Question No. 5: Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists

This artifact collector question is going to sound outlandish to my professional archaeologist colleagues, but an artifact collector quite seriously posed a version of this question to me just a few short years ago.

Question No. 5: You professional archaeologists have already learned about all you are ever going to learn about the prehistoric Native American cultures and peoples in Tennessee and the United States. Given how much you already know and how little is left to learn, why don’t you professional archaeologists just quit your profession and turn all your archaeological sites over to us artifact collectors so we can rescue the artifacts still left in the ground before they decay away into nothing?


Famous American educator Robert C. Snyder can answer the first portion of that question for you, which is also true of American archaeology. Here is the money quote Snyder offered to a group of gifted high school students in the 1970s:

I am so very weary of hearing that the world is going to be blown up—that youth is not to be trusted—that there is no chance for greatness today—that most of the frontiers have been conquered. Let me say to you that all of these suggestions are untrue and will not come to pass, for we are actually just in the infancy of civilization, and you are living in a glorious age and day. Man is just beginning to crawl, so to speak.

We professional archaeologists have learned a lot about ancient Native Americans and historic-era Americans since the early 1800s. What we know now will pale in comparison to what we will know 100 years from now. When you consider the fact that professional archaeology, in the fully modern sense, began in the early 20th century with the famous Chicago Field Schools, sponsored by the University of Chicago, American professional archaeology is still in its infancy and “just beginning to crawl.” You would be amazed at the number of local geographic areas in the United States where very little to zero truly modern professional archaeological studies have ever been conducted in any real depth. The northwest half and central portion of the Tennessee county where I live are virtually unknown to professional archaeologists today.

The artifacts—individually and all by themselves—in an archaeological site are not the most important and most valuable aspects of the site.  The archeological context of those artifacts is the most important and valuable aspect of every archaeological site. Basically, archaeological context consists of the three-dimensional spatial relationships that exist among the artifacts, features, human burials, dog burials, postmolds, postmold patterns, stratigraphy, soil characteristics, geological characteristics, and many other things on the ground surface of an archaeological site and buried in the soil beneath it. Digging by archaeologically untrained artifact collectors erases those contextual relationships—and it erases them forever—so no person in the future can read the complex story of the prehistoric cultures and peoples that is written in the soil on an archaeological site. When archaeological context is not recorded in detail on paper during an excavation, it is gone forever.

For some reason that is hard for me to fathom, most of the artifact collectors I have ever known do not understand this—even after it is explained to them—or they do not want to understand it because a trophy for the den wall is a much higher priority than erasing the most scientifically valuable aspect (archaeological context) of any given archaeological site. Artifact collector activities render archaeological context from damaged (to various degrees) all the way up to extinct on archaeological sites. How do we professional archaeologists feel about that? It is like you might feel if some guy named Buford proudly walks into a hunting lodge in Arkansas some future day and says this to his friends:

Hey guys!!! Look at this!!! I just used my .22 to kill off the last known bald eagle in the United States.  This kind of bird is now extinct, and I’m proud to say that I’m the guy who made it happen. Good or bad, my name is going to be in the history books for sure now!. This old Haliaeetus will never leucocephalus another limb in this forest again.

My friend Harvey is a great taxidermist, and he’s going to make this dead bird look “real natural like” for me and rig up this baby so I can mount it on my den wall.

We professional archaeologists plan to keep on doing professional archaeology, and we will never quit trying to learn more about prehistoric and historic cultures and peoples here in the United States.  We are here to stay because there is far more left to learn than what we already know.  We will not abandon our profession, and we will not turn our surveyed archaeological sites over to artifact diggers so they can pillage them for artifacts—and in the process—erase the highly valuable archaeological context at those sites.

Most of the artifacts on the ground surface and in the soil on American archaeological sites have been there for 50 to 13,000 years. Lithic artifacts and well-made ceramic artifacts are pretty durable—with human remains, bone artifacts, and antler artifacts less so—primarily because of soil acidity. Outside of the threats posed by land development, most artifacts will keep on the ground surface and underground for a very long time into the future.

Yes. I know it is illegal to kill bald eagles, and no one in their right mind would display one they had killed because of that————-yet. With President Donald J. Trump and his evil minions in office, our recovering national population of bald eagles could be put in danger of extinction once again. The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 is widely known to be one of the chief items on Trump’s list of statutes and regulations to be gutted or severely weakened.  That would be such a shame when you consider all of the progress that has been made so far in protecting bald eagles (and other species) while increasing their populations throughout the United States.


A Question for You

I am wondering why our main blog post entitled Is It Against the Law to Hunt for Indian Artifacts in Tennessee? is so popular? It gets numerous visitors each day, along with several other posts. I realize spammers may just be grabbing onto it somehow each day for their own purposes through some roving bot thing—and it registers as a visit to the blog. However, this is what most concerns me—meaning—the possibility that this is what is going on with all these visits and views:

Fred, I’ve read that blog post 377 times, and I still don’t understand it. Well, I gotta go back on line for the 378th time.  Maybe that one will be the charm and everything will fall into place for me.

From my past visits to artifact collector forums on-line, one of the things I learned is that many artifact collectors are absolutely convinced that every American cultural resources law (and the regulations promulgated under it) has loopholes that will allow them to collect on federal and state property. Therefore, if they can learn the details of the laws and regulations by carefully reading the legal text or reading interpretations of the text, they will be able to identify the loopholes—and sneak through one of them to get a free and clear elbow pipe or other artifact off state or federal land:

Fred, I read that blog post for the 378th time. I understand it now, but I still can’t find them loopholes. I know them loopholes must be in there somewhere, but I can’t see them for the life of me.  All right. I’m going to read that post for the 379th time, and maybe one of them loopholes will finally jump out at me.

