Weirdo gentlemen archaeologists and the archivists who love them

There’s a qualitative difference, I’ve discovered, in researching the lives of antebellum and post-Civil War historical figures. When I read the papers of archaeologists of the late nineteenth century, I more or less understand their lives, the technologies that influence their work and the workings of their disciplines. Anything before 1860, however, leaves me lost.

The subject of the archives’ newest exhibit, Montroville Wilson Dickeson, is no exception.  This 19th-century Philadelphia physician made a lasting contribution to the archaeology of the Mississippi River valley, but even now, as I research this blog post, his motivations and point of view remain a mystery.

Montroville Wilson Dickeson was a pioneer of American archaeology but is almost unknown today.  Trained as a doctor, with a background as a naturalist, he spent the late 1830s to early 1840s excavating and mapping hundreds of pre-Columbian sites along the Mississippi, most of which no longer exist.

Dickeson noted stratigraphy (the geological and archaeological context of his finds) and kept a record of his excavations.  He also promoted the dissemination of archaeological knowledge through public lectures and exhibitions.  At a time when the field was in its infancy, and its practice often led to reckless pot-hunting or wild speculation, Dickeson was empirical in his methods and sedate in his observations.  He did, however, tend toward fanciful exaggerations in his advertisements, and the sketches that accompany his field notes reveal a degree of imagination in his treatment of his subjects.

"Huge Mound and the manner of opening them" image courtesy of the St. Louis Museum of Art; Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, painting by John J. Egan.

"Huge Mound and the manner of opening them" image courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum; Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, painting by John J. Egan.

Dickeson, like many museuologists of his day, was a ceaseless promoter and popularizer of the new field of archaeology.  He joined scientific organizations, published articles, engaged in public lecture tours, and displayed his objects at fairs and expositions, as well as in his own (short-lived) City Museum in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 also included his excavated collections.

Dickeson worked at a time when few made a living as archaeologists. Although he was a practicing physician, he repeatedly attempted to establish himself as a professional archaeologist, educator, and curator. Perhaps history has frowned on the colorful claims he made when promoting his materials or perhaps none of us know what to make of a historical figure who spanned disciplines that have since evolved past what Dickeson would recognize. Or, perhaps, Dickeson’s present obscurity can be attributed to the unpublished state of his archaeological results; although he authored several preliminary reports, he failed to complete a monograph.

Perhaps his best-remembered effort to engage the public was the commission of a moving panorama for use in his lectures. Painted around 1850 by John J. Egan from drawings and sketches by Dickeson, this panorama is about nine feet high by four hundred feet long, and consists of twenty-seven sections, or scenes.

Other panoramas of the Mississippi used the scenery of the river as their major theme.  The Egan panorama used the river as a setting to introduce Dickeson’s interests in Indian culture and archaeology.  Egan’s panorama takes the viewer through both space and time; it includes scenes from Dickeson’s excavations and other Mound Builder ruins, as well as historical and nineteenth-century events.It narrates the presence and then destruction of native cultures, the excavation of their ruins, and the resettlement of these lands by white Americans, their slaves and black freedmen.

Montroville Dickeson broadside, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, Dickeson Collection

Montroville Dickeson broadside, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, Dickeson Collection

The visual restoration of Native American life in this panorama — Dr. Dickeson’s fantasies in lieu of a formal disciplinary theory of the culture — depends heavily upon an archaeological explanation of Native American existence in the past tense, contradicted by the panorama’s culminating scene  in which a Native American figure looks into the distance. [1]

Here, again, Dickeson’s worldview is difficult to read. On the one hand, at a time when contemporaries imagined a non-indigenous source for these mounds (popular theories looked toward ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Irish monks, among others), Dickeson’s explanation remained in the world of imagination — an artwork depicting his impressions of indigenous, ancient Native Americans — rather than a specious pseud-scientific theory. On the other hand, what are we to make of the last panel of the Indian looking into the distance at a time contemporary to the Indian wars and massive displacement?

Re-discovered in the Penn Museum basement in 1941, the panorama was sold to the St. Louis Art Museum in 1952.  It is the only known Mississippi panorama in existence today.

Montroville Wilson Dickeson’s collection of excavated materials from the Mississippi Valley is still housed in this museum, as are his papers. Although his archaeological field notes do not meet current standards for interpretation, they represent sites that have since been plowed and excavated into oblivion, and are thus a record that cannot be recreated. For the sake of these sites, Dickeson’s accomplishments ought yet to be published.

The archives staff has mounted an exhibition of Dickeson’s notes and drawings, as well as reproductions of the panorama panels. Please drop by and see it if you’re in Philadelphia.

——

[1] Chaney, Michael. Fugitive vision : slave image and Black identity in antebellum narrative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Other Sources:

Chaney, Michael. Fugitive vision : slave image and Black identity in antebellum narrative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Culin, Stewart. “The Dickeson collection of American antiquities,.” Bulletin. (1900): 168

Dickeson, Montroville. Monumental grandeur of the Mississippi valley! : Newark  N.J.: Printed at the Mercury Office.

—. The American numismatical manual of the currency or money of the aborigines, and colonial, state, and United States coins. With historical and descriptive notices of each coin or series. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1859.

Mason, J. Alden. “A Mississippi panorama..” Minnesota History. (1942).

Rathbone, Perry, and City Art Museum of St. Louis. Mississippi panorama, being an exhibition of the life and landscape of the Father of Waters and its great tributary, the Missouri. St. Louis, 1949.

Veit, Richard. “Mastodons, Mound Builders, and Montroville Wilson Dickeson—Pioneering American Archaeologist.” Expedition Magazine. 41: 3.

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  • Saint Louis Art Museum

    It is the Saint Louis Art Museum, not the “St. Louis Museum of Art” as noted in the caption of the panorama image.

  • http://pennmuseumarchives.wordpress.com Maureen Callahan

    Thank you very much for the correction. MC

  • Michael Crist

    Is it possible to find copies of Dickeson’s maps, it appears some of the sites he mapped were not noted anywhere else.
    Best
    Michael