EXCERPT: Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens

The following has been excerpted from Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens, edited and with an introduction by Mark Warner and Margaret Pruser (June 2017). This book is the latest in the Historical Archaeology of the American West series. 

Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens

They are the kind of taglines that flash sporadically across any evening network newsfeed: fracking boomtowns in North Dakota scramble to meet the basic infrastructure needs of a massive, transient, and economically unstable labor force. Arizona politicians vote to remove all references to Mexican American history from the state school curriculum. Massive wildfires ravage expanding suburban settlement areas in Colorado. A Seattle-based corporate ceo with a background in oil exploration and a track record in protecting public lands close to urban space becomes secretary of the interior.

These things could be happening anywhere in the country. Yet as these stories and their images grab the momentary spotlight, the evocation of place imbedded in the very names themselves is inescapable. Somehow these become western stories. The imagined and iconic American West is still very much a part of the American scene and the American psyche. Three decades ago now, we learned from “New Western historians” like Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, and William Robbins about the futility of trying to parse myth from truth in any finite sense where the West is concerned. This perception of the West and its storied past, especially by those outside the region, has itself become a prime mover, persistently shaping people’s actions both in the region and toward the region. But as these same historians have also pointed out, the very real power of this ultimately false perception only sharpens the need for nuanced, articulate narratives about the region and, most especially, for clearly drawn analyses that connect its many diverse pasts to the present moment.

Historical archaeologists working in the American West work at exactly these paired nexus points between past and present, and between myth and reality. We also increasingly work with both descendant communities and a general public holding very definite expectations regarding what stories will be told about any particular western past and how those stories should be used in the present. In many ways we share this research environment with colleagues elsewhere in the United States and the rest of the world: certainly no archaeologist working in colonial New England or the plantation South would fail to recognize this scenario. The origins of American regionalism, and how it has played out in evolving American identities, is an intellectual thread woven into the basic fabric of our discipline, beginning with the works of people like James Deetz, Charles Fairbanks, John Cotter, and Bernard Fontana.

Claiming regional distinction or uniqueness is always a perilous stance, because it demands all sorts of definitional qualifications and parsed comparisons. Claims of western regionalism are no exception. For many scholars the parameters (geographical, political, cultural, temporal) that supposedly frame the West itself are actually quite permeable. Richard White opens It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own (1991:3) by saying “the boundaries of the American West are a series of doors pretending to be walls” He argues that how the West is defined as a subject of study is far more complex than is popularly assumed.


Yet there are key differences that western historical archaeologists perceive, when they compare their own work to those of colleagues in other regions. Many of these have been pointed out by Limerick and other western researchers long before now, at least in a more general way. But it is important to spell out how these regional differences affect our own research. From an archaeological perspective, the scales at which our data unfold are disproportionately large, especially given the relatively short time frame in which we tend to be working. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, we have often resorted to mining out relatively small site-or event-based pockets of data. Our oddly disarticulated material culture runs from entire cities built on mountains of mass-produced container debris to the handful of fragile ephemera left from an overnight trail camp. We deal with both the expedient and egregious spontaneity of instant boomtowns, and the enduring toxic legacy of the extractive industries that drove that same boom-and-bust economy. We cannot decide, economically, if we were, or indeed still are, states or colonies, and our material culture shows it. A disproportionate number of living human beings remember the pasts we excavate, and come to tell us what they remember. The national government is usually involved, and usually heavily involved: our projects are far more likely to take place on federal lands than those of our eastern colleagues.

But perhaps most important of all, compared to historical archaeologists working in other American regions, western historical archaeologists have not had the work of their region equally integrated into the discussions of the discipline as a whole. Or to put it differently, while many of us do archaeology in the West, it has taken longer to create archaeologies of the West in a way that fosters overarching research questions reaching beyond site types or specific events. It has been even more difficult to envision an historical archaeology written from the West and contributing to the larger discipline in ways that are neither derivative tokenism nor regionally circumscribed add-ons to questions defined elsewhere.