Give it up boys and girls. There are no loopholes. Cultural resource management and protection laws and regulations are not written by archaeologists alone. Teams of federal and state attorneys who support the U.S. Congress and state legislatures help with the writing of these laws and regulations. These attorneys have many years of legal education and experience in writing laws and regulations so tightly that a mouse fart would not squeeze through the tiniest crack in one. You can bash your heads against a steel wall for weeks or months on end—and never see any loopholes—simply because they are not there. That which does not exist cannot be seen or found:

I don’t believe you!!!  All them laws and regulations have loopholes. You just have to look real hard until you find one. You just don’t understand our thirst for new artifacts and how powerful it is. It just overwhelms us like the need to go pee!!!

Whatever.  However, I will issue you one warning. If you ever think you have found a loophole, chances are extremely high that the thing you think is a loophole is not really a loophole—and that is why you will be sitting behind bars after jumping through that imaginary loophole.

Question No. 4: Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists

Question No. 4: You professional archaeologists seem to be afraid we artifact collectors are going to get all the good artifacts before you do.  Listen! There’s millions and millions and millions of archaeological sites in the United States, and they are chocked full to bursting with great artifacts. The supply of new artifacts from these sites is virtually endless. We artifact collectors could hunt and dig for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more years, and the artifact supply would never run out. These sites have enough artifacts to go around for everyone. After we artifact collectors take our fair share, there will still be many millions of great artifacts left over for you “archies” or anyone else who wants them. That being the case, why don’t you archies just get out of our way and quit hounding us about our collecting activities?


Before I write an answer to this typical artifact collector question, which I have actually seen in various versions and venues on several past occasions, I would like for you to sit and brood over the above question for a while.  Just read it—and brood.

The term “archie” is a casual nickname artifact collectors sometimes use for professional archaeologists in the United States. Personally, I see it as a disgusting epithet—like the “n-word.” However, in the face of terms like pothunter, pot grabber, looter, and grave robber, I can see why artifact collectors came up with the term archie. But I have got to know. Does Archie wear a pith helmet—and if so—what does Marmaduke wear?

Question No. 3: Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists

Question No. 3: Why do you, as a professional archaeologist, write such long and detailed comments and responses on our on-line artifact forums?  Why do you think we want to read all of that?


This one is easy to answer. Professional archaeologists are taught to write archaeological reports, monographs, journal articles, etc. in as much detail as possible and with as much precision as possible. The idea is to always tell as thorough and complete a story as possible about the prehistoric or historic human past—in terms of what the available information and data will allow. Archaeologists may put the framework of an archaeological site report together, and tell the reader as full a story as possible. However, these initial stories often contain information and data holes that need to be filled in to make a story about the past more complete. Filling those holes often requires a lot of extra, secondary research time and writing. The holes may be filled by waiting longer to publish a report, or they may be filled by a later addendum to the report. In some cases, holes may be filled over time with a series of archaeology journal articles specific to filling in each hole in the overall story. The whole idea is to tell a full, detailed, and meaningful story, and that requires many detailed facts and words.

Based on my own past experience, some artifact collectors feel “put upon” if they have to read anything longer than two or three sentences. To them, reading through three or four good-size paragraphs feels like pulling teeth or climbing Mount Everest. This sounds like a problem with artifact collector literacy to me because it is not at all hard for numerous people to read through several paragraphs with excellent comprehension.

Back in my K-12 days, I remember quite a number of my fellow students in middle school and high school who could barely read at all:

The c-a-a-a-a t an dawg j-j-j-j-umphed ovr thuh mooooom.

I mean really!!! What do you do with something like that in an adult? Are we professional archaeologists supposed to write all of our archaeological reports, journal articles, and commentary so a nearly illiterate person can understand them? Must we take a 400-page archaeological report and write an eight-word synopsis of it so some odd number of illiterate artifact collectors can get the gist of it? Please? Give the parameters of everyday reality a little bit of a break here!!!

The exact words escape me now, but sometime in the past, I actually ran into a main post at an on-line artifact or treasure hunting forum—and it was not a whole lot bigger than this one:

I walked into the field. Picked up a Morrow Mountain.

What were the very serious, nonsarcastic artifact collector replies to this comment on the forum?  Why not try this hypothetical on for size because it is very close to a comment I actually saw once upon a time:

Wow Joe!!! That was one really great story you just told us. We really enjoyed getting the complete rundown on that. Thanks a lot for your wonderful words!!!!!! We all appreciated it very much.

That is not a story!!!  I do not know what it is, but it is not a story. A story is like a whole human body, and this artifact collector just walked into the forum with the broken-off end of a collar bone. At the very least, a full human skeleton is the beginning of a story, and a real story is that skeleton with all the meat on its bones. We are talking about a complete, highly detailed story told in paragraphs.

Artifact collectors are always wondering why so many professional archaeologists do not take them seriously. This is one very good reason. I laughed my butt off when I first read that so-called “story” and the congratulatory responses to it on that forum—whatever the exact words were so long ago. Illiterate and half-literate artifact collectors give the whole artifact collector community a bad name in the eyes of  the professional archaeology community. Those archaeologists who hate artifact collectors can easily use things like that as a convenient tool to unfairly tar and feather the entire artifact collector community.

