Fair Necropolis: The Peruvian Dead, the First American Ph.D. in Anthropology, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago, 1893

Given just how many people participated in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, it is understandable that historians have used the well-documented presence of a manageable few individuals to illuminate the experiences of the crowd. But sometimes the exemplary are so bright that they wash out the wider experience. In terms of the history of anthropology, for example, Franz Boas has become central to our accounts of the field at the World’s Fair, despite his own protests that he thought that his collection of biological and cultural materials from the Pacific Northwest were poorly represented (Cole, 1995 [1985]).[1] There is, therefore, much gained by expanding our frame, to consider less lasting lights at the anthropological Fair, whose contributions illuminate anthropology’s multiple pasts in a way that helps us move beyond genealogies of its future.[2]

Fig. 1 The “Necropolis” of Ancón, reproduced at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 by F. W. Putnam based on the excavations of George Dorsey. Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Book of the Fair (Chicago, San Francisco: The Bancroft Company, 1893), 633.

This piece explores one exhibit whose lack of study is particularly notable, given the extraordinary real estate and notice it claimed in anthropology’s exposition space: a reproduction of the coastal Peruvian “Necropolis” of Ancón, which organizers billed as “probably the largest burying ground, either pre-historic or modern, in the world” (Anonymous, 1894). Excavated and mounted by George A. Dorsey (1868-1931)—Boas’s later rival and a student of the fair’s anthropological coordinator, Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam—its presentation of upwards of fifty wrapped and unwrapped mummy bundles shown as if in the process of excavation apparently “attracted more attention than any exhibit in the [anthropological] building” (Moorehead, 1984: 20). This was fitting, given that the Ancón display was essential to what Boas, Putnam, and others believed was the anthropological exposition’s core mission at the Fair: offering a ‘Pre-Columbian’ baseline against which white American society—and supposedly disappearing Northern Native Americans—could be judged.[3] To do so, Dorsey had spent time, effort, and Putnam’s money to excavate burial grounds that Peruvians—elite and indigenous—had long dug and interpreted for themselves.

The Ancón exhibit therefore helps us reckon with how past scholarship, materials, and lives from the Global South, and not just North American intellectual and cultural currents, shaped this signal moment in American anthropological history.[4] It also helps us re-blaze the path towards anthropology’s more contextualized, less universalizing future without falling into assumptions of its role in American colonialism, at home and abroad. For example, it would be relatively easy to compare the exhibit, unfavorably, to the more sensational molds of Mayan ruins Uxmal and Labná mounted en plein air at the Fair, the latter being a more coherent, apparently imperial appropriation of a lost, classical “American” past (Fane 1993; Evans 2004; Jacknis 2016). Yet there was a centrality, intimacy, and literalism to the Ancón display that Charnay’s plaster Copán lacked. The Peruvian “Necropolis” and its bundles filled with bodies and artifacts were the basis for Dorsey’s subsequent Ph.D. in anthropology, which was the very first awarded to an American in the United States, and the first awarded at Harvard.[5] It also became the gold standard for what Putnam proposed as a “new scientific practice” for archaeological collection and excavation, in which the indigenous dead were not collected separately from their works and tools, but with them, to reconstruct lives less comparable to those of Europe (Hinsley 2016: 7).

Linking these two points together, I want to suggest that this apparently epistemic shift in how anthropology approached its historical and non-European subject was as informed by the very nature of Peruvian mortuary practices—in which each interment was an archive of the living—as by ethnological debates in Cambridge, or expanding American settler colonialism. In other words, what if the Fair’s “Necropolis” of Ancón, the Peruvian afterlives it tried to translate and contain, and Dorsey’s recognition of both, were just as integral to the history of anthropology in America as Boas Agonistes?


Dorsey has not been ignored within the Fair literature, but he certainly has not starred. Dorsey was Boas’s counterpart in archaeology at the Columbian Exposition, but his subsequent work tends to dominate his rapsheet: his curation of anthropology at the Columbian Museum of Chicago, later known as the Field Museum, his rapacious competition with Boas in the Pacific Northwest, and his popularization of forensic anthropology (Cole, 1995 [1985]; Almazan and Coleman, 2003; Browman and Williams, 2013).[6] His work in Peru usually merits a paragraph, if that.

