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In the early summer of 1915, a young archaeologist named Alfred V. Kidder '08, Ph.D. '14, arrived in the upper Pecos Valley of New Mexico to begin a dig that would, as a later scholar wrote, mark "the coming of age of American archaeology." On a rocky ridge surrounded by meadows, with juniper-forested mountains rising in the distance, Kidder uncovered the remains of a large Native American pueblo that had been occupied from about a.d. 1300 until the mid nineteenth century. Over the next 14 years of excavation, he found multistoried buildings, elaborately decorated pottery, and carved stone figures.
And, everywhere, he found human bones--thousands of them. They lay beneath the floors of abandoned rooms, under rubbish heaps, in the pueblo's central plaza, in the nave of an old mission church. There were old women, young warriors, an infant lying alongside its mother. A photograph taken during one of the early seasons at Pecos Pueblo shows Kidder--looking every inch the intrepid explorer with his natty mustache and slouch hat--posing with shovel in hand as he stands surrounded by little ledges of newly exposed soil, each one holding a skeleton.
Those skeletons--there are more than 2,000 in all--now sit in acid-free cardboard boxes in a vast climate-controlled storeroom at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where Kidder served for years as curator of southwestern American archaeology. Very soon, however, they will be going back to New Mexico, and to the soil from which they were taken more than 70 years ago.
In May 1996, a delegation of the war council of Jemez Pueblo, a tribe that traces its lineage to Pecos Pueblo, visited the Peabody's storeroom. When the men looked around them at the boxes stacked everywhere, from floor to ceiling, several of them started to cry. Afterwards, one of them compared the experience to that of a Jew seeing photographs of a Nazi death camp for the first time. Using traditional religious rituals for communicating with the dead, the tribal leaders asked their ancestors whether they wanted to go home. The ancestors' response, they say, came almost immediately: Yes.
Collections of Indian artifacts and human remains from dozens of museums across America are now slated for reburial, as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which Congress passed in 1990 (see "Resting in Pieces," November-December 1991, page 41). But few of these collections have as unusual a history as that of the Pecos Pueblo skeletons. Throughout the decades they have spent at Harvard, the bones have constituted one of the most scientifically important assemblages of human remains in the United States--not just for archaeologists, but for medical researchers as well.
Several years ago, for example, a Johns Hopkins University anthropologist named Christopher Ruff published a landmark study of osteoporosis, in which he demonstrated that exercise could actually strengthen aging bones by remodeling them to compensate for loss of mass. He based this conclusion on his intensive study of the Pecos sample, which is rare among anthropological collections in that it is well-preserved, large enough to be statistically significant, and demographically representative of a single population. Over the years, the bones have been examined by dozens of researchers studying everything from head injuries to the development of cavities.
"The collection is an incredibly valuable resource," Ruff says. "I'll probably be drawing on my data from the Pecos bones for the next 30 years. They provide a kind of preindustrial baseline to compare to modern populations, which may suffer ailments that weren't so prevalent before the industrial era." Future researchers will have to settle for other, far smaller samples, such as the Peabody's collection of 500 skeletons from a medieval church cemetery in Yugoslavia. (Of the 20,000 sets of human remains in the museum's storerooms, about 12,000 are of Native American origin and are slated for repatriation.)
To the Jemez tribe, however, the Pecos skeletons aren't anonymous specimens--they're close relatives. In the 1800s, the inhabitants of Pecos Pueblo migrated to Jemez, 70 miles away, carrying with them the tribe's traditional emblems of authority, such as a ceremonial silver staff that had been presented to them by King Philip III of Spain. Those artifacts still reside at Jemez, and many members of the tribe--which is known as one of the most traditionalist and secretive in the United States--trace their ancestry to Pecos Pueblo.
"The families know who was buried in those graves," says William Whatley, the Jemez tribe's cultural preservation officer. "As far as the Jemez are concerned, those people were sent on a journey, and to dig up their bodies is to disrupt the spiritual journey that the deceased have undertaken. It's looked on as a tragedy, and as a desecration."
Still, Whatley says, "In the Jemez culture, whatever has happened has happened. We try to learn from it. It may very well be that Kidder didn't recognize he was making a mistake. And we don't hold Harvard responsible for the actions that resulted in the exhumation of those remains; we understand the loss that they are going to incur. In a way, how we look at Harvard is that its museum curators have played the role of surrogate parents since those remains came into their possession. It's a role that's considered extremely important by the Jemez."
The Harvard curators, in turn, have cooperated fully with the Jemez. "It's a sort of healing of a nation that we're participating in," says Patricia Capone, Ph.D. '95, one of several curators at the Peabody who work almost full-time on Native American repatriation.
Sometime in the next few months, a tribal delegation will arrive at the Peabody to take the Pecos remains back to New Mexico. Shortly thereafter, the bones will be reinterred near their original resting place. There will be no ceremonies, Whatley says, since the traditional rites include no formulas for reburying the dead--although the tribal leaders "may offer a simple and brief explanation to their ancestors, telling them why the events that have happened to them took place and wishing them a final farewell and peace on their journey."
If the dead are truly listening, it may be that Alfred Kidder, too, will overhear. His grave sits on a hillside at Pecos Pueblo, not far from the spot where his field office once stood.
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