One way to avoid this kind of problem would be for artifact collectors to get together and establish their own very serious national organization, such as the Society for American Archaeology, and require members to meet certain established criteria to be accepted into the national collector community—and set the bar for entrance into the community to be higher rather than lower.  For example, you could require each member to have at least a high school diploma and a certain required level of practical literacy to enter into the community. If the artifact collector community were able to speak with a solid, unified national voice, it would be much easier for the already organized and unified professional archaeology community to come together with you, hash out issues, and come to some reasonable cooperative agreements.  Right now, that is impossible because the artifact collector community is made up of thousands of different collectors who all want to spin off in their own personal directions.

Yes, I know. This has been tried before, and you failed. It would be nice if professional archaeologists could deal with a rigid, self-controlled, and written-standards-based artifact collector community that speaks nationally with one voice. You need to try it again and work harder at keeping it. Work hard to keep the collector illiterati from destroying the organization “just so they can keep feeling comfortable.”

When archaeologically interesting things are found by collectors—things we professional archaeologists who are not haters would like to know about—it would be nice to know that every artifact collector in the community is capable of writing a highly detailed and well-written full story about what he or she found—and where. Is that asking too much? Yes, I know some of you try to do that in the Central States Archaeological Journal, but I seriously wonder how many artifact collectors are simply incapable of writing a detailed and coherent story about their personal finds. I would bet—just an off-the-cuff bet—that the number of artifact collectors who write such pieces for collector journals are few in number compared to the total artifact collector population in the United States.  Why am I concerned about that?  Simple:

For professional archaeologists, the artifact itself is nearly nothing—nearly nothing. The exact contextual circumstances of your find are EVERYTHING. Artifact collectors who find an artifact on or under the ground are proud of saying: “I rescued a piece of the past,” as if you have done something really wonderful for American prehistory or history.  In most instances, you have not done anything even remotely wonderful. It may be a nice-looking object made of rock, bone, or baked clay, but that is about all it is—a near nothing by itself. Knowing the exact, detailed location of your find on the landscape and under the ground, and the details of the specific archaeological context in which it was found, are EVERYTHING. That is where the truly valuable prehistory and history lies—in the location and context of the find—not in the artifact all by itself. The location and specific context in which the artifact was found are the things most in need of rescuing.

I have to tell you the truth—as a professional archaeologist. Whenever I hear an artifact collector proudly talking about some artifact he just found and how he just rescued a piece of the past, it grates on my ears like fingernails on a blackboard. Why?  In reality, the artifact collector brought home a nice-looking piece of rock, pottery, or bone—and left the most valuable thing about that artifact in the ground—and more often than not—it is lost forever.

What happens when you try to explain all of that to many artifact collectors:

That there thing you just said.  I don’t understand that. It just screws my brain cells something awful. You get all the valuable prehistory and history straight out of the artifact alone don’t you.  I mean. You know a lot about archaeology after all them years of university studying—and knowing all of that—you just put the artifact down all by itself on a table top—and then all of a sudden like—the artifact talks to you or something—and then you just write down whatever it says to you—and whatever it says is the valuable prehistory and history. Ain’t that right? I always thought that was what you archaeologists guys were a doin’, and that’s why getting’ the artifact all by itself is the most important thing.

No.  That is not what we professional archaeologists do today.  If you have been reading some old antiquarian books written between 1820 and 1930, like Gates P. Thruston’s Antiquities of Tennessee, I can see how you might have gotten that very wrong idea about how archaeologists work.

Americans no longer drive horses and buggies to get around town. We drive modern technological wonders like this thing:


With the exception of Paleo-Indian points, the idea that an artifact, sitting alone on a table top, speaks to a professional archaeologist the valuable story of prehistory and history is the sadly mistaken and largely discredited archaeology of a long ago, horse-and-buggy time in American history. For the most part, American archaeologists do not work anything like that today. American archaeology has advanced light years beyond that way of working—and archaeological context really is EVERYTHING today.

Therefore, American artifact collectors, the next time you proudly hold up an artifact you just found and say that you have just rescued a valuable piece of prehistory or history—and you think you deserve some sort of congratulations for that from the American archaeology community—think again. If you do not know the precise—let me emphasize the word precise—provenience and context in which that artifact was found—then you have done almost nothing of any real value for American prehistory or history. Please be aware that “over there on Ned Baker’s farm” is not precise provenience and archaeological context. It is a low-level start—but a lot more precise and detailed information than that is needed.

As it stands right now, any illiterate freakazoid named Bubba is automatically a member in good standing of the artifact collector community in the United States. The only requirements for entry into the community are an insatiable hunger for acquiring artifacts and the ability to say:

Duh-h-h-h-h, that one shore is purdy.

You know that. I know that. Do better—and please quit asking us to excessively abbreviate what we write for your slowest community members. They  had their chance in K-12 English years ago, and they blew it!!! We should not have to cater to that at such a low level today. Many of us try to write more lengthy archaeological synopses in simple, everyday language for ordinary citizens, and we try to do that well.  However, we cannot practically go to extremes with it just because some artifact collector never learned how to read well.

Question No. 2——Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists

Question No. 2: I am new to collecting artifacts. Why do so many of my more experienced artifact collector buddies feel so uncomfortable socializing with professional archaeologists and so uncomfortable meeting with them and asking them questions about Tennessee archaeology and archaeology in general?


