Southwestern Archaeology

Past, Present, and Future

By: Christian E. Downum

Originally Published in 1993

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When the U.S. ended its war with Mexico, it gained a vast new western territory that included most of the region we now define as the Southwest. Neither the American public at large nor the U.S. government had a precise understand­ing of what they had rather suddenly acquired. What were the natural trea­sures and economic potential of this harsh and exotic environment? How could it be navigated? Who were its native peoples, what was their history, and how did they live?

It was in this context that the scien­tific investigation of the Southwest and its prehistory began. The discipline of Southwestern archaeology thus has a long and fascinating history, in many ways paralleling but in many ways dis­tinct from larger trends in American archaeology. The many changes in goals, techniques, methods, and institu­tions that have shaped the discipline through the years have led us to an ever more sophisticated set of research questions, many of which form the basis for papers included in this special issue.

The Beginning: Explorations Pre-1900

In a technical sense, Southwestern archaeology might be said to begin in the late 1840s and early 1850s, when a series of U.S. military expeditions dis­covered and recorded a number of “ancient monuments,” including pueb­los, cliff dwellings, and adobe struc­tures. The first serious attempts at deciphering the Southwest’s prehistory, however, date to the mid-1880s, when the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) organized a series of expeditions to locate and explore the region’s prehistoric ruins.

These investigations were concerned primarily with tracing the connections between contemporary Native Ameri­can groups and the abandoned dwell­ings that dotted the Southwestern landscape. Partly motivated by scien­tific interest, but also with an eye toward using such historic information to guide the U.S. government’s “Indian Policy,” BAE researchers employed a “direct-historical” approach to investi­gation. In this approach, a principal source of information for establishing the cultural affiliations and histories of prehistoric ruins was contemporary Native American oral tradition. Thus, although most lacked any sort of formal training, BAE researchers were often both ethnographers and archaeologists.

A major shortcoming of the BAE archaeological program was a general absence of reliable information that would allow sites to be placed in time. The Bureau’s archaeologists were either unaware of, or unwilling to use, techniques of stratigraphic excavation and seriation that had provided relative chronologies in other regions of the world. Furthermore, many of the BAE interpretations depended on the partic­ular ethnographic experiences of the individual researcher. John Wesley Powell, for example, had worked among the Havasupai and tended to interpret prehistoric ruins in northern Arizona as ancestral Havasupai homes. Jesse Walter Fewkes, having worked among the Hopi, saw the very same ruins as pueblos occupied during ancient migrations of the Hopi. Much of the variability in prehistoric ceramics was similarly interpreted. Although there was some recognition that differ­ent styles of pottery might have preced­ed or followed one another in time, most variability was attributed to differ­ences in clan or tribal affiliation, and not time (Fig. 8 and cover).

The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw a number of reconnais­sance surveys conducted by free-lance anthropological adventurers such as Alphonse Pinart, Adolph Bandelier, and Carl Lurnholtz. These individuals, often working alone and with only min­imal institutional support, were keen chroniclers of the Southwest’s land­scapes, peoples, and ruins (Fig. 2). Sadly, at the same time these explorers were systematically documenting the appearance of prehistoric sites, others were destroying them for personal gain. Damage often came at the hands of commercial pot hunters seeking arti­facts for sale in retail shops or even by mail order, hut many ruins were also systematically looted by well-organized, privately financed collecting expedi­tions (Fig. 3). At the time, no laws pro­hibited the excavation of prehistoric ruins on federal land, and excavations on private property were limited only by laws prohibiting trespass.

Twentieth Century Changes

Around the turn of the century, sev­eral developments imposed order on this chaotic situation. On the legal front, the Antiquity Act of 1906 granted the U.S. President power to preserve archaeological sites as national monu­ments, and established criminal penal­ties for unauthorized excavations on federal land (Fig. 1). Although the law was difficult to enforce across the vast expanse of federal lands in the South­west, it did put an end to the plague of blatant, commercial looting.

Changes were also felt in the scien­tific arena. An important factor was establishment of local institutions tak­ing an active role in field research, edu­cation, and publication. Among these were state universities and museums (e.g., the Universities of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico), and private research foundations, such as the School of American Research, founded in 1908. Amateur antiquarian societies also sprang up, dedicated to excavating, pre­serving, and promoting local ruins.

