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Chapter 4
Vandalism and Commercialism of Antiquities, 1890-1906
Ronald F. Lee

Rising public interest in the history and art of the southwestern Indians in the 1890's was accompanied by a swelling demand for authentic prehistoric objects. The desires and needs of growing numbers of collectors and dealers, exhibitors and curators, teachers and students, added to the native curiosity of cowboys, ranchers, and travelers, created an avid demand for original objects from the cliff dwellings and pueblo ruins of the Southwest. Most of these ruins were situated on public land or Indian reservations. There was no system of protection and no permit was needed to dig. Professional archaeologists were few in number; in America their science was in its infancy and little known to the public. The eager seeker for artifacts had one chief worry -- that some one else would reach a ruin rich in valuable objects before he did. The result was a rush on prehistoric ruins of the Southwest that went on, largely unchecked, until about 1904.

The early stages of this rush accompanied the spread of prospecting and ranching in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona during the 1880's and 1890's. Cowboys pursuing wandering cattle through the mesquite and up remote canyons began to come upon ancient ruins never before seen by white men. In this way, one December day in 1888, ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason discovered Cliff Palace high on a canyon wall in the Mesa Verde area of southwestern Colorado. This silent, spectacular, many-roomed dwelling, protected by an overhanging cave and the arid climate of the Southwest, had survived almost undisturbed for seven centuries. On the same day, in a nearby canyon, they discovered another large cliff dwelling they named Spruce Tree House. Neither the walls nor the contents of these ruins were to remain intact for long. Richard Wetherill and his brother, Alfred, were soon digging in the rooms. Joined at various times by three other brothers -- John, Clayton, and Wynn -- they excavated large quantities of decorated pottery, curious implements of stone, bone, and wood, ancient skulls, and other intriguing objects. The Wetherills sold part of their finds to the Historical Society of Colorado but kept a still larger collection.44

Word of these spectacular discoveries spread rapidly in America and abroad. Among those whose exploring instincts were aroused was Gustav Erik Adolf Nordenskjold, son of the famous Swedish geologist and Arctic explorer. In 1891, when he was twenty-three years old, he determined to see the Mesa Verde country for himself. Arriving in Colorado, he made the Wetherill ranch his headquarters, and with the constant help of Richard and Alfred Wetherill and their workmen, and needing no one's permission, he explored and excavated in Cliff Palace and many other ruins throughout the summer. He took a large collection of prehistoric objects back to Stockholm and in 1893 published a popularly written, handsomely illustrated account of his investigations called The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde.45 Nordenskjold's expedition and the loss of a large and valuable collection aroused both admiration and deep resentment among American archaeologists and provided strong arguments in Congress for protective legislation. Repeated efforts made in later years by Dr. Jesse L. Nusbaum, long-time Superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, to secure the return of the collection proved fruitless. It is in Finland's National Museum in Helsinki today.

The practice of indiscriminate digging went on for years. Superintendent Hans Randolph of Mesa Verde National Park later described the cumulative vandalism at Cliff Palace (not added to the park until 1913), in these words:

Probably no cliff dwelling in the Southwest has been more thoroughly dug over in search of pottery and other objects for commercial purposes than Cliff Palace. Parties of "curio seekers" camped on the ruin for several winters, and it is reported that many hundred specimens therefrom have been carried down the mesa and sold to private individuals. Some of these objects are now in museums, but many are forever lost to science. In order to secure this valuable archaeological material, walls were broken down with giant powder often simply to let light into the darker rooms; floors were invariably opened and buried kivas mutilated. To facilitate this work and get rid of the dust, great openings were broken through the five walls which form the front of the ruin. Beams were used for firewood to so great an extent that not a single roof now remains. This work of destruction, added to that resulting from erosion due to rain, left Cliff Palace in a sad condition.46

