What I’ve Been Reading: Reflections on Archaeology and Israeli Settler-Nationhood

Today I read Nadia Abu El-Haj’s article, “Reflections on Archaeology and Israeli Settler-Nationhood,” and found it to be super relevant and awesome. Her principal claim is that the Israeli government used archaeology to justify their occupation of palestine, to construct that occupation as a proper return, an not as violent emigration. She emphasizes the importance of archaeology’s supposed empiricism to this effort, arguing that Israel used the ‘objective’ methodology of excavation to construct the notion that their return and subsequent occupation were scientifically sanctioned, and that the land belonged to them in a deep historical way.

The use of scientific rhetoric to justify occupation definitely resonates with what I’ve been reading and thinking about in terms of North American archaeology, but the fact that Israel aims ultimately to construct a story of return makes the two archaeological constructions of nationhood very different. The similarities are still compelling, and I found El-Haj’s discussion of constructing new  knowledge and new history out of the ’empirical’ practice of excavation to be very enlightening. The contrast of inherently deserved return vs. rightful, virtuous invasion reminded me of something very interesting, however.

In a class last semester I read William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “The Prairies” which narrates that totally insane history of the mounds that archaeologists totally believed for an embarrassingly long time ( I summarized this account in my post about the mound builders–the story where a different, probably white, race of people built the mounds and then were killed off by the Indians). Reading El-Haj made me look at that archaeological narrative different. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I think that by constructing a history in which the European colonists that began arriving in the 16th century were not the first white people to live on American land, United States’ archaeologists were able to fashion themselves a kind of narrative of return.

Bryant concludes his poem with the lines “From the ground/Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice/Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn/Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds/Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain/Over the dark-brown furrows. All at once/A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,/And I am in the wilderness alone.” I read these lines as mourning the loss of people that Bryant feels kinship with, the lines describe his regret over the long-ago loss of his kind. and even though the poem ends with wilderness and solitude, I think Bryan is constructing a history where his occupation of native land avenged the destruction of what he describes as a glorious civilization of people. 

Here Lies a Brave! (The Belated Explanation of this Blog’s Title)

When I first became interested in this research topic, I went to the library and poured through several copies of Art and Archaeology Magazine. In a 1922 issue, I stumbled across this poem by E.B. White:

An Indian Burial Mound

The sculpted buttes cut cameo-wise

Against the bold blue skies,

Above the grave.

No catafalque, no lordly marble tomb;

But,–in his native hill side carved,–a room

His bones to save.

The tomb profaned, simple would show his needs;

A shard or two, a strand of turquoise beads

The spirit crave.

Here ruled his tribe before we bade them go.

Here buffalo and deer paid tribute to his bow;

Here lies a brave!

I still don’t understand what a sentimental poem was doing in the middle of scholarly journal, but hey, I used to run a publication too, and sometimes you’re just super low on content and you do what you gotta do. There isn’t much interesting about this poem–well, two things. But neither of those things make it a good inspiration from which to draw the title of my entire project.

(1) It could potentially  be presented as evidence that archaeology feelings, as an actual prevalent phenomenon in nationalist discourse, are real, or, at least, were for E.B. White.

(2). It has blue beads in it, which is something I’m going to post about soon.

So why is it my title? Honestly, I wanted a quote from one of the pieces of literature I was reading for this research and it seemed like a not terrible one. Sorry I didn’t post explaining sooner, I guess I just hoped I would come up with a better rationale.

NOTE: Ugh, it will not format correctly. The poem is meant to be in 4 three-line stanzas.

My Argument or Whatever

Now seems like as good a time as any to lay my cards on the table. It seems as though I should have some kind of argument or at least guiding perspective in this project so I’m going to establish some of what I believe based on my research and coffee-fueled brain power.

My current sense is that there are several ways in which the colonial praxis of United States archaeology is strategically reifying American nationhood and national sentiment:

(1) It allows white Americans a cohesive historical identify and connection with the past.

(2) It permits a narrative in which the virtuous civilizing effect of colonization is affirmed and celebrated (this the native land as child that needs to be tamed before it can grow up into a good capitalist nation narrative).

