History of North American Archaeology

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History of North American Archaeology


Important elements in the pattern of development of archaeology on this continent included:

(1) the location of the founding European settlements in the east;

(2) regional environmental characteristics;

(3) the visibility, "allure," and accessibility of the archaeological record in each culture area;

(4) the quicker pace of development toward the east until the 20th century.
There were four main periods in the history of North American archaeology:
Period I: Incidental Discovery and Speculation: 1492-1840

American Archaeology

American archaeology has developed as a result of dealing with Native American cultures and the ruins, mounds, and artifacts in the New World. Ethnological, historical, and anthropological theory developed that dealt with the human activities and experiences of the native people. Throughout the history of American archaeology beliefs about Native American cultures have changed.
During this first period, professional archaeologists were rare. So-called armchair explorers began to deal native people in South America, Mesoamerica, and North America. The first question they tried to answer was, 'Who are the Indians?'

The armchair scholars tried to find out where Native Americans originated. After they found many mounds and ruins in Ohio, the mound builder debate became their main

concern. Some said the Native Americans were savages, and they were not capable of building mounds. Benjamin Smith Barton argued that Danes built them, moved into Mexico and later became the Toltecs. William Bartram the Creek built mounds and used them. John Haywood noted that the Cherokeealso built mounds. Governor De WittClinton said Scandinavian Vikings built mounds in western New York State. Caleb Atwater suggested that built the mounds before they migrated into the New World, eventually ending up in Mexico. He also thought that Native Americans migrated into the New World after the original mound builders moved out from this region. James H. McClloh viewed the Native Americans as descendents of the mound builders. They were the same race and the Native Americans were capable of building the mounds. However, this idea was unpopular during this period because of the cultural evolutionary theory among the European scholars. This cultural evolutionary theory, along with a lack of professional archaeologists and difficulty in excavating the mounds made it difficult for archaeologists to do little more than speculate.

  1. These are the earliest but incidental reports of the most conspicuous archaeological features by explorers, fur traders, travelers, etc.; there were distortions but they were important because many are now destroyed.

B. The speculation was based on European myths: Atlantis, Mu, Ten Lost

Tribes of Israel, Tartars, Scythians, Welsh.

C. The Mound Builders were postulated and the search for treasure in the

mounds began.

D. Jose de Acosta (1589) suggested that Indians were from Asia but he

was only one hypothesis among many others.

E. People in this period raised basic questions: Who were the Native

Americans? Where were they from? Why were they so diverse?
Period II: Systematic Survey and Testing: 1840-1914
In this period, several institutions, such universities, museums, and the

government, began to support archaeological activities. Archaeologists became more professional. Most of scholars began to accept the idea that the ancestors of the Native Americans built the mounds, and different tribal groups had built different mounds. Many professional archaeologists began to excavate at several regions; the southwest region; the eastern regions, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maine, Cahokia in

Illinois, Ohio-Fort Ancient, Hopewell, thenortheast, Quebec, Montreal with Iroquois villages, and Alaska.

Archaeological methods, such as scientific surveying, mapping, digging, cross-section drawing, careful plotting, and recording of findings were also

developed. Artifacts such as stone were classified, and archaeologists began to notice cultural variety. However, although they noticed the environmental differences associated with cultural development, they still believed in uniform cultural stages.
A. The roots of empirical archaeology began in natural history surveys

sponsored by national institutions, especially the Smithsonian, the

American Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University's Peabody


B. Ephrain Squire and Edwin Davis (1848, published Ancient Monuments

of the Mississippi Valley), Clarence Moore, John Wesley Powell,

Frederick Ward Putnam, and Cyrus Thomas studied sites in the Eastern

United States; Adolph Bandelier and John Wesley Powell in the

Southwest. Cyrus Thomas shattered the Mound Builder myth in the

1850s - archaeologists could then concentrate on the Indians themselves

(but this was a fading interest).

C. Formulation of culture areas occurred by William Henry Holmes and


D. Professionalization of the discipline began; there was a need felt to

record rapidly vanishing information; and so there was the organization of

local naturalist, historical, and scientific societies.

E. Some advances occurred regarding:

  1. integration of archaeology, ethnology, linguistics, and physical anthropology (the source of modern departments of anthropology);

  2. concern for careful description;

  3. advancements in field methods and reporting techniques;

  4. increased recognition of the great antiquity of the American Indian;

  5. growing concern for the preservation of sites and artifacts.

Period III: Syntheses, Taxonomies, and Chronologies: 1914-1940

From this period, chronology became the main concern in archaeology. The theory of Franz Boas, cultural diffusion, influenced archaeological studies. Previous typology and developed into stratigraphic and seriational procedures that dealt with pottery type, artifact sequences and distribution.. N.C. Nelson excavated in the southwest region and studied the Rio Grande Pueblos. He classified pottery

depending upon the coloration, and noted the occurrences and absences of pottery

type. However, he didn't note frequency and percentage.

Seriation was key in dealing with cultural change through time. Instead of using evolutionary seriation with simple to complex cultural development, similarity seriation was used in this period. and other tools were classified by the

similarity. Alfred Kroeber artifacts by the frequency of their occurrence. The studies indicated the development and replacement of pottery trends. James A. Ford studied

Hopewellian, Woodland, and Mississippian pottery. He found cultural variation in the way the pottery made, such as the use of paste, temper, decoration, and features through time. H.S. Gladwin studied in southern Arizona, and noted that the pottery style

was a key indicator of cultural change and the potshards were clues to spatial-temporal cultural variation. Ford and G.R.Willey worked on the mounds of preceramic and nonfarming cultures in the upper middle-eastern region.

