When the Land Was Young: Reflections on American Archaeology

When the Land Was Young: Reflections on American Archaeology

by Sharman Apt Russell, Sharman Russell
     
 

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A clay potsherd, a petroglyph, a flint spear point, a bone: archaeology is a dry business, sifting through dusty time to find the remains of long-gone life. But as immersed as it is in the details of the dead, archaeology belongs to the living. It is a tale of peopling that in North America extends our cultural perspective back at least twelve thousand years, a

Overview

A clay potsherd, a petroglyph, a flint spear point, a bone: archaeology is a dry business, sifting through dusty time to find the remains of long-gone life. But as immersed as it is in the details of the dead, archaeology belongs to the living. It is a tale of peopling that in North America extends our cultural perspective back at least twelve thousand years, a story that Sharman Apt Russell brings to vibrant, contentious life as it is enacted today, revealing past and present alike. A history of archaeology in America, written with clear-eyed wit and grace, Russell's book takes the study of our ancestors out of the museum and shows us the immediate, human implications of our forays into the past. Whether eyeing the theory that humans caused the extinction of Pleistocene mega-fauna, or the demands for the repatriation of Native American remains, or the meaning of burial mounds in Ohio, Russell keeps in clear view the idea that there are multiple ways of examining the past. She interviews an array of characters who have been instrumental in reshaping modern archaeology and speaks to those, such as Pawnee activists fighting for the return of ancestral remains or a Navajo archaeologist at odds with his people's prohibition against handling the dead, who continue to wrestle with the nature and practice of archaeology today.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist
"[Russell] presents a lively, confident, and free-flowing history of archaeology in America. Imaginatively journalistic, Russell offers vivid portraits of archeologists, then turns their theories. . . into dramatic, even visionary scenarios. . . . Russell explains both sides of a number of intriguing controversies and describes various sites across the country, including earthworks in Ohio and Illinois, with keen interpretative finesse."—Booklist
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At one time, American archeologists were insensitive, racist and sexist, says the author. Only after WWII did they begin to explore social behavior, settlement patterns and site ecology, showing an interest in living people in order to understand the past. Russell (Kill the Cowboy) finds this shift in perspective the most significant change in the field. Her lively conversations with present-day archeologists present a wide range of opinions on such topics as earliest settlement, mammalian extinction and feminist views of archeology. Russell discusses the American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which enabled Indian skeletons and sacred artifacts to be returned to their tribes. Finally, Russell describes cultural resource management, a program for historical preservation. She offers an exciting portrait of archeology today. (June)
Library Journal
Russell (Kill the Cowboy: A Battle of Mythology in the New West, LJ 5/15/93) moves from personal observations of petroglyphs near her home in southwestern New Mexico to a consideration of various issues in American archaeology today, based on her travels to sites and interviews with specialists in the field. What is most appealing about her book is her ability to convey a sense of immediacy as well as awe at the presence of the past at historic sites: "Holding my sherd, I feel the substance of time, a place I can travel to while standing still. I heft its weight. This moment is a thousand years ago and a thousand years ago is this moment." Excellent, too, is Russell's presentation of the shift that has occurred with the 1990 passage of a law that gives Native Americans the right to reappropriate skeletal remains and sacred artifacts, the impact of more Native Americans entering archaeology as a profession, and the urgent need for archaeologists to work out a relationship with Native American leaders who are opposed to excavations of their cultural sites. Russell's work is thoughtful, beautifully written, and well documented. A good way for lay readers to become more informed.-Joan W. Gartland, Detroit P.L.
Booknews
Reprint of a 1996 history of archaeology in America that takes the study of the nation's ancestors out of the museum and shows the immediate, human implications of forays into the past. Russell, author of , focuses on the idea that there are multiple ways of examining the past. She interviews an array of characters who have been instrumental in reshaping modern archaeology and speaks to those who continue to wrestle with the nature of the field today. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A leisurely, recondite crawl through various conundrums besetting today's archaeologists, elegantly handled by one of their own.

Russell (Kill the Cowboy, 1993, etc.) loves archaeology, "the tale of our first awkward relationship, the wrestling match of humans and the natural world," and when she stumbles across a sherd of Mogollon plainware, a fragment of Mimbres pottery, a 3,000-year-old piece of cordage, she feels the thrill of time travel, of making a distant connection. Then she replaces the relic where she found it; that little piece of history needs, she believes, to remain in situ, so that others in the future may feel the weight of its place and context—museums won't do, nor will the mantlepieces of deep-pocketed collectors. The notion of "context" pervades this book. What does it mean to take artifacts from their location? Who do they belong to? What do they lose by being separated from their site? And, as much of the book has to do with the remains of Native American cultures in the southwestern US, what are the specific questions of accountability archaeologists should consider when they dig up a grave site in that region? The remains of the people uncovered are, the Zunis believe, still sentient, still voyaging, seeking their next stage. The repatriation of native remains is only one of Russell's concerns. Her thoughts dance every which way: She explores the problems of "geofacts" and the foibles of quick diagnosis, the pleasures of cave archaeology and paleofecal specimens, ancient roadways and their heavenly orientation, the cultural and ideological baggage that archaeologists bring to their profession. All of this is presented with wonderful facility, a kind of dreamily dilettanish innocence, making these rather rarified concerns the stuff of everday life.

Agile, cerebral, ruminative, entirely satisfying.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780803289871
Publisher:
University of Nebraska Press
Publication date:
05/01/2001
Pages:
230
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Sharman Apt Russell is the author of Kill the Cowboy, also available in a Bison Books edition. She lives in the Mimbres Valley in New Mexico.

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