Excavating Nauvoo: The Mormons and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America

By Merry, Carl A. | Plains Anthropologist, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Excavating Nauvoo: The Mormons and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America


Merry, Carl A., Plains Anthropologist


Excavating Nauvoo: The Mormons and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America by BENJAMIN C. PYKLES. Forward by Robert L. Schuyler. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 2010. xxi + 389 pp., 5.5 x 8.5 inch format, 25 illustrations, 1 map, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $62.50 (cloth).

A "potential Williamsburg of the West." That is how Robert L. Schuyler in his Forward portrays one of the earliest nineteenth century townsite excavations in the United States. Located in western Illinois along the Mississippi River, Nauvoo grew into a Mormon community of 12,000 during the period 1839-1846. Benjamin C. Pykles, in his well-researched book, documents the 1961 - 1984 archaeological projects associated with the architectural restoration of Nauvoo sponsored by two competing sects of the Mormon church. He accomplishes this by presenting the Nauvoo excavations as a case study in the development of historical archaeology, placing Mormon institutions and historic preservation in mid-twentieth century context, and highlighting the contributions of pioneering archaeologist J. C. Harrington.

This volume is an entry in the Critical Studies in Anthropology series from the University of Nebraska Press. In a succinct introduction, the series editors call attention to several themes including the array of church and archaeological personalities during the period, the growing professionalism of the discipline, and religious conflicts, which converged to create and subsequently erode a viable archaeology program. The book maintains a focus on the religious management of archaeology and historic site reconstruction by two conflicting Mormon sponsors: the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), whose celebrated migration to Utah began in 1846, and the RLDS (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), who remained in Illinois after the Mormon evacuation of Nauvoo.

In launching the book Pykles discusses how in the nineteenth century Mormon pilgrims were returning to their religious sites, including the decaying Nauvoo townsite, to learn their history. By the turn of the twentieth century the practice was accelerating and began involving commemoration and sacred site interpretation. Concerned with having their own religious interpretations and agendas advanced, the RLDS began acquiring Nauvoo property and undertaking preservation work in 1909, while the LDS starting picking up properties in 1937, including a lot where the original Nauvoo Temple once stood. An impetus for conducting research and restoration of the Nauvoo townsite was the Historic Sites Act of 1 935. Activity at Nauvoo soon caught the interest of the National Park Service (NPS) because of the significance of the site in the context of western migration. In 1940 the NPS was favorably comparing the relatively pristine Upper Mississippi River valley site location and visitor potential to Colonial Williamsburg, if restoration and reconstruction could be carried out in an accurate and authentic manner. Pykles sets a scholarly tone in explaining the continually evolving and sometimes divisive religious interpretations attempting to define what constituted authenticity. At the same time, church efforts were underway to present a reinvented face of Mormonism to the American people that were designed to accelerate preservation efforts, stimulate the interest of Illinois and federal historic preservation officials, and facilitate the acceptance of the religion by a national audience. In 1950, the State of Illinois created Nauvoo State Park for recreation, and encouraged both church sects to reconstruct the Nauvoo Temple.

Pykles shows in great detail how the process of restoring a city was attempted. A key element was achieved in 1961 when the NPS declared Nauvoo a National Historic Landmark for its early original structures and as the point of origin of major American westward expansion. At a 1962 on-site meeting the president of the LDS church, the director of the NPS, the governor of Illinois, restaurant and hotel magnate J. …

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