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Rings of Truth

Donald McGraw

Time, Trees, and Prehistory: Tree-Ring Dating and the Development of North American Archaeology, 1914–1950. Stephen Edward Nash. 352 pp. University of Utah Press, 1999. $29.95.

Andrew Ellicott Douglass (1867–1962) single-handedly created the science of tree-ring dating—dendrochronology. Recently, a number of individuals have been assessing his accomplishments, not least of whom is Steve Nash, whose University of Arizona doctoral dissertation has been published as Time, Trees, and Prehistory. At the outset providing readers with an informative title, Nash has undertaken to tell that part of the very large story of the science of dendrochronology that focuses specifically on American archaeology. He considers not only the most famous features—investigations of the Anasazi and other prehistoric peoples of the Southwest—but also pioneering aspects of dendrochronological work in the Midwest and Alaska. The famous event of 1929, so popularly known through the pages of the National Geographic Magazine, wherein Douglass announced to the world that the dating of the great cliff-dwellings and other abodes finally had been accomplished after many years of persistent use of tree-ring information, is central to Nash's story. The tale of this and all else in these pages is one of considerable human frailty, professional jealousy, intrigue, back-biting and old-fashioned ad hominem warfare all set against a backdrop of fascinating field adventures, significant discoveries and the development of a polyglot science with vast applicability to many disciplines.

Douglass had never intended that his tree-ring science serve only one area, Southwestern archaeology, but it was strongly co-opted to do service in that field. As an astronomer in search of an earthly recording of presumed (by him) sunspot influence on our planet's weather, Douglass fell on the variations in annual tree rings as a proxy for such information. Alert archaeologists prevailed on him to help them in their quest to determine the precise time of building of the great and small pueblos of the Four Corners region. No author to date—and this work is likely to be definitive—has so exhaustively and minutely detailed this important piece of history. All of the central players who created much of this country's native-archaeology research program are portrayed, in all their naked reality, and called on to divulge to the rapt reader just how we came to understand so much of the prehistoric culture of North America. Douglass, the astronomer, is a central thread throughout the work; many of the persons chronicled were his students or professionals who came to sit at the feet of the "Lord of the Rings," for no archaeologist could truly do without Douglass's aid and blessing on the dating of so many of our most famous and minor prehistoric ruins.

Nash's grasp of the archival materials is extraordinary (my own research on the role of Giant Sequoias in the development of dendrochronology is mutually confirmatory), and the fine structure of his explication of this alluring story and its inviting telling make this work of value well beyond the immediate audience suggested by the title. Although the ills of dissertationitis have been nicely pared, some typographical errors have been introduced. There are scattered missing words and other small problems (for instance, field coring drills are powered electrically, not "electronically," and Douglass collected sequoias in the southern Sierra Nevada, not northern), but these are not distracting. Unfortunately, two graphs share the same histogram data but different legends. Still, the work is a tapestry of historical solidity that will become, in the words of fiction reviewers, a page-turner. Curious scientists and informed laypersons who cannot leave untouched the utter fascination of the cliff-dweller will want to know the true story of how we came to understand the dating of these structures, and so the audience of this work should be great indeed; the craftsmanship in its telling certainly is such.—Donald J. McGraw, Associate Provost, University of San Diego



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