Circular 316
Archaeology, networks, and the Smithsonian Institution, 1876–79
in Communities and knowledge production in archaeology

Intricate networks of collectors and institutions have been fundamental elements of the infrastructure of archaeology. Informal, fluid networks particularly characterized communities of antiquarian interest in the nineteenth century United States, when limited institutional development coincided with increased public interest in indigenous relics. Competition over American antiquities intensified during the 1870s, a period marked both by increased regional interest in the indigenous past and national demand sparked by the 1876 Centennial Exposition. In this effort the Smithsonian’s two archaeologists, Charles Rau and Otis Tufton Mason, fell back on the time-honored mechanism of a circular, dispatched through their national network. This document, ‘Circular 316: In Regard to American Antiquities,’ generated an enormous response. What one contemporary called an ‘undigested mass of information’ is actually a unique account of a complex pattern. The history of archaeological practice that emerges is one not of a steady drive toward professional accountability and standards, but instead of motivated actors pursuing personal ambitions associated with the exploration of the past in a mode that directly reflects the cultural and social context of the United States in the 1870s.

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