The vandalism so conspicuously illustrated at Mesa Verde spread all over the Southwest, to small ruins and large, in caves and in the open. By the mid-1890's, it was flourishing widely, as is evident in Dr. J. Walter Fewkes' description of a large cliff dwelling called Palatki, or "Red House", situated in the Red Rock country southwest of Flagstaff, Arizona. What he saw there inspired Dr. Fewkes to an eloquent plea for protective legislation, which appeared in the American Anthropologist for August 1896:

Palatki has suffered sorely at the hands of the Apaches, who have wrenched many of the beams from the walls for firewood and overthrown sections of the front wall. As a rule, the southwestern ruins are now suffering more from the white man than from the Indian. If this destruction of the cliff-houses of New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona goes on at the same rate in the next fifty years that it has in the past, these unique dwellings will be practically destroyed, and unless laws are enacted, either by states or by the general government, for their protection, at the close of the twentieth century many of the most interesting monuments of the prehistoric peoples of our Southwest will be little more than mounds of debris at the bases of the cliffs. A commercial spirit is leading to careless excavations for objects to sell, and walls are ruthlessly overthrown, buildings town down in hope of a few dollars' gain. The proper designation of the way our antiquities are treated is vandalism. Students who follow us, when these cliff-houses have all disappeared and their instructive objects scattered by greed of traders, will wonder at our indifference and designate our negligence by its proper name. It would be wise legislation to prevent this vandalism as much as possible and good science to put all excavation of ruins in trained hands.47

As early as 1889 the demand for southwestern antiquities had become so great that forgeries were common. In that year, WH. Holmes, later Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, commented on the debasement of Pueblo art. He noted that terra-cotta figurines were being sold in the Pueblo towns of New Mexico "rudely made from clay, not after aboriginal models, but from the suggestions of whites." It was highly annoying to museum curators to have such objects donated by persons who bought them in good faith, at a good price, believing them to be antiques and who expected them to be cherished and exhibited. "The country is flooded, " he said, "with cheap, and scientifically speaking, worthless earthenware made by the Pueblo Indians to supply the tourist trade."48

In 1901, Dr. Walter Hough completed five months of field work in northeastern Arizona for the National Museum. He made observations at more than fifty-five village sites, including three groups of ruins in the vicinity of Petrified Forest, and excavated in eighteen sites. "The great hindrance to successful archaeologic work in this region," he observed, "lies in the fact that there is scarcely an ancient dwelling site or cemetery that has not been vandalized by 'pottery diggers' for personal gain."49

In 1903 T. Mitchell Pruden reported the results of a comprehensive survey he had just completed of the many prehistoric ruins of the San Juan watershed in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. In earlier days, he observed, pot-hunters pulled down the walls of ruined dwellings and dug beneath the rooms. Later, however, they discovered that burial mounds offered more treasure, and "the fury of pot-hunter has been diverted to them."50 In the Hovenweep area, he reported, "Few of the mounds have escaped the hands of the destroyer. Cattlemen, ranchmen, rural picnickers, and professional collectors have turned the ground well over and have taken out much pottery, breaking more, and strewing the ground with many crumbling bones."51

When extensive ruins were found by ranchers on public land that was still open to settlement, applications for homesteads were some times filled solely to acquire the ruins, with no intention of practicing agriculture or making improvements. Preservationists charged that such entries were an abuse of the land and fraudulent. A conspicuous example of the alienation of an important archeological site through the operation of the homestead laws was Gran Quirviram, the ruin of an important 17th century Spanish mission adjoining an extensive Pueblo Indian site in Socorro County, New Mexico. A homestead entry had been filed some years before 1905. About that time, after a long contest, the entry was declared valid and a patent was issued to the claimant.52 In the 1890's, Richard Wetherill, the discoverer of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, filed an entry on the great and classic Pueblo Bonito ruin in Chaco Canyon, near Farmington, New Mexico. His unperfected claim on a major ruin became a center of controversy until in 1904 the land was finally withdrawn by the General Land Office from sale or entry, and excavations then in progress on the unperfected claim were halted.53

The responsibility for such indiscriminate pot-hunting and abuse of the homestead laws cannot be put solely onto the shoulders of cowboys and ranchers, whose modest schooling and outdoor life hardly embraced scientific archeology. The principal demand for authentic prehistoric objects came from private collectors, exhibitors, and museum curators in the East and in Europe. Sometimes handsome objects were purchased by important institutions and not too many questions asked. Even some well-financed and widely publicized expeditions did not escape criticism.