(3) Archaeology really effectively relegated Native people to the past, an ongoing violence of occupation that serves to ameliorate white guilt and anxiety about living on stolen land.

(4) Related to (3), the temporal distance that archaeology creates also helps to protect and reaffirm white subjectivity. For this last claim, I’m going to turn to an old pal of mine, Johannes Fabian.

In his influential 1983 essay on anthropological theory, “Time and the Emerging Other: How Anthropology makes its Other,” Johannes Fabian concedes that as long as the subject seems temporally disparate from the object, that separation is much more important than anything else to the subject’s emotional perceptions of whether or not the situation is an appropriate effort for science. Fabian writes that:

“After all, it is not difficult to transpose from physics to politics one of the most ancient rules which states that it is impossible for two bodies to occupy the same space at the same time. When in the course of colonial expansion a Western body politic came to occupy, literally, the space of an autochthonous body, several alternatives were conceived…the preferred strategy has been simply to manipulate…time…I will call it a denial of coevalness. By that i mean a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (1) 

In other words, if part of the method by which archaeology identifies and separates its subject and object, is for the subject to create alternative, limited temporalities for their object to narratively occupy, then all that is required for the pillaging of any burial is a sense of temporal distance between the bodies and their grave un-digger. Fabian calls sharing time coevalness and insinuates that is is the most threatening object-subject relationship to the current paradigm of anthropology. The theory of invented temporality weaves in perfectly with Anglo-America’s tendency to relegate Native experience to the an unspecified distant past. With this admission of imperialist anthropological praxis, it is easy to understand how, given the American Indian’s imprisonment in an imagined alternative temporality is a well established precedent, a white researcher might see legitimate value in an archaeological excavation of a potentially quite recent burial. Fabian also distinguishes between what he understands to be accidental or unintentional anachronism with the systematically implemented temporal acrobatics which deny coevalness and promote temporal distance between object and subject. He calls this construction of “other” or “different” time the allochronism of anthropology. 

Part of the ongoing power of North American archaeology is its maintenance of allochronistic spaces where native people are discursively kept. As long as we (non-Native and Native Americans) exist in fundamentally different modes, than the occupation of stolen land can continue to be justified and even championed.

AFTER THOUGHT: I view coevalness as one of those points of weakness and instability around which much nation-building occurs. Like the purse that breaks masculinity, literally just existing and being people in the same narrative space and at the same time as a native person is like catastrophic of America’s settler-colonialism.

(1)Fabian, Johannes. Time and the other: how anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002., 29-31.

What I’ve Been Reading: Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique

The past two days I’ve been reading this book of essays entitled Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique and edited by Matthew Liebmann and Uzma Rizvi.

One essay I found interesting, though not particularly relevant to my research, was “Indigenous and Postcolonial Archaeologies” by Robert Preucel and Craig Cipolla. The major focus of the article is archaeology controlled by indigenous peoples as a means of combatting and remedying oppressive colonial archaeological practices (like taking human remains and not repatriating them). The authors propose several “decolonizing methodologies” which include groups of indigenous people collaborating with professional archaeologists, indigenous archaeologists excavating their own cultural sites, and reinventing archaeological praxis to reflect more authentic, traditional cultural values and philosophies (one example of this is a Maori archaeologist who insists that “research should set out to make a positive difference for those researched).

Another essay I liked was “Heterogenous Encounters: Colonial Histories and Archaeological Experiences” by PraVeena Gullapalli. It’s also somewhat more relevant to my work. The essay’s main concern,  though-provokingly resonant with the other essay I’ve summarized, is whether or not archaeology can be decolonized. Gullapalli writes:

“A consistent critique has been that european investigations into the past and present were fundamentally shaped by the exigencies of rationalizing and maintaining power. Consequently, the historical and anthropological narratives created under those circumstances cannot be divorced from issues of power and dominations and were, in many cases, in the service of reinforcing those power relations in favor of the colonizers.”

