Society for the History of Discoveries


Deagan, Kathleen, and Cruxent, José Maria. Archaeology at La Isabela: America’s First European Town. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. xxxi, 299 p. ISBN 0300090412.

Archaeologists Kathleen Deagan and José Maria Cruxent, in conjunction with the Dominican Republic’s National Park Service, bring decades of field work and research together in two books on the archaeology and history surrounding La Isabela, the first town established by Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola. These books provide us with the historical context of La Isabela, insights into its collapse, explanations for how the town spawned other urban experiments on the island, and how Spanish-Indian relations evolved during the first decades of exploration and settlement. The result is something of an origin story of key elements in the European metamorphosis of the Americas.

Archaeology at La Isabela focuses on the material evidence excavated from the site of La Isabela and other sites on Hispaniola, while its companion volume, Columbus’s Outpost among the Tainos (New Haven, 2002), deals more fully with “the larger context of Spanish-American integration and cultural transformation” (p.xxiii). Historiographically, the two works can be seen as an outstanding effort by Deagan and Cruxent to present a project in historical archaeology from two perspectives, one perhaps more palatable to historians than the other. As the authors mention throughout both works, however, each perspective carries reflections of the other and both are the product of a shared pool of evidence. Each is a reconfiguration of the data for a specific academic audience, yet both are accessible to any educated reader. The archaeological evidence substantiates the authors’ argument for a more nuanced understanding of the process of change that took place in the earliest Spanish American colony. In reciprocal ways, historical documents and interpretation of the larger historical context are used to make additional sense of the archaeological data. Both books reveal the important epistemological contribution of historical archaeology: an enriched methodology and interpretive framework based on more evidence. The hybridized qualities of historical archaeology make it useful to a larger, more diverse community of scholars.

Historians often eschew interdisciplinary work involving archaeology because of its technical language. They simply have no fluency in it. In Archaeology at La Isabela, Deagan and Cruxent successfully resolve this problem by using a rhetorical style that employs archaeology in ways easily accessible to non-archaeologists. An engaging story is created, which embraces comparisons to regional developments and other Hispaniola sites, based upon over a million archaeological speciments, from architecture and building materials to ceramics, jewelry, seashells, weaponry, and animal remains. This heavy infusion of data, also represented statistically in table format, powerfully supports the authors’ conclusions about how Europeans organized the material space and life in their first efforts at colonizing the New World.

The story emerging from this wider range of material evidence reveals the distinct cultural stamp of the twilight of medieval Iberia, itself in the process of Renaissance modernization. This transition is seen in the archaeological record – Moorish and arabesque elements blending with European styles or innovations in art, architecture, and technology. In addition to revealing these transitions, the archaeological evidence at La Isabela refutes previous claims based on documentary evidence that the town was the first example of the classic Iberoamerican grid town, and that the walls of its buildings were constructed of stone. We now learn that few of the town’s structures shared the same cardinal orientation, that public buildings were constructed partially of stone but mostly of rammed earth walls, and that the town’s layout conformed to defensive positions along the geographical features of ravines and the sea. Moreover, while La Isabela’s role as a fortified center with agricultural and artisan activities has long been recognized, Cruxent’s 1987 discovery of a previously unknown settlement nearby, Las Coles, adds new variables to our understanding of how Columbus organized the colony. Las Coles may in fact be the initial campsite of the fortified town, and here a second group of farmers, millers, fishermen and craftsmen took advantage of their proximity to fresh water, clay, and a better soil for agriculture.

Within a few years of its inception, the original patterns of organization at La Isabela, essentially a hierarchical structure of privileges and specific duties, proved unsustainable. The fevered search for gold, the strained but ongoing relations with the Tainos, the frequent supply problems and periodic internal political disputes forced a considerable transformation of the colony. A new social, political, and economic order arose, built on a patchwork of alliances with Indians, interracial marriages, efforts to deny class privileges, and the encouragement of all Spaniards to claim land and Indian labor. Eventually, a pattern of order was placed on Spanish land and labor practices as they became further categorized, scrutinized, and organized by intermediaries under the watchful eye of the crown. Imperial claims trumped all others, but distance and newness forged a pragmatic politics of necessity that undergirded the search for adventure and riches.

Archaeology at La Isabela is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of Columbus’s first colony in the Americas, its growth, demise, and regional significance. The authors sketch the contours of distinct patterns of behavior shaping economic developments, Indian relations, and social organization that would also come to characterize the expansion of sixteenth-century New Spain. The authors’ methods of historical archaeology provide empirical weight and rhetorical power to the book’s arguments, demonstrating that a serious effort to blend archaeology and history can produce compelling and fruitful interpretations of the past.

William B. Carter
South Texas Community College


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