A Final Note on Our Most Recent Series of ARPA Posts and Some Related Matters

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog understands that the four preceding posts on the Jimmy Carter Clause and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) may leave some artifact collectors in Tennessee and throughout the United States feeling hurt and angry. We hope you will realize that any sense of hurt and anger you feel is coming directly from the federal government rather than us here at the blog. It was not our intent to make you feel bad. We were just attempting to explain and clarify in detail an element of the law that gets many artifact collectors confused.

We here at the blog would like to say that we have nothing personal against most artifact collectors and avocational archaeologists. Some of the nicest, kindest, and most generous people we have ever known were and are artifact collectors and avocational archaeologists. We further understand that artifact collecting was once a time-honored American hobby that was generally accepted in the same vein as mom, the American flag, and apple pie.  As some have pointed out, the Boy Scouts of America once offered a merit badge for assembling a small collection of Native American artifacts. We also understand that it must be very difficult to live in a time when government, a number of professional archaeologists, and many Native Americans tend to view all artifact collecting as immoral—and sometimes criminal—behavior.

During the 1960s and very early 1970s, professional archaeologists were nearly nonexistent in the Nashville area. If a kid was interested in archaeology, the only way he or she had to pursue their interest was reading books and talking to local artifact collectors and avocational archaeologists. The owner of this blog was one of those Nashville area kids. His early interest in archaeology was sparked by a close relative (Mr. Malcolm Parker) who lived in Nashville. When our owner was about 8 years old, Mr. Parker gave him a small canvas board with prehistoric artifacts glued to it. This board was probably a birthday or Christmas gift. The mounted artifacts were mostly whole projectile points/knives, haftable endscrapers, and ancient beads―some made out of human teeth.

The 8-year-old kid had no appreciation for that board of artifacts, soon tore it all to pieces, and managed to lose all of the artifacts. Only Jesus knows where they are now—probably spread helter-skelter all over the ground of the old neighborhood back home in Gallatin, Tennessee. However, Mr. Parker persisted in his influence, and a strong interest in archaeology was indeed sparked within the kid at a later point in time. In one way or another, it would be fair to say that the kid grew up with artifact collectors and avocational archaeologists all around him. As a result, he learned a lot about prehistoric artifacts, artifact collectors, artifact-collecting practices, and avocational archaeology. Interestingly, the kid never had any real desire to be an artifact collector―perhaps predictable from the experience of that 8-year-old kid and his ill-fated canvas board. By his senior year in high school, he was beginning to think seriously about becoming a professional archaeologist.

We do not harbor a universal hatred for all artifact collectors here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. We enjoy talking to artifact collectors, viewing their artifacts, and listening closely to any insights or information they might have that will help us with our own archaeological research projects. Unfortunately, it is very hard these days to find artifact collectors who are willing to sit down and chat with us professional archaeologists because of the huge war that has been going on between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors for the past 60 years. Many artifact collectors are afraid to interact with professional archaeologists because they are concerned about a perceived potential for fines, prison, or having their collections confiscated.

A few artifact collectors today hate professional archaeologists with what Khan in Star Trek II called a “perfect hatred.” They are perfectly happy to talk with a professional archaeologist if the archaeologist will cede 100 percent approval of artifact collecting, even in its most irresponsible forms, and if the archaeologist is willing to sit silently and suffer heated verbal abuse for all of the perceived hurt archaeologists have inflicted on their hobby. Unfortunately, it has been our experience over the past 40 years that this small handful of hate-filled artifact collectors has been created by a similarly small handful of professional archaeologists who harbor equally vicious hatred for all artifact collectors. Those two extremist groups shout at each other so loudly that the artifact collectors and professional archaeologists who want to talk about their collections and our archaeology rarely get a peaceful and safe moment to do it.

It should also be said that we here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog do not consider ourselves to be policemen or park rangers. Over the past 53 years, neither the blog owner nor anyone in his household has ever “taken down” or been a participant in “taking down” an artifact collector who was breaking federal laws or regulations. We would hasten to add that he has never witnessed such criminal behavior first-hand in others and has only rarely heard about it as a matter of second-hand or third-hand gossip. The truth of the matter is that most everyday professional archaeologists are too busy with their teaching and/or research to focus on such things. They pretty much leave such enforcement to the federal and state police authorities officially charged with that responsibility.

Like most professional archaeologists, we here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog do not officially approve of irresponsible artifact collecting―and a lot of it is irresponsible in nature―-because irresponsible is easy and relaxing—which is what most people expect from any hobby.

While everyone loves a really nice artifact, we are not artifact focused here at the blog, which means we do not get a heated rush from holding a 12,000-year-old artifact in our hands. We are not focused on art appreciation and the rescuing of artifacts for “art’s sake.” If a perfect 7-inch Clovis point (if there is such a thing) gets washed into the Tennessee River and is never seen again, no one around here is going to be in tears about it because that is not our focus. In fact, we professional archaeologists have seen so many artifacts in the laboratory over the years that looking at artifacts actually becomes rather boring and even distasteful with time.  It is like eating so much ice-cream that you never want to see another ice-cream cone again for at least another five years. I know that sounds hard for an artifact collector to believe—but you have to actually live it in an archaeology laboratory to understand it.