In spite of these developments, there was still no reliable chronology of Southwestern ruins, and most field studies continued to be oriented toward collecting museum-quality arti­facts rather than gathering information about prehistoric life. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of surveys and excava­tions was revealing the general outlines of spatial variability in Southwestern ruins and artifact styles (Fig. 4). Conse­quently, the concept of prehistoric cul­ture areas began to emerge. Time relationships were also being discerned, albeit dimly. It was known, for example, that pithouses had generally preceded pueblos as an architectural form, and that a “Basketmaker” culture was earlier than a later pottery-producing “Pueblo” culture.

The gradual accumulation of such knowledge meant that some scholars were increasingly discontented with the rather limited goals of the direct-histor­ical approach associated with the BAE. A growing appetite for solid chronologi­cal information was accompanied by the perception that the prehistory of the Southwest might have been longer and more complex than previously assumed. There soon arose a series of method­ological and theoretical advances that would launch Southwestern archaeolo­gy on a new and highly productive course.

Historical Particular­ism and Chronology Building

One of the major transformations in American anthropology during the early part of the 20th centtuy, and one that would particularly affect South­western archaeology, was the declining influence of the Smithsonian Institution on American anthropology and the con­comitant ascendancy of university-based programs. Along with this institutional shift came changes in the methods and theoretical orientation of anthropology, many of which were directly related to the historical-partic­ularist anthropological program of Franz Boas, a program based on sys­tematic, region-specific descriptions of cultures.

In Southwestern archaeology, the impacts of the shift were first manifest­ed in the realm of chronology building. Two landmark events in this transition were the stratigraphic excavations of Nels Nelson in 1915 (Fig. 5), and the 1916 potsherd seriation studies of Alfred 1Croeber. Both men had close ties to Boas, and both understood that an initial step in the historical recon­struction of Southwestern cultures would depend on accurate means of chronological control. Working inde­pendently, Nelson and 1Croeber soon established that variability in pot­sherds—a nearly ubiquitous, abundant medium of study—could be used to establish the relative sequence of occu­pation of Southwestern ruins.

The importance of these pioneering studies can hardly be overstated. Nelson and 1Croeber were opening new avenues of archaeological investigation that starkly revealed the methodologi­cal and theoretical shortcomings of the BAE archaeological program. The Native American past was no longer “flat,” but no one could yet specify precisely how “deep” it actually had been, or what changes might have taken place.

Early Attempts at Culture History

A partial answer to the first question would not come until a decade later, when spear points were discovered in direct association with late Pleistocene-age bison at Folsom, New Mexico. In the meantime, Southwestern archaeol­ogists directed their efforts largely toward questions of cultural change at the latter end of the prehistoric time scale. Thus, across the region there came a series of region-specific, cul-hire-historical reconstructions, each aimed at revealing how pottery styles, house types, and other material traits had changed during the basketmaker and pueblo periods of occupation.

Two significant events mark the successes of this period. First, in 1924 Alfred V. Kidder published his classic review of the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest, An Introduction to the Study of Southwestern Archaeology. This work sketched out the variability in pottery, architecture, and other material traits as they were then known across the Southwest, and it offered a broad and insightful treatment of the region as a vast culture area composed of numerous local subtraditions cen­tered on major drainages. Second, the first Pecos Conference was held at the Forked Lightning Ruin near Pecos Pueblo in 1927. This meeting of promi­nent Southwestern archaeologists was convened by 1Cidder for the purpose of systematizing the classification of cultural periods, and developing a standardized nomenclature for pottery types. The rules of nomenclature that resulted imposed consistency on what had been a proliferation of confusing cultural labels and pottery names, and gave an effective framework for com­municating descriptive information.

