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  Public Archeology in the United States—A Timeline

Timeline 1784-1905

Archeology in the U.S. is rooted in the 1700s when European settlers encountered, and were intrigued by, ancient mounds and earthwork complexes. Systematic archeological recording and the creation of collections began later in the early and mid-1800s spearheaded by the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Smithsonian Institution. Myths about ancient mound builders in the midwest and southeast also spurred archeological research, particularly as a science. During the 1800s, American archeology was linked closely with cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology since Native Americans were seen as examples of what human life had been like in prehistoric times. Near the end of the 1800s, Worlds Fair and museum exhibitions displayed American Indian antiquities, and various investigators published accounts of their archeological discoveries. Unfortunately, the growing popular appeal of American archeology was accompanied by commercial demands for authentic prehistoric antiquities and the looting of artifacts from archeological sites for private use. Scientific investigators visited and reported on the destruction and looting of prominent ruins, such as Pecos in New Mexico. These descriptions were used to argue for federal action to protect archeological sites enacted in 1906.

Timeline 1784-1905

  • 1784
    • A portrait of Thomas Jefferson

      Thomas Jefferson

      Courtesy Parks & History Association

      Thomas Jefferson directs the first controlled excavation of an ancient mound in Virginia, "the first scientific excavation in the history of archaeology."
  • 1797
    • Applied historical archeological methods are used to find the French settlement of St. Croix in order to settle a political boundary dispute between Britain and the U.S. (The St. Croix Island International Historic Site was established in 1949 and given its current name in 1984.)
  • 1799
    • The American Philosophical Society circular letter requests information about antiquities, encouraging its members to provide written descriptions of the ancient site works in their local areas
  • 1812
  • 1820
    • AAS publishes Description of Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and other Western States by Caleb Atwater.
  • 1832
    • An illustration of a mound from 'Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley' by Squier and Davis

      Mound by Squier and Davis

      Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives (NAA)

      Hot Springs Reservation is established in Arkansas. An early example of a natural resource preserved for the public.
  • 1833
    • American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West by Josiah Priest is published.
  • 1846
    • Ephraim Squier

      Ephraim Squier

      Courtesy of the NAA

      Smithsonian Institution (SI) is established with Joseph Henry as the Secretary. Henry believes that the "collection of data should precede theorizing..." and focuses archeological investigations on systematic recording, description, and analysis.
  • 1848
    • Edwin Davis

      Edwin Davis

      Courtesy of the NAA

      Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Squier and Davis is published as the first volume of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge series. This work describes and illustrates ancient mounds and earthwork complexes of Native Americans.
  • 1849
  • 1855
    • Archaeology of the United States by Samuel Haven is published by the SI.
  • 1864
    • Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias are set aside as a public park for preservation through a bill granting them to the State of California.
  • 1865
    • Frederick Law Olmsted writes "Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite and Big Tree Grove" arguing for the preservation of natural wonders.
  • 1872
    • Yellowstone is established by Congress as the world's first National Park. This event marks the inauguration of the policy of setting aside tracts of land in federal ownership for public use and long-term preservation of important natural and cultural resources. The land is retained in custody of the DOI.
  • 1879
    • John Wesley Powell

      John Wesley Powell

      From The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, by John Wesley Powell

      The Bureau of Ethnology (renamed Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) in 1897) is formed under SI direction by John Wesley Powell. Anthropological studies concentrate on the then perceived disappearing Native American communities in the western states.
    • The Archeological Institute of America (AIA) is founded in Boston, MA under the leadership of Charles Eliot Norton.
    • The American Association for the Advancement of Science elects Henry Lewis Morgan, an anthropologist, as President.
    • The Anthropological Society of Washington is formed.
  • 1880
    • Map of Serpent Mound by Squier and Davis

