'Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley' by E.G. Squier & E.H. Davis: The First Classic of US Archaeology

By Welch, Paul D. | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

'Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley' by E.G. Squier & E.H. Davis: The First Classic of US Archaeology


Welch, Paul D., Antiquity


The two most important 19th-century books on archaeology in the United States both dealt with earthworks. The earlier of these two, Ancient monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim G. Squier & Edwin H. Davis, was the first volume published by the fledgling Smithsonian Institution, and is 150 years old this year. It presented, with lavish illustrations, information about hundreds of earthworks. Its principal argument was that the mounds had been built by an American race distinct from the historically known indigenes, no less and perhaps considerably more than 1000 years ago. This volume in no small measure catalysed the development of archaeology in the United States Without Squier & Davis' extensive documentation of the vast number, size, complexity and variety of earthworks, the later batik might fight never have been commissioned or might have been conceived in far less ambitious terms. The later book, Cyrus Thomas' 1894 Report on the mound explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology, was intended from the outset to answer definitively the issue of who the builders of the earthworks had been. Also a Smithsonian publication, Thomas' report arrived at the opposite conclusion, that the earthworks were built by the Indians and their ancestors. It is the later volume's conclusion that has stood the test of time, and consequently it is the later volume that had the most profound impact on the subsequent development of archaeology in the United States. But there is no doubt that before Thomas' Report there was no more important work on American archaeology than Ancient monuments. Understanding the role played by Squier & Davis' volume requires some familiarity with the remarkably persistent and popular Moundbuilder issue, familiar ground for American archaeologists but perhaps less so for most of ANTIQUITY's readers.

Ancient monuments of the Mississippi Valley was issued at a time when archaeology in the US barely existed as a named field of study, yet paradoxically at the zenith of public interest in the prehistory of North America. In the US today, the image of archaeology is that it is done mostly in distant, usually tropical, parts of the world and involves car-chases by villains a testament to the saliency of the Indiana Jones movie character. Many college students here are surprised to learn that there are prehistoric sites in the eastern US, that many of them are large and visually impressive and that thousands of archaeologists work here. Such widespread disregard of archaeological sites in the eastern US is a 20th-century phenomenon. Throughout the previous century popular imagination in the US was very much caught by the archaeological sites of the east, especially the thousands of earthen mounds and embankments. Novels, epic poems, newspaper and magazine articles and scientific treatises were published on the subject. A lengthy account of the origin of the mounds appeared in the scriptures of a branch of Christianity established early in the century. Dozens of frauds and hoaxes were committed with the goal of advancing one or another interpretation of the mounds. Commercial enterprises were formed to quarry the mounds for artefacts. During much of the 1800s, people from all walks of life talked, wrote, and wondered about who the 'Moundbuilders' were.

The issue of the Moundbuilders, usually thus capitalized, rose to prominence early in the 19th century as a result of Euro-American settlers moving across the Appalachian mountains into what was then the 'West': the valleys of the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. During much of the 18th century British colonial policy had forbidden settlement west of the mountains, to avoid antagonizing powerful Native American nations who could tip the military balance between European powers striving for domination over North America. And those Native American nations occasionally attacked western settlements, expelling or exterminating them. With independence achieved, the US government both permitted and actively sponsored settlement of the West (and diminution of the Native powers), taking such actions as granting lands along the Ohio River to Revolutionary War veterans and building the first federal highway (the 'National Road') to connect the eastern coast with the interior. …

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