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  • American Antiquities: Revisiting the Origins of American Archaeology by Terry A. Barnhart
  • Charles Allen Wallace (bio)
American Antiquities: Revisiting the Origins of American Archaeology. By Terry A. Barnhart. (University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. 594. Cloth, $75.00.)

Anthropologists have too often depicted their pre-professional ancestors in ways that encourage readers to take them less seriously than they [End Page 376] deserve.1 The value of Terry A. Barnhart's revisitation is that it gives scholars a nuanced history of how early researchers utilized the methods and information at hand to reach their conclusions about American antiquity, conclusions he contends were often more rational and at times more accurate than current anthropologists are comfortable believing.

Barnhart begins by pointing out that some of the first European attempts to come to terms with the ancient mounds were not too erroneous. For instance, when the Soto expedition crossed through the Mississippian world in the 1540s—a world of steep social hierarchy in which chieftains and their priests ruled from the mound tops—there seemed to its members no mystery as to who built the mounds. But the Soto chronicles were not widely circulated in early America. Sadly, too, when questions of American origins arose across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sophisticated archaeological methods—such as stratigraphic analysis—were little known and seldom practiced as a means of solving historical problems. Researchers more often made educated guesses, or plugged ancient Americans into biblical genealogy instead. (James Adair's infamous Israelite hypothesis is a case in point.) There were, Barnhart notes, more enlightened researchers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Smith Barton; both men used ethnography—and, in Jefferson's case, quite sophisticated archaeology—to posit that Indians had inhabited North America for a very long time, and had constructed mounds. This is an important point to make in light of scholarship reducing American antiquarians into propagandists for U.S. nationalism, or as more or less products of nineteenth-century American culture.2 But like the implications of the Soto chronicles, these more accurate hypotheses were not synthesized and circulated in any organized manner. No wonder, Barnhart suggests, many educated Euro American guessers ruled out Indians as builders of the ancient mounds. After all, the highest mounds—to be distinguished from burial mounds still in use across some of nineteenth-century Native America—were clearly hundreds of years old, and often topped with tall trees; Indians did not always memorialize [End Page 377] these older mounds, or seem to know much about the ancient civilizations that had constructed them.

Thus mound-builder myths arose. In the decades following the Revolution, when hordes of planters crossed the Appalachians into the Mississippi River Valley, digging into the ancient American past picked up. Barnhart admits that this uptick began with U.S. Army officials stumbling across unknown antiquities while clearing the landscape for "settlement." But the army's findings also attracted the attention of conscientious researchers such as Caleb Atwater, a former Presbyterian minister, whose extensive analysis of the upper Mississippi Valley in the 1810s produced a wealth of data—such as diagrams of mounds, some of which would later fade from the landscape—indispensable for future researchers. Atwater ended up hypothesizing that a mysterious race—perhaps ancient Hindus—constructed the great mounds in American antiquity, and other researchers, such as James McCulloh, made similar hypotheses, even wondering whether this race had been exterminated by the ancestors of nineteenth-century Indians. To be sure, Barnhart stresses, in the 1830s such myths proliferated—the list of candidates for the mysterious race grew longer, some researchers even proposing ancient Celts—and were used by politicians such as Andrew Jackson to justify Indian removal. However, and this is where Barnhart separates himself from other scholars, these myths often originated in the rational conclusions of independent, pre-professional researchers doing their best triangulations within the limits of their culture.

What saves American anthropology from mythology, for Barnhart, is the emergence of professional organizations after the 1840s. Ephraim Squier and Edward Hamilton Davis, conducting ethnographic and archaeological research for the newly formed Smithsonian Institution (1846), traversed the upper Mississippi Valley dissecting mounds, careful to document the situation of artifacts...


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