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Book Reviews

Discover the insights and opinions of readers like you, where diverse perspectives illuminate the literary landscapes of the titles we hold dear.

By Rachel Morgan

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

In 1888, Colorado cowboys Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason rode into the canyons of Mesa Verde looking for stray cattle. What they found changed the course of American history and led to an explosion in American archaeology. Tucked in some of the canyon cliffs were dozens of stone rooms with artifacts and human remains lying on the floors as if they were left the day before. Collecting what they could carry Wetherill and Mason quickly realized there was money to be made selling these precious artifacts. Thus began an incredible era of looting cultural treasures, the development of a new scientific discipline, and a movement to preserve America’s cultural heritage. Richard Wetherill played a central role in all of this for some 32 years until he was shot to death by a Navajo man in Chaco Canyon in 1910.

This is the story of Weatherill and a colorful cast of characters who discovered and looted magnificent ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Grand Gulch, and other sites in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. It is also the story of the development of a new scientific discipline—archaeology—and the search for information about the ancient people who built these impressive settlements. It tells the stories of dedicated people who campaigned to preserve and protect America’s cultural heritage in the face of racial bigotry and Wild West land policies.

The major vehicle author Rachel Morgan, a southwestern archaeologist, uses for telling these stories is the history of the Hyde Exploring Expedition. In 1893, five years after Wetherill’s discoveries in Mesa Verde and a time where he explored, excavated, and sold ancient artifacts with abandon, he joined forces with socialites turned antiquarians Fred and Talbot Hyde in a nine-year, well-funded search for new sites and more artifacts to collect or sell. The Hyde Exploring Expedition soon concentrated on Chaco Canyon, where systematic excavations that made fantastic discoveries were undertaken. But by 1900, the Hydes were ready to move on, encouraged by a growing movement to stop the looting and protect the ruins. By 1906, the preservationists prevailed with the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park and the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which led to new national monuments at Chaco Canyon and other important sites.

The birth of American archaeology in the Southwest is an epic tale with an intriguing cast of characters well told in Sins of the Shovel.

University of Chicago Press, 2023; 328 pgs., illus. $30 cloth or ebook;

By William M. Kelso

Jamestown Archaeology: Remains to be Seen

In 1994 on the banks of the James River near the remains of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project under the leadership of Bill Kelso, the author of this volume, began a search for James Fort. The fort, described by John Smith and other Jamestown colonists, was the original home of the new colony, founded by 104 Englishmen in the spring of 1607.

Conventional wisdom by historians and archaeologists alike had the fort long gone, washed into the river. Undaunted, the new research project quickly found archaeological remains that, by 1996, Kelso’s team would be able to confirm as the foundations of the fort. It was one of the most dramatic archaeological discoveries ever made in the United States.

In this engaging volume, Kelso uses both the historical record and the archaeological evidence to flesh out the early history of the new colony. It is an excellent example of historical archaeology that combines the two disciplines to deliver a more accurate account of both the material culture and historical narrative. It includes a chapter describing how the fort was first built and then reduced in size. Later, extensions were built, including fenced gardens.  

After 30 years of research, hundreds of thousands of English and Native objects have been recovered from the fort and its surroundings. The archaeological evidence strongly supports the thesis that Native American women played an important role in the colony, despite being largely absent from the historical record. One Native woman we know a lot about, Pocahontas, played an important role in the colony’s development, and Kelso tells her story along with an account of the search for her grave in England, where she died in 1617, aged 22. Sadly, rising sea levels now threaten the fort and other aspects of the origins of Jamestown.

Jamestown Archaeology is an important addition to the story of the first English colony, both from a historical view and for its archaeological descriptions. A well-written narrative with 92 color illustrations, it is also an important addition for any reader interested in the European settlement of the Americas.

Routledge, 2024; 180 pgs., illus. $170 cloth, $49 paper;

Edited by Susan Milbrath and Elizabeth Baquedano

Birds and Beasts of Ancient Mesoamerica

Animals played a central role in the lives of ancient Mesoamericans. They were watched for signs of seasonal changes which carried portents of the future. They were pathways for communicating with the gods. They spoke to the people, having special powers to communicate with humans.

In this volume, 17 scholars contribute 14 essays on the role of beasts and birds in Mesoamerican life and religion. Some are real animals and others are merged into fantastical creatures. Examples come from some of the best known sites in Mesoamerica—the great Maya center at Chichén Itzá, the Toltec capital at Tula, the huge city of Teotihuacán, and the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. Their use probably dates to Middle Classic Olmec times (circa 1100 B.C.) and continues through the Spanish conquest.  Some rulers even kept animals in zoos where they could easily be studied.

Bird and Beasts in Ancient Mesoamerica is an important addition to the growing study of Mesoamerican iconography that is providing new insights into the lives of the rulers and people of these great cultures.

University Press of Colorado, 2023; 462 pgs., illus., $113 cloth, $91 ebook;

Edited by Carol Diaz-Granados

Explanations in Iconography: Ancient American Indian Art, Symbol, and Meaning

Iconography is the study of symbols and their interpretation. In American archaeology, it is a growing field of interest that is providing new insights into ancient cultural beliefs. In this volume eleven, scholars contribute 10 essays on a variety of iconographic topics in the Midwest and Eastern United States. Modern scholars are using early ethnographic records, Native American oral histories, and Native insights to assist in understanding the meanings of symbols on ancient sites and artifacts, including petroglyphs and pictographs, earthworks, and a wide variety of artworks on clay, shell, copper, and other media.

These symbols were created to send a message to the viewer and this new scholarship is helping understand those messages. One common icon found in this region is the Great Serpent. It is found in almost all media including the largest ancient earthwork in North America that stretches some 1,500 feet across a ridge in southern Ohio.  Understanding its meaning is key to appreciating the ancient people who made them.

This volume is a valuable addition to a growing field of study. Well-illustrated and well-described, it is a book for both professionals and interested amateurs.

Oxbow Books, 2023; 226 pgs., illus., $40 paper;