Lessons of the Ages: Archaeology and the Construction of Cultural Identity in the American Southwest

By Snead, James E. | Journal of the Southwest, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Lessons of the Ages: Archaeology and the Construction of Cultural Identity in the American Southwest


Snead, James E., Journal of the Southwest


We can tame continents, make deserts bloom, rear monumental cities ... but we cannot make antiquity

--Charles Lummis, "Santa Fe--The Capital of Our Romance"

The Anglo American immigrants who traveled by wagon and rail to the American Southwest in the late nineteenth century soon faced a crisis of identity. Having left behind the familiar cultural trappings of their native places, the new Southwesterners found themselves in a landscape of strange dimension with few recognizable points of reference. Citizens of the United States, they found little evidence of that heritage in their new homes and were instead confronted by the poorly understood material icons of Hispanic and Native American civilizations (Stensvaag 1980; Weigle and Fiore 1982; Wilson 1997). In such unfamiliar surroundings, the need for the Anglo American population of the Southwest to develop a cultural identity that rationalized their place within American society quickly became acute.

In building an identity for themselves, the new Southwesterners drew on a variety of cultural and historical models. In California, boosters manipulated images of the Hispanic past, Mediterranean allusions, and even classical Greek ideals to invent new traditions that were distinctly Californian but also preserved connections to more distant cultural roots (Hobsbawm 1983; Starr 1973, 400). Residents of Arizona and New Mexico looked first to the unique characteristics of land and environment (Hinsley 1990). Promotional literature featured the healthful climate, allegedly fertile soils, and dramatic vistas. A tourist brochure from the Rock Island Line, for instance, touted the "primeval" character of the New Mexico landscape. "Did not her mountain peaks," it proclaimed, "reared amid the travail of a forming continent, send greeting to their sisters as they rose above the waters of the hoarse Silurian sea?" (Passenger Traffic Department 1907).

Another source used in creating an Anglo American identity in the Southwest was, paradoxically, the ruins and relics of the Native American past (Snead 2001). Ruins and artifacts have a unique relationship to history because they can be experienced tangibly and are subject to multiple interpretations. In Western society, as French archaeologist Alain Schnapp has noted, monuments have "appealed just as much to the imagination as to reason" (Schnapp 1996, 13). The material remains of antiquity have considerable symbolic power that can be manipulated to support ideologies that, in reality, have nothing to do with them (Lowenthal 1985, 241). To paraphrase the title of a popular book on archaeology, the mute stones speak, but only through the intervention of a ventriloquist.

Many themes in nineteenth-century American culture were built on the romance and heritage of the past, grounded in the imagery of ruins. Ruins symbolized a respected and ancient heritage, and their modern state was a metaphor for the transitory nature of human achievement. Sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel ([1911] 1959) argued that ruins encapsulate the tension between nature and spirituality in Western culture. Ruins and ruination were also important biblical themes. Nineteenth-century archaeological discoveries in the Near East were of great public interest because of their bearing on the historicity of the Old Testament and the Iliad (Larsen 1996, x; Macaulay 1953, 1-2; Silberman 1982; Traill 1995).

Public interest in Southwestern ruins dated from the time when the region was incorporated into the United States. Anthropologist Ephraim Squier introduced the readers of the American Review to these newly found antiquities while the initial phase of military conquest was still underway (Squier 1848). Exploration parties that traversed the Southwest in the 1870s and 1880s publicized discoveries of ruins in order to build popular constituencies for their more mundane survey efforts.

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