The strong commitment to art appreciation per se (strictly for art’s sake alone) that pervades the American artifact-collecting community today is just not our thing. Since about 1930, modern professional archaeology has been about everything else but rescuing museum grade artifacts from destruction. So many artifact collectors and ordinary people think university archaeology programs are designed solely to teach archaeology students how to:

…dig artifacts out of the ground very gently, slowly, and carefully so as to avoid damaging the artifacts, which would decrease their great monetary value to the museum or university.

It sometimes occurs to me that these people think the courses in a university archaeology curriculum look something like the following:

Careful Trowel Manipulation 101

Delicate Paint Brush Manipulation 201

Do Not Pull on It or Snap It 353

Extracting the Super-Delicate Artifacts 450

Artifact Value Retention in the Field 554

How to Find the Best Artifacts 610

Where the Indians Left their Best Artifacts 630

Popcorn, candy, and drinks cost a lot of money at movie theaters these days. My son and I could snack like kings at our local movie theater if we had just one thin dime for every time an average artifact collector has said:

We relic collectors are just like you archaeologists. You are just the same as us, too. You do exactly the same things we do out in those open fields. Its all about the artifacts.  Ain’t that right?  Gettin’ the really good relics is the main thing. It’s just a question of who gets there first—you or us.  The one that gets there first gets the really good stuff.  Right?  It’s all about gettin’ the best artifacts. Right?

My response:

No friend. American archaeology today is not anything like that—and it has not been anything like that since the famous 1930s Chicago Field School.  If you think that’s what American archaeology is really all about, then you know next to zero about American archaeology, what archaeologists really do, why they do it, and how they do it.

American archaeology is not about rescuing priceless objects of ancient art from the ground before the forces of nature degrade them and their monetary value. Right now, somewhere out on the American landscape, a really nice and complete prehistoric pot (worth $40,000 on the Japanese antiquities market), is going soft and crumbly under 2 feet of wet soil. I and most other American archaeologists do not give a “rat’s dirty ass” about how much that pot is worth monetarily or whether it survives as a complete material object to rest in a museum exhibit. I will go to sleep tonight without one worry or care for what acidic soil and water are doing to that pot. From an archaeologist’s perspective, our primary interest is what that pot and its archaeological context can tell us about the ancient culture of the people who made it and how they lived.

And no, American archaeology is not in any way, form, or fashion about art appreciation for art’s sake and treasure hunting. Archaeologists do not dig for buried treasure and art appreciation. Archaeologists do not dig up artifacts “real careful like” so the university or museum can sell them and make big bucks from the sales. In fact, with the exception of a few rare institutions that become strapped for operating cash or run out of curation space, universities and museums almost never sell artifacts to anyone—and even if they are forced by insurmountable circumstances to do it—they do not like having to do it.

Once upon a time, after explaining that to some artifacts collectors, one of those collectors provided me with the following response (and most of his collector friends agreed with him):

If what you just said is true, then you archaeologists are nothing but a bunch of damned fools!!!  Money, materialism, and private property ownership are three of the key things that made America great. You should all care about art for art’s sake alone—like we do—and you should care about the monetary value of artifacts because the good one’s are worth a whole lot of money—and money is important. Why don’t you archaeologists get off collector backs!!!  Let us go out there and rescue all of this valuable ancient art that is just degrading away underground? That way future generations will be able to see it, admire it, and admire the ancient people who made it—and we’ll create monetary worth, too.  Just get out of our way—and you’ll see!!!

We professional archaeologists are interested primarily in the 3-dimensional relationships that exist among artifacts, features, postmolds, hearths, and other such things within intact archaeological deposits. We are interested in what those relationships can tell us about the prehistoric technologies, social organization, and ideology of the people who lived at an ancient archaeological site or at many sites in a river or stream valley. We focus on ancient lifeways. We elucidate prehistory. We are interested in exploring the full nature of past human behavior—and the systematic relationships between that behavior, human biology, and the natural and social environment. We are interested in the history of American archaeology itself, the relationship between the historical record and the archaeological record, and the current working conditions and state of affairs in the archaeological discipline.

What is the further artifact collector response to that? Well, it is along the lines of things I have actually encountered from various collectors over the years—-like this:

Why in the hell would you archaeologists want to go off and do damned fool things like that? Do you realize how much money them artifacts are worth?  There’s still millions and millions and millions of museum-grade artifacts in the ground out there all across America. There’s a nearly endless supply of those things. There’s enough for all us collectors and all you archaeologists, too—for years and years to come. Why just the other day, I was a thinking about writing to my Congressman to tell him how much all those artifacts are worth. Why if the U.S. Government was to start mining all those artifacts, like coal, they could sell them to us collectors here at home and overseas. They could make a fortune for the government—maybe even pay off a big part of the national debt.

