Project Description

The fascination with antiquity is an old phenomenon. It has inspired a vast amount of cultural heritage programs; it feeds into the shock many people feel at the destruction of ancient monuments as an aspect of modern warfare; it is widely reflected in popular culture’s love for sunken continents, returning mummies and dinosaurs, and stuffed pet mammoths. Catastrophic events of the near future are often imagined (in movies and computer games) to be fulfillments of ancient prophesies and curses. We want to explore some of the reasons for this fascination.

Our project examines the cultural and ideological dimensions of this excitement with antiquity, especially in North America. It is based on the recognition that the scientific interest in antiquity and the emergence of the science to study this field of knowledge, archaeology, are themselves deeply complicit with the colonial expansion of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like anthropology and ethnology, archaeology is a colonial science; the narratives it constructs, besides their undeniable scienticity, are also relevant as mythical stories constructed in the context of colonial and neocolonial power relations. It is this coloniality of knowledge about antiquity in the Americas that this project is primarily interested in.

It is also interested in the more entertaining aspects of the colonial study of antiquity. The discourse of antiquity in America emerged at a time when the American settler colonies were in the process of geographical expansion; but they were also a safe harbor for many; an intellectual or political refugee from Europe, especially in the mid-19th century. This website offers information on a few of these transatlantic figures – adventurers, scientists, and entrepreneurs (the lines are hard to draw).

The project is inspired by various observations we make about the position of discourses of antiquity in the contemporary world. First, there exists a general interest in ‘prehistorical’ events and the antiquity of human culture due to new technologies for digging and dating but perhaps also triggered by discussions about the Anthropocene and an unspecific fear that the epoch of mankind may soon come to an end. Second, and with special reference to the Americas, the recent entry of indigenous scholars into the academic debate about the production of knowledge forces colonial settler societies to rethink its historical narratives of legitimation as well as the entanglements between the production of scientific knowledge and colonialism. And third, there is a growing awareness of the relevance of indigenous knowledge about the pre-Columbian and distant past in the legal field where it frequently features in conflicts over the extraction of resources vs. protection and stewardship of land.

Geographically, our perspective concentrates on North America and historically on the period since the beginnings of archaeology and other space-related sciences in the 19th century. In the different sections of this website, you will find information on some of the most important theoretical concepts under which our work is conducted ("theories"). We will share particularly interesting stories about archaeological digs, as well as scientific and semi-scientific hypotheses that have reached mythical status ("stories"). Furthermore, as our research is aware of the centrality of human actors, you will find introductions to some of these diggers, collectors, and critics (under the rubric "agents"), as well as to particularly relevant sites and places where important digs occurred and about which important scientific narratives exist. Finally, there is a section on artifacts and their sometimes adventurous histories as well as the legal implications of the construction of American Antiquites.

We have organized an international conference on the topic of American Antiquities in summer 2018