I can think of several possible reasons:

(1)  Your buddies may think every professional archaeologist is a policeman who is itching for the tiniest excuse to put them in handcuffs and arrest them. Personally, I have met very few archaeologists who carry a firearm or own handcuffs. Nearly every professional archaeologist I have ever known in my life—including myself—has been and continues to be far more interested in researching and writing about the ancient past than in finding excuses to arrest people. No professional archaeologist has ever said in my presence:

Well , it’s time for us to go arrest old Smitty.

Some Tennessee artifact collectors of the past seemed to think that the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville) [UTK] contains within it a secret, hidden, underground control room that looks much like the Situation Room at the White House. You know: multiple large television screens, telecommunications equipment, powerful mainframe computers with hundreds of buttons and flashing lights, and data links to optical reconnaissance satellites that allow professional archaeologists to monitor artifact collector activities on the move, at their homes, and out in the fields of Tennessee. In this central operations center, Tennessee archaeologists were supposedly meeting often with each other to figure out how to “take down” every artifact collector in the state.

Back in the 1970s, my old friend H.C. “Buddy” Brehm would tell me about occasional, hyper-paranoid artifact collectors he had met. A few collectors were absolutely convinced that a central operations center somewhat like this existed at UTK, and every artifact collector in the state was under more or less constant surveillance (aerial and otherwise) by all professional archaeologists in Tennessee. I spent eight years in the Department of Anthropology at UTK and still occasionally go over to visit. No such facility exists there now nor has any such facility ever existed there. It is a myth created by intense, self-generated artifact collector paranoia running wild. The notion that such a facility ever existed is pure bullshit, and I have to wonder whether the few people who thought it did were suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

Fact is:  If you or your buddies have never violated any federal, state, or local cultural resource protection laws, regulations, or ordinances, you have nothing to worry about. If you have violated them and sufficient evidence of it exists, you should worry.  However, it will most likely not be me or any other research archeologist who comes to arrest you. We like our laboratories, libraries, and pounding on our keyboards too much to be occupied with things like that. If you have violated the law, you are most likely to get arrested directly by a designated law enforcement officer of a federal, state, or local law enforcement agency (FBI, TVA Police, Park Ranger, Lead State Archaeologist, County Sheriff, etc.) Best advice. Keep your noses clean boys and girls—and no one will ever bother you.

(2) In the old days before 1961, nearly all professional archaeologists got along well with the artifact collectors in Tennessee. One of the things collectors most enjoyed doing was showing off their newest archaeological field finds or artifact show purchases to professional archaeologists. Most of the archaeologists enjoyed looking at those finds and discussing them.  Some still do.  This changed in the 1970s and 1980s when federal and state cultural resource protection laws and regulations with real biting teeth went into effect. Nowadays, many artifact collectors intentionally avoid contact with professional archaeologists and do not want them to look at artifacts in their collections. They most fear one simple question that all professional archaeologists ask when looking at an artifact they have never seen before. It goes something like this:

Wow!!! That is a really nice Clovis point. Where did you find it?

That little question scares the absolute shit out of artifact collectors today. Why? Well, artifact collectors today  think—wrongly—that every archaeologist is a policeman, and the archaeologist is asking them that question as a specific precursor to a near certain arrest. Actually, I will ask that question every time—and I think most other research and academic archaeologists will too—not because they want to arrest you—but because they want to understand the specific archaeological context in which your artifact was found.

Most artifact collectors seem to have no understanding of how important archaeological context is to professional archaeologists. The exact, three-dimensional place (horizontally on the landscape and vertically under the ground surface) where an artifact was found is extremely important. It is the essential starting point from which most of our research and understanding of the human past begins. Without it, an artifact is often little more than a nice-looking rock—and many times just about as useless and worthless to science as a piece of limestone gravel in your driveway. I do not ask that question in hopes of arresting people, and neither do most other research archaeologists. We simply want to know where the artifact was found because it helps us to better understand the artifact and how it fits into local prehistory—contextually speaking. It is the starting point for a really interesting discussion—with you—about the artifact and its importance in the context of the landscape and past human activities on an archaeological site.

If you did not violate federal, state, or local cultural resource protection laws/regulations in the finding or receiving of a particular artifact, no one is going to arrest you or confiscate your artifact. It is that simple. If you are violating such laws, you need to quit it. The only artifact collectors who get arrested are the ones who have allegedly violated the law and sufficient evidence of the violation exists.

Two other reasons artifact collectors are afraid to talk to professional archaeologists these days are as follows:

(A)  Artifact collectors are afraid the professional archaeologist will, and I quote: “jump their claim,” (Old West mining lingo); get them thrown off the site; and start excavating the site themselves so they can, and I quote the collector mindset:

Git all the really good artifacts for themselves.

Unless the archaeological site is unique in some way, like a mastodon kill site with huge skeletons and Clovis points embedded between the ribs, that is not likely to happen. Professional archaeologists require substantial funding to excavate a site, process artifacts in the laboratory, and write large reports. Such funding is often quite hard to obtain in the large amounts needed. Money does not grow on trees, especially in the department of anthropology at your local university.  So, it is highly unlikely that any professional archaeologist will ever “jump your claim,” as you so often put it. I am not saying it has never happened somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. I am just saying it is highly unlikely to happen.

In addition, as I explained in Question No. 1 a few days ago, professional archaeologists are not out to “git the really good artifacts for themselves.”  We excavate for information and data—not trophies to hang on our walls. Information and data. Got it?  So, unless you are doing something clearly illegal, most professional archaeologists would simply like to know where your site is located and what you are finding there just so we can fill out a State Site Survey Form for the site and write down a few syllables about what kind of site it is, where it is, how old it is, and what is being found there—all just for future scientific reference purposes down the road in time and to permanently record the site for Tennessee posterity.  Simple. Easy. Painless. No arrest. So, quit with the jitters!!!

