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WHEN THE LAND WAS YOUNG by Sharman Apt Russell


Reflections on American Archaeology

by Sharman Apt Russell

Pub Date: June 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-201-40698-5
Publisher: Addison-Wesley

 A leisurely, recondite crawl through various conundrums besetting today's archaeologists, elegantly handled by one of their own. Russell (Kill the Cowboy, 1993, etc.) loves archaeology, ``the tale of our first awkward relationship, the wrestling match of humans and the natural world,'' and when she stumbles across a sherd of Mogollon plainware, a fragment of Mimbres pottery, a 3,000-year-old piece of cordage, she feels the thrill of time travel, of making a distant connection. Then she replaces the relic where she found it; that little piece of history needs, she believes, to remain in situ, so that others in the future may feel the weight of its place and context--museums won't do, nor will the mantlepieces of deep-pocketed collectors. The notion of ``context'' pervades this book. What does it mean to take artifacts from their location? Who do they belong to? What do they lose by being separated from their site? And, as much of the book has to do with the remains of Native American cultures in the southwestern US, what are the specific questions of accountability archaeologists should consider when they dig up a grave site in that region? The remains of the people uncovered are, the Zunis believe, still sentient, still voyaging, seeking their next stage. The repatriation of native remains is only one of Russell's concerns. Her thoughts dance every which way: She explores the problems of ``geofacts'' and the foibles of quick diagnosis, the pleasures of cave archaeology and paleofecal specimens, ancient roadways and their heavenly orientation, the cultural and ideological baggage that archaeologists bring to their profession. All of this is presented with wonderful facility, a kind of dreamily dilettanish innocence, making these rather rarified concerns the stuff of everday life. Agile, cerebral, ruminative, entirely satisfying.