Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology (Hardcover)

Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology By Rachel Morgan Cover Image

Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology (Hardcover)


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An incisive history of early American archaeology—from reckless looting to professional science—and the field’s unfinished efforts to make amends today, told "with passion, indignation, and a dash of suspense" (New York Times).

American archaeology was forever scarred by an 1893 business proposition between cowboy-turned-excavator Richard Wetherill and socialites-turned-antiquarians Fred and Talbot Hyde. Wetherill had stumbled upon Mesa Verde’s spectacular cliff dwellings and started selling artifacts, but with the Hydes’ money behind him, well—there’s no telling what they might discover. Thus begins the Hyde Exploring Expedition, a nine-year venture into Utah’s Grand Gulch and New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon that—coupled with other less-restrained looters—so devastates Indigenous cultural sites across the American Southwest that Congress passes first-of-their-kind regulations to stop the carnage. As the money dries up, tensions rise, and a once-profitable enterprise disintegrates, setting the stage for a tragic murder.

Sins of the Shovel is a story of adventure and business gone wrong and how archaeologists today grapple with this complex heritage. Through the story of the Hyde Exploring Expedition, practicing archaeologist Rachel Morgan uncovers the uncomfortable links between commodity culture, contemporary ethics, and the broader political forces that perpetuate destructive behavior today. The result is an unsparing and even-handed assessment of American archaeology’s sins, past and present, and how the field is working toward atonement.
Rachel Morgan is an archaeologist working in the southeastern United States. She has published widely about historical archaeology and material culture.

Product Details ISBN: 9780226822389
ISBN-10: 0226822389
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: November 6th, 2023
Pages: 328
Language: English
"Morgan focuses on the final days of America’s Wild West, when pockets of the country remained unmapped—and regulations for protecting historical sites didn’t exist. A colorful cast of archaeologists, anthropologists, crackpot scientists and hustlers descended into this vacuum, motivated in some cases by greed, in others by genuine—if misguided—curiosity about other civilizations. Friction between intruders and locals culminated in violence, which in turn led to renewed efforts to impose order on the chaos. Morgan tells the story with passion, indignation, and a dash of suspense."
— New York Times

“Morgan takes readers into the chaotic, controversial, and sometimes dark world of American archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The quasi-scientific work of amateur archaeologist Richard Wetherill, who spent his career excavating sites in the American Southwest, forms the core of her narrative. . . [But] her tour of the legal side of archaeology is informative and provides a good counterbalance to the drama of the Wetherill saga. This section also includes an excellent discussion of Indigenous archaeologists and the critical perspectives they bring to the field to help ensure that the days of wanton looting and pothunting never return.”
— Science

"An insightful examination of the colorful and controversial history of American archaeology. . . This animated account combines the saga of hardscrabble cowboy archaeologists with serious reflection on the incalculable damage of their activities. It’s an entertaining and informative study."
— Publishers Weekly

"A timely consideration of the long, ugly relationship between scientists and Indigenous Americans—and how atonement informs the way archaeology operates today."
— Chicago Tribune

"Morgan skillfully moves among the personalities and politics that led to the professionalization of archaeology in the US. From the shameless pillaging of abandoned sites to the enactment of federal laws regulating access to these remarkable places, it is a complex story filled with good guys, bad guys, and many in between, and it continues today."
— Library Journal

“An edifying examination of the early days of the science, as well as a look at its current state . . . [and] an incisive look at the birth of a field of study that continues to evolve.”
— Washington Independent Review of Books

“[In] archaeologist Rachel Morgan’s lively account of excavations in the Southwest during the late 1800s and early 1900s . . . Wetherhill is a fitting protagonist, for he was a transitional figure in the development of modern archaeology.”
— Natural History

"The Wild West, buried treasure, hostile Native Americans, rugged men and strong ranch women, and a murdered white man are all elements of this remarkable page-turner, which masks a solid, thoughtful history of American archaeology and its involvements with American First Nations, from disdain to legal protection. . . . Morgan, a working archaeologist, weaves in the contentious development of federal heritage laws and of archaeological practices from the lawless early settler days to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and today's mandated collaborations with First Nations. Serving also as a study of settler colonialism, spanning itinerant singing Quaker families to Boston aesthetes in cowboy ranches, this book grabs readers."
— Choice

"This bold new Wild West story—complete with ranchers, sheriffs, and Indigenous inhabitants—offers a suspenseful account of how the hunt for artifacts in the American Southwest sparked a long and sometimes violent struggle over who would control the region's rich past. It's a story not so much about how the West was won as how it was lost—and it is a struggle that is far from over."
— Andrew Lawler, author of 'The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke'

“This captivating book introduces readers to the drama of American archaeology. The story includes fascinating characters, shady dealings, and significant discoveries connected to the discipline since the nineteenth century."
— Samuel J. Redman, author of 'Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology'

"A colorful story filled with insight and detail."
— Archaeological Society of Maryland