(B)  Some artifact collectors are afraid a professional archaeologist will call up a private property owner who has given them permission to surface hunt or dig for artifacts on his land. They are afraid the professional archaeologist will ask the landowner to kick them off the property and forbid them from further collecting on the property. Quite frankly, I have never done that because private property owners often do not like strangers meddling in their private business affairs and private agreements they have made with other people. I do not recall any archaeologist ever telling me that he or she has done that. I am not saying it has never happened somewhere in the past on some tract of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean, but it is not a common practice in my realm of experience. In the past, I have asked property owners to preserve archaeological sites on their property, care for them wisely, and turn down any future requests to surface hunt or dig. However, no one was actively hunting or digging on those sites at the time. If you want to preserve a significant archaeological site for posterity, you cannot have people hunting and digging it to death. That is just basic common sense.

Some private property owners do not like professional archaeologists (often state officials from an agency or university) who might try to meddle with how they manage their own land. They get really nervous when the word “state” enters an archaeology discussion. Been there. Seen that. I have visited farms where the owner was split-britches happy to greet me and let me walk all over his property all day long to determine if an archaeological site is present. Then I mentioned the words “fill out a State Site Survey Form,” and the word “state” suddenly freaked out the farmer. You know—it goes something like this:

Naw!!!  Naw!!! Naw!!! I don’t want the state involved in anything about my property. There’s no tellin’ what they’d do.  They’d cinch my ass on something, and pretty soon I might not even be able to drive my tractor up there on my own land. Deals off son. Now get outa here.

(3) Some professional archaeologists may come across to artifact collectors as know-it-all academics. The letters M.A., Ph.D., and RPA after a name can be really intimidating to some artifact collectors, especially if the collector has only a high school diploma or never graduated from high school. In addition, the college degrees are sometimes accompanied by a nasal snarling, aloof, and highly negative attitude that many archaeologists have toward artifact collectors. I can understand why some artifact collectors would feel uncomfortable with the prospect of having to talk with someone who behaves like that. I always try to be friendly and congenial when I talk with people. However, like all people, I occasionally lose control over my emotions and have my own bad actor moments.

All professional archaeologists are not snarling, aloof, and intimidating. Some of us truly are interested in what artifacts you have found (and where), and we enjoy having a good conversation with you. If you are looting an archaeological site, we are not going to help you do that, especially if what you are doing is illegal, but we do not mind a good conversation with you about artifacts and archaeology.

I honestly think artifact collector paranoia about professional archaeologists has become far too inflated in recent times, usually by uninformed and speculative discussions among artifact collectors. I have observed these discussions on-line. These discussions and speculations among collectors pump collector fear and anxiety up as big as the moon sitting beside the Earth. That balloon is so very full of speculative hot air sometimes, and it is a wonder that whole balloon does not explode right in collector faces. Unless you are indeed doing something illegal, such fear and paranoia are unfounded.

Nonetheless, I will say this. Some of my archaeology colleagues might disagree with it, but I will say it anyway. I have known some—let me underline some—not all—artifact collectors who clearly hate professional archaeologists with an almost perfect hatred (See Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). I have also known some professional archaeologists—let me underline some again—not all—who hate artifact collectors with an almost perfect hatred. One of those people was an old, dear, very close, but now deceased friend of mine, Dr. Patricia Cridlebaugh. I mentioned the term “artifact collector” to her in a casual archaeology conversation 43 years ago, and her back bowed up like a house cat ready for a slashing match. The associated hiss was silent—but at the same time as audible as a sudden clap of thunder.

I really and truly think that these little perfect hater groups (on both sides) are doing an enormous disservice to the American past. Your mutual hatred achieves nothing useful for the archaeological record, and enormous amounts of important archaeological information and data are being lost as a direct result of your little fits of mutual hate. That is unconscionable, and the continuation of it is unconscionable. Both sides should be ashamed of themselves. Seventy-five years from now, I can almost guarantee you that the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is going to look back to our present time with total disgust at all of the archaeological information and data that were needlessly lost between A.D. 1960 and 2093 because you toddler brats (on both sides) were too busy hating to realize how much was being lost forever—when you could have taken action to record at least some of the information and data that were briefly available to you through a little congenial talk with your opponents.

Do you seriously want the professional archaeologists and avocational archaeologists of the next century writing about you as the George Wallaces and Lester Maddoxes of 20th and 21st century American archaeology and amateur archaeology? I believe there is a very real risk of that actually happening to you one day. You hate mongers on both sides need to cool the rhetoric and start talking to each other in a friendly and civil manner.

You can start by contacting Dr. Bonnie Pitblado in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and by taking a close, mind-wide-open look at her trailblazing work for the SAA on a pathway to achieving civility and mutual cooperation between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors—which will eventually stop many of these terrible losses of archaeological information and data well before 2093.

(4) I have already mentioned the giant, moon-like balloon of fear that many artifact collectors create in discussions among themselves. Once again, I have seen it on-line. You torture yourselves about not thoroughly understanding the cultural resource protection laws and regulations. You work yourselves into a speculative tizzy and wring your hands with anxiety—-because you heard of some artifact collector named Bubba who was “taken down” by the FBI in Georgia or Florida. You heard that poor old Bubba “t’warnt’t a doin’ anythin’ wrong”—and nobody could ever figure out what poor old Bubba did wrong and how he could have been arrested like that. Worry!  Worry!  Worry!  Some of you try to hide knowledge of your artifact collections from the general public. From the tense, terse personal conversations I have had with some of you, it looks as if you are afraid of your own shadows. A huge balloon of fear has engulfed you.

