Skip to content

Gesa Mackenthun, "Embattled Excavations: Colonial and Transcultural Constructions of the American Deep Past" (Münster: Waxmann, 2021), 240 pp.:


Gesa Mackenthun, Embattled Excavations: Colonial and Transcultural Constructions of the American Deep Past (Münster: Waxmann, 2021), 240 pp.

In her cutting-edge study Embattled Excavations, Gesa Mackenthun analyzes the ways in which pre-Columbian cultures, populations, and monuments have been imaginatively represented and ideologically constructed in a wide array of U.S.-American fictional and non-fictional texts between the nineteenth century and the present. Shedding light on the political significance of knowledge about American antiquity in the Western contact zone, it is an indispensable contribution to recent scholarship in American studies and Native and Indigenous studies engaged with American origin stories. In terms of theme and method, Embattled Excavations is intellectually most closely wed to Annette Kolodny’s In Search of First Contact (2012), on the one hand, and Jean O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting (2010), on the other. Similar to these scholars, Mackenthun elucidates the epistemic dimensions of colonialism. She traces the existence of a settler colonial politics of knowledge production in both past and present that has systematically relegated Indigenous historical presence, epistemologies, and memory to the margins and has legitimized Indigenous territorial dispossession. Moreover, like Kolodny and O’Brien, Mackenthun works toward reinscribing Indigenous epistemological traditions with the aim to lay bare the precise mechanics of settler colonial processes of “firsting and lasting” and to restore Native historical agency and visibility. Embattled Excavations must also be understood as the continuation of Mackenthun’s own previous work as an Americanist: her insistence on the significance of empire for the study of North American literature and culture, her investigation of narrative strategies through which early modern and modern colonial writers legitimated translatio imperii and the dispossession of the original inhabitants of the so-called New World. It is her long scholarly record of exploring colonial dispossessive strategies that allows Mackenthun to perceive, and foreground in her book, the territorial dimension of the battles about American antiquity; she rightly states that “the (pseudo-)scientific battles about antiquity […] are in fact predominantly battles about territory” (37).

The book under discussion investigates the construction of American “prehistory” in four different “context[s]” (16): Chapter 1, which also serves as an introduction, starts out in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reading the quarrels about theories of American antiquity (the Ancient One, Clovis First, and Pleistocene Overkill) in light of colonial expansionism. Mackenthun demonstrates that all these theories, or rather “neocolonial tales” (33), make use of racist stereotypes and are deeply entangled with colonial possessive desires. Tales about historical firstness produce epistemic uncertainty, call into question the work of historically responsible scholars, and systematically undermine Native rights claims. The bulk of the book then engages with the nineteenth century. Chapter 2 examines discourses of American antiquity in travel literature produced by the American adventurers and archaeologists John Lloyd Stevens and Ephraim George Squier in the context of imperial expansionism, most notably the United States’ involvement in commercial and military schemes in Mesoamerica. Tracing how archaeological knowledge traveled across cultures and nations, “rhizomatically sprouting in different political and intellectual soils” (92), Mackenthun highlights the imbrication of imperial rivalry and expansion and archeological knowledge production: the discovery of American antiquities was inextricably intertwined with the formation of national identity and international relations. Chapter 3 analyzes how canonical writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain negotiated anxieties about American antiquity (the age of both the world and human presence in America) that emerged in the context of the discovery of the bones of extinct animals testifying to ancient human occupation. Geology made it necessary to move beyond anthropocentrism, gave rise to notions of deep time and, hence, posed a severe challenge to hegemonic temporal frameworks (biblical chronology and, connected to it, notions of imperial time). Notions of deep time also pulled the rug from underneath settler colonial justifications for Indigenous dispossession and produced colonial guilt. Chapter 4 is a case study of transcultural story-making that takes place in the Pacific Northwest between the 1870s and 1950s. This case study fulfills a dual purpose. On the one hand, it explores the complex ways in which ancient knowledge was exchanged between colonial agents and representatives of the Klamath and Modoc tribal communities. On the other hand, it embodies, par excellence, Mackenthun’s own project of decentering “science” (in its Western understanding) and of “filling the epistemic and archival gap” (176) by reading contrapuntally, by consulting so far untapped manuscripts, by recognizing the literary wealth of Indigenous storyworlds, and by reading Indigenous stories on par with Western scientific texts, all the while being conscious of her own positionality. The book’s short “Epilogue” (213) proposes geognosis as a critical term “to describe a tangible knowledge perspective on non-human nature, especially the land itself” (218). According to Mackenthun, geognosis, as an analytical practice, might help challenge the dominant binarism structuring the colonial episteme.

Embattled Excavations is the work of an erudite scholar with a profound historical expertise and well versed in the theoretical debates in American studies, science and empire studies, and postcolonial studies. Working herself at the intersection of literary and cultural studies and history, Mackenthun encourages history of science scholars to subject their source material to systematic literary analysis (51). Her own interdisciplinary approach—her constant framing of literary analysis with extensive historical research—emphasizes the importance of contextualizing one’s material, of establishing cross-cultural dialogue between texts, and of incorporating alternative epistemic traditions; in short, scholars are to “read adequately, interactively, transculturally, and in respect for the other’s truth” (52). Only through the employment of such a research paradigm can the “collusions between science and colonialism” be made visible, can “our too narrow epistemic framework” be broadened and made more encompassing (51, 176). As employed in the book, however, this approach presupposes a reader as ambitious and dedicated as the author. The transcultural and intertextual webs that Mackenthun creates around her primary material are so extensive and multifaceted that the reader occasionally loses sight of the overall argumentative trajectory.

Despite its predominant focus on the nineteenth century, Embattled Excavations does not limit itself to historical analysis. Throughout the book, Mackenthun constantly reminds the reader that the past she dissects is far from past, that epistemic colonialism is ongoing and manifests itself in different forms, including the extraction economy and institutions of knowledge production. Upon reading Mackenthun’s observation that respective constructions of American antiquity have been accompanied by “a varying and flexible deployment of combinations of empirical evidence and narrative invention […] that best suits the needs of colonial culture at different points in time” (33), or that “the divide between science and popular response is often fluid, especially where questions of cultural identity are concerned” (35), one cannot help but reflect on the current popular debates about critical race theory in the United States. “Thinking about the deep past is always also inspired by the present” (158), Mackenthun claims, and thus seems to speak as much about her historical source material as about her own motivation for writing this book. Even the future is omnipresent in Embattled Excavations. Despite occasional lapses into careful optimism (52, 220-21), Mackenthun overall emphasizes the power and stability of the colonial episteme, then, now, and tomorrow. Science needs to (further) decolonize to be able to produce the “thick” historical knowledge that is needed to “meet[ ] the many challenges of the near future” (31). It is this constant interweaving of past, present, and future that makes Embattled Excavations a powerful exploration of the realm of knowledge production as a significant battleground for colonial and anti-colonial struggles. As such, it is not only of great relevance to readers interested in specific, often competing, constructions of America’s deep past, but to all those wanting to further think and learn about the entanglements of fact, faith, and feeling; science and myth; and the function of narrative and metaphor within the discursive formation of American empire.

Sabine N. Meyer (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

Works Cited

1 

Kolodny, Annette. In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

2 

Mackenthun, Gesa. “Adding Empire to the Study of American Culture.” Journal of American Studies 30.2 (1996): 263-69. Print.

3 

---. Fictions of the Black Atlantic in American Foundational Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.

4 

---. Metaphors of Dispossession: American Beginnings and the Translation of Empire, 1492-1637. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1997. Print.

5 

O’Brien, Jean. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.

Export Citation