Excerpt from Showdown at Crossfire Canyon: Getting Digs In, Part 2

2016 Sept. 12 looking upstream from main beaver pond
Main beaver pond in Crossfire, upstream view

The quieter woman’s attributing the factually wrong “squeezed orange” metaphor to an archaeologist stuck in my mental craw. No archaeologist who had put in time in the area could have gone on the record with such a false statement without doing damage to their reputation. Crossfire’s own “things” amount to a treasury of archaeological information, barely tapped. Not only are there numerous significantly-sized Ancestral Puebloan sites in the sliver of the canyon I usually haunt, all containing intact sections of their archaeology, but many smaller, telltale sites surround those. Beyond that, the canyon is a puzzle of hundreds of sites, many kinds. In places, lithic and sherd scatters pepper the ground, along with whole or broken arrowheads, tools like axes or awls, or spearheads. But those are just the visible features of sites, what meets an eye with a steady gaze. The density of prehistoric occupation further extends two to four layers vertically into the ground.

And Crossfire’s not alone in sheltering such abundance. When the fight over the canyon erupted in 2007, one proposal for keeping it closed included designating it for permanent closure to OHVs and special protection because of its being a treasure house of culturally sensitive resources. When I mentioned that proposal to Winston, he retorted on that basis, the entire region qualified for closure and protection.

For years after that encounter in the canyon, whenever the “squeezed orange” phrase crossed my mind—which it did often—my curiosity tingled. A few years ago, it bothered me so much I tried googling “squeezed orange” with “archeology” and “archaeologist” but found nothing. Yet for someone who has spent decades running to the Oxford English Dictionary to examine etymologies and relic usages of words and phrases, the striking image had the redolence of a linguistic mystery hinting at a meaningful and important social provenance. “Squeezed orange” seemed to have a story to tell. I wanted to listen, to put it together, if I had to, but in the mid-twenty-tweens, new personal circumstances arose that demanded attention and elbowed the question aside, as similar conditions had done many times and for many years before.

Then, in July of 2018, nine years after the canyon encounter, I joined a social gathering at the home of Winston and Cathy Hurst. The party was out on the Hursts’ back deck. Five southwestern U.S. archaeologists were in the group—Kenny Winch, Dr. Jim Allison, Charmaine Thompson of the United States Forest Service, and Winston, a renowned Southwestern archaeologist himself, all Utahns, all having in total a composite of  at least 175 years of experience surveying, working on, and supervising numerous local excavations. And when it comes to San Juan County archaeology, nobody knows its breadth and depths like Winston, who grew up in situ. Also present was Dr. Fumi Arakawa, Associate Professor of the University of New Mexico, participating in an ongoing, nearby BYU excavation Dr. Allison was heading up.

I put the question to them. I presented the backstory of meeting two women in Crossfire, one of whom harbored the idea that an archaeologist had characterized the area as a “squeezed orange”, meaning that it had been forcefully emptied of artifacts. I asked if any of the archaeologists sitting with me there in the deepening dark had heard the phrase or knew where it originated.

They’d all heard it, but as “sucked orange”, not “squeezed orange”. There commenced a discussion and investigation into the origins of the phrase. They attributed it originally to Alfred V. Kidder, a southwestern U.S. archaeologist considered the foremost American archaeologist of his era. Kidder had worked in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah in the first quarter of the 20th century. Furnished with the correct original wording, Dr. Allison launched an internet phone search right then that turned up key information that began to form a historical context for the quote. As it turns out, Kidder made his rather off-handed “sucked orange” remark in his 1958 final report on his famous Pecos excavation. Since then, I’ve chased the “sucked orange” metaphor through the intermazes and found it to be nearly ubiquitous in archaeological publications since Kidder first used it in his report.

First, a brief discussion of the idiom, “sucked orange”. It appears in late 19th and early 20th centuries throughout literature. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records the phrase as meaning “to squeeze or suck an orange”, figuratively, “to take all that is profitable out of anything.” The dictionary notes an early, related usage in 1685, but references tapping into the idea of something being utterly depleted of worth and its empty husk cast off multiply during latter half of the 1800s.

“Sucked orange” remained vogue into the early and mid-1900s. Mark Twain uses it in his satirical, 1901 anti-imperialist essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness”, a send-up of American missionary zeal and other countries’ similar imperial efforts that led to what we today call their “colonizing” behavior worldwide. Twain targets America’s political manipulation of the Philippine population, saying the U.S. government “fooled them, used them until we needed them no longer; then derided the sucked orange and threw it away”.