I believe 90 to 100 percent of that fear is unfounded, especially if you are not engaged in any illegal activities. However, I would like to say this. The little clique of American archaeologists who hate artifact collectors with a perfect hatred is very proud of the fearful tizzies you have worked yourselves into.  They like to see it.  They love it. They want that fear to eat you alive—even if you are 100 percent legal. They need that self-generated balloon of fear inside you. Why? They hope your level of self-generated anxiety will become so highly intense that your nervous system will no longer be able to bear the strain—and you will quit collecting artifacts just to get relief from all the pain—and in turn—quit destroying archaeological sites to find artifacts.

Most professional archaeologists really do believe that when you quit collecting—the destruction of archaeological sites by artifact dealer minions and artifact collectors will soon end. Moreover, I think most professional archaeologists (particularly the perfect haters) have convinced themselves that nearly all American artifact collectors are involved to one degree or another in some form of illegal activity with archaeological sites and/or artifacts. I do not fully share their belief in that untested blanket assumption because I have known numerous legal artifact collectors. Unfortunately, I have also known about alleged illegal artifact collectors—but only as hearsay through the third party grapevine of gossip.

(5)  I do not know how other professional archaeologists feel about it, but one thing some artifact collectors do just drives me crazy. Once upon a time, I had a 1.5-hour discussion with an artifact collector I had only just met over the telephone. It was a calm and meaningful discussion on my end. We were just doing a normal conversation about artifacts and archaeology. Every 10 minutes or so, throughout that conversation, the artifact collector would suddenly pause and frantically state a chorus just like this one:

I swear man!!!  You gotta believe me!!! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!  I ain’t done nothin’ wrong man!!! I swear it!!! You believe me don’t you???  I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!  You gotta believe me man!!!  You just gotta!!! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!  I swear.  I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!

In that conversation, I never said or implied that this artifact collector had done anything wrong. This chorus was all voluntary, and it wore me out. Let me see. Every 10 minutes or so for 1.5 hours. That works out to what?  Nine repeated choruses. Yep. This collector appeared to think that I was some sort of policeman. Let’s see. Archaeologist = policeman (Really?); therefore, policeman = archaeologist. A man gets on a train in Los Angeles and another man gets on a train in Chicago…if A is equal to B and B is equal to C…then A is…  Well, whatever!

Listening to those paranoid choruses was really annoying. This collector was obviously afraid that I was both an archaeologist and a police officer. In reality, I was just interested in some new archaeological information and enjoying the conversation about artifacts and archaeology. I do not want anyone to think that I have a dual function as both professional archaeologist and police officer.  If I had wanted to be a police officer, I would have gone to the Knoxville Police Academy for an education instead of the UTK Department of Anthropology.

Yes. If I were at a TVA Lake Access for recreational purposes, and I happened to see two guys digging a hole to find artifacts, I would call Erin Pritchard at TVA and report it. However, I never wanted to be a policeman, and I do not want people to think of me as a policeman now. If they do, everything just goes totally weird inside 10 minutes in any conversation, and a meaningful artifact or archaeology discussion quickly goes to Hell in a hand basket of fear and loathing.

I am a very shy and introverted person by both nature and nurture—a male Emily Dickinson type if there ever was one. You might not think that from reading my writings, but it is true. I tend to avoid people in general and like to keep my nose over my keyboard or inside a good nonfiction book. I would like to keep it that way for the small handful of years I have left on this Earth. So, if you are an artifact collector—and you feel uneasy around professional archaeologists—and maybe feel the need to voice repeated choruses of frantic fear or confess something illegal you might have done with an archaeological site or artifacts, I would rather not hear about it. Go find a Roman Catholic priest somewhere. I feel sure he would be more than happy to hear any confessions or concerns you might have.

This question has been answered to the best of my ability. If you have any questions or comments about my answer, you may make a comment here or send me an e-mail message. And yes, just in case you were wondering, the doctors and the men in white suits let me go out on the asylum grounds to exercise for one hour each day.

Question No. 1——Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists

Artifact collectors sometimes ask professional archaeologists various questions. In many instances, they receive either no answer at all, or they get a terse answer that is vague and hard to understand.  I have never been an artifact collector. However, I grew up with artifact collectors in my life, and I later became a professional archaeologist. Therefore, I know both sides of the fence really well and feel sufficiently able to answer most of the questions artifact collectors might ask—or at least offer my own personal opinion. Just like the so-called “half-breed” (half white man and half American Indian) in the 19th century American West, I do not feel totally at home in the artifact collector world or in the professional archaeology world—and frequently feel some degree of rejection by both sides. What does that look like?

I am the only professional archaeologist who has been officially kicked off for life from both the website and the website. In both places, I learned quickly that the artifact collectors there were Superman and I was  kryptonite. They claimed that I did not play well in their sandbox. However, I think having a professional archaeologist hanging around just made some of them feel angry and uneasy. I now wear both rejections as a badge of highest honor. 

