Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder & the Evolution of American Archaeology

  • By Rachel Morgan
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 328 pp.

An informative, uneven history of the digging-est science.

Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder & the Evolution of American Archaeology

It’s fitting that this book about the evolution of American archaeology has some rough patches not unlike the strata archaeologists themselves must sift through to find their treasures. Nevertheless, Rachel Morgan’s Sins of the Shovel is an edifying examination of the early days of the science, as well as a look at its current state.

Morgan’s book opens with a disquisition on the field’s nascent years, filtered mostly through the eyes of one late-19th-century frontier family, the Wetherills. As the first whites to discover some of the ancient cliff dwellings of the Mesa Verde region in Colorado, the family — specifically, Richard Wetherill and his wife, Mamie — felt the abodes were theirs for the exploiting (although it’s unlikely they thought of their activities in those terms).

While they deigned to hire Indigenous workers and guides (and, in fact, found them indispensable), the Wetherills often neglected to even record their names for posterity. As Morgan notes, “[An incomplete perspective] has led to the false narrative that archaeology was the field of rich White men. In fact, the real work in the trenches was completed by people of all colors and walks of life for much of history. Only credit was marginalized.”

Worse, the Wetherills plundered the ruins and artifacts they unearthed, including baskets, potsherds, turquoise beads, and — most insultingly — human remains. Richard even played on the Indigenous workers’ fears of disturbing what they considered holy ground to keep them in check. Still, the author does a deft job of situating the Wetherills’ behavior in its historical context:

“In 1888, there was nothing to stop the commercialization of the past. Archaeology was not a discipline. There were no university archaeology departments…There were no laws safeguarding archaeological sites or agencies monitoring ruins. The past was consigned to the personalities who found it; some inclined to protection, some to profit, some indifferent.”

Using the lives of the Wetherills as a backdrop, Morgan introduces other major players in the pre-archaeology era, including explorer John Wesley Powell, ethnologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson, professor of anthropology Frederic Ward Putnam, and Talbot and Fred Hyde, brothers who once financed the Wetherill expeditions.

Throughout approximately the first two-thirds of the book, the focus is on this cast of characters, and the narrative feels relatively cohesive. But then, Morgan moves forward through time, touching on the main pivot points in archaeology with a speed that feels disjointed (though she retains an admirable emphasis on Indigenous points of view). The past and present histories feel like they belong in separate books, one a swashbuckling true story of adventure, exploration, and destruction, and the other an academic examination of the ways in which archaeology has evolved.

This academic track is, however, notable for its focus on inclusive archaeology as a more holistic way to approach the examination of America’s past. “Despite continued and much-needed debates,” Morgan notes, “many archaeologists and Indigenous communities have found ways to collaborate and have tried to forge a more cautious and empathetic field.”

She gives the example of cylinder jars found at Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico. Researchers there consulted the Chaco Canyon Historical Park, the Tribal Consultation Committee, and senior archaeologists with regional experience, revising their proposal multiple times before receiving funding and a permit to excavate the jars.

Despite its somewhat broad, fractured scope, Sins of the Shovel is an incisive look at the birth of a field of study that continues to evolve. It will likely keep history lovers turning the pages.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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