The Bureau of American Ethnology and Its Legacy to Southeastern Archaeology

By O'brien, Michael J.; Lyman, R. Lee | Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

The Bureau of American Ethnology and Its Legacy to Southeastern Archaeology


O'brien, Michael J., Lyman, R. Lee, Journal of the Southwest


The Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) enjoys a unique position in the archaeology of the Southeastern United States. Some of the more important figures connected with the bureau--Henry B. Collins, Winslow Walker, Gordon R. Willey, J. Walter Fewkes, and Matthew W. Stirling, three of whom were bureau chiefs--conducted research in the Southeast that laid a foundation for much of our modern understanding of the prehistory of the region. One can add to that list the myriad archaeologists whose work was sponsored officially or otherwise by the Bureau and whose findings were published through its outlets. In the 1920s, the Bureau, which had long been connected with archaeology and ethnology in the American Southwest, began to turn its attention to the Southeast. The latter region was poorly known archaeologically relative to the Southwest, though intermittent attention from northern institutions, including on occasion the Bureau, had documented an exceedingly rich record of prehistoric and ethnohistorical occupation (see Stoltman [1973] for an overview).

Detailing the extensive role played by the BAE in Southeastern archaeology is well beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we focus on the work of the Bureau during more or less the first five decades of its existence--the period from its founding in 1879 to December 1932, when Bureau personnel participated in the Conference on Southern Pre-History, the second of three regional archaeological conferences organized by the National Research Council's Committee on State Archaeological Surveys for the purpose of bringing some degree of order to the way in which prehistory was pursued in the eastern United States. That meeting, which became known as the Birmingham Conference, signaled an important turning point in the archaeology of the Southeast. Professional anthropologists and archaeologists from northern institutions, including the BAE and the U.S. National Museum, laid out a research agenda that both professionals and nonprofessionals, the latter of whom had dominated prehistoric studies in the Southeast (Fagette 1996: 13-16), could follow.

A key item on that agenda was developing a chronological ordering of archaeological remains--no mean feat, it was thought, in an area that lacked standing prehistoric architecture, perishable artifacts, and thick, stratified deposits. Chronological control was viewed as being so central to the pursuit of archaeology in the Southeast that all other studies were held to be of secondary importance. In the Southwest, where there had been concerted archaeological effort for well more than two decades, chronology was almost a thing of the past. To be sure, new pieces were constantly being hung on the chronological framework, but by 1932 Southwesternists were satisfied that the ordering was more or less complete (e.g., Kidder 1924, 1927), and they began to pursue other aspects of prehistory (Lyman, O'Brien, and Dunnell 1997a, 1997b). As their knowledge of the prehistoric Southwest grew, prehistorians began to look increasingly to the East for comparative data, but all they saw were personnel from local museums and amateur societies out collecting artifacts. Collins, at the time an assistant curator in the ethnology division of the National Museum, summed up the situation well in his Birmingham Conference paper. He was speaking specifically of one state, but his remarks were applicable to the Southeast as a whole: "Although Mississippi is rich in aboriginal remains and a considerable number of these have been investigated, it cannot be said that the work has clarified to any great extent the archaeological problems involved. The early investigators, in accordance with the unfortunate tendency of the time, too often proceeded on the assumption that the accumulation of specimens was an end in itself rather than a means toward the elucidation of archaeological problems" (Collins 1932b: 38).

Thus, the most important topic at the Birmingham Conference in 1932 was time. …

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