Reexcavating The Collections

Researchers with the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project are working in museum basements and storerooms to bring thousands of ancient perishable artifacts to light.

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COVER: A feather bundle (upper right), a pair of tapestry-woven yucca sandals (below) and a woman’s yucca-cordage apron with human-hair waistcord are some of the artifacts researchers have reexcavated. Credit: Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History cat. # H-13338; the Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Brigham Young University cat. #1992.30.1 and .2; the Field Museum of Natural History cat. #165246/Laurie Webster
COVER: A feather bundle (upper right), a pair of tapestry-woven yucca sandals (below) and a woman’s yucca-cordage apron with human-hair waistcord are some of the artifacts researchers have reexcavated. Credit: Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History cat. # H-13338; the Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Brigham Young University cat. #1992.30.1 and .2; the Field Museum of Natural History cat. #165246/Laurie Webster

Spring 2017: By Wayne Curtis.

 In the mid-1890s, a rancher and avid amateur archaeologist from southwest Colorado named Richard Wetherill stood accused of fabricating an entire culture. Digging for artifacts in and around newly discovered cliff dwellings in the Four Corners region, Wetherill announced that he had found evidence of a heretofore unknown people who predated the Native Americans who built the elaborate cliff dwellings. These predecessors were not pottery makers, Wetherill concluded, but they were highly adept at making objects of perishable materials—wooden implements, feather blankets, baskets, woven sandals, and cords. Wetherill had turned up numerous examples that were miraculously preserved for centuries in caches in rocky alcoves protected from the weather.

Much of what is known today about the Basketmaker culture—a term coined by Wetherill—can be traced back to him and other ranchers, cowboys, and adventurers who set off on weeks-long expeditions, mining artifacts as if they were veins of silver, seeking items to resell to Gilded Age collectors. Once unearthed, these artifacts, some dating as far back as 500 B.C., traveled in boxes and barrels via mule, and then by rail to the cities, where the collectors gathered them up and often put them on display. (One of the more notable collections “premiered” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which also displayed meteorites and wooly mammoth models.) In subsequent decades, the collections were later sold or donated and ended up at a handful of museums, including Chicago’s Field Museum, which arose out of the Columbia Exposition.

In all, about 5,000 artifacts were unearthed and shipped out of the Grand Gulch region of southeast Utah during the 1890s—a practice that would be vilified today, but at that time was not unusual. Remarkably, the majority of these artifacts are still well preserved, but they are not often displayed and are largely unknown to the public. These collections are housed in the storerooms of six museums, and though researchers have access to them, they are generally poorly documented and rarely cited in scholarly published works. Nonetheless, the artifacts have stories to tell about the Basketmaker (500 B.C.-A.D. 700) and Ancestral Pueblo (A.D. 700-1300) periods in this region, and Laurie Webster is determined that those tales be told.

Excerpt.

Read More in our SPRING 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: SPRING 2017. Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, WINTER 16-17.

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