This is unfortunate, as Dorsey’s collecting in South America—nearly the sum total of his “C.V.” before he was hired by the Field Museum—is exemplary of the blameless relationship that North American anthropologists imagined they occupied with the indigenous dead. Whereas Boas—and later Dorsey—made their cranial collections in the Pacific Northwest surreptitiously, so as to avoid offending living indigenous peoples, Dorsey’s digging in Peru happened in the light of day, sometimes even with the help of local Peruvians—indigenous and Christian—who believed that their ancestors were “gentiles.” “The Cholos, or native people,” Dorsey wrote, “tell you that the ancient inhabitants were Gentiles and have no souls, and although in many cases they realize the fact that they are disturbing the remains of their ancestors, yet they are so accustomed to it that they have absolutely no scruples in assisting you in your work. As for the government, up to within a year it has no notice whatever of such work” (Dorsey 1894a, 4). This was a self-serving analysis—but it was not a wrong one, at least upon the Peruvian coast, where centuries of looting had changed relations to the past.[7] In Dorsey’s idealized Peru, authentic pre-Columbian Indians were not in need of salvage. Already murdered and orphaned by Spanish colonialism, they supposedly awaited resurrection by scientific interventions of outsiders.

Fig. 2 Plate 16, “Sumptuous Mummy Pack,” from Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel, The Necropolis of Ancon in Peru: A Contribution to Our Knowledge of the Culture and Industries of the Empire of the Incas. trans. Augustus Henry Keane, Vol. 1 (Berlin: A. Asher, 1880-1887).

This could only happen, however, because of how they had been resurrected before. What Peru also offered was an intellectual, anthropological, and even archaeological tradition—popular and elite—that helped Dorsey make sense of what he saw. In terms of environment, Peru’s climate had encouraged the development of an elaborate, pre-European above- and below-ground cult of bodily preservation. That cult reached its apogee with the mummified Incas, whose description by the Spanish yielded an extraordinary corpus of chronicles and natural histories. This scholarship then familiarized the wider Atlantic world with a Peruvian dead that seemed more “ancient” and advanced than all other Native American peoples. Even Northern European doubters of Inca and pre-Inca attainments mobilized Peruvian graves as indices of pre-European indigenous achievement, or of a supposed lack thereof. Creole and indigenous Peruvian traditions of learning, subaltern excavation, elite antiquarianism, and museum-building then helped provide a foundation for later nineteenth century North American patterns of anthropological collecting and theorization, from Samuel George Morton to the Harvard Peabody Museum (Gänger 2014; Heaney 2016a, 2016b and 2016c). By 1893, Peru therefore represented a historically significant biological and cultural American population that could be collected at great speed and greater scale, with actual local assistance, and that could then be studied in relationship to a corpus of ethnological literature nearly four centuries old.

Dorsey stepped into that stream with gusto. Charged by Putnam with making collections for the exposition, Dorsey traveled to South America between 1891 and 1892, stopping in Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. His work at Ancón—assisted by Lieutenant William S. Safford—was particularly fruitful. Ancón, just north of Lima, had been a target of digging for decades, if not centuries. It had recently been the subject of an important but hardly exhaustive excavation by two German volcanologists, Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel, whose massive, illustrated atlases on the site were published in English between 1880 and 1887. Their books’ gorgeous chromolithographs—featuring composite cross sections of excavations and detailed paintings of mummy bundles, wrapped in vibrantly colored textiles, containing those possessions prized during life—likely helped to attract Dorsey to the site.[8] [Fig. 2] Once there, he relied upon “Good native labor,” men “who invariably … had previous experience”; he claimed that they styled themselves as huaqueros, “or one who works in huacas, as old ruins and cemeteries in Peru are called” (Dorsey, 1894: 3).[9] [Fig. 3]

Fig. 3 Plate 6, “Exposed Graves with Mummies of a Simple Type,” from Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel, The Necropolis of Ancon in Peru: A Contribution to Our Knowledge of the Culture and Industries of the Empire of the Incas. trans. Augustus Henry Keane, Vol. 1 (Berlin: A. Asher, 1880-1887). “In order to give a better idea of the proportions, two Indian workmen are introduced, as engaged in the work of exhumation. One of them is in the act of withdrawing the body of a mummy already devested [sic] of its cerements” (n.p., opposite Plate 6).

