When the Land Was Young: Reflections on American Archaeologyby Sharman Apt Russell, Sharman Russell
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.
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 contextmuseums 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.
- University of Nebraska Press
- Publication date:
- 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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