In this period dating techniques were also beginning to be used. Alfred Kidder classified Pueblo groups in terms of the cultural diffusion among them and A.E. Douglass, the astronomer calculated age of the cultural periods through dendrochronology. Chronological study in this period showed historical relationships among cultures that possessed similar pottery styles or designs.

A. Many new trends emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, in part spurred by

the Great Depression and federally funded archaeology through the

Works Progress Administration (WPA).

B. Taxonomic systems: Will C. McKern came up with the Midwestern

Taxonomic System.

C. There was eventual replacement of seriation/typologica1 methods of

dating by radiocarbon in the 1950s; which provided independent, firm

chronological frameworks.

D. This was the period of the "founding fathers" in archaeology and

regional syntheses, such as Lloyd Wilford in Minnesota (at the University

of Minnesota).

E. This period also marked the appearance of professional conferences

and organizations, such as the Society for American Archaeology (1934)

and the Plains Anthropological Conference (1931).

F.The main focus of the period was historical and chronological: and

involved construction of taxonomies, area chronologies, and space-time

charts; refinement of stratigraphic and seriational procedures, and rapid

adoption of new absolute dating techniques (e.g. C-14 dating and dendro).


Tree-Ring dating, developed by A.E. Douglas.

  1. dated live trees and then looked for beams in ancient structures to correspond.

  2. Very localized-mostly sw.

C-14 Dating

  1. Radiocarbon Dating, Libby (1949)

  2. Radioactive carbon is absorbed by all living organisms, this ceases when the organism dies and then begins to decay at a known rate.

  3. Thus, by estimating the amount of carbon left in an organism you can estimate when it died.

  4. Calibration-radioactive carbon amounts fluctuated periodically, can calibrate dates with other techniques, such as dendro.


  1. Fagan uses A.D. and B.C., also years ago.

  2. I tend to use B.P.

IV. The Classificatory-Historical Period: Context and Function (1940-1960)

In this period, archaeologists began to deal with Native cultures in terms of three

concepts: artifacts as behavior, pattern, and the environment, and the context and function of each of these concepts in the culture. Other disciplines, such as geology, botany and biology, chemistry, and mathematics began to be more involved in the archaeological field during this period.

Artifacts were to be understood as the material relics of social and cultural behavior. However, some scholars disagreed with this concept. Paul Martin stated that a culture couldn't be considered as physical objects, nor generalized by the similar styles or types of the objects. Irving Rouse also argued that a culture couldn't be inherent in the artifacts. Culture is a relationship between the object and the people who made used it.

Walter W. Taylor noted that historiography was necessary in archaeological research, and used artifacts to reconstruct the cultural context. In this period, archaeologists began to realize the environmental aspects that affected cultural development. Research of R.Wedel’s Great Plains, Emil W. Haury’s Ventana Cave, Arizona, and E.W.Gifford’s California shellmounds showed the relationships between the native cultures and the environment. Julian H.Steward developed environmental-evolutionary theory, known as cultural ecology or multilinear evolution. The natural determines the cultural development and technological adaptations.

Period IV: Recent Trends: 1960 – 1990s

A. There were two major trajectories: Processual archaeology and

Cultural Resource Management (CRM)

B. Processual archaeology (the New Archaeology) was developed by

Lewis Binford and others in the 1960s; with the motto "archaeology as

anthropology"; The new focus was on the transformation of

archaeological data into cultural data, the organization of past cultural

systems and their transformations through time, and the external stimuli

that triggered these changes. They had a "behavioral" approach.

**Ethnographic analogy is becoming more important to archaeological research than histographical seriation and trying to understand larger patterns of human behavior and activities from archaeological findings. A dilemma between Processualism and Postprocessualism still remains in today’s American archaeology. However, a combination of the scientific approach, ethnological research, and the concept of cultural anthropology helps today’s American archaeologists to find the route of migration from Asia, and the subsistence, technology, and behavior of Paleo-Indian.

C. Cultural Resource Management (CRM) dominates North American

archaeology at present, the result of national laws, such as the National

Historic Preservation Act of 1966; Its goal is to manage and conserve

America's archaeological heritage.

D. Other trends:

  1. massive growth in the numbers of professional archaeologists;

  2. increased use of statistics and computers;

  3. introduction of large-scale probability-based surveys;

  4. refinement of excavation procedures (e.g., use of flotation, bulldozers)

  5. de-emphasis on mound excavations; and

growing interest in the archaeology of the historical period, both Indian and Euro-American. Class Status, Mortuary, Environment
Period V: Postprocessualism

From the middle of the modern period (1970’s), archaeologists began to be concerned more about human behavior and the study of Native American cultures. Frank Hole said that whatever directions we may take in method, theory, technique, era or area, we must keep in mind the central idea that we are dealing with and trying to understand he human experience. Archaeology is not merely a science of material culture, but concerns of human beings and their cultural behavior in the past. This trend is called Postprocessualism.


  1. Culture is interactive

  2. Culture change must include women, ethnic minorities, illiterate

  3. Archaeologists bring cultural biases to work, act as mediators of the past.

  4. Can one study “the archaeology of the mind” with material remains?


A. A well-grounded understanding of North American archaeology

includes an understanding of its history.

B. Two excellent introductory surveys are Gordon Willey and Jeremy

Sabloff s (1993) A History of American Archaeology (third edition, W.

H. Freeman, N. Y.), and Bruce Trigger's (1989) A History of

Archaeological Thought (Cambridge University Press, N.Y.).
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