Perhaps the most famous case of alleged pot-hunting was in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a center of controversy among preservationists from 1900 until 1907 when it was finally made a national monument. Here were not merely one or two ancient structures but the ruins of a dozen great prehistoric communal dwellings together with hundreds of smaller archeological sites, many of them, with good reason, believed exceptionally rich in artifacts. This extraordinary concentration of ruins had been known since 1849 when Lt. J. H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers first visited the Canyon. His observations of eight major ruins, illustrated with drawings by the artist, R. H. Kern, were published in 1852. Although many others visited the Canyon in the ensuing years, it was Richard Wetherill, rancher, guide and discoverer of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde who stimulated the first extensive excavations. Following a visit to the Canyon in 1895 Wetherill proposed to B. Talbot Hyde and Frederick E. Hyde, Jr. of New York City, wealthy philanthropists, collectors and heirs to the Babbitt soap fortune, that they sponsor excavations in the Chaco Canyon ruins. The Hydes sought advice from Professor F. W. Putnam of Harvard, who agreed to serve as scientific director, and from the American Museum of Natural History, which agreed to accept collections of artifacts. The Hyde Exploring Expedition was formed in 1896. Its principal aim was the exploration of Pueblo Bonito, the most imposing of all the Chaco Canyon ruins, a great semi-circular stone structure covering more than three acres which at its peak of development in the twelfth century contained over 800 rooms in an arrangement at least five stories high. Professor Putnam designated George Pepper, one of his students, as field director, and Richard Wetherill as excavation foreman. The digging of Pueblo Bonito proceeded under these arrangements during the summers of 1896-1899. Some 198 rooms and kivas were excavated and most of the artifacts, including several complete rooms, were donated by the Hydes to the American Museum of Natural History.54

As reports of the extent and nature of these excavations reached the state capital of Santa Fe, and were communicated to New York and Boston, concern developed among interested archaeologists and laymen that irreplaceable antiquities of Chaco Canyon were quite possibly being unscientifically pot-hunted and certainly were being taken out of New Mexico. On May 1, 1900, the Santa Fe New Mexican published an article describing the excavations. On November 17, the Santa Fe Archaeological Society sent a resolution to Secretary of the Interior E. A. Hitchcock urging him to take action to protect the antiquities of Chaco Canyon. An investigation had already been made by the General Land Office, but now Special Agent S. J. Holsinger was assigned to make another and more thorough one. In June 1901 he reported that Richard Wetherill and his brothers had removed entire prehistoric timbers from Pueblo Bonito, dismantled and shipped complete rooms to the American Museum of Natural History, and probably had excavated other prehistoric objects and sold them wherever they could find a market. Holsinger recommended withdrawal of forty townships from settlement preparatory to making Chaco Canyon a national park. Meanwhile, however, Wetherill had filed a formal homestead claim on a section of Chaco Canyon that included Pueblo Bonito and two other major ruins, Chettro Kettle and Pueblo del Arroyo. This situation added to many other instances of known or alleged pot-hunting and vandalism hastened the movement for administrative and legislative action in Washington, DC to protect American antiquities on the public lands.55

The spirit of the times was well-expressed by T. Mitchell Pruden in 1903:

In the early days, before the problems connected with these ruins had become clear and definite, the simple collection of pottery and other utensils was natural and not without justification. But it is now evident that to gather or exhume specimens--even though these be destined to grace a World's Fair or a noted museum --without at the same time carefully, systematically, and completely studying the ruins from which they are derived, with full records, measurements, and photographs, is to risk the permanent loss of much valuable data and to sacrifice science for the sake of plunder.56

Contents | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5



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