Dorsey seems to have offered his own innovations. Blurring the line between archaeology and mortuary ritual, Dorsey found a way to translate the mummy bundles intact and entire: he had his workers expand graves to two to three times their size and then move their contents onto burlap, which could be bundled still further. He was so successful that in June of 1892 he shipped sixty-eight boxes from the port of Callao to New York via Panama, filled with “antique” silver work, ethnographic materials and the contents of 203 graves, from Ancón, Sierra Gordas, and Chancy. Among them were 180 mummies, most mummified naturally by the Peruvian coast’s desiccating sand, in the typical position of preserved Andean dead: interred circumflex, with their knees to the chest, like a seed or embryo replanted.[10]

When he returned, Dorsey and Putnam mounted the collection as impressively as they could, topping Reiss and Stúbel by presenting in three dimensions what the Germans had only presented in two. Boas’s competitive relationship with Dorsey may have also begun at this point. Whereas the former’s skulls ended up in glass cases in a forsaken corner of the anthropological exposition, Dorsey’s collection occupied two large sections of its hall, which were fenced off and filled in with a reconstructed “Necropolis.” Across an expanse of dirt and sand, the “contents of over fifty graves from Ancón alone” were placed in varying degrees of imaginary excavation (Dorsey, 1893: 373).

This display sought to illustrate what Dorsey had seen in the field, as well as what these “pre-Incas” made of their afterlife.[11] As Putnam later explained: “Each grave had its mummy done up in its wrappings, and all things found about it were arranged around the mummy bundle, just as found in the grave. Each grave was photographed before the bundle & other things were disturbed & thus we were able to rearrange the objects & show them just as they were found. We also placed the mattings, etc., which formed the roof of the grave in proper position; and in this way we gave to the public a pretty good idea of the burial customs as shown by our exploration of that necropolis.”[12] More traditional cases, four in all, contained what was too fragile for open display. One bundle’s contents—“one of the oldest” and “of considerable wealth,” Dorsey believed—went to the anatomical laboratory of Charles H. Ward of Rochester, NY, for its bones to be mounted as a skeleton.[13]

Fig. 4 “A Pre-Columbian Shell Game From Peru,” “The Anthropology Building,” Sunday Chicago Herald, 17 Sept. 1893, from the collection of Curtis Hinsley.

The anthropological exposition was largely overshadowed by the Fair’s other attractions (Cole, 1995 [1985]), but this reproduction of mummies as bundles, still seated and wrapped, only just emerging from the ground, was haunting, unique in its extent, and touched a nerve in those who saw it.[14] “There are ridges of gravel and soil, with mummies in all positions, and skulls, bones, and cloth interspersed,” read the Book of the Fair, which called the display the Anthropological building’s “most uncanny collection” (Bancroft, 1893: 636).[15] The Southwestern pothunter Warren King Moorehead (1894: 20) believed that it was the anthropological exposition’s most popular. Ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing devoted “a large share of [his] leisure attention” to the Peruvian specimens, which included the artifact collection of Emilio Montes of Cusco, which was itself made up of mortuary offerings. The Peruvian specimens offered a crucial point of comparison, and transition, between the religion of more “primitive” and “prehistoric” North American peoples and those of Europe, he thought.[16]

Less expert visitors to the exhibit were fascinated as well. A writer for the magazine Modern Cemetery marveled at the preservation of whole families, from whose “sides were hung bags of medicine, with tablets bearing inscriptions which have never been deciphered … in this dry, salt gravel these bodies have reposed undisturbed for many centuries and are now taken out in a state of remarkable preservation” (Anonymous, 1893). More humorously, a cartoonist for the Sunday Chicago Herald sketched two of the exhibit’s squatting, cross-legged mummies facing each other. Three overturned shell cups separate them and the mummy in the foreground beckons in a way familiar to any casual ethnographer of the urban American street. “A Pre-Columbian Shell Game,” the scene is labeled (Hinsley and Wilcox, 2016: 248). [Fig. 4] In yet another sketch, the entire anthropology exhibit is led by a Peruvian mummy playing pre-Columbian pots like a battery of timpani drums. [Fig.5]

Fig. 5 Denslow, “Sept. 11—Anthropological Building,” Sunday Chicago Herald, 17 Sept. 1893, from the collection of Curtis Hinsley.