The empty orange image turns up in broad range of literature, including a Quaker publication titled, A Pennsylvania Quaker Boy (1908): “There was to be plenty of breadth and liberty later, and he approached manhood without the feeling that life was a sucked orange….” Noteworthy is that twenty years before this, John Main Dixon published his Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases (1891), wherein he defines “a sucked orange” as “a man whose powers are exhausted.”

But the rationalist M.M. Mangarsarian makes a standout sucked orange reference in his 1910 lecture, Is Life Worth Living without Immortality: “To use an Emersonian phrase,” he said, “life is to them no more than ‘a sucked orange’”.

To use an Emersonian phrase! That seemed a valuable weathervane, indicating the direction from which a particularly significant wind might be blowing. Googling “Emerson” and “sucked orange,” I came across this quote, possibly the most often repeated of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of the phrase:

Have you seen a few lawyers, merchants, and brokers—two or three scholars, two or three capitalists, two or three editors of newspapers? New York is a sucked orange. All conversation is at an end, when we have discharged ourselves of a dozen personalities, domestic or imported, which make up our American existence. Nor do we expect anybody to be other than a faint copy of these heroes. (Emerson, 1860, “Culture”, from The Conduct of Life).

Clearly, Emerson equates New York with sucked orangeness. This is important to note, especially given how Kidder used the phrase. One might see that the leap between comparing New York to a sucked orange and dry-boned, southwestern U.S. prehistoric civilizations to a sucked orange would not be hard to make.

However, before Emerson derided New York in 1860, he apparently said this in 1835:

But an end must come to all things; and I, after filling two as good sheets of paper as ever were manufactured—and worn my pen to a stump, and my brains to the consistency of a sucked orange—as some one or other observes—am obliged to come to a regular conclusion. (From an essay in Holdens Dollar Magazine, 1849)

It is interesting to compare Emerson’s 1849 description that he had worn his “brains to the consistency of a sucked orange” with Dixon’s example sentence in his 1891 Dictionary of English Idiomatic Phrases, published half a century later: “By this time, Dibdin was a sucked orange; his brain was dry.”

Then, in 1849, referring to a New York newspaper editor, Emerson wrote, “His brain, from the effects of constant pumping and squeezing, is very much in the condition of a well-sucked orange; through which dribbles an ocean of the highly-concentrated essence of old-newspaper, in ‘one weak, washy, everlasting flood.’”

I discovered all these Emersonian uses of the “sucked orange” idiom on the website The Big Apple, a repository of all things New York City that site editor Barry Popik has written about. It was a happy find. In the Big Apple entry on June 21, 2006 cataloguing Emerson’s uses of “sucked orange”, Popik explains that “The ‘sucked orange’ metaphor was popular in the 19th century and was not invented by Emerson.” Clearly he didn’t invent it, since it appears frequently in the 1800s well before Emerson begins making his own hard use of it. However, given the proliferation of the phrase after Emerson’s Big Apple as a sucked orange slam, he might be considered a possible vector for exponentially popularizing it—for making it “go viral.” So, “sucked orange” existed as linguistic currently in 19th century population at large, but by the early 20th century, uses of it abound, and the phrase could be argued to have gained traction from Emerson’s somewhat sensational application of it.

Back to July 13, 2018, the archaeologists on the back deck, and Kidder’s 1958 use of “sucked orange”. In the Yale University Press 2000 edition of An Introduction to the Study of Southwestern Archaeology by Alfred Vincent Kidder (1885-1963), in an introductory essay, Douglas W. Schwartz cites Kidder’s words from his “Pecos Pueblo Final Report” (Kidder 1958:322):

In 1924 I thought I knew a good deal about the Southwest in general, and Pecos, in particular…how very wrong I was. But, I flatter myself, I was not nearly as wrong as he who advised me, just 50 years ago, to take up work in another field, because, he said, “The southwest is a sucked orange.” I only wish I could return to that wonderful country and wet my lips once again in the rich juice of a fruit which a half-century of research has little more than begun to tap.