You might not like what I just said. Some artifact collectors do not like the contents of certain main posts on this blog. In our honest opinion, it is usually the artifact collectors who are gripped with powerful hatred for professional archaeologists that go bananas over some of our posts that portray some artifact collectors (not all) in a negative light. As Art Linkletter used to remark:

Kids say the darndest things.

Because our blog owner was raised around artifact collectors, he knows that they say and do some of the darndest things—and those things are at times entertaining and at other times tragic. However, virtually everything we might say about some artifact collectors (not all) in our main posts is something he has actually seen or experienced first-hand in his personal past.

For example, with regard to our past post entitled Archaeological Advice Column, he has both read about and actually had conversations with a few artifact collectors who appeared to think that each archaeological site contains an endless supply of museum-grade artifacts, as if they are being reproduced biologically under the ground surface in an unending supply. The point he was making is that most things in this world really do have an endpoint. If you do not go to the grocery store and you keep on eating at home, the refrigerator will indeed go empty one day. Some artifact collectors need to tune into the basic fact that an archaeological site can be stripped bare of its meaning by collecting it to death over time.

Some anger-oriented artifact collectors enjoy spewing hatred and verbal abuse at professional archaeologists. Malcolm Parker, a famous Tennessee artifact collector and a family member of our blog owner, heard a sentence from him numerous times as he was growing up in Bethpage, Tennessee. We subscribe to it here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. Here it is:

Never go looking for trouble with people, but if someone gets on your back―get’ em off.

On the flip side of the above long discussion, we will be the first to say that professional archaeologists also say and do some of the darndest things. They too can be quite entertaining and sadly tragic. We are not inclined to circle the wagons about such things here at the blog. A great many of the things we and other professional archaeologists do not like about the weird little world of professional archaeology (and it is indeed a weird little world) are subject to being addressed and discussed in our blog posts and the comment threads under them.

Some of what we say here at the blog may upset or disturb some professional archaeologists―or even occasionally drive one of them a little bit nuts. In our opinion, American archaeology is an academic discipline with deep-seated problems and issues (many of them moral and social issues). It is a discipline that hides from those problems and pretends that they do not exist. It is always much easier to run from those problems than it is to turn around, face them square-on, study them, and implement changes that solve them.

During the coming years, we are going to be discussing those tough problems in our blog posts. We suspect that some extremist archaeologists may become as emotionally ripped about our discussions on professional archaeology as some extremist artifact collectors are about some of our posts on irresponsible artifact collecting. Always, as is the case with artifact collectors, we try very hard to avoid naming names when discussing controversial or potentially upsetting subjects. We have no desire whatsoever to intentionally defame other living archaeologists or make libelous statements that would hurt their reputations or careers.

We do intend to be a positive voice―but also an independent voice―in Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology. The owner of this blog is essentially retired. Most of his past work was done in a high-paying field other than American archaeology. He does not have any grant funding (and does not desire any). The limited amount of private sector archaeological work he does is funded out of his own pockets. By choice, he is already largely isolated socially from most other professional archaeologists (but not all), and he is heavily oriented toward electronic self-publishing. Why are we saying this? We do recall how a number of angry old men in professional archaeology tried to destroy the career of the late Lewis Binford by stripping him of his grant funding. American archaeology can be a really nasty and heartless place sometimes.  It should not be―but as a matter of fact—it is. You know that, and we know that. We guess this is just our way of saying something about that famous old—and quite angry—sentence that once floated around many academic anthropology departments in the old days:

I will see to it that you never work in American archaeology ever again!!!

That famous sentence does not impress anyone here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog or have any real meaning to us―and is not likely to ever do so.

Ted Koppel and Sam Donaldson at ABC News probably said it best, and we tend to believe in a version of it here at the blog. Roughly paraphrased, they said:

If the people on both sides of an issue write to us and tell us that we are biased toward the other side, then we know we are doing something right here at ABC News.

Similarly, if both artifact collectors and professional archaeologists are unhappy from time to time about what we are saying or doing here at the blog, then we know we are doing something right.

Finally, we realize that some of the language in the four preceding posts on the Jimmy Carter Clause in ARPA may ruffle the feathers of some artifact collectors. For example, some might be put off by the phrase “nail their hides to the wall.” We used that language for a reason. Watch this brief video clip from the movie Star Trek IV:


The phrase “nail their hides to the wall” was common in the local culture of Middle Tennessee when our blog owner was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was one of his dad’s favorite expressions. This colorful metaphor, as Spock might call it, was not used to offend a person, but rather to impress upon a person the intense gravity of an offense and the severity of the punishment that such an offense would likely attract. Using this phrase was our way of saying that the cultural resource management (CRM) staffs at federal agencies take the federal CRM statutes and regulations very seriously, and they are now oriented toward strong enforcement, meaning mercy might not be in the cards if a collector gets arrested on federal property. It is important for artifact collectors to know that and take it very seriously. We thought this colorful metaphor about down-home animal hide tanning would be memorable and help artifact collectors to better register that serious fact in their minds.

No right-minded person likes to see a fellow human being get into trouble if it can be avoided. Understanding cultural resources law and abiding by it will keep artifact collectors and other ordinary American citizens out of trouble with the American legal system.

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