A Few Thoughts about Ground Surface Artifacts in Plowed Fields

by Tracy C. Brown

Broken Artifacts

Some Typical Broken PP/K’s (Sometimes Referred to as “Brokes”)

The contents of this archaeological article are expressed in a listing format. The primary subjects are archaeological surface hunting by artifact collectors, broken chipped stone artifacts on the ground surface in plowed fields, and how such collectors can make a valuable contribution to professional archaeology:

(1)  I suspect most of my professional archaeology colleagues never visit on-line artifact collector forums to read the various discussions that go on there. It might pay them to start doing it because some really interesting things a person might need to know occasionally show up there.  I will leave you with just one example that I have run into more than once over the past five years.

Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in Middle Tennessee, artifact collectors who walked plowed fields were only interested in finding whole, unbroken, bifacially chipped stone artifacts to take home with them.  They were the so-called gold standard for the surface collectors at that time in Tennessee history——and they still are. However, these same collectors would also pick up and take home broken bifacial artifacts. Because these artifacts were broken, many artifact collectors would have a box over in the corner of their basement “man caves” for what they called brokes. The term brokes is a widespread, colloquial name for broken chipped stone artifacts. The brokes box was not quite a trash can—but was getting there. It seemed wrong to throw away even a broken lithic artifact that some nice Native American had made 6,000 years ago——so the brokes box was more of a File 13 than a true trash can. The surface collectors of that time would not pick up and take home unifacial tools, utilized flakes, items of debitage, or pottery sherds. They were often considered to be worthless junk that no one really wanted.

I sojourned longer than most in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in the 1970s and early 1980s, and on a few rare occasions, I spent the night in my office on Gerald Klein’s old U.S. Army cot. Gerald and I shared an office for several years way, way down the hallway in South Stadium Hall—just beyond Dr. Paul Parmalee’s stinky zooarchaeology laboratory—the classic home of road-kill rendering. More than once, I sat close by in South Stadium Hall when our lithic artifact specialists were having discussions. In those assorted discussions, they lamented the fact that artifact collectors took home scads of whole, temporally diagnostic pp/k’s (projectile points/knives) and other bifacial artifacts. These lamentations were usually followed by some version of the following:

Thank goodness the artifact collectors leave the unifacial tools, utilized flakes, and debitage in the fields.  We know that portion of the overall lithic artifact sample at any given archaeological site is not skewed, so we can always be confident when working with that portion of the lithic sample from the site.

Well enough. Now, let us fast forward to about the year 2013.  By that time traditional deep plowing of most fields in Tennessee and the rest of our nation had long since ceased. It had become illegal to collect artifacts on Indian lands, on federal lands, and in federal waters. It had also become illegal to collect artifacts on state-owned and controlled lands. In short, fewer, and fewer, and fewer places were available for artifact collectors to do legal surface collecting.

Many novice artifact collectors were not wealthy and could not afford to buy expensive artifacts from other collectors or artifact dealers. Outside of digging for artifacts——God forbid——the only way they could afford to easily build a collection was to do surface collecting in the few fields that were still deep plowed. However, the problem there was the fact that many of those fields had been stripped of most whole pp/k’s and bifacial tools by many past decades of intensive surface collecting in those fields. What was a novice surface collector to do?  Here comes the meat of the matter.  They said:

I know!!!  If I can’t afford to buy artifacts and most of the whole arrowheads and other neat bifacial tools in a plowed field are gone now, then I can build a collection by surface collecting for unifacial tools, cool utilized flakes, some really interesting items of debitage, and occasional pottery sherds!!!

Odd as it may sound, I have actually seen various versions of this expression on  artifact collector forums, such as Arrowheadology.com and Arrowheads.com, more than one time since 2013, and it may be the beginning of a long-term trend. If this is indeed the beginning of a trend, you professional archaeologists out there will no longer be able to just assume that your sample of unifacial tools, utilized flakes, and debitage has not been skewed from some previously prevailing and pristine site norm. You will be working with surface lithic samples that have been substantially and selectively messed with at all levels of lithic classification, and your analytical results from controlled surface collections may not be wholly dependable like they once were. Because most professional archaeologists do not visit on-line artifact collector forums, I just wanted to let you know that this problem already exists to a small degree, and it may be getting much worse as time goes by and surface artifact collectors find that they have fewer and fewer fields where they can do surface collecting.