What happened after the World’s Fair closed is no less instructive. Dorsey’s collection was divided between the Field Columbian Museum and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, joining the trove of biological Peruviana that had defined the latter’s collection from its earliest days (Heaney, 2016c). Dorsey, meanwhile, wrote his 1894 dissertation for his Ph.D. in anthropology on “An archaeological study based on a personal exploration of over one hundred graves at the Necropolis of Ancon, Peru”—which, again, was the first completed by an American in the United States, let alone Harvard. Its offerings lay more in its panoptic breadth and poetic breathiness than any firmly analytical description of the culture under study. But its description of the past and future anthropological importance of Peru was no mere boosterism.[17] “To the would be explorer in Peruvian ruins we would say take plenty of time, more money, and a vast amount of patience,” he explained in a more public forum in 1894. “With these necessary conditions, a shovel, and a steel rod, there is undoubtedly more of profound interest to reward one’s labor than in any other country of the New World” (Dorsey, 1894a: 5).[18] For the next two decades, ending with Hiram Bingham’s highly public fight with the Peruvian government over the ownership of the mortuary contents of Machu Picchu and other Inca sites, North American anthropologists removed more burials from Peruvian bone fields than from any other locale in the Americas (Heaney 2012 and 2016a).

This was partly because the Peruvian mummies were the ideal type for what Curtis Hinsley (2016: 7) has labeled Putnam’s “concept of a new scientific practice” for archaeology. This was the total removal and translation of not just skulls, or just a mummy, or an illustrative or well-preserved ethnographic object, but the entire mortuary assemblage. The assemblage would then be kept together and not broken up into object-based study and display, as had happened under the prior tool-obsessed evolutionary regime of American ethnology and museum anthropology. Advising the anthropologist Adolph Bandelier two years later, Putnam noted that “objects found in each grave when kept together tell a wonderfully interesting story, and if we thus have the contents of a large number of graves we can reconstruct the past life of the people in a way that never can be done with a heterogenous collection.”[19] His example for the method was the Ancón collection, which Dorsey claimed at the time left “nothing wanting to tell us the complete story of their daily life; more complete, perhaps, than that of any other ancient and bygone race on the American continent” (Dorsey, 1893: 373).[20] This was a claim that was only made possible by the very specific mortuary practices of the “ancient Peruvians” of Ancón, who wrapped up their dead and their grave goods with layers of fine textiles, creating a near-perfect object of cultural, contextualized analysis—and, to push the point, a semi-individualized mortuary actor that then facilitated, or perhaps shaped, North American anthropological practices.

The Ancón story therefore underlines why the 1893 World’s Fair is so good to think with for the history of anthropology—but also why we are right to assume that the many peoples, projects, and cultures at the Fair beyond Boas and his circle are worth stories of their own. Historians have worked hard to complicate the misperception that what anthropology contributed to the Fair was limited to a project of ethnographic salvage of nineteenth century “noble savages” displaced by U.S. frontier expansion and Manifest Destiny. As recent work has firmly shown (Hinsley and Wilcox 2016), the voices speaking for anthropology at the Fair were multiple beyond Boas. Yet we need to understand their work—as well as that of less studied, non-European actors (Egan 2010, Heaney 2017)—beyond the North American indigenous cultures and settings who most typically populate our early anthropological histories. The Ancón example, in particular, shows how planners and participants were acutely aware of non-Anglo, South American intellectual and civilizational presence and precedence, whose contributions became givens within American anthropology as understood by its historians and practitioners. If what was learned from Dorsey’s contextual collection and presentation of the Necropolis of Ancón’s dead has been forgotten, that is the compliment of its normalization—the common-placing of an archaeological practice that has since become so widespread that it has, ironically, been detached from its original context.[21]

We therefore need to treat exhibits such as the Necropolis of Ancón differently. Not as a sideshow within anthropology’s history—or as a sop to the crowd, or as solely a discursive expression of European dominance over a non-European past—but as something simultaneously more central and capacious. This Pre-Columbian aspect to the Exposition in Chicago mattered profoundly—matters, profoundly—as it helps us to hear the voices of the uncanny, indigenous, supposedly un-American bodies whose histories encompass anthropology more than anthropology encompasses them.



The piece is indebted to the editors of the HAN for their tremendously incisive comments, without whom its arguments would have been flat and diffuse; Andrew J. Hamilton, for encouraging Harvard to scan and place Reiss & Stübel online, and for pointing the author their way; and Curtis Hinsley, for his kindness in sharing his scans of the Sunday Chicago Herald with a junior researcher whom he only just “met.” The author thanks them all.