With these words, Kidder owned his earlier hubris regarding Southwest archaeology, a perspective he admits tilted to an off angle, perhaps with help from an adviser unrepentant of his own egotistical bluster. However, Kidder’s main point is distinctly different from Emerson’s remark. Emerson definitely makes the place (New York City) = sucked orange equivalency. Kidder, on the other hand, makes an opposite point: the southwest (archaeological condition) ≠ sucked orange. Anyone tracking his meaning carefully and reading just a little past the distracting “sucked orange” image will see that.

But little did Kidder know that he had just released into the wild a compelling (if by his time overused) phrase that would go feral in just a couple generations of archaeological scholarship. His orange image suffered relentless repetition, reaching a degree of mantra status over nearly 60 years of archaeological publications, including in The Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, Volume 2, published in 1959, where it is christened with a name, “the ‘Sucked Orange’ concept”’;  The Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume Two, published in 1973, where the sucked orange/southwest archaeology comparison is criticized for being grossly incorrect; Man and Environment in the Great Basin, by David Madsen and James F. O’Connell, published in 1982; Sixty Years of Southwestern Archaeology: A History of the Pecos Conference, by Richard Woodbury, published in 1993; The Archaeology of Colorado, by E. Steve Cassells, published in 1997. These are just of few of among many 20th century publications.

However, the bulk of these earlier articles use Kidder’s quote as a benchmark for opening further research and dialogue on Southwestern archaeological endeavors. They debunk rather than confirm that Kidder is the “some archaeologist” the woman in the canyon spoke of who declared the area a sucked orange. In fact, anyone paying attention will see that a lot of archaeologists from this time period agreed with Kidder that the Southwestern archaeological orange remains delectable and is far from sucked.

Then in 1998-1999, the editor of Volume 64, Book 1 of the Kiva, a publication of the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society, may have hastened what is perhaps an inevitable hard bump from context when they opened the issue thusly:

In the last century, Southwestern archaeology was described by none other than A. V. Kidder as a “sucked orange.” By that phrase, Kidder indicated that we knew everything we would ever need to know about the prehistoric occupation of this magnificent area. Fortunately, Kidder’s pronouncement was somewhat premature…. (Kiva, p. 117)

This unfortunate and mistaken take on Kidder’s meaning was corrected in a subsequent issue (p. 229) when the editor issued an erratum: “In the last issue (67-2), my editor’s page erroneously attributed the “Southwest as a sucked orange” comment to Alfred Vincent Kidder. As pointed out to me by several scholars and gentlemen (and gentlewomen), Kidder said no such thing.”

However, despite the correction, and perhaps because of the phrase’s constant repetition, in combination with its seductive sensory and dramatic appeal, a definite drift in the “Sucked Orange concept” becomes apparent post-Kiva goof. In 2007, the book Archaeology and Capitalism: From Ethics to Politics appeared. Routledge published a new edition of the book in 2016, edited by Yannis Hamilakis and Phillip Duke. This book contains an essay, “Cultural Sensitivity, Science and Ethical Imperatives: Contemporary Archaeology in the Southwestern United States”, by Charles R. Riggs. In the essay, Riggs shoehorns Kidder’s into an even stranger context:

We have to ask ourselves as scholars of a past not our own if these fashionable ideas are ways of deriving realistic interpretations of the past or if they are ways to make a living in an expanding discipline that is tightly controlled by legislation and is increasingly competitive, as academic programs slash their budgets and eliminate positions. Perhaps the Southwest is, as A.V. Kidder long ago indicated, a ‘sucked orange’, leaving archaeologists no new information to discover, but rather only new ways to reprocess the same old data. (Riggs: 93)

The Oxford Handbook of Southwest Archaeology (Barbara Mills and Severin Fowles 2017) similarly, and, apparently, as a nod to tradition, repeats Kidder’s “wistful recollections” from the Pecos Final Report.  However, it critiques Kidder’s and his “misguided adviser’s” assessment in this manner:

In the end, however, Kidder was and continues to be just as wrong as his misguided adviser. To put it bluntly, the Southwest simply is not an orange to be sucked, nor its archaeology a resource to be progressively drained. If there is still much to do in the region, this is because histories—archaeological or otherwise—are always open-ended dialogues between the past and the shifting concerns of the present. (Mills and Fowles: 54)

If Kidder had gotten a chance to read that passage, I can imagine him grumbling, “Isn’t that what I said?” Irony poses problems of interpretation for many people.

