A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Why a four-part PBS series resembles "Survivor" as done by the History Channel
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The Columbian Quincentenary (CQ) of 1992 commemorating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' initial voyage to the Americas was a boon for archaeologists. It provided the resources to excavate Columbus-related sites in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to better understand how Spanish colonists learned to survive in lands far different from their native Iberian peninsula. In the United States, the CQ stimulated projects tracking Hernando de Soto's route through the Southeast as well as investigations of Spanish missions. Those were good times and their influence on archaeology is still being felt.
The CQ also did considerable damage to a number of reputations. Historical figures in the forefront of those colonization efforts took a beating. Columbus, de Soto, and a host of other Spanish conquistadors were vilified. Among the Columbian ephemera I collected in 1992 is a poster my daughter brought me from Santiago, Chile. Featuring caricatures of Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Pánfilo de Narváez, Francisco de Orellana, and other sixteenth-century conquistadors, the poster is labeled "500 Engaños," a clever play on words turning "500 Years" into "500 Swine." The names of the conquistadors had become dirty words.
Now they are back. A decade after Columbus' fall from grace, a new four-part television series by acclaimed historian Michael Wood (of In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great fame) will highlight the Spanish conquest of the Americas. First aired last December on the BBC in England, Conquistadors will premier in the United States on PBS beginning May 9. Wood narrates and also serves as the protagonist, walking some of the routes that conquistadors may have marched nearly a half millennium ago.
This time around, are the conquistadors swine or heroes? Are they murderers of indigenous people or swashbuckling adventurers whose exploits "overshadow almost every other famous deed in history," as the promotion for the show proclaims? After viewing the forthcoming series, it is clear Conquistadors votes for heroes, although a closing coda does offers a sort of apology for the conquest of the Americas.
Jerald T. Milanich is curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History and a frequent contributer to ARCHAEOLOGY.