Today is Wetherill Day, the anniversary of Richard Wetherill’s death in 1910, and as such I would like to continue my tradition of marking the occasion by discussing the complicated and often misunderstood legacy of Wetherill, the pioneering amateur archaeologist who excavated many sites in the Southwest, including most famously Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. I’ve talked about the general story and context in previous posts, so this time I’d like to note one specific example of how, in contrast to his popular image as a simple pot-hunter focused on collecting artifacts, Wetherill made some quite perceptive (though not necessarily correct) deductions about cultural history based on his excavations.
After his early work in the 1880s at Mesa Verde, near his family’s ranch outside the small town of Mancos, Colorado, but before his more famous work at Chaco between 1896 and 1901, Wetherill did some exploring of the cliff dwellings of the Grand Gulch area of southeastern Utah. By this point in his career Wetherill had become quite sincerely interested in archaeology not just as a source of articles to be sold but as a window into the past, and his techniques of both excavation and interpretation had improved markedly, in part due to influence by the Swedish archaeologist Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who had come to Colorado in 1891 and assisted with the Mesa Verde work.
In the winter of 1893–1894, Wetherill organized an expedition to Grand Gulch with the financial backing of the wealthy New York brothers Benjamin and Talbot Hyde. This was the first instantiation of the Hyde Exploring Expedition, which would later become the aegis for Wetherill’s work at Chaco as well. As James Snead notes in an article on the relationship between Wetherill and the Hydes:
The principal archaeological discovery of the season was of remains predating those of the “cliff dwellers,” which Talbot Hyde, exercising a prerogative of sponsorship, named the “Basket Makers.”
And Basketmakers they remain; the term is still in use to designate this culture, which did indeed predate the later groups of “cliff dwellers” who built stone houses and are therefore known as “Pueblos.”
But how did Wetherill and the Hydes know that the Basketmaker remains they found at Grand Gulch predated the cliff dwellers? Through the use of stratigraphy, which is based on the assumption that in undisturbed deposits lower layers are older than higher ones. The Basketmaker deposits were below the cliff dweller ones, therefore they were older. There have been suggestions that Wetherill actually used stratigraphic excavation at this time, which is to say that he used stratigraphic levels as the organizing principle for the excavation itself, but David Browman and Douglas Givens argue in an article on the rise of stratigraphic excavation in American archaeology that there is no evidence he actually did. Instead, he most likely excavated and only afterward looked at the strata in the exposed trenches to make his cultural determinations, a fairly common practice at the time which Browman and Givens call “post facto stratigraphic interpretation” and oppose to the truly stratigraphic excavation that arose in the 1910s.
But Wetherill didn’t just notice that the Basketmaker remains were different from and lower than the cliff dweller ones. He also came up with a tentative theory on the relationship between the two groups. Based on both artifact differences and, as Erik Reed discusses in an article on the early history of physical anthropology in the Southwest, skull shapes, Wetherill concluded that the two groups were “racially” distinct, with the implication that the one was not descended from the other. As Reed notes, this was challenged a bit by other archaeologists at the time, but later discoveries seemed to confirm it, and it became dogma in the early twentieth century until further research in the 1940s showed that the differences in skull form were actually due to artificial cranial deformation in the later skulls probably caused by the introduction of stiff cradleboards. It was further found that there were actually multiple kinds of such deformation, of possible significance in delineating different cultural groups. Reed says:
The very significant distinction between lambdoid and vertical occipital cranial deformation was brought out only in 1937, by T. D. Stewart, followed up by my 1949 paper; but was foreshadowed by Richard Wetherill who stated […] “that there is a difference in the mode of flattening the head. In the skulls of the mesa dwellers the artificial depression of the posterior part of the cranium has been applied obliquely from above, so that it principally affects the parieto-occipital region; the skulls from the cliff-dwellings have been flattened straight from behind, the occipital region being most affected.”
The distinction between the Basketmakers and cliff-dwellers on stratigraphic grounds was an important discovery, and while it was the sort of thing that many professional archaeologists would likely have noticed at the time, it’s not something a typical pot-hunter would have cared much about. Wetherill, however, not only noticed it but drew some reasonable if ultimately erroneous inferences about population history from it. He also noticed some subtle differences in skull form and attributed them to different types of cranial deformation, which was later found to be quite correct (although note that he doesn’t seem to have considered that this might have been the reason for the differences between Basketmaker and later skulls as well). Wetherill was a problematic guy in a lot of ways, as my previous posts have noted, but when it comes to archaeological methodology and inference he was definitely at the forefront of the archaeological thought of his time, if not in fact ahead of it.
Browman, David L., & Givens, Douglas R. (1996). Stratigraphic Excavation: The First “New Archaeology” American Anthropologist, 98 (1), 80-95 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.1.02a00080
Reed, Erik K. (1963). The Beginnings of Physical Anthropology in the Southwest Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, 2 (3), 130-132 DOI: 10.2307/27641802
Snead, James E. (1999). Science, Commerce, and Control: Patronage and the Development of Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas American Anthropologist, 101 (2), 256-271 DOI: 10.1525/aa.19126.96.36.1996