Presenting the Past: The Conservation and Display of Archaeological Sites
in the American Southwest
Frank Matero, Historic Preservation Program, University of Pennsylvania
Session: "Examining the Historical Context for the Antiquities Act (1879-1906)",
Society for American Archaeology Annual Conference, April 2, 2005.
(Extended Abstract) Public understanding and appreciation of archaeological sites has long been associated with the stabilization and display of ruins. Implicit in site stabilization and display is the aesthetic value many ruin sites are expected to possess based on a long-lived tradition of the picturesque. With the scientific investigation and study of many archaeological sites beginning in the late nineteenth century, both the aesthetic and informational values of these sites was promoted during excavation-stabilization The preservation and interpretation of historically significant monuments and sites began as an outgrowth of antiquarian interests in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Italy, and Egypt as early as the seventeenth century. However it was not until the nineteenth century that both the motives and methods of a preservation consciousness were codified in the doctrines and practice of restoration work.
In the United States, preservation of historic monuments and sites began as a largely public concern gaining professional stature only during the early twentieth century beginning with large sophisticated projects such as the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg. In contrast, Southwestern archaeology emerged as part of the new discipline of American anthropology and found its guiding premise in the origins and "mysterious demise" of native peoples of the newly discovered ruins in the southwest. But this popular perception masks the very close and unusual associations of these two pursuits during their formative stages in the late nineteenth century in the United States.
In the American Southwest, preservation and archaeology were inextricably intertwined from the beginning. Indeed the earliest preservation legislation in the United States—the American Antiquities Act of 1906—and methods of stabilization and interpretation were promoted and developed by some of the leading American archaeologists of the day—Edgar Lee Hewett , Frederic Ward Putnam, Victor Mindeleff, and Jesse Walter Fewkes. All became involved early on in their careers in the preservation and display of archaeological sites such as Casa Grande, Mesa Verde, and the Pajarito Plateau for the American public. This close interest in site preservation and interpretation by American archaeologists and ethnologists was fostered by their belief in portraying the American Southwest as a region of cultural continuity, peopled by descendants of the ancestral cliff-dweller communities and equal to the ancient sites of the Old World.
With the discovery of large ruin sites such as Cliff Palace and the Mesa Verde in the early 1880s, America and Europe became transfixed by the continent's aboriginal prehistory. Scholars from Europe such as Gustave Nordenskiold and U.S. geologist and ethnologist John Wesley Powell journeyed into the vast stretches of the western territories to document, record, and collect information and artifacts of aboriginal peoples of the past and present. Interest spread to the public as well, and, in 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured a nearly full-scale model of a cliff-dwelling and an extensive collection of artifacts from Mesa Verde and Grand Gulch, Utah assembled by the Wetherills and eventually sold to the University of Pennsylvania, establishing one of the first public collections of Southwestern antiquities in the United States. As a result of these early interests, sites such as Mesa Verde quickly became the country’s first federally sponsored aboriginal theme park with stabilization and interpretation leading archaeology, and settings constructed with contextual buildings to help tell the story. Conservation practices including the use of compatible, reversible materials and techniques, clear differentiation between original and stabilized fabric, and protective shelters and wall capping were all implemented during the first generation of site preservation in the American Southwest and as such, represent unique and sophisticated approaches for their day, especially when compared with contemporary Old World sites.
The proposed paper will focus on a historical-critical examination of the development of the philosophies and technology of archaeological site preservation and display as practiced in the American Southwest during the first half of the twentieth century. Current practices of ruins documentation, conservation, and interpretation in the region all derive from the precedents established in the early years of the development of both American archaeology and historic preservation. A critical review of the development of past conservation at these sites illuminates contemporary issues and approaches, especially as they relate to the relationship between heritage and its display. Display is the interface that mediates and thus transforms historic and cultural objects and sites into heritage. As such, it affects much of what we know and feel. By virtue of their remote and fragmented nature, archaeological sites are constructed, first through burial and then through excavation and conservation. Much of what we see at these sites was never meant to be displayed, let alone seen. The values attached to such sites both influence and are influenced by conservation concerns such as authenticity, informational and age values. Archaeological sites are as they appear by virtue of the disciplines that have "made" them and therefore indirectly reflect the concerns of those disciplines at any given point in time.