If Your History is Simple, It’s Probably Wrong

By Olivia Ellard


The project I have been working on in New Mexico is focused on a unique regional sphere of archaeology labeled Gallina. Named for a proximity to the Rio Gallina, the area is characterized by unusually large, single-family, residential structures, called unit and pit houses. Pottery is decorated with basic designs applied with a carbon based paint. The most common food found is corn, although beans and various other plants are found in smaller quantities. Archaeology shows that many of the structure were intentionally burned, either as a ritual closing or, less often, in acts of violence. By itself, none of these facts are unique in the Southwest. The dates of the Gallina region are what make the research unique: the houses were made between 1100 and 1300 CE, just after the height of “Great House” architecture made famous by Chaco Canyon and after most other people had moved into large, apartment like architecture.

Finger pinched appliqued rim sherd from the Gallina region. Here, people often create stark relief indentations through finger pinching instead of just using their finger tips to create more subtle indentations. There are meanings behind these differences in cultural actions.

The characteristics of the Gallina region are different than the rest of the archaeology in the region, creating a complex and multi-faceted debate among archaeologists. The many aspects of these discussions are fascinating, yet unfortunately the richness of research potential in the area is ignored by how Southwestern archaeology is presented to public audiences. In a general exhibit or article about Southwestern archaeology, the Gallina region is usually ignored altogether in favor of more famous regions like Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde. The one museum actually focusing on the region is the Ghost Ranch Archaeological Museum in Abiquiu, New Mexico. While the displays are interesting to read and easy to understand, the museum focuses on archaeologist Florence Hawley Ellis, a prominent figure of anthropology who practiced in the mid twentieth century. This presentation cements Gallina archaeology as it was in the past rather than how it is understood in the present. In the Southwest, there are no avenues for the public to understand contemporary archaeology in the Gallina region – instead they are shown past practices or led to skip Gallina sites all together.

I have avidly participated in museum programs since I was young, learning about excavation in fake paleontological digs and learning about history in places as big as the Met and as small as a room in the local library. Now, three-quarters of the way through a bachelor’s degree, the difference between learning through museums and learning through traditional academia is stark. The latter is expensive and dense, only available to those within an academic institution, while the former is meant for anyone with the ability to walk through the front doors. A system that separates public and academic knowledge inherently restricts information in the process. As academic issues become more complex, public interpretation is increasingly boiled down to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “single story”.

In a TED talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie delivered a powerful and poignant speech about the danger of imposing a single perception onto a community or place. Published in 2009, as of 2019 the talk is closing on 5 million views on YouTube and is commonly used in schools, colleges, and workplaces. As a writer, Adichie focuses specifically on western literature, and how a single repeated story of Africa portrays the diverse continent in a narrow lens as pitiful and underdeveloped. She shows how the ability to create a single story from a cacophonous array is inherently linked to social, economic, and political power.

For the past five hundred years, power in the Americas has been controlled by colonial groups. In the United States, the single story of native peoples is one of replacement, relocation, or removal. Rarely are native nations discussed as living, evolving communities facing the oppressive history of settler-colonialism along with pressures of modern global society (for example, see https://blog.americananthro.org/2018/11/22/the-miseducation-of-the-public-and-the-erasure-of-native-americans/). Part of the work being done in the field of Indigenous archaeology is figuring out a way to shift the focus away from the single story to a format that is more inclusive and representative of contemporary native nations. Undoing the long history of misrepresentation is essential for the future of the discipline, yet resolving the differences between complicated and multilayered histories is often too difficult and they become excluded from the single-story narrative that the media and the academy make available to the public. This exclusion increases the pre-existing gap between academic and public literature.

Single stories in archaeology are perpetuated by an increasing gap between information available to research academics and information easily available to the general public. In the process of making information publicly accessible, it is boiled down to the simplest and most interesting terms, thus loosing essential components of research that are essential for complex understandings. A single story of Indigenous American archaeology reiterates the single story of native peoples on this continent. It is a story born out of oppression and violence, and one that continues to negatively impact communities to this day. Although difficult, it is not impossible to change the story. A better public understanding of research disciplines such as archaeology would allow for more broader and more inclusive discussions, helping to eliminate the single story as well as educate a wider scope of society.

2 thoughts on “If Your History is Simple, It’s Probably Wrong”

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. It probably did not need to begin with an introduction informing the reader that what will follow is related to a project you were given, but that would be easy to change. For instance, it would equally resonate with me if is began:

    “Rio Gallina is characterized by unusually large, single-family, residential structures, called unit and pit houses. The traditional pottery made there is decorated… ”

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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