Military Explorations
The history of Southwestern archeology can be said to begin with the earliest official American explorations of the region, the most significant of which were various expeditions organized around the Mexican-American War and its aftermath. These early expeditions, including the excursion of Lt. James H. Simpson to Chaco Canyon in 1849; the explorations of Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves  between Zuni Pueblo and the town of Yuma, Arizona in 1851; and the 1853-1954 travels of Amiel W. Whipple across the northern Southwest provided early observations of Native people and archeological sites, but had no coherent framework in which to record or interpret what was encountered.

Early Scientific Institutions
However, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, scientists and institutions of the U.S. government, including the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) and the Smithsonian Institution, began serious and systematic studies of the Southwest.  The members of these organizations were the early archeologists of the Southwest, who functioned primarily by attempting to work back in time, relating living Native peoples to the nearby archeological ruins.  Some important figures from this time include John Wesley Powell, Jesse Walter Fewkes, James Stevenson, Frank Cushing, Jack Hiller, and the brothers Victor and Cosmos Mindeleff.

Free-lance Explorers, Indian Curios, and the American Antiquities Act
Not all exploration during this early period of archeological exploration in the Southwest was conducted by the BAE and Smithsonian Institution, however.  A number of free-lance individual explorers, including Adolph Bandelier, Charles Lummis, Gustaf Nordenskiold, and Richard Wetherill, contributed greatly to the early knowledge base about the environment of the Southwest, Native peoples, and archeological ruins.

Unfortunately, as the knowledge base increased so did the unregulated digging of artifacts, or “Indian curios,” for private profit.  The curio trade, however, ultimately led to the formation and passage of the first archeological law in the U.S. – the Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.  The Act outlawed unauthorized digging, or looting, of archeological sites on Federal and Indian lands.  The Act not only punished looters with jail time and fines, but also authorized the government to set aside important ruins as National Monuments.

BLM Factsheet: The Antiquities Act: A Century of Historic Preservation - Note: This is a pdf download.

Anthropology Enters American Universities

As the 19th century turned to the 20th, shifts in anthropological theory led to rise of anthropology programs situated in American universities.  A principal figure in this shift was Franz Boas, an anthropologist who rejected the simplistic ideas of unilinear cultural evolution, a theoretical framework in 19th century anthropology that saw Western culture as the pinnacle of social evolution, and placed all other cultures on a scale from most civilized to most primitive. Some terminology and cultural stages, such as band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, developed under this framework are still used in anthropology today, although the majority of the underlying theories have been discarded.  Boas did not believe that cultures moved along a single evolutionary trajectory, arguing instead that cultures were complex creations influenced by many forces, including environment and the particular history of the culture in question.  Boas succeeded in situating anthropology and his ideas about culture, now embedded in a framework known as historical particularism. Anthropologists working in this framework argued that each society has a unique historical past, rather than each society following a set ‘path’ of cultural evolution, and that although trade, diffusion, and accident could create similar cultural traits, it was the environmental and historical setting of a society that shaped its evolution. Universities like Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York provided training for a new generation of anthropologists, ethnographers, ethnologists, and archeologists in America.

New Methods: The Foundations of American Archeology
Among the archeologists influenced by Boas’ approach was Nels Nelson, who conducted the first stratigraphic excavations in the Southwest at Pueblo San Cristobal, NM.  By carefully excavating the prehistoric trash deposits at the pueblo, Nelson demonstrated a) archeological sites have deep stratified (layered) deposits; b) the material culture at the pueblo changed substantially over time; and c) sherds ( bits of broken pottery) and changes to their designs were often consistent from site to site.

A.L. Kroeber, another student influenced by Boas, also noticed the importance of ceramic artifacts, recognizing that pottery designs at different sites occurred in different proportions.  By classifying and counting the sherds, Kroeber developed a seriation of the ceramics at Zuni Pueblo and demonstrated the potential for using pottery to place archeological sites in a time sequence.

Studies like those of Nelson and Kroeber were soon replicated at other sites in the Southwest.  Sherd-based local chronologies emerged, allowing for chronological identification and comparisons between sites.  Armed with these new chronologies, Boas’ students and other archeologists began to piece together a rough sequence of change in the Southwest, while placing specific ruins in the time sequence.  The result of these studies would have astonished their predecessors: The Native American past in the Southwest was not recent, or flat, but instead extended far into the past.

