True Tale of a Tennessee Artifact Collector

My last post and this post are related stepping stones that lead to a destination.  While waiting for Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech and listening to an old Traveling Wilburys CD, this seemed like a good time to continue our informal journey into a rim aspect of public archaeology.  In this particular case, we touch on the relationship between the professional archaeologist and the local area neighbor who has a potentially exciting archaeological site on his private property.  This site could contribute greatly to our knowledge of the ancient past, if only the archaeologist could gain unfettered access to it for surveying, testing, or excavation.

Professional archaeologists are often reluctant to knock on rural doors and ask for land owner permission to survey a parcel of land for archaeological remains, perform archaeological testing, or conduct excavations.  Some archaeologists have indicated to me that rejection is more often the rule rather than the exception when making such requests—at least for them.  I too must admit to being afflicted with a degree of reluctance in this regard, especially after this summer.

While sipping a drink and resting from the heat in a picnic shelter on public land, I was confronted by members of a duly organized rural Neighborhood Watch group concerned by my several repeated trips to the area with a clipboard, pen, camera, 100-ft measuring tape, other accoutrements of the archaeological trade, and a rather fearless penchant for knocking on house doors and asking dangerous questions such as, “Do you know where the old log house once stood?” or, perhaps the most dangerous question of all, “Have you ever found any arrowheads in your garden plot?”  One might think these good rural folks were fearful of being robbed or murdered on their doorsteps.  However, as it turned out, that was not the case.  The things that had really spooked them were my writing of detailed notes on my clipboard, photographing the landscape, field-flagging in situ artifact locations on the ground surface, taking measurements, sketching maps, and asking questions.  The neighbors were fearful that I might be a private investigator, hired by a law firm and posing under cover as an archaeologist, to spy on other neighbors who had various legal issues and concerns in their private lives.  Therefore, from that experience alone, I can see why some archaeologists have a reluctance to knock on rural doors and ask permission to do archaeological work. Unfortunately, artifact collectors seem to have much less fear of knocking on those same doors, and they seem to be much more talented at getting what they want from land owners.

With that in mind, we advance our public archaeology journey in a very unusual way by entering the archaeological Twilight Zone and examining a true story about a long-deceased artifact collector in the Nashville area and his talent for closing deals with farmers.  Indeed, this story is so odd and inherently unbelievable that it ranks right up there with the deception powers of Hank in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the all too famous “…these aren’t the droids you’re looking for…” scene in Star Wars, and the scene where the Sheriff of Rock Ridge pulls his gun on himself in Blazing Saddles.  Nonetheless, this artifact collector story actually happened—probably on more than just one occasion.  After a knock on the front door, here is approximately how the conversation went between the artifact collector and the farmer.  The names have been changed to protect…well…whomever:

Farmer Jones:  Good morning.  What can I do for you?

Collector:  Good morning to you.  I collect American Indian artifacts, and you have an important ancient site on your property.  Did you know that?

Farmer Jones:  Well, I have seen a number of “arryheads” in my vegetable garden over the years.  Old Nate Taylor up the road told me his great granddaddy once owned this land, and there’s dead Indians buried in rock slab boxes up on the hill.

Collector:  That’s why I’m here and why I wanted to talk to you.  The Indians buried really nice artifacts with their dead, and I was wondering if you’d be nice enough to let me dig for artifacts on your land?  I would promise to fill in all of my holes so none of your cattle will fall into one and break a leg.

Farmer Jones:  (farmer studies the question for a minute).  Well, I’d have to say that I don’t really mind your diggin’ back there as long as you fill in the holes, but I get to keep any relics you might find because they’re on my land and could be valuable moneywise—I suppose?

Collector:  Aw naw!!!  I couldn’t possibly do that because getting the artifacts is one of the primary purposes for digging.  Besides, it’s really hot out here.  The sun beats down hard on a man’s brow all day long when he’s digging with that rusty old shovel and grapefruit knife.  This digging in the ground is very hard, dirty, sweaty work—almost like slavery.  It’ll put blisters on a man’s hands and make his muscles sore for days.  Those artifacts we dig up are the only reward we get for working so hard.

Farmer Jones: (farmer’s right thumb and index finger reach for his chin and stroke it several times, a sign of even deeper thought)  Well…now that you put it like that, I suppose it wouldn’t really be fair for me to let a man work that hard on my land and him not get paid something for his trouble.  It just wouldn’t be right!!  You can dig on my land all you want and keep all the artifacts you find.

Do I expect you to believe that story?  Frankly, it does not really matter to me because the story actually happened in real life—more or less as described.  In the face of the raw truth, what one chooses to think does not change the veracity of the matter.

However, notice some things in the story.  Have you seen a human intelligence bell curve lately?  The artifact collector got what he wanted from the farmer by being clever and working his sales magic on a weak mind.   Also, notice the farmer’s deep internal need to go out of his way to be fair minded, even when doing so made no sense.  The farmer was wedded to a basic principle or, if you prefer, a deeply seated personal belief: “A person should be materially rewarded for their hard work.”  I think this is the perspective the general public has on archaeologists and their work: “When you see an archaeologist working really hard in the hot sun, you can bet your last dime that she would not be doing it unless a really big material reward is expected.”  Hold that thought, and we will take another step down our path next time.

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