Spring 2009

Reconciling American archaeology & Native America

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, a Visiting Scholar at the Academy in 2005–2006, is the curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is the coeditor of Museum Anthropology, the journal of the Council for Museum Anthropology. He is also the author or editor of five books, including Massacre at Camp Grant: Forgetting and Remembering Apache History, which recently received the 2009 book award of the National Council on Public History.

Shortly after William Bradford and his fellow pilgrims arrived on the eastern shores of the New World in the cold autumn of 1620, a small group of men set out to make a “full discovery” of the snow-covered land.1 After some days of wandering the unknown rivers and hills, they grew hungry. With Providence observing, they thought, the men happened upon a store of corn and grain that Indians had cached underground. The ravenous pilgrims took the food for their own. The next day, Bradford reports that the company wandered into the wilderness deeper still, following the well-beaten trails of the Indians, in the hope that they would find a town; they encountered no one. Eventually the company came to a flat area covered with boards. Curious, the men began to dig.

A layering of grass mats and boards sat just beneath the surface, concealing a few strange bits of bowls, trays, and dishes. Encouraged, they burrowed further and discovered a prize of two bundles. A heavy scent of mildewed earth drifted over them. They unwrapped the first bundle. In their hands they saw a few tools and, as Bradford recalled, “a great quantitie of fine and perfect red Powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man.” They opened the second bundle. It, too, was packed with the fine red powder, though this time laced with small bones and the skull of a child. The child’s remains had been carefully swathed and decorated with bracelets of pearl-white beads. “We brought sundry of the pretiest things away with vs, and covered the Corps vp againe,” Bradford later wrote. “After this, we digged in sundry like places, but found no more Corne, nor any things els but graues.”

Bradford’s and his fellow pilgrims’ investigations constitute the first known archaeological excavation in North America. Although the discipline would not be fully formed for another two-and-a-half centuries, Bradford’s group unknowingly set the pattern for how Euro-American explorers entered Indian country to satisfy their curiosity, driven by a desire to conquer and control the land, to claim and possess all that made up their new home. Indeed, Bradford and his men put in motion one of the defining narratives of the American self, a self exalted for exploring and exposing American Indian history.

.  .  .


  • 1William Bradford, A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Aduenturers both Merchants and Others (London: John Bellamie, 1622).
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