My first professional archaeology rejection came about one year after graduating from high school. It occurred in the summer of 1972. I tried very nicely and politely to talk face-to-face with a Nashville area professional archaeologist about forging a future career in American archaeology. Although we had never met previously and did not know each other at all, this archaeologist proceeded to treat me—just a teenage kid—like the worst pond scum that had ever lived. The gruff treatment and humiliation that were dished out to me angrily inside just three minutes are something I will never forget as long as I live. That sting was hard, and it went very deep. I was to later learn from personal experience that the realm of professional archaeology in the United States is home base for numerous difficult, toxic people with nasty personalities and unkind personal dispositions—far more so than in any of the other disciplines in which I have ever worked. This is why I have never been particularly fond of most other professional archaeologists (but not all) and why I almost never choose to hang out socially with them.

The new series here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog is called Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists. Each question in the series is numbered sequentially——like with Question No. 1 today, I sometimes must answer questions generally when there are actually many exceptions and subtle nuances that would take a whole day of writing to capture. Unfortunately, I do not have that kind of time.

Furthermore, I strongly suspect that some artifact collectors and professional archaeologists will not wholly like or approve of some of my answers and opinions for various reasons—and will detect a bit of snark that is present in some of my answers. When you see that bit of snark, please remember that both sides pissed me off many years ago. Just consider it to be your side’s bad attitude reflected straight back onto you by the mirror of my writing.

I am sure some artifact collectors will object to what I write in some of my answers and how I portray artifact collector thoughts and attitudes. I would just like to remind you once again that I grew up with artifact collectors, and I know the collector world. You will not be reading anything that I have not observed personally or read about in your world over the past 66 years. You can say: 

Well, I am nothing like that, and I don’t think that way or have that attitude—or misperception. 

True. Exceptions do exist. In such cases, just be aware that I am not talking about you personally. However, I am talking about the many other artifact collectors who do think that way, do talk that way, and do have such attitudes and misperceptions.

Now, let us begin by answering Question No. 1.  This is a question I have heard in various versions from numerous artifact collectors over the past 30 years.  Here is the question:

Question No. 1: Why don’t you professional archaeologists and museum directors pull out all of those great artifacts you have stored away in those hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on those ceiling-high steel shelves——and display them all so the American public can file through and see them?


Many artifact collectors just assume that professional archaeologists are exactly like them in one very important respect. They think American archaeologists and the discipline of archaeology itself are all about locating and digging up fantastic artifacts of high monetary value. In their uneducated minds, they believe finding wonderful, museum-grade artifacts is the most important thing professional archaeologists do——-above all else. Because archaeologists have great educations in archaeology, they must surely know ahead of time all the right places to excavate first on an archaeological site so they will be sure to find first and lay claim to the very best museum-grade artifacts. In other words, American archaeology is all about getting the very best artifacts and getting to a site first to grab’em before anyone else can.

Therefore, all those hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on ceiling-high steel shelves in anthropology department basements and huge museum storage rooms are chocked full—almost to bursting—with eye-popping artifacts that would blow your socks off and make any artifact collector salivate with insatiable hunger.

Many artifact collectors think American archaeology is just a “big artifact hunting game” that professional archaeologists play. Moreover, archaeologists are so good at this game because their archaeology education in college consisted of many in-classroom hours devoted to nothing else but teaching students where the best artifacts are located, how to find the really great and most valuable artifacts first, and how to dig very carefully—so no artifact will get broken, which would reduce its monetary value. Their opponent in this game is the artifact dealer or collector, and whoever gets to an archaeological site first and grabs the largest number of high-quality artifacts wins the game. Right?

WRONG!!! DEAD WRONG!!!!  Truth is—if I were to show you what is really inside most of those hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on the ceiling-high steel shelves, the first words out of your collector mouths would be:

You’ve got to be kidding!!!  Y’all find all this small crap—and actually keep it!!! You take the time to write little numbers on every chert chip and sherd?  This is crazy!!! We thought all those rectangular boxes were stuffed full of fantastic artifacts. Boy, were we ever wrong!!!


I want you artifact collectors—every last one of you—to get this inside your thick skulls—and never forget it—never ever forget it. Professional archaeologists are not just like you, and American archaeology is not at all a game about who gets to the fantastic artifacts first—and grabs’em to take home.  We do not excavate archaeological sites in order to find the best quality, most fantastic, highly wonderful, blow-your-socks-off, museum-grade artifacts. We do not. Only artifact collectors do that. Only artifact collectors do that. Only artifact collectors do that. Got it?………….. Got it? …………………Got it? …………………Good.

Professional archaeologists excavate archaeological sites to answer research questions that were laid out in a formal research design. They perform archaeological excavations to obtain information and data pertinent to answering those questions about the prehistoric and historic human past. Now, repeat after me: “Information and data.”  One more time: “Information and data.” One more time: “Information and data.”  Got it?…..Got it?…….Got it?…..Good.

Artifact Collector Interlude

Artifact Collector: You archaeologists ain’t in it for the really big artifacts? I just don’t understand that. I always looked at it kinda like this.

The anthropology department’s archaeologist and crew goes out to the archaeological site.  Because he is real educated in archaeology, he knows the right places to dig first to find the blow-your-socks-off artifacts quicker than anyone else. Him and his crew then starts a diggin’, and they find 15 really great artifacts right off the bat. They are worth $10,000 each. They take’m back to the lab, clean’m up real careful like so they don’t git broke, (’cause broke artifacts ain’t worth nothin’), and then they sell them artifacts to a big museum for $150,000—and that hard cash keeps the anthropology department a goin’. You know—salaries, legal pads, paper clips, and the like. You seem to be a tell’n me that American archaeology ain’t nothin’ like that at all?

