American Pioneers and Traditions
The Americanist tradition of archaeology is defined by cross-cultural comparative research that draws heavily on an innovative tradition of regional-scale fieldwork (Willey and Phillips 2001; Willey and Sabloff 1980). Many early pioneers worked in multiple culture areas of the Americas, seeking direct connections between the archaeological record and living or historical indigenous peoples, and fostering close ties with anthropology as a result. This brief overview covers seminal developments in stratigraphic excavation, regional survey, and other field methods within their historical and geographic context.
Pioneering archaeological efforts across the globe are often lauded for their early attention to stratigraphy and the association of geological or cultural strata with change in human societies over time. In the Americas, as in other parts of the globe, such attention was often the result of nonsystematic excavations into mounds of anthropomorphic origin. This was the case along Peru’s arid coast, where immediately following the conquest Spaniards began excavating in adobe temples (known as huacas) in search of gold left by pre-Inca cultures such as the Moche and Chimú. A couple centuries later, a few early naturalists and proto-archaeologists began defining construction layers within such structures. A notable effort is part of a nine-volume record of the natural and cultural history of the region surrounding Trujillo, Peru, by its bishop, Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón, compiled in the mid to late eighteenth century (Pillsbury and Trever 2008). Among remarkable watercolors and line illustrations of site maps, structures, and artifacts is a rendering of a labeled stratigraphic cut through Huaca Tantalluc, located near Cajamarca. It was made in 1765 by one of Martínez Compañón’s predecessors, the magistrate Miguel Feyjoo, following a Spanish Bourbon dynasty mandate to explore and document its provinces. It may represent the first stratigraphic archaeological illustration in the Americas, before Thomas Jefferson’s more widely known efforts in the US. Jefferson’s excavation was undertaken in the 1770s or 1780s, with 1783–1784 being likely, and involved trenching through a burial mound near Monticello to understand its composition and correctly attribute its builders to the ancestors of the native peoples of the region (Milner 2004). Yet it took the systematic works of nineteenth-century scholars such as E. G. Squier, Edwin Davis, and Cyrus Thomas to completely dispel the “myth of the moundbuilders,” which through prejudice and ignorance held that mounds of the eastern USA were built by peoples other than Native Americans.
Though pioneering, the attention to stratigraphy of a Feyjoo or Jefferson would not match our contemporary understanding of stratigraphic excavation. This began in the Americas in the early twentieth century, some two decades after its initial development in Europe, but then quickly became part of standard archaeological practice. The stratigraphy of the Emeryville shellmound, near San Francisco, was explored by the German archaeologist Max Uhle in 1902 and by the American Nels Nelson in 1906 (Nelson 1909; Uhle 1907). The Mexican archaeologist Manuel Gamio was a foundational figure in Mesoamerican archaeology and may be seen as the first person to link stratigraphic levels to cultural materials in developing a regional chronological sequence. Together with Franz Boas, his graduate advisor at Columbia University, Gamio developed a chronological sequence for Central Mexico in 1911 (Gamio et al. 1921). This work involved ceramic collections at six sites surrounding Mexico City and Gamio’s excavation of nearly six meters of superimposed cultural layers at Azcapotzalco. Two years later, Nelson participated in stratigraphic excavations at the Palaeolithic cave site Cueva de El Castillo, Spain, and returned to New Mexico convinced of the importance of the methodologies he learned there, which he then applied to Southwestern archaeology through his work in the Galisteo Basin (Nelson 1914). The pace of stratigraphic work in these culture areas accelerated rapidly and spread elsewhere. Direct successors within these two regions include George Vaillant’s excavations of nine Central Mexican sites, while a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and Alfred Kidder’s 15 years of investigations at Pecos Pueblo, sponsored by the Peabody Museums of Harvard University and of Phillips Academy (e.g., Kidder 1924; Vaillant 1937). Both projects were critical for establishing cultural sequences and served as benchmarks for future excavations in Mesoamerica and the Southwest.
Key Issues/Current Debates/Future Directions/Examples
The Americanist tradition of cross-cultural comparison drawing on regional archaeological datasets is exemplified by work such as Flannery’s and by Robert McC. Adams’s (1966) comparative study of urbanization in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. Building on this base of pioneering researchers, methods in American archaeology continue to develop, today increasingly incorporating new geospatial technologies and material sciences in the field. This is not only true of archaeology sponsored by universities and museums but also of Cultural-Resource Management (CRM), which is currently the public face of archaeology and the largest employer of archaeologists in the USA.
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