At the time of this writing, this is how far I tracked Kidder’s “orange” on its forward roll into the 21st century. How the “Sucked Orange Concept” then traveled from the foremost archaeologist’s 1958 original ironic quoting of his adviser’s already nearly 50-year-old warning, to a linguistic sherd picked up somewhere in another context then flashed during a casual conversation at the trail head to Crossfire Canyon in 2009, where I encountered it for the first time, I can’t say for certain. Furthermore, its connection to Emerson, who may well have popularized the phrase through his own tangy remark on New York, is at this point in my sleuthing tenuous but arguable. And given how the phrase is repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds of times in archaeological publications, the woman in the canyon’s attribution of the quote to “some archaeologist” is about as foggy as it can get. A variety of archaeologists have used Kidder’s phrase in different ways. But readers can perhaps see slight silken linguistic strands linking all the possibilities into a shimmery, sometimes perceivable, sometimes not, archaeological “sucked orange” gestalt.

As far as I can determine, “the southwest is a sucked orange”, said no archaeologist, ever—except, perhaps, Kidder’s adviser, whose archaeological villainy we are forced to accept on Kidder’s word. Who was that person? It’s possible that the description “he who advised me” refers obliquely to the Mesoamerican archaeologist Alfred Tozzer. Tozzer was one of Kidder’s professors at Harvard. In 1907, Tozzer arranged for Kidder and others to be part of an archaeological surveying expedition in New Mexico, and in a National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir of Kidder written by Gordon R. Willey, Alfred Tozzer is counted among the “influential men in Kidder’s undergraduate and graduate formal and informal training” (296). Generally, Tozzer is identified as one of Kidder’s mentors, and the two maintained a close relationship.

Tozzer was an esteemed archaeologist in his own right and no stranger to the desert Southwest. Is it possible that he could have spoken so dryly about its archaeological succulence? Maybe, but maybe something else was going on. It’s common for academic mentors to attempt to draw students into their own fields of study; such a dynamic may have existed between Tozzer, the “Mayanist”, and Kidder, a budding archaeologist with Southwestern U.S. leanings. At one point, Tozzer arranged for Kidder to teach a course on Andean archaeology at Harvard, and he made various “suggestions” to Kidder to direct his professional development. So Tozzer could be the mystery adviser who proved to be more wrong than pre-enlightened Kidder had been about the Southwest’s archaeological fruitfulness. But given the 1998 abrupt bad scholarship turn, the actual problem of the “Sucked Orange Concept” does not really lie in what Kidder’s adviser said; it’s in how Kidder is falsely accused of having gone so wrong in his own professional judgment.

Another consideration: the archaeologists decrying the quote in their scholarship pre-Kiva fiasco (before 1999) might have known very well who the adviser was. At any rate, they appear to have been consistent in addressing their critiques of the Sucked Orange Concept to that person as Kidder had quoted him. In their critiques of Kidder’s statement, they might have been instead talking over Kidder’s shoulder at the famous archaeologist standing in the shadows behind him.

But even more importantly, it’s critical to highlight the stark difference between what the archaeology scholars meant by the “Sucked Orange Concept”—including those who misquoted Kidder—and what the woman in the canyon meant by her “squeezed orange” version of it. By taking “the southwest is a sucked orange” statement behind the barn for an academic whipping, archaeologists like those quoted above countered the assertion that, as source of new archeological discoveries and information, the Southwest had been tapped out; it had no more to offer the body of archaeological knowledge about its native prehistoric and historic cultures (the sort of thing a brash Mayanist might say to a desert archaeologist, for instance).

However, given the woman in the canyon’s, “Is there even anything out here anymore?” question, and she and her companion’s nod of agreement when I asked if she was referring to the artifact content of the area, she had taken this idiom from “some archaeologist” to mean that the artifact content of the area had been tapped out—that all or most of the “things” had been extracted and stolen away. Composite misquotations wrapped in gross overgeneralization, tied up, perhaps, in a bow of questionable intent, acted as a broken compass by which the two women oriented their experience in Crossfire.

But poor Alfred Kidder. Though he introduced the “Sucked Orange Concept” quite innocently, perhaps facetiously, certainly ironically into the general conversation of Southwestern archaeology as a means of spotlighting his own growth in understanding of the region’s archaeological significance, he could not foresee the sensationalism that would eventually suck from his words every citrusy drop.

Do I need to discuss the cold, dark ironies of digging up an old phrase from the linguistic grave goods of an archaeologist’s life publications then using it to cast other folks as “grave robbers”?

Ah! Let’s do it anyway.

To read Part 3, go here.


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