Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens

Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens

Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens

Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens


The mythic American West, with its perilous frontiers, big skies, and vast resources, is frequently perceived as unchanging and timeless. The work of many western-based historical archaeologists over the past decade, however, has revealed narratives that often sharply challenge that timelessness. Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens reveals an archaeological past that is distinct to the region--but not in ways that popular imagination might suggest. Instead, this volume highlights a western past characterized by rapid and ever-changing interactions between diverse groups of people across a wide range of environmental and economic situations. The dynamic and unpredictable lives of western communities have prompted a constant challenging and reimagining of both individual identities and collective understandings of their position within a broader national experience. Indeed, the archaeological West is one clearly characterized by mobility rather than stasis.

The archaeologies presented in this volume explore the impact of that pervasive human mobility on the West--a world of transience, impermanence, seasonal migration, and accelerated trade and technology at scales ranging from the local to the global. By documenting the challenges of both local community-building and global networking, they provide an archaeology of the West that is ultimately from the West.


Margaret Purser and Mark Warner

They are the kind of taglines that flash sporadically across any evening network newsfeed: fracking boomtowns in North Dakota scramble to meet the basic infrastructure needs of a massive, transient, and economically unstable labor force. Arizona politicians vote to remove all references to Mexican American history from the state school curriculum. Massive wildfires ravage expanding suburban settlement areas in Colorado. a Seattle-based corporate ceo with a background in oil exploration and a track record in protecting public lands close to urban space becomes secretary of the interior.

These things could be happening anywhere in the country. Yet as these stories and their images grab the momentary spotlight, the evocation of place imbedded in the very names themselves is inescapable. Somehow these become western stories. the imagined and iconic American West is still very much a part of the American scene and the American psyche. Three decades ago now, we learned from “New Western historians” like Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, and William Robbins about the futility of trying to parse myth from truth in any finite sense where the West is concerned. This perception of the West and its storied past, especially by those outside the region, has itself become a prime mover, persistently shaping people’s actions both in the region and toward the region. But as these same historians have also pointed out, the very real power of this ultimately false perception only sharpens the need for nuanced, articulate narratives about the region and, most especially, for clearly drawn analyses that connect its many diverse pasts to the present moment.

Historical archaeologists working in the American West work at exactly these paired nexus points between past and present, and between myth and reality. We also increasingly work with both descendant communities and a general public holding very definite expectations regarding what . . .

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