(2) We professional archaeologists——well——at least the smart ones——now know it is highly unlikely that artifact collecting will ever become totally illegal in the United States. Artifact collecting is most likely here to stay, and nothing we archaeologists can say or do will ever stop it. However, professional archaeologists can make peace with artifact collectors to some meaningful degree and kindly ask for their help. There is one major thing all artifact collectors can do to help archaeologists——and by so doing——contribute substantially to our archaeological knowledge of the ancient human past in the United States.  What is that?

I would like to use this space to nicely and kindly ask American surface artifact collectors to do just one very helpful and useful thing that would be very easy for you to do. Rather than picking up the brokes in a field and taking them home to the File 13 box in the corner of your basement man cave, please leave behind all the basal pp/k’s you encounter in the field. Just let them lie where you first see them on the ground.  By the term basal pp/k, I mean the bottom halves (or a little less) of broken knives, spearheads (including Paleo-Indian points), atlatl dart points, and arrowheads. Why?  In most cases, the basal halves of pp/k’s are sufficient to identify what type of pp/k the whole artifact was at one time. If we professional archaeologists find lots of broken pp/k basal halves in fields, we can use those both now and in the future to help determine which prehistoric cultures occupied an archaeological site and when they occupied the site in prehistoric or historic times. In other words, we archaeologists can obtain about as much useful knowledge from them as we can from whole, unbroken pp/k’s. This is critically important for us in order to begin the process of fully understanding what ancient men and women were doing on any given prehistoric archaeological site.

So, if you surface collectors out there are going to take all of the whole, unbroken chipped stone artifacts you find home with you to be great prizes in your artifact collections, then please just leave the brokes behind in the fields for us archaeologists, especially the basal half pp/k brokes. That would be so very useful and helpful to archaeologists and American archaeology——rather than just taking the brokes too and letting the brokes pile up in your rarely looked at or used File 13 box of damaged and near worthless artifacts at home. While they may be worthless to you from an artifact collector’s perspective, they are not worthless to us archeologists. They are of great scientific importance. As mentioned earlier, we professional archaeologists can often tell about as much about certain aspects of a site’s prehistory from the broken basal halves of pp/k’s as we can if we actually had the whole pp/k’s. If you tend to see brokes as just “field junk” or “the good one that got away,” please just leave them in the fields for us archaeologists. American generations and American archaeologists who have not even been born will one day thank you for it. and you will be making a wonderful contribution to American archaeology for now and for the future.

(3)  Yes, I understand the main overall problem with what I have written here. I do realize that the few artifact collectors who are now settling for unifacial tools, utilized flakes, debitage, and pottery sherds would be overjoyed to find and take home the lower half of a broken pp/k. However, I am hoping——perhaps against hope——that a true, large-scale trend of collecting brokes, pottery sherds, unifacial tools, utilized flakes, and interesting items of debitage will never fully develop. If it does not and you can cooperate by leaving all of your brokes in the fields rather than taking them home to File 13 in your basements, the sites you surface collect will still be valuable to archaeologists in the future. Those brokes, especially the basal half pp/k brokes, will tell us, at least initially, a whole lot more about those sites than we would have otherwise known.

If you have any thoughts, positive or negative, on what I have said herein, please feel free to let me know in the comments space beneath this blog article. Thank you for your help!

Photograph Credit: Etsy.com (Quincy Relic Supply)

1 thought on “A Few Thoughts about Ground Surface Artifacts in Plowed Fields

  1. Lanny Glick

    A few years ago, a friend alerted me to what he called ‘Indian Rocks’ at the site of some new townhouse construction next to his house. I headed over to see if it was a site that should be reported to the Dept of Whatever. When I got there, I discovered that what we had was a ‘broke’ box that had been bulldozed years before, now coming to the surface. A friend and I harvested a couple of 5 gal drywall buckets full of debris including a few unbroken bits. Later I learned that this had been the home site of a professional digger who had worked with all of the pioneering archeologists in Middle Tn. He supplied many fine pieces to museums and collections for years before he died in the 1920s. His outbuildings had been torn down in the 30s and the house stood until it was torn down for development. I suspect this was the stuff that wasn’t good enough for the Peabody or the Smithsonian and was just stored in the shed until it was bulldozed. I would love to see this collection of stuff organized and categorized and put into the public sphere, but it is quite an undertaking.


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