cover image Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology

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

Rachel Morgan. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (312p) ISBN 978-0-226-82238-9

Archaeologist Morgan debuts with an insightful examination of the colorful and controversial history of American archaeology. She begins with a chance discovery in the late 19th century by Colorado rancher Richard Wetherill, which ushered in decades of pseudoscientific digging in the southwestern United States. In 1888, Morgan explains, Wetherill stumbled upon and began excavation of Cliff Palace, the largest Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling in the U.S., located inside one of the canyons at Mesa Verde in Colorado. This ignited a frenzy of interest; Wetherill and others like him spent years looting prehistoric sites, including Chaco Canyon, N.Mex.; Grand Gulch, Ariz.; and many others. The Wetherill family had trouble turning their finds into financial success and accrued many enemies among both their neighbors and the burgeoning field of academic archaeology; a dispute with a neighbor that began over a horse led to Wetherill’s murder in 1910. Morgan goes on to describe the increased application of scientific methodology and recordkeeping to archaeological research during the New Deal era, as well as the subsequent impact of new laws protecting heritage sites and artifacts (which were passed as a direct result of the damage caused by Wetherill’s looting). 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. (Nov.)