Public Archaeology: Citizen Visitors at Excavations

This is the last installment about a subject that exists on the outer rim of public archaeology.  The previous discussion of this subject noted two thoughts about the nature of American archaeology that exist in the minds of the public:

1)  Archaeology is about treasure hunting for artifacts.

2) 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.”

Everyone has an opinion.  If I were to ask you to name just one of the three most unfriendly places you have ever visited, what would you say?  Maybe it was the recent wedding of your former husband?  Maybe it was a visit to the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea?  Maybe it was a visit to your favorite store to get a refund, and you did not have a receipt?

One of my own top three would be visiting an archaeological site in the role of ordinary citizen while excavations are actively underway.  My experience has been treatment with coldness, indifference, suspicion, very few stated words, and obvious excavation crew body language that fairly well screams, “Please leave—now.”  My first experience with that came on a brief visit as a child (accompanied by adults) to the Arnold site excavations in Nashville on a Sunday afternoon in the 1960s, and it really never got much better in the succeeding 45 years either in Tennessee or outside of it.  Much to my shame, I too must admit to having participated some in treating citizen visitors the same way when I was on excavation crews in years past.  I could shut inward tightly as a clam, put on a facial expression like I had a corn cob up my butt, and answer a question about the excavations with a barely audible two-word grunt.  Some American archaeologists and crew members would claim that they do not treat citizen visitors this way, and I am sure that these kind folks welcome visitors with open arms and talk up a storm about their excavation work.  Others would just say that they are extremely busy doing important work and do not mean to come across to citizens in such a negative and indifferent way.  However, in all honesty, I have to say that I have never seen an archaeological excavation where workers were so busy that someone could not take a few minutes to welcome visitors with a smile, open arms, and generous talk about the excavations, if they really wanted to do so.

So, why do many archaeologists and their field crews treat citizen visitors so unkindly during excavations?  I think it is the fear of looting.  Consciously or subconsciously, the field director, field assistant, and crew members automatically assume that every citizen who visits an archaeological excavation is either a well-established looter who has come to case the joint or an ordinary person at risk of suddenly becoming a looter when they see the excavations or a really nice looking artifact.  Some archaeologists seem to believe that no action on our planet exerts more power over the human mind than viewing a real Native American artifact.  Expose citizen eyes to a nice artifact for just a nanosecond, and these people will run straight to the hardware store to buy picks, shovels, and grapefruit knives—and return to the site under cover of darkness to dig helter-skelter for artifacts.

For some archaeological field schools and paid excavations, the field director will provide handout sheets to their field assistants and crew members.  These sheets contain various standard expectations such as showing up for work on time each day, standard working hours, holidays off, required field tools that need to be purchased by each person, and so forth.  In addition, they sometimes contain a section on how to deal with citizen visitors to the site, and they have wording that expressly forbids members of the crew to say anything descriptive to visitors about the various types of artifacts that are being found at the site.   Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, they are cautioned to never show citizen visitors any of the artifacts that are being found on the site.  After all, who would want to risk rendering an ordinary citizen suddenly insane under the pitiless, master-ring power exuded by (James Earl Jones voice) “the artifact.”

Let us examine this notion in light of a little common sense truth. If the archaeologist or members of the field crew tell a visiting citizen that they are not finding any artifacts at the site, what is the average citizen going to think?  Remember now!  These citizens are already convinced that American archaeologists dig for buried treasure.  They are also convinced that no archaeologist is going to be working that hard in the hot sun at that location unless he already knows that some mysterious treasure is there and he is actually finding some of it.  The archaeologist may say, “We are not finding any artifacts, so we cannot show you or tell you about things we are not finding.”  The average citizen then thinks, “Liar!!!  Liar!!! Pants on fire!!!”—and they doggone well know it too.  Therefore, the actual risk of an ordinary citizen coming back to loot the site that night is really just as great as it would be if artifacts were shown to the visitor.  The artifact has no special powers over the human mind in this situation, but the archaeologist comes across to the taxpaying visitors as a liar and a cheat.  This looks very bad when these visiting citizens are quite likely paying for some portion of the excavation work through tax dollar support to a state university or through taxpayer-supported research grants.  From my perspective, I say,  “Show citizen visitors a few artifacts—even the really nice ones—and explain what they mean in archaeological context.”  The citizens have a fundamental right to know because they are paying for all or some portion of the excavations.  If any looting is going to occur, it will occur regardless of showing artifacts to the visitors.  Once again, the archaeologists are not excavating with the expectation of finding nothing, and the average citizen knows it.  No one is fooling anyone here.

What about the artifact collector who visits to scope a site for looting?  Well, all I can say is this.  If you grew up archaeologically clueless for the first 18 years of your life in some small town or big city, went through an undergraduate and graduate program in American archaeology, and never personally interacted with Native American artifact collectors, you are most likely possessed of a lot of hearsay, hypothetical, and intuited notions about them that are just plain not true—and some notions that are true.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I spent the first 18 years of my life interacting with artifact collectors and the artifact collecting community in the Nashville area, as did our friends John Dowd, Buddy Brehm, and others with a legitimate interest in Tennessee archaeology.  Although I was not an artifact collector, I learned a lot about artifact collectors and their belief systems just by listening to them, interacting with them, and observing their behavior.  First of all, the chances are extremely high that the artifact collector community already knows about the site that is being excavated, and the collectors knew about it 25-50 years before the field director did.  They have no need to come over to the excavations to scope them out for looting.  They already know what is actually or potentially underground at the site and have quite likely already done some collecting there in years past.  Believe me.  They do not need your help.  Secondly, most artifact collectors would never dream of showing up at a professional excavation specifically to case the joint for looting—not these days when many of them live day-to-day in some measure of fear that they are going to be arrested and have their collections confiscated.  If they were to visit as a prerequisite to some form of site vandalism, they would risk having their faces remembered and being “fingered” as the likely perpetrators by the local authorities.  They know that and fear it.  If a collector does show up as a visitor at a professional excavation, it is most likely because he is interested in the actual contextual archaeology and would like to learn something new just for the sake of knowledge itself.

If an archaeologist is hopelessly paranoid about looting and refuses to believe anything I have said here, he can always have someone sleep in a tent overnight at the site.  It has been done.  I find that much more acceptable than being unfriendly, sullen, and inattentive to citizen visitors at an archaeological site during excavations.  The taxpaying public that supports most of the archaeological work done in this country deserves better.  Archaeologists need to begin realizing that they are not just scientists dedicated only to investigating and protecting the archaeological record—and nothing else matters.  They are also public servants who have so far failed to win the widespread trust and support of the American public that pays for their archaeological work.  Winning that battle and gaining widespread understanding and trust from the public is paramount.  When that day comes, the funding necessary to effectively protect the archaeological record will follow in due course.


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