Works Cited

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Cushing, Frank Hamilton. 2016 [1893]. “Document F Monthly Report of Mr. Frank Hamilton Cushing: September 1893 (inclusive of July and August).” In Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology, edited by Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, 212-231. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

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Cox Hall, Amy. 2012. “Collecting a ‘Lost City’ for Science: Huaquero Vision and the Yale Peruvian Expeditions to Machu Picchu, 1911, 1912, and 1914-15.” Ethnohistory 59(2): 293-321.

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Davis, George R. and F. W. Putnam. 1892. World’s Columbian Exposition; Chicago, U.S.A. 1893. Plan and Classification, Department M. Ethnology, Archaeology, History, Cartography, Latin-American Bureau, Collective and Isolated Exhibits. Chicago: World’s Columbian Exposition.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 1998. “From Race to Class: Insurgent Intellectuals de provincia in Peru, 1910-1970.” In  Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995, edited by Steve Stern, 22-59. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Dorsey, George. A. 1893. “South American Archaeology at the World’s Fair.” The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal (1880-1914) 15(6):373-376.

———. 1894a. “Archaeology in Peru.” The Archaeologist II/1 (January): 1-5.

———. 1894b. “An archaeological study based on a personal exploration of over one hundred graves at the Necropolis of Ancon, Peru.” PhD diss, Harvard University.

Egan, Nancy. 2010. “Exhibiting Indigenous Peoples: Bolivians and the Chicago Fair of 1893.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 28: 6-24.

Evans, R. Tripp. 2004. Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination 1820-1915. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Fane, Diana. 1993. “Reproducing the Pre-Columbian Past: Casts and Models in Exhibitions of Ancient America, 1824-1935.” In Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past: A symposium at Dumbarton Oaks: 6th and 7th October 1990edited by Elizabeth Hill Boone, 141-176. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Gänger, Stefanie. 2014. Relics of the Past: The Collecting and Study of Pre-Columbian Antiquities in Peru and Chile, 1837-1911. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heaney, Christopher. 2012. Las tumbas de Machu Picchu: La historia de Hiram Bingham y la busqueda de las ultimas ciudades de los Incas. Lima, Peru: Fondo Editorial Universidad Católica del Perú.

———. 2016a. “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World.” Ph.D. Diss., University of Texas at Austin.

———. 2016b. “A Peru of Their Own: English Grave Opening and Indian Sovereignty in Early America.” William and Mary Quarterly (3d ser.) 73/4 (October): 609-646.

———. 2016c. “Crania Peruviana: Samuel G. Morton, Philadelphia’s Incas, and an Andean Foundation for American Anthropology.” Paper presented to the McNeil Center for Early American Studies Seminar Series, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. (4 November).

———. Forthcoming 2017. “Seeing Like an Inca: Julio C. Tello, Indigenous Archaeology, and Pre-Columbian Trepanation in Peru.” In Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Wilner, eds., Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

Hinsley, Curtis M. 2016. “Anthropology as Education and Entertainment: Frederic Ward Putnam at the World’s Fair.” In Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology, edited by Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, 1-77. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

Hinsley, Curtis M. and David R. Wilcox, eds. 2016. Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

Jacknis, Ira. 1985. “Franz Boas and Exhibits: On the Limitations of the Museum Method of Anthropology.” Pp. 75-111 in George W. Stocking, Jr., ed., Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

———. 2016. “Refracting Images: Anthropological Display at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893.” In Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology, edited by Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, 261-336. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

McVicker, Donald. 2016. “Patrons, Popularizersm and Professionals: The Institutional Setting of Late Nineteenth-Century Anthropology in Chicago.” In Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology, edited by Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, 374-404. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

Moorehead, Warren King. 1984. “Anthropology at the World’s Columbian Exposition.” The Archaeologist II/1 (January): 15-24.

Peters, Ann H. and L. Alberto Ayarza. 2013. “Julio C. Tello y el desarrollo de estudios andinos en los Estados Unidos: Intercambios e influencias 1915-­1950.” In Historia de la arqueología en el Perú del siglo XX, edited by Cesar Astuhuamán and Henry Tantaleán. Lima: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos.

