Two years ago, Robert Preucel received news that no archaeologist ever wants to hear. A fire, sparked by a tree falling on a power line, had engulfed the historic Cochiti village that was the focus of his archaeological research.
Since 1995, Preucel had been collaborating with Cochiti Pueblo in northern New Mexico in a study of the history and contemporary meaning of their ancestral village known as Hanat Kotyiti (Old Cochiti). This village was built and occupied immediately after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the Pueblo people drove out the Spanish colonizers from their homelands in what has been called the “first American revolution.”
“Hanat Kotyiti was one of several mesatop strongholds in the northern Rio Grande. It posed such a threat that when the Spaniards returned in 1692 they felt it more important to subdue it than to reconquer the city of Santa Fe,” Preucel said.
When news of the fire reached him, Preucel immediately made plans to visit the site. What he found was disheartening: All of the vegetation was gone. The ponderosa pines were knocked down by a firestorm and lying burnt on the ground. Piles of ash where piñon and juniper once stood were scattered among the ancient stone walls. Three-quarters of the village was burnt.
“It looked like a wasteland,” Preucel said.
Preucel saw the Las Conchas fire as tragic loss for the Cochiti people. Yet when he spoke with Cochiti elders, he was surprised to learn that they had a different view.
“I was struck by the fact that they saw the fire as part of the cycle of life and didn’t interpret it in a negative way.” This perspective gave him a better appreciation of how Pueblo people see themselves, their landscape, their history, and their future as all intimately interconnected.
“What I’m working on now is trying to figure how we can continue working on the site, bringing people up there, and looking at the process of regeneration — which plants will come in, which native plants are growing back. It will recover,” Preucel said.
Preucel’s partnership with Cochiti Pueblo has helped establish a new subfield in Southwestern studies: the archaeology of the Pueblo Revolt and its aftermath. This era is now acknowledged as a transformative period for Pueblo communities with effects that continue to the present day. A book he edited, Archaeologies of the Pueblo Revolt (University of New Mexico Press, 2002), brought together contributions by leading historians, cultural anthropologists, and archaeologists. Several of his students have extended this work with other Pueblo communities.
For Preucel, archaeology has a social role and should ideally connect people with their histories. He is working with Cochiti Pueblo to enhance their high school curriculum by incorporating the results of their Hanat Kotyiti research.
Preucel gained his first archaeological experience far from the mesas of the Southwest. As a high school student, he took part in a University of Pennsylvania summer school program and excavated at the Walnut Street Jail, a colonial era debtors’ prison. Preucel went on to get his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Penn, followed by a master’s in social science from the University of Chicago, and a master’s and Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of California–Los Angeles. Preucel then taught at Harvard before finding himself back at Penn. Among his many faculty roles, Preucel most recently served as chair of the Department of Anthropology and curator-in-charge of the American section of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Beyond his work in Southwestern archaeology, Preucel is well-known for his contributions to archaeological theory. He and Ian Hodder edited Contemporary Archaeology in Theory (Blackwell, 1996) which is widely used as a textbook. He and Stephen Mrozowski have recently revised it as Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
According to Preucel, their book “evaluates the ethical project of archaeology and the challenges of joining different interest groups in understanding the multiple meanings of the past in the present.”
Preucel also authored Archaeological Semiotics (Blackwell, 2006), which addresses some of the philosophical issues surrounding archaeological knowledge production.
“We archaeologists tend to represent what we know about the past as if we know it with the same degree of confidence. This is not quite true. We know some things better than we know other things. What drives archaeology is the passion to try to refine and make more specific those lines of evidence so that we can build upon what we know about the past. Our knowledge is always growing. This is the core of a semiotic archaeology,” Preucel said.
Continuing on his archaeological quest, Preucel comes to Brown as the new director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and a professor of anthropology. Describing the museum as a “jewel,” Preucel said he’s excited to get to work. One of his main priorities will be to find ways to make the museum’s collections, the bulk of which are stored in a satellite location in Bristol, more accessible to students, faculty, and the public. Working toward that goal, Preucel has already established a faculty fellows program that awards a stipend to faculty for using the Haffenreffer’s collections for teaching.
Preucel also hopes to partner with local organizations such as RISD, the Roger Williams Park Museum, and the Rhode Island Historical Society on exhibitions and programming. He said he looks forward to carrying forward the commitment of museum founder Rudolph Haffenreffer to better educate the general public about the important contributions Native American peoples have made and continue to make to this country: “It’s part of our shared history and something that we all need to understand and celebrate.”