The Development of Tree-Ring Dating

Meanwhile, a major effort was underway to develop an absolute chronolog of prehistoric ruins from the ring patterns encoded in prehistoric building timbers of juniper, pine, and fir. Conceived in 1911 by astronomer A.E. Douglass (Fig. 6), tree-ring dating is based on the way variation in annual growth ring thickness in many tree species is tied to variation in local climatic conditions. Master sequences of growth rings are assembled by matching the ring patterns of trees that overlap in age. By mid-1929, Douglass and his archaeological colleagues had pieced together lengthy historic and prehistoric series of tree-ring widths, the former from living trees and historic structures, the latter from pre­historic pithouses and pueblos. On June 22, 1929, at the Whipple Ruin in Showlow, Arizona, the historic and prehistoric tree-ring chronologies were linked, and the precise calendrical dates for many of the Southwest’s most prominent ruins were instantly revealed.

If the creation of potsherd-based chronologies was the first chronological revolution in the Southwest, the perfec­tion of tree-ring dating was surely the second. Southwestern archaeologists now had a degree of chronological con­trol—down to the precise year of pueblo or pithouse construction—that was unprecedented in the study of ancient preliterate societies anywhere in the world. Better yet, the tree-ring dates associated with a particular pottery type could be extended to sites where that pottery was found, even in the desert regions that lacked datable tree species. Now, for the first time, it was possible to calibrate absolute rates of cultural change, and assess the contemporaneity of such changes across broad areas.

The Classification of Prehistoric Cultures

With standardized systems of cultur­al classification and pottery nomencla­ture, and with the refinement of tree-ring dating, Southwestern archae­ologists embarked on an energetic pro­gram of exploration, excavation, and conceptual development. In fact, the years from the late 1920s until World War II might well be considered among the most critical of the discipline. In little more than a decade, there came a rush of cultural classifications, ceramic taxonomies, and interpretive frame­works that still exert a profound influence on Southwestern archaeology.

Critical to the success of the pre-World War II era was the foundation of privately funded archaeological research institutions, which would set the tone and pace of research. From 1927 to 1937, four such entities were born: the Amerind Foundation, in Dragoon, Arizona; the Museum of Northern Arizona, in Flagstaff (Fig. 10); the Gila Pueblo Archaeological Foun­dation, in Globe, Arizona (Fig. 7); and the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe. Each was a powerful local force in Southwestern archaeology, dis­patching field expeditions to conduct surveys and excavations, systematizing variability in architecture and artifacts, and publishing reports and monographs at an astounding rate.

By the late 1930s, such efforts had revealed the basic material attributes and time relationships of prehistoric culture units across the Southwest. The terms “Anasazi,” “Hohokam,” “Mogol­lon,” and “Patayan” were coined to describe the basic “roots” of prehistoric cultures, from which sprang a dazzling array of regional cultural variants. The classification system also embraced cuItures’ of somewhat uncertain origin such as Sinagua, Mimbres, and Cohonina. Gone was the old, monolithic Basket­maker-Pueblo model of Southwestern prehistory, and in its place was a more complicated scheme of multiple inde­pendent cultural origins and dynamic intercultural transactions in the form of migration, diffusion, and trade.

This was also a time of intensive studies of prehistoric ceramics. Using the taxonomic frameworks formalized by the first Pecos Conference, institu­tions across the Southwest collected and analyzed literally millions of pot­sherds, grouping them into pottery types believed to have temporal and cultural significance. The outcome was a series of pottery guides or handbooks, offering basic information on the distri­bution, styles of decoration, and com­position of prehistoric ceramics. Such issues were central to cultural classifica­tion, since it was thought that ceramic variability provided important clues to the movements and interactions of prehistoric people. Pottery studies were tremendously aided by compositional assessments, chemical analyses, and manufacturing experiments conducted by pioneering ceramic scholars such as Anna O. Shepard and Harold S. Colton.

Toward the end of the 1930s, the emphasis on cultural classification was coming under fire. In particular, cultural anthropologists such as Julian Steward and Clyde Kluckhohn were frustrated by what appeared an excess­ive concern in American archaeology with artifact classifications and a neglect of anthropological issues such as social organization and causes and processes of culture change. However, whatever might have come from such rumblings would have to wait; World War II effectively put an end to field research everywhere, and debates about the proper goals of Southwestern archaeology were forced to await the war’s conclusion.

Post-War Archaeology

After the war, Southwestern archae­ology seems to have been split between two courses of action. Much of South­western archaeology from the late 1940s until well into the 1960s reflects this schism. The majority of activity was focused on culture-historical studies in the vein of pre-war investigations. Stud­ies in ceramic taxonomy and cultural classification were expanded, more often than not in the peripheral areas of the Southwest that had not been cov­ered in pre-war investigations (Fig. 9). Most seemed satisfied with these research directions.