Obliteration of the ‘flat past’
The stratigraphic and seriation studies of the early 1900s established methods for the understanding the chronology of sites containing pottery, and opened the door for a “deep” past in North America.  Subsequent discoveries, including the discovery spear points among the ribs of extinct bison at the Folsom site in NM (1924-1927) and the discovery of the Clovis Culture type-site at Blackwater Draw, NM  in 1932, demonstrated without a doubt the time-depth of occupations in North America, which appeared to extend at least to the last Ice Age.

The 1927 Pecos Conference
In 1927, the first Pecos Conference convened at the Forked Lightning Ruin near Pecos Pueblo.  Led by A.V. Kidder, the conference brought together most of the archeologists of the Southwest for the purpose of sorting out the confusing pottery names, chronological schemes, and other classifications then being used to characterize the prehistory of the Southwest.  The results of the conference included a binomial system establishing the rules for naming ceramic types in the Southwest, clarification and ordering of the names and concepts used in Southwestern archeology, and the beginning of an annual gathering of Southwest archeologists that continues today.

The Establishment of Archeological Institutions in the Southwest
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Southwest saw the establishment of several important institutions dedicated to the study of Southwestern archeology.  These places provided an institutional home for field expeditions and provided some continuity to archeological investigations.  Some of the most important institutions were the Gila Pueblo Archaeological Foundation of Globe, AZ (founded in 1928 and closed in 1950); the Museum of Northern Arizona  in Flagstaff, AZ (founded in 1928); the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, NM (founded in 1927 and now part of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture); and the Amerind Foundation of Dragoon, AZ (founded in 1937).

Tree-ring Dating – Building an Exact Chronological Sequence for the Southwest
In the late 1920s a new technique for dating archeological sites brought unprecedented accuracy to the chronology of Southwestern ruins.  This was the technique of tree-ring dating, invented by astronomer A.E. Douglass.  While working for the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, Douglass hit upon the idea that the rings of certain pine trees growing in the Southwest encoded annual variation in precipitation.  His hunch was correct, and spent much of the first three decades of the 20th century working with archeologists to create a sequence of yearly tree-ring variation that extended from the present day back in time.  This early work established two tree-ring sequences – a modern one, and an ancient one – separated by a ‘tree-ring gap’ of unknown length.  Finally, in 1929, the famous ‘specimen HH39’ – a burned roof beam from a prehistoric ruin near Show Low, Arizona – was discovered, providing the necessary ring sequence to bridge the gap.  The resulting tree-ring sequence provided archeologists the ability to specify with absolute precision the construction dates for many of the largest ruins in the Southwest.

Time-Space Systematics of the 1930s-1940s

Using the new methods of stratigraphy, seriation, and tree-ring dating, as well as the standardized pottery typologies developed after the Pecos Conference, archeologists in the 1930s and 1940s were interested in the systematics, or classification, of time and space in the Southwest.  During this period, archeologists greatly emphasized developmental sequences and sub-regional comparisons in ceramics, architecture, burial practices, and other traits, often with the research aimed at tracing the influences of one culture on another, either through trade or migration.  Leaning heavily toward the idea of prehistoric authochthony (independent development) in the Southwest, archeologists including Harold Gladwin, conceived of southwestern cultures as having grown and diversified in much the same way as a tree, with roots (old, deep cultural patterns) that were elaborated into branches (geographical variations of the main cultural pattern) and stems as time passed and the cultures spread across the landscape and acquired local variation.  It was during this period that archeologists deemed the Hohokam, Anasazi, Mogollon, and Patayan (or Hakataya) the major roots of culture in the Southwest.

Angry Youth: Discontent in American Archeology
By the late 1930s, some archeologists and cultural anthropologists began to critique the goals of American archeology in general, and Southwestern archeology in particular.  These scholars regarded classification (the main aim of archeology in the 1930s and 1940s) as largely pointless unless it led to achieving larger goals, and advocated the study of how and why cultures change, rather than simply classifying minor variations of material culture.
Among the most vocal of these critics was a young archeologist named Walter W. Taylor. Taylor, a student of cultural anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, expressed his discontent with American archeology in his 1940 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University, entitled A Study of Archeology.  Publishing his dissertation in 1948, Taylor loosed its harsh criticism on the archeology community, including some of the top archeologists of the time.  Although Taylor’s tone largely prevented public acceptance of his ideas, many archeologists began to adopt and apply variations of the approach advocated by Taylor.

Among them was Paul S. Martin  of the Chicago Field Museum.  In the 1950s, Martin began to apply a new approach to southwestern archeology – one that focused attention not on artifact classifications, but on anthropological issues such as the causes of cultural change and variation in social organization.  In a small field report titled Sites of the Reserve Phase (1950), Martin and colleague John Rinaldo  advocated using archeological data to reconstruct aspects of cultures previously through to be inaccessible to archeological study, such as kinship systems and social organization.

