Why Do So Many Professional Archaeologists Dislike Irresponsible Artifact Collectors?


Sad Results from Looting of the El Hibeh Site in Egypt

This question has numerous answers—and I could write you out a whole list of reasons based on about 50 years of personal experience with both professional archaeologists and artifact collectors. In my opinion, one of those reasons is what I call whataboutisms. They usually begin with the words:

Now, what about this situation?

Numerous whataboutisms usually arise under circumstances where a professional archaeologist is attempting to answer deeply probing questions posed to him or her by artifact collectors.  The collectors are convinced that the laws and regulations applicable to hunting for artifacts on federal or state lands contain potentially beneficial loopholes that might allow a person to collect artifacts on such lands—and take them home without getting arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. From the collector perspective, the key thing is to ask the right probing questions so the archaeologist will be tricked into revealing the supposed loopholes in the law. Some irresponsible collectors feel that whataboutisms are the clever Socratic way to go about this. Let’s do a humorous hypothetical example of a whataboutism?

Now, what about this situation?  Let’s say I have a friend named Buford, and he is just an occasional collector. He sometimes uses indelible ink to write a catalog number and his name on his artifacts.  Now Buford has a bunch of artifacts in a box in the trunk of his car, which is parked in the woods right next to his house. Buford doesn’t know it, but that box has a hole in one corner of it. When he takes that box out of his trunk and carries it toward the house, a really nice 3 -inch drill drops out of that hole onto the ground without Buford noticing it.

Later that afternoon, one of the last surviving ivory-billed woodpeckers lands on a low-hanging, rotted tree limb in Buford’s woods. That limb and the ivory-billed woodpecker crash onto the ground just right—and the business end of that drill gets rammed clean up that woodpecker’s rear end. He gets frightened and flies off with that drill still stuck up his anus. Now, what if that same ivory-billed woodpecker flies straight from Buford’s woodland driveway over to TVA land? He lights on a tree limb, has to poop, and when he poops, that ancient drill fires straight out of his rear end and right smack dab onto that TVA land.

Let’s say that later that morning, I’m walking across that TVA land, look down, and see that drill on the ground. That drill doesn’t belong to TVA. It belongs to Buford, and his name is written right there on it. Under ARPA or those other federal laws, can TVA arrest me for picking up that drill and taking it home with me?

The archaeologist smiles and quietly thinks to himself  or herself:

Oh no.  Whataboutisms.  My God.  Get me outa here.

Then the archaeologist attempts to answer the question—and just as he or she finishes—another collector raises his hand and says:

Now, what about this other situation?  Let’s say…

Then he or she attempts to answer that question—and just as he/she finishes—another artifact collector raises his hand and says:

  That’s interesting.  Now what about this situation.  Let’s say…

Why do questions like this encourage professional archaeologists to dislike irresponsible artifact collectors?  Here are my three opinions on the matter:

(1)  Questions like this are not easy to answer—if they even have an answer—and it forces the archaeologist to speculate about a situation that has probably never occurred or might never occur—and any answer offered might be wrong—and maybe even the people at TVA or an attorney could not clearly answer a question like that.

(2)  Questions like this are asked by artifact collectors who are desperately trying to find some sneaky way—any way they can possibly identify—to break cultural resources protection laws and get away with it. People who are in the serious business of protecting and preserving cultural resources see such questions for what they are—and they do not like them.

(3) People eager to spend a whole afternoon asking questions like this instantly identify themselves to professional archaeologists and government agency representatives as:

People I might need to keep a close eye on and ask my agency law enforcement authorities to be on a close lookout for when they come onto agency land.

Knowing for sure that people like this are lurking around looking for opportunities to  break the law and get away with it would make any responsible archaeologist or agency representative feel———–uneasy.

You know what is going to happen now—right?  Later today, my Microsoft Outlook inbox, a ringing telephone, or the comment space below this main blog post is going to have a message for me:

Hey there.  You remember that big peckerwood with the ancient drill rammed up his anus?  What’s the real life answer to that question?  I really need to know.

How would I know?  How would any other archaeologist know the answer to that or 1,000 other similar whatboutisms that you, Bugs Bunny, or the ghost of Walt Disney might dream up?  Give me a break!!!  Give everyone a break!!!  Please!!!  LOL

Photograph Credit: El Hibeh Group

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