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2.2: Archaeology in North America

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    The three-age system worked well in places in which early peoples used all three materials over time to make various tools. However, in other parts of the world, such as Africa and the Americas, people did not use those tool technologies in the same sequence, and some didn’t use one or more of the technologies at all. Many historians and researchers at the time chose simply to ignore this problem and even forced the data to fit the theory.

    Early Excavations in the United States

    Third president of the United States. Lawyer. Architect. Founder of the University of Virginia. These are just some of the titles associated with Thomas Jefferson. However, he could also be known as the first American archaeologist as well. Thomas Jefferson, archaeologist? Thomas Jefferson was familiar with the various barrows (burials covered with mounds of earth or stone) that were in the region around his home and he had heard many different theories about their purpose. In order to satisfy his curiosity, he organized an excavation of one site near his property. He became the first American to undertake a systematic investigation and archaeological study of a site (Hantman). He also used a technique that would not be introduced in archaeology until around 100 years later. He studied the strata (layers) in the mound. We do not know what Jefferson did with any artifacts or remains that he found in the mound and there are no field notes. However, he did write about the dig in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785.

    Thomas Jefferson, Archaeologist

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\):Thomas Jefferson, 1800.

    Thomas Jefferson's Notes from the Excavation in Notes on the State of Virginia

    The mound was "of spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude ... I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by the earth. ... to give the idea of bones emptied promiscuously from a bag or basket, and covered over with earth, without any attention to their order" (Jefferson & Peden, 1955).

    Jefferson continued by making "a perpendicular cut through the body of the barrow, that I might examine its internal structure. This passed about three feet from its center, was opened to the former surface of the earth, and was wide enough for a man to walk through and examine its sides" (Jefferson & Peden, 1955). There were several strata of bones. Those nearest the top of the mound were the least decayed and Jefferson "conjectured that in this barrow might have been a thousand skeletons" (Jefferson & Peden, 1955). Some of the stories suggested that the mounds were cemetaries for the dead that had died in a battle. "There was no evidence of violence to the bones such as holes made from bullets or arrows. The latter finding argued against the view that the remains in the mounds were of warriors killed in battle; nor did Jefferson find that the bodies had been placed upright as others had speculated based on local Indian lore" (Zechmeister, 2010).

    Enter Franz Boas

    The problems associated with the three-age system and cultural unilineal evolution (PSET) were not addressed by North American researchers until Franz Boas, now known as the Father of American Anthropology, rejected theorizing from incomplete data sets and developed what is known as the classificatory-historical paradigm, or what is also known as Historical Particularism. Boas demanded that anthropology be conducted in a scientific manner. Therefore, theories could be developed only after precisely collecting, classifying, and analyzing artifacts. He argued that too little was known about the diversity of human cultures—past and present—and that unilineal evolution had been formulated too early and was based on too little actual evidence. Boas and his students established, rather than applying a particular explanatory theory, the collection of data as the fundamental task of anthropology, marking the point at which archaeology became a fully scientific endeavor. This new paradigm recognized that observation must be the first step to inform the scientific method since it allows one to formulate relevant questions to pursue in subsequent steps. Theory does not start the process of scientific inquiry but rather is developed from extensive study of the natural world. Boas and his successors realized that the anthropological technique of ethnography, which involved careful observation of living peoples and their cultures, could be applied to cultures of the past through archaeology.

    Historical Particularism

    The perspective that each society has its own unique historical development and must be understood based on its own specific cultural and environmental context, especially its historical process (Franz Boas and His Students). Also known as classificatory-historical paradigm.

    Boas also realized that little time was left to study traditional Native American cultures before colonization, genocide, and realization of America’s ideals of Manifest Destiny destroyed many of them. The effects of these processes were already underway. Native American populations were rapidly declining in number, being forcibly moved from their ancestral lands, and experiencing massive cultural upheaval. This motivated Boas and others to focus on Native American cultures and to collect every conceivable type of anthropological data and artifact—a true holistic study.

