Terry A. Barnhart. American Antiquities: Revisiting the Origins of American Archaeology. 594pp., illus., bibl., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. $75 (hardcover)
The ancient inhabitants of the United States left artifacts and structures across the continent, from Florida to the Great Lakes and Chaco Canyon to Puget Sound. Today’s archaeologists study how these populations moved, changed, and interacted, using material traces to understand the lives of their makers. The current professional consensus as to how archaeology is done and what it tells us about America’s past did not emerge in a linear fashion. Terry Barnhart’s American Antiquities chronicles the “organic and altogether untidy process” (1) by which antiquarian interest in Indian mounds, and speculation about their non-Indian origins, transmuted into the work of scientific societies, state-sponsored surveys, museums, and ultimately an academic discipline at pains to escape the burden of its own history.
Numerous histories of American archaeology have consolidated these complex and contingent changes into a narrative arc that begins with antiquarian speculation about a lost race of “Mound Builders,” explaining these now-reviled theories as part of a larger social and political context of westward expansion, Indian eradication, and race science. They associate professionalization both with the ethical compromises of imperial science and with the eventual triumph of an objective, evidence-driven paradigm that would replace hierarchical notions of race with neutral ones of cultural change over time.
Barnhart frames his contribution to the history of archaeology in relation to these previous works, which are often “dismissive and imperious” (36) towards early investigators who fell short of the standards of the present-day profession. Indeed, archaeologists and historians of archaeology have continued the boundary-work of professionalization by using the Mound Builders and other fringe theories as fodder for debunking exercises. These works pit the egregious “Mound Builder” school, which proposed that a semi-mythical non-Indian race built the mounds, against the winners of the debate, a seemingly beleaguered minority who maintained that Indians built the mounds.
In contrast, Barnhart aims to place the archaeological discourse around the Mound Builders within its intellectual milieu in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though almost every expert writing on the Mound Builders was compelled to address popular “lost race” theories in some way, Barnhart shows that the mainstream of archaeological practitioners tended toward more nuanced views. To this end he has assembled a trove of primary sources that guide readers through the thinking of mound investigators. He parses the subtleties of their positions with impressive patience, as many actors held substantially-overlapping views and distinguished themselves from predecessors or opponents on the basis of fine points, such as which path the Mound Builders took as they retreated southward to Mexico (and whether they became the Toltecs or the Aztecs).
The book begins with a thorough review of seemingly every recorded military expedition, survey, or naturalist adventure during the late colonial and early national periods that mentions antiquities and their possible relation to indigenous peoples. Barnhart suspects that Europeans, especially French and British fur traders, must have encountered mounds and simply did not find them noteworthy, while others investigated antiquities but never circulated their observations. He notes that some early observers believed that Indian migration and European contact had produced discontinuities in the archaeological and historical records, but he bemoans their lack of an appropriate nomenclature to distinguish cultural change from racial supplantation. Because most records that do exist are “incidental, detached, and impressionistic” (67), Barnhart’s method of stitching them together can feel like a patchwork. However, the collection of these sources into chronological and thematic sequence is invaluable for historians seeking biographical details on travel writers and explorers pre-1800.
Subsequent chapters track the yoked progress of westward expansion and archaeological investigation. Many excavations and published reports were a byproduct of American military and economic incursion bringing officers, surveyors, settlers, and government agents into proximity with mound sites. Their reports circulated in the popular press as well as through the nation’s early scholarly and scientific societies, the activities of which Barnhart weaves into his story of a developing infrastructure for sharing archaeological expertise. Settlers in the western territories seized upon mound antiquities as a source of regional and national identity, leading to the establishment of museum collections and publications as well as nascent interest in preservation. This growing interest also fueled speculative Mound Builder myths: attributing the mounds to a superior lost race that was conquered in turn by savage Indians justified U.S. Indian policy and provided a romantic nationalist identification with a great (though mysterious) civilization of the past.
The book concludes with professional archaeology emerging under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Ethnological Society in the 1840s and 50s, and later the anthropology subsection of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Barnhart analyzes notable surveys, such as that by Squier and Davis, alongside unpublished correspondence and lesser-known contributions. Disputes between antiquaries of the amateur societies and a new generation of professional archaeologists were ongoing, but tended by the 1870s in the favor of the “more sober-minded lot” (419): professionals who mobilized institutional funds to support excavations and publications that would form the foundation of the field. Thus, Barnhart concludes the Mound Builder debate with the relegation of lost race theories to archaeology’s amateur fringes, pushed out by the scientific standardization of terminology and methods.
Barnhart’s sources are largely circumscribed within antiquarian, philological, and anthropological literature, with occasional nods to broader cultural context. Despite the diversity of archaeology’s origins, the book tends to take an internalist approach even to this pre-disciplinary period—in intentional contradistinction to works that frame Mound Builder theories as merely a symptom of the racism lodged deep in America’s cultural imagination. Barnhart sensibly points out that the penetration of “social and political attitudes” (8) into science is not an affliction specific to nineteenth-century American archaeology, and thus we have nothing to gain from issuing blanket condemnations on these grounds. However, in cases such as the polygenism/monogenism issue, readers might desire more explicit connections to various actors’ positions on the origins of the mounds. Admittedly, this is a tangled web to navigate.
The book promises a “thick,” situated engagement with the problematic views of past actors, modeling current best practices. However, the challenges of this approach become apparent throughout the text when Barnhart interjects evaluative statements about the quality of a survey or the correctness of a theory. Such evaluations are consistent with his intention of combining humanistic and scientific perspectives on his material; he does not shy away from identifying the “worthy intellectual ancestors” (32) whose observations or methods remain valid in the eyes of present-day archaeologists. However, value-neutral historicism does not always fit into a coherent conceptual framework with this search for worthy precursors. Recurrent moments of distributing praise and blame become a prescriptive exercise in disciplining the past from the vantage of the present-day professional consensus—especially distracting in the midst of a fine-grained historical examination of how that consensus was assembled.
Another goal of Barnhart’s is to historicize how his actors used the concept of race. American Antiquities might benefit from a deeper engagement with this very active area of scholarship in the history of science. Barnhart works from the current historical understanding that race had a range of meanings for eighteenth and nineteenth century actors, and individual writers might deploy multiple senses of the term in ways that appear contradictory to the modern reader. Overall, he characterizes the race construct of American archaeologists as a static one that fixed and essentialized qualities now understood to emerge from processes of cultural, geographical, and temporal change. This does embrace the thinking of many of his actors, though specialists in the history of race theories might desire more nuance. Barnhart presents misguided use of the race concept as a confounding factor that accounts for his actors’ failure to get their archaeology right.
Barnhart includes capsule biographies of many minor antiquarians and local scholars whose work was not widely circulated, a boon to specialists who may need to situate these obscure figures in their own research. However, the long succession of men and deeds sometimes proceeds without a clear historiographical motive besides the tribute of commemoration. Barnhart asserts an inherent value for establishing “who knew what and when” (40), and his book is surely an authoritative answer to these questions. However, it would be useful if the author explicitly stated his criteria for balancing comprehensiveness with significance, and perhaps guided the reader from minor figures to major themes more consistently.
On the whole, American Antiquities serves as a comprehensive, impressively-researched, and sympathetically-written guide to the practice of archaeology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it approached a professional consensus. Any scholar groping amidst scattered reports of mound investigations and theories will find this an invaluable treasury of the period’s discourse that, for the most part, presents the words and motives of its subjects within the intellectual framework of their time.