Still, dissatisfaction with this pro­gram was also evident, with roots prob­ably stretching back to the critiques that had appeared in the late 1930s and early 1940s. One of the era’s most expressive statements of this dissension was a 1950 Chicago Field Museum publication by John Rinaldo and Paul S. Martin entitled Sites of the Reserve Phase. The final chapter of this report was devoted to exploring such issues as Mogollon social organization, postman-tal descent rules, and other anthropo­logical topics previously considered inaccessible through use of archaeologi­cal data. A growing concern with pre­historic social organization could also be detected in settlement pattern stud­ies, which began to appear in the litera­ture after the mid-1950s.

The New Archaeology

The 1960s and much of the 1970s marked a contentious period of adjust­ment in the techniques, methods, and goals of archaeology. The New Archae­ology movement that arose from these discussions brought real and lasting changes to Southwestern archaeology. First and perhaps foremost was the replacement of descriptive, qualitative assessments of cultural configurations and changes with quantitative, statisti­cally based inferences. Closely related to this were changes in sampling strate­gies. The culture-historical research program had relied on one or a few “typical” sites (usually the larger ones) for intensive study, on the assumption that these could provide the basis for generalizations about an entire culture or phase of the culture. The New Archaeology demanded that a statisti­cally valid sample of sites be drawn, so that variability between sites could be statistically assessed rather than assumed. This required that more attention be paid to the entire range of site sizes and functions, not just the large, spectacular, or well-preserved settlements. Finally, by viewing cul­tures as adaptive systems, composed of functionally dependent, interacting subsystems, the New Archaeology insisted that rigorous attention be paid to previously ignored or poorly under­stood matters such as prehistoric social organization, diet, demography, and health (Fig. 11).

Though the early years of change were relatively peaceful, later debates were marred by polemic, leading to polarization of culture-historians and New Archaeologists, and obscuring the true relationship—a sequential and dependent one—between the study of culture history and culture process. Also, the New Archaeology’s relentless insistence on adaptation and an explic­itly materialist bias ignored or down­played the potential importance of ideology and unique historical events. Native American ceremonial and belief systems were therefore often removed from the “scientific” equation of cultur­al change, leading to an arbitrary and—from many Native Americans’ point of view—perplexing and insulting break­age of the links between contemporary and prehistoric cultures. Finally, the rather limited geographical scale over which prehistoric adaptive systems were studied often diminished the scope of investigations, limiting the possibility for holistic perspectives that might allow for interregional and per­haps extra-regional connections and influences.

Cultural Resource Management

Beginning in the middle 1960s, new federal legislation brought important changes to Southwestern archaeology by profoundly altering the scale and scope of field investigations, and re­arranging institutional frameworks. These laws, collectively referred to as Cultural Resource Management (CRM) legislation, laid the legal and fis­cal foundation for a massive influx of federal money for the excavation, study, and preservation of archaeological sites in the path of development (Fig. 12). Given the Southwest’s tremendous growth in the past decade, there have been plenty of such projects. Conse­quently, although non-CRM research projects (e.g., investigations funded by the National Science Foundation, pub­lic and private universities, and private archaeological foundations) remain strongly influential, by any measure the very great majority of Southwestern archaeology is now accomplished with CRM funding. Though many of these projects are undertaken by universities and museums, the independent, privately owned archaeological consult­ing firm has been added to the list of significant research institutions in the Southwest.

What has been the effect of the CRM phenomenon? For one thing, the pace and geographical coverage of archaeological research in the South­west have increased dramatically. As a result, the culture history of the South­west has been revised with astonishing speed. It is impossible to list all of the culture-historical achievements associated with CRM research, but two generalizations might summarize the trends: (1) the material and behavioral diversity of prehistoric cultures was considerably greater than previously believed, and (2) the so-called peripheral areas often were not peripheral. Thus, if the area-specific adaptive studies of the 1960s and early 1970s had narrowed the geo­graphical scope of Southwestern archaeo­logy, CRM-related projects have once again widened our viewpoints by encompassing vast areas traversed by highways, pipelines, canals, and other massive federal projects.

