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Book Review: ‘Sins of the Shovel,’ by Rachel Morgan

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SINS OF THE SHOVEL: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology, by Rachel Morgan


Archaeology in its formative years was often less a meticulous science than an exercise in vandalism.

In 1738, excavation teams used blasting powder to reach the buried Roman town of Herculaneum, blowing antiquities to smithereens. Heinrich Schliemann, the Prussian entrepreneur-turned-archaeologist who “discovered” Troy in the 1870s, destroyed Bronze Age stone walls, misidentified artifacts and smuggled some 8,000 priceless objects out of Turkey.

A lesser-known horror unfolded in the Southwestern United States. In Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito and other ancient Native American ruins, guides, researchers and tourists ripped mummified bodies out of graves and made off with valuable artifacts. And they did much of it with the blessings of the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and other scientific and cultural institutions.

This desecration, and the efforts of a heroic few to put an end to it, are the subjects of Rachel Morgan’s “Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology.” A field archaeologist who writes frequently about conservation and Indigenous peoples, 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 — though her narrative sometimes bogs down in archaeological arcana and an overload of bureaucratic detail.

Morgan’s main protagonist is Richard Wetherill, a son of Quakers who built a sprawling homestead, Alamo Ranch, in southwestern Colorado after the Civil War. In 1888, while looking for stray cattle, Wetherill and his brother-in-law encountered a remarkable sight: “Below an overhang of red and tan rocks, a series of red walls and towers peeked out above the trees.”

They had stumbled upon the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, inhabited for half a millennium beginning in A.D. 550. They began digging. The excitement they felt, they later declared, was akin to that of a prospector.

Wetherill’s operations expanded dramatically when he partnered with Talbot and Fred Hyde, young heirs to a yeast, baking-powder and soap fortune. Backed by their money, Wetherill was soon leading Eastern tourists and researchers by mule along cliffside trails in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, opening pueblos, cliff houses and burial mounds that had been closed off for centuries.

Untrained excavation teams desecrated graves, packed up mummies, ripped off countless pieces of turquoise that had accompanied burials and distributed the relics to museums and private collectors. They found plenty of willing customers, including Frederic Ward Putnam, the curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum and organizer of a zoolike exhibition of Indigenous peoples at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and George Pepper of the American Museum of Natural History.

Also in the mix were figures such as the Czech-born phrenologist Ales Hrdlicka, who had a special fascination with ancient Indian skulls. Wetherill’s wife, a daughter of Quaker missionaries — who claimed, with shaky evidence, to have been kidnapped by a raiding party of Apaches as a girl, then personally rescued by Geronimo — joined him on ransacking expeditions.

Morgan describes with appalling detail the grave robberies in such pristine sites as Chaco Canyon, an ancient settlement in northern New Mexico. “Many members of Indigenous communities view the final resting places of the dead as sacred places, not to be disturbed,” she points out.

Those pillaging generally ignored scientific analysis and often came up with flimsy theories about the inhabitants’ origins. By the time government regulators put an end to Wetherill’s business in the early 1900s, he and his partners had shipped thousands of human remains to museums around the United States. “American archaeology would not miss the Hyde Exploring Expedition,” she writes of the rapacious firm, which had made few scholarly contributions.

Morgan’s narrative gathers momentum as Wetherill’s life crumbles amid a series of setbacks: the bankruptcy and auctioning of Alamo Ranch; the financial struggles of the brothers’ chain of trading posts; and government efforts to drive him out of Chaco, where he had established a homestead. Though Wetherill presented himself as a friend of local Indigenous peoples, Morgan portrays him as an exploitative hustler who seized their cattle when they couldn’t pay debts.

In addition to myriad enemies, Wetherill had a violent streak. When he was killed by a gunshot, a protracted investigation never definitively nailed down the culprit.

At this point, Morgan’s narrative switches from a whodunit into a recounting of efforts to protect the ancient dwellings. Morgan has a weakness for bureaucratic jargon, writing of comparative data sets, “informative capacity” and the “Section 106 process” as if compiling the minutes of a preservation conference. An alphabet soup’s worth of legislation, agencies and nongovernmental organizations slows down the narrative, as do occasional lapses into cliché and awkward phrasing.

Ultimately, as Morgan relates, a fortuitous collaboration of reformers and sympathetic officials stopped the destruction. President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 and put many other sites under federal protection. Eighty-three years later, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Representative Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado pushed through a law facilitating the repatriation of Native American remains.

Morgan’s assessment of those early archaeologists and entrepreneurs of the American West is mixed. “There is no evidence to suggest that Pepper, Wetherill, Putnam or the Hydes ever intended to cause harm,” she writes. “They were fascinated by the past” and “they wanted to understand the ancient world.” But their curiosity went together with an appalling lack of judgment and empathy — and they left a mess for later generations to try to set right.


SINS OF THE SHOVEL: Looting, Murder, and the Evolution of American Archaeology | By Rachel Morgan | University of Chicago Press | 319 pp. | $30