    Their extensive research and data collection identified broad adaptive patterns shared by various cultures in regions such as the Plains, Southwest, California, and Northeast. The cultural traits of the groups in these regions were not identical but they were broadly similar. In California, for example, pottery was common, and most groups hunted and gathered their food rather than cultivating crops. In some cases, the regions were further subdivided when broad patterns warranted it. The Great Basin in the Southwest, for example, was subdivided into three cultural groups—the Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute. Though culture areas sometimes involve overlaps and do not describe the various cultures perfectly, they are still used today to help archaeologists better understand and compare Native American cultures and ways of life.

    culture areas

    Geographic regions based on ethnographically defined cultural similarities (Ashmore & Sharer, 2014, p. 14).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Culture Areas in North America. 1913.

    Within the classificatory-historical paradigm, archaeologists worked with data from these cultural areas to develop chronologies and spatial orderings of artifacts, a culture history, specific to each region. A culture history approach to archaeology assuming that artifacts can be used to develop a general understanding and interpretation of human culture in time and space (Fagan, 2006, P. 63). For example, W.C. McKern developed the Midwestern Taxonomic System, an artifact sequence for cultural sites in the Midwest. These chronological works were important since, at the time, there were few methods for dating artifacts and, consequently, the archaeological sites from which they came.

    culture history

    The approach to archaeology assuming artifacts can be used to build a generalized picture of human culture and descriptive models in time and space, and that these can be interpreted (Fagan, 2006).

    Midwestern Taxonomic System

    Midwest Taxonomy.jpeg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Midwestern Taxonomic System

    In 1932, W.C. McKern and other Midwestern archaeologists developed a system to classify the large volume of artifact collections that were found in regions where stratified sites were somewhat uncommon (Fagan, 2015). By grouping artifacts into assemblages, components, foci, aspects the artifacts would be placed into patterns (see Figure 2.2.3).

    McKern and his colleagues identified three different patterns:

    • Archaic - lacked pottery but included ground slate artifacts
    • Woodland - semi-sedentary sites with cord-marked pottery and stemmed or side-notched projectile points
    • Mississippian - sedentary settlements with incised pottery and small triangular stone points.

    The Midwestern Taxonomy System has been mostly abandoned in contemporary American archaeology; however, the distinction between the Woodland and Mississippian cultural traditions is still recognized today (Yerks, 1988).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Dendrochronology

    The ability to date artifacts and archaeological sites expanded beginning in the 1920s with studies of tree rings, dendrochronology, and was greatly enhanced in the late 1940s with the development of radiocarbon dating techniques, which shifted the focus of archaeology. Collecting data was still critically important, but archaeologists were no longer limited to identifying an artifact’s period based solely on the layer in which it was deposited. These new dating techniques allowed archaeologists to obtain relatively exact dates from items such as wooden artifacts and could use those dates to establish the sequence of their development.


    The study of tree-ring growth patterns, which are linked to develop a continuous chronological sequence (Ashmore & Sharer, 2014).



    Ashmore, W., & Sharer, R. J. (2014). Discovering our past: A brief introduction to archaeology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.

    Fagan, B. M. (2006). Archaeology: A brief introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    Fagan, B. M. (2015). A Brief History of Archaeology: Classical Times to the Twenty-First Century. Routledge.

    Franz Boas and His Students. (2020, July 28). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

    Hantman, C. J. (n.d.). Jefferson's Mound Archaeological Site. Encyclopedia Virginia.

    Jefferson, T., Peden, W., & Institute of Early American History and Culture (Williamsburg, Va.). (1955). Notes on the state of virginia. (W. Peden, Ed.). University of North Carolina Press.

    Yerkes, R. (1988). The Woodland and Mississippian Traditions in the Prehistory of Midwestern North America. Journal of World Prehistory, 2(3), 307-358. Retrieved June 7, 2021, from

    Zechmeister, G. (2010). Jefferson's Excavation of an Indian Burial Mound. Monticello.


    Figure 2.2.1 Thomas Jefferson. 1800. By Rembrandt Peale under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    Figure 2.2.2 Left: Culture Areas in North America. 1913. By Popular Science Monthly Volume 82 under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 2.2.3 Midwestern Taxonomy System

    Figure 2.2.4 Dendrochronolgy sample. (2004). By Stefan Küh under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    A derivative work from

    "Digging into Archaeology:A Brief OER Introduction to Archaeology with Activities" by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros, Faculty (Anthropology) at Cosumnes River College & American River College, ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI), 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.


    2.2: Archaeology in North America is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.