It is the mystery, the impenetrable mystery veiling these aged sepulchers, which gives them an interest for the traveler’s eye…
Regarded by some as a pioneer of American archaeology and by others as a snake-oil salesman, Montroville Wilson Dickeson is a fascinating figure. In reality he was probably somewhere between the two extremes, a man who genuinely loved learning about America’s ancient past but who also saw the value in putting on a show for the public.
Most of what we know about Dickeson comes from a posthumous biographical sketch written by his brother, as well as his own archaeological records and articles. Though he graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, Dickeson practiced medicine for only a few years before setting off west to pursue his passion, American archaeology. From 1836 to 1844, Dickeson excavated earthen mounds in Mississippi and Louisiana. He sent hundreds of artifacts home and stored them in his attic. In 1845 he moved to Pennsylvania and resumed his medical practice, giving lectures about his archaeological work on the side. It was during these years that he commissioned John J. Egan to paint the panorama to accompany his lectures.
As an amateur archaeologist, Dickeson was ahead of many of his contemporaries. Most excavators at that time were little more than treasure hunters, but Dickeson recognized the importance of stratigraphy – layers of soil and artifacts that make up a site – and recorded it in his field notes. You can see this in scene 20 of the panorama, based on one of his archaeological sketches.
Dickeson also appreciated the importance of preserving ancient sites, stating in an 1848 article:
Why is it that we Americans do not preserve these venerable tumuli? Why is it that these records and all that remains of that unhistoried nation’s ancient magnificence must fall by the destructive grasp of man… Have we too many memorials of the older times? … why cannot this be preserved and converted in gardens and parks? . . . how grateful it would be to the traveler through the valley, if the chain of monuments that are linked throughout its whole extent were thus protected.
These statements predate the founding of the National Park Service in 1916 by almost 70 years.
As much as he enjoyed his scholarship, however, Dickeson also loved to put on a show. Advertisements for his lectures suggest that he could be more concerned with attracting an audience than being completely honest about his experiences. He claimed to have spent 12 years excavating over 1,000 mounds, when in reality he excavated closer to 40 mounds over 7 years. The pictured handbill states that the panorama contains 15,000 feet of canvas – it’s actually 348 feet. The panorama itself shows this tendency for exaggeration in several fanciful historical scenes, including scene 14 and scene 22.
But while Dickeson may have taken some liberties with his presentations, his writings suggest that he was less interested in making a profit than in encouraging others to share in his fascination with ancient America. He wasn’t just interested in acquiring piles of artifacts, he wanted to learn about the people who had built the mounds he excavated:
The moss-grown abbey, the damp stained dungeon…or the beautiful frescoes of Herculaneum and Pompeii, around them time has indeed flung the silvery mantle of old while he has swept them with decay; but their years may be enumerated; and their circumstances, their authors and the purpose of their origins, together with the incidents of their ruin, are chiseled on history’s pages for coming ages. But who shall tell the era of the origin of these venerable earth heaps! – the race of their builders, the purpose of their erection, the thousand circumstances attending their rise, history, and desertion – why now so lonely and desolate?
Dickeson died in 1882, but his passion for American archaeology is preserved in the panorama he commissioned. At Restoring an American Treasure you can see some of the finest objects he excavated from Mississippian mounds, a few of his archaeological sketches, and the handbill pictured above.