And what is this “information and data” stuff?  I don’t understand that. How do you dig information and data out of the ground? Do you mean to tell me that you can put a shovel in the ground and pull up the number “3” in your shovel?  That jist screws my head sumpin’ awful.

Archaeologist: Correct. I am telling you that American archaeology is not anything even remotely like what you are thinking it is. The information and data part is harder to explain, and I will do that for you in another blog post.

Yes. We archaeologists excavate for information and data—not blow-your-socks-off artifacts. We excavate for information and data—and keep whatever tangible artifacts we happen to encounter along the way—also for information and data purposes—most of it being small artifact crap you would never even dream of bringing inside the back door of your house and mounting in a picture frame to hang on your den wall.

Most of those rectangular boxes you see stacked high to the ceiling in museums and departments of anthropology contain millions of pieces of chert flaking debris (cores, flat flakes, decortication flakes, shatter material, bifacial thinning flakes, etc. and some unbroken and badly broken unifacial and bifacial tools). Those boxes also contain millions of pottery sherds, most of them being small. They also contain lots of broken animal bone and some shell that was never worked—and all sorts of other small crap. Occasionally, one of those boxes might contain a few complete but rather average PP/K’s or other complete stone tools—or none at all.  You might even find a small pot, an elbow pipe, or some other decent artifacts in some boxes—but they are few and far between. Some of those boxes contain charred bits of plant remains. Other boxes contain human bones that range from a few bits of surviving bone from one burial all the way up to a complete human skeleton from another burial—just human bones—no artifacts in those bone boxes.

About the only thing we usually do not save permanently is firecracked rock from prehistoric fire pits. We find a lot of it. It gets weighed in the lab (in kilograms), and it is then thrown into the nearest dumpster outside the lab.  There is too much of it, and it is too heavy to safely store—and not all that useful in terms of providing important information and data.

Yes, we do process all of the foregoing small crap artifacts, which would be worthless to you, in our archaeology laboratories. Doing it is so utterly boring that it will quite literally numb a human brain. If you have ever written small numbers on thousands of chert chips, you know what it is like. Been there. Done that. Been brain-numb for weeks or months on end as a direct result of it. Packed those boxes for final curation storage—and know what is in most of them.

Let me close with a warning. I know most artifact collectors are honest people who never commit crimes.  However, if the few worst people among you have ever gotten together over a beer on a Friday night and hatched a plan to break into a department of anthropology basement or museum storage room to steal several hundred of those tantalizing rectangular cardboard boxes, I would strongly advise against it. When you truck off with all those boxes and you start opening them up like gifts on Christmas morning, you are in for one Hell of a huge disappointment. If the cops nab you, and they probably will, you will do a lot of lamentation, mumbling, and crying about the tons of chert chips and small pottery sherds (with little numbers written on them) as they drag you in handcuffs to the back end of the squad car. All that danger and effort for all those little chert flakes and small pottery sherds you would never pick up while surface hunting in a plowed field are just not worth it.

Now Bubba? Do you understand about the hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on the ceiling-high steel shelves—and all the small crap inside most of them? There is no way the American public would want to file by and see the small crap that fills most of those rectangular boxes. Do you understand?  I can’t hear you!!!! Do you understand?  If not, maybe Lady Gaga can help you out:

Taylor Swift Is Frightened by Marsha Blackburn—and We Are Too

We agree Taylor!!! Marsha Blackburn is Tennessee’s sad, scary, and quite unfortunate version of former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Just in case you do not remember, Bachmann was the person the Republican Party appointed to engage and cultivate the conspiracy theory, loony bin, nutjob fringe of the Republican Party so they would stay interested in voting Republican. We think Marsha Blackburn is a lot like Michele Bachmann—a cheap party errand runner that no one with a brain took seriously. Marsha Blackburn would be a really bad choice to replace Senator Bob Corker.

It has nothing to do with the fact that Marsha is a woman. We would gladly vote for any woman candidate in any election—-except for Marsha. We would gladly vote for Taylor Swift because we think she is a whole lot smarter than Marsha and far more capable than Marsha. Too bad Taylor is not in the race.

We are neither Democrats nor Republicans here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. We are pretty independent minded, as most of you regular readers already know. We plan to vote for Phil Bredeson because of his deep past experience as a businessman; his highly successful tenure as a two-term Governor of Tennessee; his ability to work successfully with Republicans (a valuable rarity these days); and his intelligent, level-headed, statesman-like demeanor. Furthermore, we strongly suspect that Phil Bredeson would give his wholehearted support for Tennessee archaeology, Native Americans, and cultural resources work in general—and support them in the U.S. Senate. In short, Phil Bredeson is just about perfect for the job.

Does Marsha Blackburn know anything about Tennessee archaeology or any other kind of archaeology?  We doubt it. She would probably need to look up the word archaeology in a dictionary—provided she knows what a dictionary is and where to get one. Maybe Michele Bachmann could lend her one? We further suspect Marsha would have little to no love for Tennessee archaeology, Native Americans, or cultural resources in general—except maybe for wondering whether George Washington slept in some old house. A person like Marsha has to value something like archaeology and love it before being willing to support it. We doubt the capacity is there. Therefore, we really doubt that she would support such things through her work in the U.S. Senate.

Those are the reasons we are voting for Phil Bredeson. In fact, we wholeheartedly endorse Phil Bredeson as the new U.S. Senator from Tennessee, and we sincerely and deeply encourage you to vote for him at your local polling place during the early voting period in Tennessee, which is underway right now, or on election day (November 6, 2018).