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 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 and kindest 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 the 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 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 the 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. He wanted to grow up and be a real 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 50 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 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 every day professional archaeologists are too busy with their research to focus on such things and pretty much leave such enforcement to the federal and state 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. In addition, 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 10,000-year-old artifact in our hands, and we are not focused on art appreciation and the rescuing of artifacts for “art’s sake.” If a 9-inch Clovis point 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. Instead, we are interested primarily in the 3-dimensional relationships that exist among artifacts, features, postmolds, hearths, and other such things within intact archaeological deposits and 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 are interested in the history of American archaeology itself, the current working conditions and state of affairs in the archaeological discipline, elucidating prehistory, and exploring the nature of past human behavior. The strong commitment to art appreciation per se that pervades the artifact-collecting community today is just not our bag.

Some artifact collectors do not like the content of certain posts on this blog. In our honest opinion, it is usually the artifact collectors who are gripped by hatred for professional archaeologists that go bananas over some of our posts that appear to portray artifact collectors 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 from experience that they too “say and do some of the darndest things,” and those things are at times entertaining or tragic. However, virtually everything we might say about artifact collectors in our posts is something we have actually seen or experienced firsthand. For example, with regard to our post entitled Archaeological Advice Column, we have 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. The point we were 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, the refrigerator will indeed go empty one day, and some artifact collectors need to tune into the basic fact that an archaeological site can be stripped of its meaning by collecting it to death over time. On a final note, some anger-oriented artifact collectors enjoy spewing hatred and verbal abuse at us. Malcolm Parker’s dad repeated a phrase to him numerous times as he was growing up, “Never go looking for trouble with people, but if someone gets on your back―get’em off.”  His son repeated  that maxim over the years, and we adopted it here at the blog.

On the flip side, we will be the first to say that professional archaeologists also “say and do some of the darndest things,” and they too can be quite entertaining and tragic. We are not inclined to circle the wagons about such things. 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 may upset or disturb some professional archaeologists―or even occasionally drive one of them a little bit nuts. American archaeology is a discipline with deep-seated problems and issues (many of them moral and social issues), and 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, and 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 very close to retirement, most of his work is done in a high-paying field other than 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, he is already largely isolated socially from most other professional archaeologists (but not all), and he is heavily oriented towards 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 it is. You know that, and we know that. We guess this is just our way of saying that the famous phrase 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” does not impress anyone here at the 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 Archaeology in Tennessee 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.” Similarly, if both artifact collectors and professional archaeologists are a little unhappy from time to time about what we are 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 the colorful metaphor would help to better register that fact in the minds of collectors.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s