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Chapter 2 Realms of Meaning
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Archaeology and Meaning

I imagine the presence of Sand Creek, somewhere in the darkness to the east, and feel the revulsion and sorrow that I experienced when I visited the massacre site by the cottonwood-lined dry creek a few days ago. The mood this precipitates reminds me that the story of Bent's Old Fort ended badly for both the Cheyenne and the Bents. It strikes me now that there is a tragic, poetic significance in the fact that a son of William Bent, Robert, was forced at gunpoint to lead Chivington's troops to the Indian encampment. Though he did his best not to play a role in the tragedy, even leading the troops through a deep river in the hopes that ammunition would be damaged, he could not prevent the massacre by his efforts. The script had been written. The story it contained was of the destruction of the traditional by the modern. It is one that has been told in myriad ways so many times since the advent of the colonial era that, until very recently, it seemed completely unremarkable to most.

But how true are such stories? Are there metanarratives and themes in history, and are they deterministic? Increasingly such ideas have come into doubt, particularly by postmodern social critics. François Lyotard says bluntly, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives."[30] Another who has done much to generate this doubt is Michel Foucault. He sees the process by which the past can be understood as operating like archaeology—an idea of great interest to me, having been an archaeologist for twenty years. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault says:

There was a time when archaeology, as a discipline devoted to silent monuments, inert traces, objects without context, and things left by the past, aspired to the condition of history, and attained meaning only through the restitution of a historical discourse; it might be said, to play on words a little, that in our time history aspires to the conditions of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument.[31]

History, according to Foucault, depends upon metanarratives; archaeology is concerned with the means by which knowledge is created. "Knowledge" includes what we know, or think we know, about the past. About archaeology Foucault says, in part, that it

tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules. It does not treat


discourse as document, as a sign of something else . . . it is concerned with discourse in its own volume, as a monument .[32]

Foucault's statement seems to apply especially well to Bent's Old Fort, where archaeology contributed indispensably in the reconstruction of the monument, the fort itself. The reconstructed fort might be thought of as a working model. I emphasize that the model is incomplete and therefore misleading unless scholars and the public see it in the broader context of the physical and cultural landscape, the latter being the sort of landscape that has not been, and can never be, physically reconstructed. What is needed, then, is an abstract reconstruction. The exercise should not be one of abstracting from the monument (as Foucault would say), but of abstracting to the monument.

The abstract, the order, that was embodied and conveyed by Bent's Old Fort will be visible in yet another form when I look down from the airplane tonight at the landscape below. I will see patterns of lights, which especially out here on the Plains will be arranged in straight lines. Lines as straight as this road I am driving on now. During the day from the air I would see to the far eastern horizon countless squares of brown or green dominating the other shapes lying within the grid formed by them. Those striking landscape features are artifacts of modernity here in the United States. They have been produced by the "most extensive cadastral system in the world," as an historian of land survey systems has noted.[33] The United States rectangular survey originated with the Ordinance of 1785. It laid out six-mile by six-mile townships that form a basic political unit in many of the states over which I will fly. The townships are divided into 36 sections, one mile square. Each section contains 640 acres. Once the land was surveyed into townships, an act in 1804 provided for the sale of public lands to the highest bidder by sections, half-sections, and quarter-sections, with the cost for surveying these subparcels to be borne by the purchasers. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862 were intended to encourage settlement of the western lands by offering it on quarter or even smaller sections at low prices or giving the smaller parcels to those who would occupy them.

The U.S. rectangular survey seems unrelentingly rational in the modem way, but not commonly understood are its origins in premodern thought and the way that kind of thought is compatible with the settlement of the western United States. There are good reasons to think that the American survey may have been derived from the Roman system—in any case the Roman system is a precedent to the American one.[34]


Hildegard Binder Johnson has studied the American system extensively and has commented upon this connection:

We now begin to realize another aspect, the original connection of the Roman system with the religious meaning of the center. To clarify the religious symbolism we must distinguish between two derivations from Latin: square, from quadra (also quadrum leading to quadratum ), and quarter, from quartarius, or the fourth part, as in "quartering" a circle. The first implies form in equilibrium and has a static meaning in ancient cosmology. The second has dynamic meaning in cosmological schemes. The quartering of the circular horizon by the augur who stood at its center facing east was a religious act by which stability—the orderly delimitation of fields by agrimensores—would be achieved.[35]

