,” published in Art and Archaeology Magazine, provides a strong example of the kind of language used to describe American Indian excavation sites at the time:

On the rock walls of this region ancient man left hundreds of groups of 

rock-pictures which not only show considerable art in their make-up but are also more or less decipherable. Furthermore, through their being superimposed over each other and their being drawn in almost life size, the different cultures which occupied the region before the days of the present Utes can be readily determined, and then by placing these in their succession and correlating them with the house remains that dot the section, the age of these cultures can also be approximately estimated…the basket-makers were the first people of the scene. They pictures themselves in square-shouldered (or slightly round-shouldered) drawings and as wearing their hair in side bobs or side-locks, or as cut a little below the ears and occasionally held in place with a hair band. Some of their other drawings are of animals and hunting scenes” (Reagan 202).

Although this excerpt is somewhat scholastically dry and not particularly complicated in its syntax or ideas, there is much to be parsed in this brief, seemingly straightforward account. Starting at the beginning, the phrase “ancient man” is the first of many problematic instances which confirm the article as an example of “the literature of dominance.” Referring to Native people from the past as “ancient man” both emphasizes their existence in distant past and employs “natural history” rhetoric to other them in a way that implies they were fundamentally different from other human beings,  and not because of the historical moment in which they lived. They are depicted as belonging almost to another species, as not quite human. The group singular “man” evokes the language of scientists watching animals: the elephant is the largest land mammal on earth. Here, elephant singular actually means elephant plural, but the singular use indicates lack of individuality, that, if there are differences between specific elephants, then the differences are minor and unimportant because what is of scientific interest are the shared traits that make all elephants elephants. In the article the sameness is what’s important, the sameness is what dehumanizes past Indians and what separates historical nativeness from contemporary whiteness. 

Similarly, the description of an entire population as “basket-makers” trivializes and simplifies the culture into a homogenous soup of unvarying production; it emphasizes the exact dehumanizing sameness as the group singular did at the beginning. Later in the passage when the Native people’s hair styles are described in meticulous, objectifying detail, the mention of their pictures of animals is, in comparison, brief and far less thorough. Perhaps, to allow them narrative space in which they are subject observing and studying object, rather than objects themselves, is too risky in its inherent threat to the articles scientific “natural history” approach. 

The language used to figure the artwork is also peculiarly judgmental. The pictures are described as “more or less decipherable,” which is ridiculous given that a) it’s a vague unacademic assessment that fails to mean anything, and b) “deciphering” implies an established structure of meaning which, although potentially confusing, has enough consistency that when an interpretation is reached it is obviously the correct one. Perhaps Reagan or the archaeologists are more learned than they seem, but at no point was an advanced enough familiarity with this culture conveyed that “decipher” could be considered an appropriate characterization of their praxis. This phrase also directly follows the potential-compliment “considerable art,” as though the effort were more impressive than the product, an assessments that’s only conceivable purpose is condescension as it adds no relevance to the scholarly discourse. This penchant for condescension and paternalistic language show’s how important it is, to this rhetoric, that white researchers remain, at all times, unimpressed, a parent (to return to a previous conceit) kindly finding something to complement in their kindergardener’s art project. In a similar vein, it is worth noting that the “house remains”–actual architectural ruins–merely “dot” the site, as though they Utes’ architectural accomplishments are completely insignificant, when in fact they provided the most significant information about dating and time estimations for the materials found.

To finish up this examination, the one mention of contemporary Native presence, “the Utes” must be addressed. Their brief appearance is more unsettling that anything else. If the excavation is, indeed, occurring on the land they currently occupy, then what is their relationship to the material remains, the artifacts, the art work? If they live there and yet the site’s wealth of physical history is intact, then have the not consciously preserved it? Why are they not considered curators? Why aren’t they important for gathering information?  Furthermore, how long have they lived there? If they’ve been there all along, are they not the same people, just culturally evolved and changed with time? 

This last question also resonates with another moment in the article where the most recent rock pictures are “found drawn over the rock writings of the three previous cultures, thus showing beyond question that they are the latest in the time scale” (Reagan 203). First, of the two synonymous phrases “most recent” and “latest,” the selection of the one that evokes an increasingly aging timeline, rather than one that approaches, or is relative to, the present is yet another example of the relegation of Native people to the past. Second, cultures do not usually experience death, do not suddenly cease to exist, unless violence enters into the equation. The perception of “three” distinct “previous cultures” paints an alternate reality in which cultural evolution occurs when one group of people replaces another. Although the approximate times in which these cultures existed is supposedly known, those dates are never mentioned. It seems possible that there is temporal overlap being elided, in order to create an illusion of staccato cultural progression, laying a narrative groundwork for understanding Western culture’s invasion of North America and the ascension of the United States’ national body as a natural and precedented occurrence. To allow Native people a narrative presence in which dynamic, fluid cultural evolution occurs, is also to allow them access to futurity, a right which would threaten the subjectivity of white scholars with coeval experience, and which explicitly counters values of manifest manners and the United State’s ongoing project of Indian erasure.


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