New Archeology (1960s, 1970s) – The Rise of Processual Archeology
During the 1950s and 1960s, southwestern archeology generally was split into two camps – the majority, who followed the time-space systematic of an earlier era, and a small number who were experimenting with the a new agenda following along the lines advocated by Taylor and Martin.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, a new program of archeological investigation began to sweep American archeology.  Termed the New Archeology (or later, Processual Archeology), and led by University of Chicago student Lewis Binford, this movement explicitly rejected the time-space systematics and cultural history programs of traditional archeology.  New Archeology emphasized an interest in cultural processes, explicitly scientific methods, and the effects of the environment and environmental change on cultural change.  In addition, New Archeology used a systems approach to studying culture, wherein culture is viewed as a functional system, made up of sub-systems like subsistence, exchange, ceremonial/religious systems, and social organization.  Finally, within the scientific framework of generating and testing hypotheses about the past, ‘New’ archeologists rejected ethnographic consultation with Native peoples – something that would not be reintegrated into American archeology until the rise of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) and the alternative perspectives of Post-Processual Archeology.

Post-Processual Archeology – A Resurgence of Humanistic Archeology
By the early 1980s, a new movement in archeology was beginning to challenge the New Archeology.  In the beginning, this was a reaction to the precepts of Processual Archeology, so the name Post-Processual Archeology was applied.  Today, the Post-Processual movement encompasses many different theoretical viewpoints, and many observers have linked it to a general Post-Modern approach to social science.  Generally, the movement adheres to a set of principles that in many respects reject the scientific approach so inherent in the New Archeology in favor of a more humanistic or interpretive archeology.  Although extremely varied, some of the tenets of the Post-Processual movement include emphasis on interpretation of the past rather than explanation, emphasis on multivocality, emphasis on Native perspectives and interpretations of the past, and an awareness of the role that one’s societal biases and contemporary political concerns play when one attempts to explain or understand the past.

The Rise of Cultural Resource Management
Beginning in the late 1970s an important shift occurred in the nature of the institutions and the funding sources of archeology in the Southwest.  This was the rise of Cultural Resources Management (CRM), fostered by the passage of important environmental legislation like the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 (NHPA), the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 (NEPA), and the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 (AHPA).  A single section of NHPA, known as Section 106, was probably the most important single part of this legislative base.  These laws and their regulations laid the foundation for some very large archeological survey and excavation projects, and made large sums of money available for analysis of archeological materials.  The construction of roads, pipelines, dams, powerlines, canals, and other massive public works forced archeologists to work across broad areas of the Southwest, synthesizing the prehistoric past as never before.

A new type of institution also arose in the Southwest as a powerful force for doing archeology: the private CRM consulting firm.  Today, there are dozens of such firms in states across the Southwest, and each year they are funded in the millions of dollars to perform archeological studies.  The combination of necessity and funding generating CRM archeology has also led to an exponential increase in archeology performed, as well as in archeology reported.  Contributions of CRM include tremendous contributions to culture history, the discovery of ancient agricultural complexes in southern deserts,  the documentation of a wide diversity of adaptations in ‘peripheral’ areas, and most importantly, the spread of archeological knowledge in the archeological community and public arena.

Modern Questions and Continuity in Southwest Archeology
The modern approach to Southwestern archeology combines those of previous eras, in some instances attempting to avoid the polarities of the processual and post-processual extremes, and in others specifically outlining approaches strongly based in the theoretical approach of one, the other, or a subcategory of either.  These various approaches provide a depth of vision not possible in early archeology, and have opened the way for an archeology that includes not only scientists, but Native peoples, local communities, and the public at large.
Archeologists in the Southwest continue to pursue fundamental questions, some old, and some quite recent.  Most of these questions fall within major research domains, including:

  • Chronology and Culture History
  • Environment
  • Subsistence
  • Transition to Agriculture
  • Settlement Systems and Mobility Strategies
  • Conflict
  • Social Organization
  • Cultural Affiliation and Exchange
  • Transportation

For any time period or specific region of study, more specific research questions are generated and investigated within the broader framework of the research domains listed above.  Specific questions, such as ‘when was maize agriculture adopted’ generate different answers at different sites and regions.  Other questions, such as ‘what was the level of social organization at Pueblo Bonito during the 1100s’ can only be answered by investigating specific time periods at specific sites.  Finally, although the broader research domains remain static for the most part, as specific answers are generated, new questions arise and old mysteries remain for future generations of archeologists in the Southwest.