This made me think really hard about the particular history of archaeology in the U.S. and the nation-building goals it has always served. I’m not sure how North American archaeology could be decolonized and reclaimed for native people. The very nature of archaeological praxis in the U.S. concerns the manipulation of American Indian temporal narrative, turning them in to ancient or dead characters in a story that ends necessarily in the triumph of colonialism. Well, from where I’m sitting (my carrell), North American archaeology seems pretty irredeemable to me.

The Perceived Ubiquity of American Indian Artifacts

Recently, in the library, I found a 1932 book entitled Children of the Great Sprit by Frances Somers and Florence Crannell Means. It’s a teacher’s guide, meant to be “A Course on the American Indians For Primary Children.” It’s unsurprisingly super racist, but that’s not the interesting part. There is this really strange moment in the text where the authors suggest, among a dozen other education “activities,” that the children engage in “collecting Indian objects.” The full excerpt reads:

“No matter what tribe is being studied, the observation of articles of Indian workmanship offers a good way of initiating and strengthening the course. The leader may be able to borrow from friends, from the public school, from a museum, of from the mission board. It is best to display only a few articles at first. These will almost certainly suggest to the children others which might bring in from week to week. When everything must be labeled and carefully handled and kept track or, training in responsibility results.”

The authors are presuming the constant availability of Native American artifacts, which is not only unrealistic and strangely delusional, but also paints a very haunting picture of America as a mass grave, the whole country resembling the strewn out insides of one of those excavated mounds. What I  realized was even weirder, though, was that the cultural narrative surfacing in that quote is actually pretty familiar to me. When confronted with it as a school assignment, I’m instantly skeptical, but without the rigid prescription of needing to go and find something on demand, it dawned on me that this is a totally pervasive narrative and one that I have been exposed to my whole life. I have this image, I don’t know where from, multiple places I’m guessing, of a child finding an arrow head in the woods. And it’s such a delightful pseudo-memory, that youthful archaeological discovery, I take immense pleasure from it. I suspect it’s a trope older than the New Deal archaeological boom, but I’m not positive and it would be pretty cool if it’s origins are the Great Depression excavations in popular culture.

Also, I just realized, that’s exactly what happens in that scene in Little House on The Prairie when Laura and her sister find the beads at the abandoned Indian camp site. It’s that very same pleasure, too. I have a highly relevant analysis of that scene that I’ll post sometime soon. It’s what inspired this project, so it is super duper on point.

Mound Builders

The mound builders were a native American people, made up of many tribes, but culturally  related to one another (1). They were a Mississippian people (2) and there distributed over a wide geographic region including the modern day states of Mississippi, Ohio, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, New York, and many of the Gulf States (3). Their vast civilization existed from 700 A.D. to 1700 A.D., and they there are most well known for building their mysterious massive earth  mounds, hollow on the inside and sometimes, though not always, home to the dead (4).

The largest, and most archaeologically excavated, of the mound builder sites, are the ruins of what must have been a very great metropolis, Cahokia (5). Mound sites made up a huge number of the New Deal excavations and it was during that time period that the United States acquired much of its collection of American Indian human remains, the majority which still belongs to the Smithsonian.

Also, of note, for many, many years American archaeologists believed that the mounds were to sophisticated to have been built by native peoples and it was believed that a non-Indian race of people, speculated to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes, vikings, or of Asian origin, built the mounds and were then the victims of genocide at the hand’s of violent American Indian tribes (6). That’s kind of so insane a theory I don’t even know what to do with it. Furthermore, I feel like I’m seeing the most obvious analysis of that historical belief as horrendously, overtly racist, and am, perhaps, blinded by weird confused rage to any other more nuance or interesting interpretation. The most thoughtful idea I have is just that this historical attitude definitely would have fit neatly into the predominant narrative of White colonists taming and civilizing the wild native America.






(1) Silverberg, Robert. Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth.. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968., 227

(2) Ibid., 226.

(3) Shetrone, H. C.. The Mound Builders.. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1930., 27.

(4) Silverberg, Mound Builders, 227.

(5) Young, Biloine W., and Melvin L. Fowler. Cahokia, the Great Native American Metropolis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000., ix.

(6) Patterson, Social History, 28.