Johnson notes also "the old and revealing word for the cross point, umbilicus (naval, center of the world)."[36] The axis umbilicus is a term used interchangeably with axis mundi, the center of the world and the axis connecting heaven and earth. What Johnson describes is called "squaring the circle" among Hindus and Buddhists, which consecrates all of the land that lies in reference to this central, sacred point. It brings the cosmic, sacred, real and true order down to earth. The spires of temples—called variously stupas, chedis, or pagodas—are located according to a similar procedure throughout Asia and the Indian subcontinent.[37] The procedures of the U.S. rectangular survey resonate with the ancient ones, and so legitimate the new order.

This reminds me of an incident told to me by an archaeologist who was excavating a small area at one of the national parks. He carefully drew the location of his excavation unit on a map showing the locations of historic buildings. But one of the historians at the park, who had seen archaeologists at work in remote locations, asked him why he hadn't used a transit to record the location of his excavation unit. My colleague explained that the procedure was unnecessary; the buildings he had used as reference points were drawn on maps and so could be tied to United States Geological Survey benchmarks that were recorded precisely in terms of latitude and longitude. But the historian visited him several times a day, suggesting over and over that a transit should be used. So he could work in peace, my friend eventually "shot in" his excavation unit with a transit. He unfolded the tripod legs, located the device exactly over one of the corners of the excavation, carefully leveled the instrument with adjusting screws, and then peered through it. He recorded ranges and bearings in his field notebook. The historian watched respectfully, enthralled


with the process. "It was like a ritual to him," my archaeologist colleague told me, "we had sacralized the site." "Or," he said after a thoughtful pause, "perhaps we had treated the site with the respect the historian thought it was due. The site was already sacred to him because of its history."

Somehow, despite my reveries, I have remembered to turn west on I-70 as it intersects with 71 near Limon. I see the ambient light of Denver in the sky ahead. I think about the "little jog" that told me to slow down for Punkin Center, and realize that I had encountered an irregularity, in the township system. The north-south lines on the globe, the meridians, gradually converge. To maintain consistency in the size of townships, a new baseline must be established every fourth township, which is every twenty-four miles. Meridians are shifted along these baselines, forming abrupt off-sets. North-south running section roads must adjust to these. It is a reconciliation of local knowledge with one of the principles of modernity, a “reembedding" of local conditions to a global grid.[38]

The jog indicates that the global, modern grid cannot lay sole claim to "reality." Foucault calls attention to just such "jogs." By doing so, he urges resistance to conceptual systems, overarching themes, and metastories. But the cadastral survey system provides a clue to the way in which such privileged positions are achieved. Mechanisms that create the order of the world are ritualistic and so essentially the same in all societies, whether we term them traditional or modern. Today they are practices like those associated with trade and interpersonal relationships and rituals "calcified" in the built environment of architecture and the landscape—what Foucault might term "monuments."

Foucault speaks favorably of the autochthonous transformation taking place in history, history that springs from its own ground, so to speak. In emphasizing how local orders are appropriated by central authorities, however, he recognizes that national and global networks of meaning and power exist. This, of course, explains the sad ending to the story of Bent's Old Fort. The fort was a mechanism for the imposition of the global network, but the vitalized network had no further need of it. What Foucault ignores is the human penchant for creating overarching themes and metastories; all persons are implicated in their creation. His preoccupation with denouncing overarching themes as misleading and exploitative is such that he pays little attention to the sense of desolation typically experienced by those excluded from them. It makes no difference that God is dead if people continue to resurrect Him.

Nonetheless, I think of the dynamic that Foucault implies by his use of the term archaeology. It describes Bent's Old Fort's role in the embed-


ding of the Native Americans, Hispanics, and American entrepreneurs in the global world order.[39] The fort acted as a monument in Foucault's sense of the word, a kind of discourse. And to Foucault the world is created by discourse.[40] What he calls discourse I would prefer to term ritual, because ritual is more clearly a means of conveying meaning that is not strictly rational. Ritual is multisensory and therefore more experiential; consequently it manipulates the emotions more effectively than might, in contrast, a "dry" discourse. Ritual is therefore more likely to "move" us in the direction of a new apprehension of the world or to reinforce an old one.