At another level, CRM funding fostered a formalization of some of the most central items on the New Archaeology agenda. Sampling is now a matter of course in most surveys and excava­tions. Rigorous approaches to archaeo­logical inference are apparent in the detailed, often peer-reviewed research designs that are required of virtually every large CRM project. A concern with culture as an adaptive system composed of numerous subsystems is now manifest as specialized and often interdisciplinary studies of agricultural systems, lithic technology, plant and animal foods, and human remains. The organizational aspects of prehistoric cultures are routinely addressed through analyses of mortuary practices, spatial organization of architecture, manufacturing activities and craft specialisation, and landscape or settle­ment archaeology. Finally, the New Archaeology’s emphasis on studying the dynamics of culture change is seen clearly in today’s sophisticated recon­structions of paleoclimates and their possible effects on prehistoric environ­ments and cultural processes.

Current Trends

Contemporary Southwestern arch­aeology is the cumulative product of its long and eventful disciplinary history. The region has been favored with such archaeological advantages as extraordi­nary preservation and visibility of sites and artifacts, and extremely fine-grained cultural chronologies and palenenviron-mental reconstructions. In addition, the diverse Native cultures of the Southwest give an invaluable record of aboriginal subsistence, architecture, organization, and belief relevant to archaeological interpretation. In spite of these advan­tages and the sophisticated culture his­tories that have accrued from them, there remain many fascinating and diffi­cult problems. For example, was the prehistory of the Southwest driven mainly by internal developments, or was this region part of a larger Mesoameri­can economy? Were prehistoric cultures ultimately susceptible to environmental changes, or did they effectively counter such fluctuations with technological and organizational solutions? Were the late prehistoric cultures of the Southwest composed of complex, stratified soci­eties, ruled by hereditary leaders, or were they relatively egalitarian, with only weakly developed religious and hierarchies? What factors account for the abandonment of villages, settlement systems, and sometimes even entire regions of the Southwest? Such questions, some as old as the discipline itself, indicate that although Southwest­ern archaeology may have solved many of its most basic “what, when, and where” questions, many of the most sophisticated “how” and “why” ques­tions remain unresolved.

Fortunately, recent trends portend significant progress toward the solution of such questions. First, there is the massive scale of many recent and on­going field studies, most in the context of CRM research. These investigations promise to bring the temporal and spa­tial patterns of Southwestern prehistory into much sharper focus, and to clarify the picture of regional interaction as never before. Second, sophisticated new analytical techniques and methods are providing an unprecedented under­standing of issues such as environmen­tal change, agricultural and subsistence practices, ceramic manufacture and exchange, village growth and organiza­tion, and diet and health. Another important development is an intensifi­cation of interest in the archaeology of northern Mexico, historically one of the most frustratingly underinvestigated areas of the greater Southwest. New field projects and discoveries there may give important clues regarding the nature of the interaction between the Southwest and the northern frontier of Mesoamerica, and thus help answer the old question of internal versus external processes of cultural development in the Southwest.

Finally, Native Americans in the Southwest have recently begun to exert significant influence on not only the conduct, but also the content of South­western archaeology. New federal and state laws mandate important changes in the treatment of prehistoric human remains, and Native American tribes and nations in the Southwest are taking an increasingly active role in field archaeology and archaeological inter­pretations. The lasting consequences of these developments are unknown, but it seems likely that Native American viewpoints will play an ever more important role in shaping excavation and laboratory procedures, as well as specific interpretations of Southwestern prehistory.


In reviewing the long and often con­tentious history of Southwestern archae­ology, it is sometimes easy to overlook the legacy of archaeological accomplish­ments that have accumulated over the past century. The Southwest is one of the most well- documented archaeologi­cal regions in the world. If Southwestern archaeology today has one major prob­lem, it is that our empirical understand­ing of the prehistoric past is so refined that attempts at explaining this past are constrained by a daunting body of facts. This is not a particularly lamentable situ­ation, however, and if the papers in this volume are any indication, there are plenty of Southwestern archaeologists ready to accept the challenge.

Cite This Article

Downum, Christian E.. "Southwestern Archaeology." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 1 (March, 1993): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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