      Map of Serpent Mound by Squier and Davis

      Courtesy of the NAA

      AIA supports Adolph Bandelier's investigations of archeological sites in the Southwest through 1885. Bandelier reports on the extent of looting and vandalism occurring at Pecos, which raises concern for American antiquities. Eventually the reports are used during discussions and debate in the U.S. Congress over the issue of government action to protect archeological sites.
  • 1882
    • Senator George F. Hoar (MA) raises the issue of destruction of archeological sites in the U.S. Senate, but legislation is not developed.
  • 1888
    • Serpent Mound, Ohio, is purchased, excavated, and preserved by F. W. Putnam.
    • Casa Grande Ruin Reservation

      Casa Grande Ruin Reservation

      NPS Photo

      The Boston Herald publishes an account of Cushing's work with the Zuni/Hopi. This raises awareness of the looting problem in the southwest and leads to additional support for the preservation movement by wealthy Bostonians.
    • American Anthropologist begins publication.
  • 1889
    • At the urging of concerned citizens, Congress appropriates $2000 to enable the Secretary of the Interior to repair and protect Casa Grande Ruin in Florence, AZ. Congress also authorizes the president to reserve the land where the ruin is located from settlement or sale.
    • Yosemite National Park

      Yosemite National Park

      George A. Grant photo

      The Museum of American Archaeology is established in Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania).
  • 1890
  • 1891
    • The Forest Reserve Act is enacted. By 1901, 46 million acres are managed as forest reserves (renamed national forests in 1907).
    • Gustav Nordenskiold

      Gustav Nordenskiold

      NPS Photo

      Gustav Nordenskiold, a Swede, begins to dig at Mesa Verde with the help of the Wetherills.
  • 1892
    • President Benjamin Harrison signs an executive order that reserves the Casa Grande Ruin and 480 acres around it for permanent protection because of its archeological value.
  • 1893
    • World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904) in St. Louis introduce the American public to U.S. antiquities. In addition, university museums display American Indian antiquities. These events gain the public's attention and raise awareness about the need to support and preserve archeological resources.
    • Nordenskiold publishes The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, Southwestern Colorado: Their Pottery and Implements. The realization that American antiquities have been removed from the US by collectors like Nordenskiold provides a strong argument for protective legislation.
  • 1894
    • SI publishes Cyrus Thomas' Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology.
  • 1896
    • The Hyde Exploring Expedition starts excavations at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The extensive collections that were the objective of these excavations were used to create the American Southwest exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
  • 1898
    • Kensington Rune Stone

      Kensington Rune Stone

      The Kensington Rune Stone is found on a farm in Minnesota. It is translated from Norse runes and is found to describe an expedition of Swedes and Norwegians to the Americas in 1362. Declared a hoax a year later, recent analysis shows that the language on the stone is a modern Swedish dialect spoken only in the American Midwest and the runes are of recent vintage also.
  • 1899
    • Committees from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and AIA combine efforts to promote a bill for the permanent preservation of aboriginal antiquities on federal land.
  • 1900
    • Several bills for the protection of antiquities on public lands are introduced in the House of Representatives. They attempt to place prehistoric ruins, monuments and objects in the care and custody of the Secretary of the Interior; permit excavations and related activities for educational or scientific purposes; prohibit the destruction, injury, removal, or counterfeiting of archeological sites, objects and monuments; and allow the Secretary and President to establish preserves and parks. These bills are defeated or die without further action.
  • 1901
    • The Department of Anthropology is established at the University of California at Berkeley by A. L. Kroeber.
  • 1902
  • 1904
    • Pueblo Bonito

      Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

      NPS Photo

      Senator Cullom and Representative Hitt, both of Illinois, introduce two bills to protect American antiquities.
    • Pueblo Bonito ruin in Chaco Canyon, NM, is withdrawn from sale or homesteading by the General Land Office.
    • A Committee on the Preservation of the Remains of American Antiquities is established at the AIA annual meeting in St. Louis.
    • Representative Lacey of Iowa introduces a bill to preserve antiquities on Federal land. Congress adjourns before it can be entered for discussion.

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