Pillsbury, Joanne. 2014. “Finding the Ancient in the Andes: Archaeology and Geology, 1850-1890.” In  Nature and Antiquities: The Making of Archaeology in the Americas, edited by Philip L. Kohl, Irina Podgorny, and Stefanie Gänger, 47-68. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Redman, Samuel J. 2016. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reiss, Wilhelm and Alphons Stübel. 1880-1887. The Necropolis of Ancon in Peru: A Contribution to Our Knowledge of the Culture and Industries of the Empire of the Incas. trans. Augustus Henry Keane, 3 vols. Berlin: A. Asher.

Rodriguez, Julia. 2004. “South Atlantic Crossings: Fingerprints, Science, and the State in Turn-of-the-Century Argentina.The American Historical Review 109/2 (April): 1-42.

Rydell, Robert W. 1984. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Salomon, Frank. 2011 [1995]. “‘The Beautiful Grandparents’: Andean Ancestor Shrines and Mortuary Ritual as Seen Through Colonial Records.” In Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices, edited by  Tom D. Dillehay, 315-353. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

———. 2002. “Unethnic Ethnohistory: On Peruvian Peasant Historiography and Ideas of Autochthony.Ethnohistory, 49/3 (Summer): 475-506.

Snead, James E. 2016. “Relic Hunters in the White City: Artifacts, Authority, and Ambition at the World’s Columbian Exposition.” In Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology, edited by Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, 337-361. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

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———, ed. 1985. Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

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[1] The impulse to focus specifically on Boas is particularly understandable given his importance to anthropology and the cultural, ethical turns it has taken (Stocking 1982 and 1985; Rydell, 1984; Cole, 1995 [1985]; Thomas, 2000). By focusing on the skulls that Boas collected from graveyards on Vancouver Island, for example, we underline nineteenth century anthropology’s complicity in settler colonial violence while also hinting at its future. If we squint, we can spot—looming just a few relativistic turns downriver—Boas’s departure for Columbia, his conclusion that skulls were hardly biologically fixed points of racial data, and anthropology’s ultimate shift from museums to university departments. This is Boas, and the Fair, as tools of narrative concentration and foresight, magnifying glass and telescope.

[2] Expanding scholarship has underlined the degree to which more popular, sometimes non-white, non-elite actors accessed and shaped anthropology at the Columbian Exposition or in Boas’s work afterwards (Egan 2010; Hinsley and Wilcox, 2016; Blackhawk and Wilner, 2017). Other scholars have placed the work of Boas and the Fair’s anthropological coordinator, Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam, alongside that of supposed “amateur” and popularizing anthropologists and archaeologists. The most visible contribution of these “amateur” anthropologists and archeologists was perhaps the Fair’s privately organized “mountain”-sized reproduction of a Colorado butte’s “cliffdwellers” (McVicker 2016; Redman 2016; Snead 2016). I have written elsewhere on how Peru’s surgeon general, Manuel E. Muñiz, came to the fair to present on eighteen pre-Columbian skulls that bore the marks of trepanation, or cranial surgery—an indigenous “scientific” practice that turned evolutionary models of culture upon their head (Heaney, 2017).

[3] “The object of this ethnographical exhibit, as before stated, is to present the means of studying the native peoples in a scientific manner; and, by representing the people who were in America 400 years ago, to form a background to the other departments of the Exposition in which will be illustrated the developments made during the past four centuries.” (Davis and Putnam, 1892: 8). Boas (1893: 79) himself ranked “American archaeology”—which included the “ancient culture of Peru,” the “age of man in America; the culture of the mound-builders; the archaeology of Central America”—as the foremost feature of the ethnological exhibits. Redman (2016) also shows that the Peruvians remained the benchmark against which Southwestern remains were judged: newspapers reminded “readers that the story of the cliff dwellers was ‘unfolded here in America, to take its place beside and confirm the Peruvian record of the early life of man on this continent [sic]” (50). This was a factor of centuries of North American awareness of the mummified Peruvian dead, and three decades longer of their being collected in the U.S. (Heaney, 2016a and 2016b).

[4] Thereby answering the challenges of Rodríguez (2004), Cañizares Esguerra (2006), and Anderson (2014).

[5] It should be noted that the first Ph.D. in anthropology—full stop—awarded in the U.S. was to the Canadian Alexander F. Chamberlain, who wrote his dissertation under Franz Boas at Clark University in 1891 (Bernstein, 2002: 557).