The connection between archaeology (at least of the sort that deals with monuments and landscapes) and language is not new. Jean-François Lyotard, another noted postmodern social critic, has used this connection in his work, which likens social bonds to "language games" that operate according to different rules depending upon where one is "located" at the moment. To illustrate, Lyotard uses a metaphor he attributes to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who originated the theory of language games: "Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from different periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with regular streets and uniform houses."[41]

There is also a long-standing connection between archaeology and "meaning" in a more general sense, one that Sigmund Freud was especially fond of positing and exploring. Although Freud's biographer Peter Gay dismisses it as "genial hyperbole," he quotes Freud in a letter to a friend saying that, "I . . . have read more archeology than psychology." Gay and others have noted that Freud often made comparisons of this sort: "The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologists in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient's psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures."[42] Freud likened human mental life to the landscape one might confront if all components to all landscapes of ancient Rome could be restored at once: "On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built."[43] His point was that the past was preserved in the human psyche. But despite the reference to underlying and deeper meaning, Freud, like Foucault, must have thought that meaning was structured through monuments and landscapes, and revealed by archaeology, by means too obvious to deserve elaboration.


What Foucault, Lyotard, Wittgenstein, and Freud, among many others, intuitively grasped, and made great metaphorical use of, was the ability of archaeology to contribute to our understanding not only of the physical landscape as it has been altered by the actions of humans but also of the importance of that reconstructed landscape to our ability to understand the human world. The landscape is an artifact shaped by ritualistic behavior that conveys the world it reflects in ritualistic ways. It is the calcified ritual suggested by Yi-Fu Tuan.

I wearily go through the routine at the car rental agency, writing the mileage on the rental form, checking the car for my belongings, boarding the shuttle bus to the airport terminal. It feels wonderful to move and stretch. I watch the little blue car that was home for a while disappear as the bus turns a comer and feel a twinge of nostalgia. There are few people on the bus, no line at the ticket counter where I check in, and the plane is only half full for this late flight. That's fine with me; the familiar sequence of events is reassuring and comfortable, but I want to continue with my thoughts and it would be difficult to fit them into a casual conversation. When we're in the air the flight attendant comes by. It's just the level of human interaction I want at the moment. She smiles and is efficient, and I order white wine and ask for extra pretzels. I haven't had time to eat. I sip my wine and munch my pretzels and look out the window at the stars. I remember on a previous flight teaching my daughter her A-B-Cs, using as a prop a pretzel package just like the one I have in my hand now. I was delighted with her ability to recognize the letters, and she was just as delighted with my delight.

On that flight we looked out the window at pretty much the same set of stars I see right now, including the Big Dipper. I told her how to find the North Star by tracing a line through the stars that form the far end of the dipper's cup. That lesson began a chain of questions that continued when we got home. My answers had nothing to do with white buffalo and orphaned children, although had they I'm sure my daughter would have been intrigued. Instead, they introduced for her consideration phenomena equally improbable from the standpoint of everyday experience: the earth's rotation around the sun, the reason that day changes to night and winter to spring, the shape of the earth, gravity, the sun's place in the galaxy, quantified concepts of distance and time; in short, some of the basic knowledge—or basic assumptions—upon which she must build.

I close my eyes and hover at the edge of sleep, thinking about Stephen Jay Gould's statement that neoteny "as a life-history strategy for longer learning and socialization may be far more important in human evolution


than any of its morphological consequences."[44] I suspect that effective ritual must involve a suspension of disbelief, sometimes willed, which engenders in participants something approximating a childlike state of trust. The very thought of this is probably enough to provoke profound discomfort among most modern peoples. Nonetheless, it's a step in the learning process all the way through life, one that must occur before each application of critical thought. Striking the proper balance between ritual and critical thought is the real challenge in this postmodern world, I think as I drift off. Learning to recognize and understand ritual is a beginning.


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Chapter 2 Realms of Meaning
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