What I’ve Been Reading: Toward A Social History of Archaeology

A while ago when I reading El-Haj, there was one thing that really interested me that I forgot to mention. She referred to archaeology as an national Israeli “hobby,” which reminded me of American archaeology’s more casual beginnings.

Patterson has a whole chapter on the professionalization of archaeology, which really did begin as just a pastime–good old digging in the dirt. Although the development of American archaeology’s professional status happened practically simultaneously with archaeology’s increasing popularity (at the turn of the 20th century), I still have this strong impression that its less formal beginnings informs the current national discourse. It seems to connect up with that idea of Indian artifacts always being available and that intense delight and finding something like a pottery shard, beads, or an arrow head. It feels like a free for all, like an equal opportunity kind of deal.

More on topic though, Patterson argues that the professionalization of archaeology ultimately produced some of the most harmful archaeological discourse that we now know and love. Professional archaeologists at the end of the 19th century, for example, had highly specific definitions of civilization and culture, definitions that often excluded Native Histories and bolstered the rhetoric of manifest destiny by ‘scientifically’ providing evidence for the superiority of white Americans over people of  other races.


This is all so depressing and it’s reminding me of that essay I read a while ago that essentially claimed it was impossible to decolonize inherently terrible institutions. Oh well. Archaeology is boring any way, I say we just toss it.

New Deal Archaeology

Okay, so I promised I’d provide some historical background. Here it goes! 

During the 19-teens in the United States, archaeology, as a way of interacting with the past for entertainment rather than scholastic purposes, began to experience a rise in public interest. Several publications, including short lived (1914-1934) Art and Archaeology Magazine, dedicated to archaeology, art history, and natural history were founded during this time. With the great depression of the 1930s and with that FDR’s New Deal, the steadily rising interest in archaeology experienced a massive boom. The Works Progress Administration, in addition to half a dozen other “alphabet soup” agencies, employed millions of people throughout the Great Depression, many of which worked on the excavations of archaeological sties across the continental United States (1). New Deal funding poured into American Archaeology (2) and the growing number of excavations lead to a number of changes within the field, most notably increased professionalization (3).

While it is true that early colonial sites were excavated during this time, many more of the archaeological excavations were of American Indian sites (4). For a people whose relatively recent history contained relocation, removal, and genocide, whose contemporary existence was (and continues to be) systematically erased or ignored, and whose lives and culture are consistently relegated to the past, this sudden Anglo-American interest in Native American history was, needless to say, complicated and fraught for American Indian people. Anglo-American archaeologists and U.S. government officials cared, unsurprisingly, very little about Native claims to the land being excavated or the artifacts uncovered in the excavations. In keeping with the nation’s long history of violent land acquisition, white Americans felt fully justified in their right to occupy, and make decisions about, the newly unearthed Indian ruins. In The Land of Prehistory, Kehoe asserts that the indiscriminate archaeological excavation of Native sites by white archaeologists is an extension the Manifest Destiny rhetoric of the mid-19th century (5).

 The growing excitement over archaeological digs dovetailed with newly spirited nationalist sentiment. White Americans felt proud of what they conceived of as their past, of what they considered an American history all for them and for the construction of their collective and individual national identities. In his essay, “Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past,” anthropologist Philip Kohl theorizes that, given archaeology’s importance to national identity, nations with similar histories will produce archaeological research with similar scholarly focuses and attitudes towards the material. He writes that:

“the construction of a national identity for a nation of immigrants…typically has been associated with the adoption of universal evolutionary/natural historical perspective on its prehistoric past and on its still-surviving indigenous peoples. Prehistory becomes part of nature, and its makers may at first go unrecognized…romanticized as noble or denigrated as savages…conceptualized as different and less than the civilized European immigrants, who have a real history forged in the Western tradition” (6).

I’m going to get all casual for a second, here. The way I always best understand this particular anti-Indian, racist narrative is by imagining the U.S. as a Western parent towards their metaphorical Western child, whom they are raising and watching grow up. In this scenario, the child is born a helpless unsocialized animal, an object of nature. This is the land’s infant native stage. After European contact, nature–American Indian Civilization–is tamed, civilized, and improved into mature Western futurity/adulthood. White Americans are thus encouraged to look fetishistically back on the wild, exotic, unconquered, “prehistorical” North American, appreciate how much Western expansionism has accomplished, and give themselves a congratulatory pat on the back as though their previously moody, now well-behaved teenager had just graduated from high school.

I also think this metaphor has practical benefits in terms of thinking about the way children are encourage to play Indian but also expected to grow out of it. In that sense, every American child is slated to develop their national identity on a trajectory that serves as a microcosm of the really horrible and oppressive colonial narrative history for the U.S.

(1) Means, Shovel Ready, 7. Means, Shovel Ready, 7.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Patterson, Thomas C.. Toward A Social History of Archaeology in the United States. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995. 75.

(4) Means, Shovel Ready, 13-14.

(5) Kehoe, Prehistory, xi.

(6) Kohl, Philip L.. “NATIONALISM AND ARCHAEOLOGY: On The Constructions Of Nations And The Reconstructions Of The Remote Past.” Annual Review of Anthropology: 223-246. 233.