[6] Dorsey would be accused of baldly robbing native Canadian graves, demonstrating a “terrifying superficiality” in his archaeological labor (Cole, 1995 [1985]: 166-175).

[7] The single sharpest piece of scholarship on the sharpness of Peruvian folk archaeological knowledge, and the way that its self-identification with the colonial, not pre-Columbian past challenges ethnohistorians’ sense of scale, and the post-colonial national-archaeological project, is Frank Salomon’s “Unethnic Ethnohistory” (2002).

[8] See Pillsbury (2014) for a discussion of Reiss and Stübel’s importance in terms of thinking about American archaeology, stratigraphy, geology, and deep time.

[9] See Cox Hall (2012), Gänger (2014), and Heaney (2016a) for meditations on the nature of huaqueros’ knowledge to scientific and antiquarian production in this era.

[10] George A. Dorsey, “Contents of sixty-eight boxes shipped from Callao, Peru, June 8, 1892, via Panama to New York, consigned to W. E. Curtis, care of Mr. Roosa U.S. Transport Agent,” and Dorsey to C. H. Ward, ? June 1893, both in Harvard University Archives (HUA) – HUG 1717.2 (Putnam) Box 9, Folder “1891-1900, Field Columbian Museum Chicago.” The classic work on the vegetal metaphor of Andean funerary practices is Salomon (2011 [1995]).

[11] Subsequent archeological work has since identified Ancón as a largely Wari burial site, between 600-1000 CE (Pillsbury 2014).

[12] F. W. Putnam to Ad. F. Bandelier, 18 February 1895, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (PMAE) Archives 999-24 Frederic Ward Putnam (FWP) Papers, Box 2, Folder 19 (2.19 – F W Putnam Outgoing).

[13] Dorsey to C. H. Ward, (?) June 1893, (HUA) – HUG 1717.2 (Putnam) Box 9, Folder “1891-1900, Field Columbian Museum Chicago.”

[14] See Jacknis (2016) for a more general treatment of display at the fair.

[15] Its breathy description should nonetheless be taken with a grain of salt: “Some of the bodies are tattooed, and adorned with beads and copper earrings, while on tablets fashioned of cloth, stretched upon frames of wood and painted with figures and characters, are described the virtues of the deceased.”

[16] Cushing saw “striking analogies” between “Andean and Aridian” (or our own southwestern cultures), but believed its religious iconography so far “advanced beyond the Pueblo phase, that it distinctly constitutes the link between prehistoric religion hitherto so little understood, and the historic religions of the Old World so well recorded …” (Cushing, 2016 [1893]: 220-221, 224).

[17] It is not for nothing that we have talked more of Dorsey’s counterpart at the Fair, Boas, in terms of lasting personal contributions to the field. The former’s subsequent reputation as a popularizer whose stewardship of the Field Museum contributed to “the reputation of Chicago anthropology as a ‘big show’ run by money and politics,” with little legacy in terms of training future anthropologists (McVicker, 2016: 381).

[18] Earlier in the same article Dorsey had described the method by which huaqueros searched for graves—namely, probing the earth with a steed rod to find places where the rod can be thrust its entire length.

[19] Putnam to Bandelier, 18 February 1895.

[20] It was a combination of the context that Putnam had sought in archaeology since the 1880s, with the non-comparative specificity that Boas had debated with Otis Tufton Mason in 1887 and would try to consolidate with his 1896 paper on “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology” (Jacknis, 1985).

[21] This is hardly the sole example of how historians and anthropologists have forgotten the very “Peruvian” nature of new practices in anthropology and archaeology. Bruce Trigger (2006: 379) has suggested—and I would agree—that “the most important methodological breakthrough in the history of archaeology” was the pioneering use of surface remains that happened via the settlement archaeology of American and Peruvian excavators in the Virú Valley in the late 1940s.



This post previously mis-attributed molds of Mayan ruins that greeted visitors to the anthropological exposition to Désire Charnay. Those molds were in fact made by Edward H. Thompson; Charnay’s were located inside.

Christopher Heaney: contributions / website / cuh282@psu.edu / Penn State University

1 Comment

  1. Great contribution, thanks! It is so important to put the methods and theories of early Anthros in the context of what was general practice at their time, to appreciate how they tried to improve practices and ethics, even if the results often seem disturbing from a contemporary perspective.

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