Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 2

Question No. 2: I am new to collecting artifacts. Why do so many of my more experienced artifact collector buddies feel so uncomfortable socializing with professional archaeologists and showing their artifacts to them. Why are they so uncomfortable meeting with professional archaeologists and asking them questions about Tennessee archaeology and archaeology in general?


I can think of several possible reasons.  This is a long and rambling response with lots of elaboration, so take a deep breath and start reading the following list:

(1)  Your buddies may think every professional archaeologist is a policeman who is itching for the tiniest excuse to put them in handcuffs and arrest them. Personally, I have met very few archaeologists who carry a firearm or own handcuffs. Nearly every professional archaeologist I have ever known in my life——including myself——has been and continues to be far more interested in researching and writing about the ancient past than in finding excuses to arrest people. No professional archaeologist has ever said in my presence:

Well, it’s time for us to go arrest old Smitty.

A few Tennessee artifact collectors of the past (50 years ago) seemed to think that the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville) [UTK] contains within it a secret, hidden, underground control room that looks much like the Situation Room at the White House. You know: multiple large television screens, telecommunications equipment, powerful mainframe computers with hundreds of buttons and flashing lights, and data links to optical reconnaissance satellites that allow professional archaeologists to monitor artifact collector activities on the move, at their homes, and out in the fields of Tennessee. In this central operations center, Tennessee archaeologists were supposedly meeting often with each other to review collected data and figure out how to “take down” every artifact collector in Tennessee.

Back in the early 1970s, my old friend H.C. “Buddy” Brehm would tell me about occasional, hyper-paranoid artifact collectors he had met. A few collectors were absolutely convinced that a central operations center somewhat like this existed at UTK, and every artifact collector in the state was under more or less constant surveillance (aerial and otherwise) by all professional archaeologists in Tennessee. I spent eight years in the Department of Anthropology at UTK and still occasionally go over to visit. No such facility exists there now nor has any such facility ever existed there. It is a myth created by intense, self-generated artifact collector paranoia running wild. The notion that such a facility ever existed is pure bullshit, and I have to wonder whether the few people who thought it did were suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

Fact is:  If you or your buddies have never violated any federal, state, or local cultural resource protection laws, regulations, or ordinances, you have nothing to worry about. If you have violated them and sufficient evidence of it exists, you should worry.  However, it will most likely not be me or any other research archeologist who comes to arrest you. We like our laboratories, libraries, and pounding on our keyboards too much to be occupied with things like that. If you have violated the law, you are most likely to get arrested directly by a designated law enforcement officer of a federal, state, or local law enforcement agency (e.g., FBI, TVA Police, Park Ranger, Lead State Archaeologist, County Sheriff, etc.)  Best advice. Keep your noses clean collector boys and girls——and no one will ever bother you.

(2) In the old days before 1961, nearly all professional archaeologists got along well with the artifact collectors in Tennessee. One of the things collectors most enjoyed doing was showing off their newest artifact finds or artifact show purchases to professional archaeologists. Most of the archaeologists in those days enjoyed looking at those artifacts and discussing them. Some still do. This mutual love affair began to change for the worst in the early 1960s. The affair really soured badly in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s when federal and state cultural resource protection laws and regulations with real biting teeth went into effect. Nowadays, many artifact collectors intentionally avoid contact with professional archaeologists and do not want them to look at artifacts in their collections.

The artifact collectors most fear one simple question that all professional archaeologists ask when looking at an artifact they have never seen before. It goes something like this:

Wow!!! That is a really nice Clovis point. Where did you find it?

That one little question scares the absolute shit out of artifact collectors today. Why? Well, artifact collectors today  think——wrongly——that every archaeologist is a policeman, and the archaeologist is asking them that question as a specific precursor to a near certain arrest. Actually, I will ask that question every time——and I think most other research and academic archaeologists will too——not because we want to arrest a collector——but because we want to understand the specific archaeological context in which the artifact was found.

Most artifact collectors seem to have no understanding of how important archaeological context is to professional archaeologists. The exact, three-dimensional place (horizontally on the landscape and vertically under the ground surface) where an artifact was found is extremely important. It is the essential starting point from which most of our research and understanding of the human past begins. Without it, an artifact is often little more than a nice-looking rock——and many times just about as useless and worthless to archaeological science as a piece of limestone gravel in your driveway. I do not ask that question in hopes of arresting people, and neither do most other research archaeologists. We simply want to know where the artifact was found because it helps us to better understand the artifact and how it fits into local prehistory——contextually speaking. It is the starting point for a really interesting discussion——with you——about your artifact and its importance in the context of the landscape and past human activities on an archaeological site.

If you did not violate federal, state, or local cultural resource protection laws/regulations in the finding or receiving of a particular artifact, no one is going to arrest you or confiscate your artifact. It is that simple. If you are violating such laws, you need to quit it. The only artifact collectors who get arrested are the ones who have allegedly violated the law and sufficient evidence of the violation exists.

Two other reasons artifact collectors are afraid to talk to professional archaeologists these days are as follows:

(A)  Artifact collectors are afraid the professional archaeologist will, and I quote: “jump my claim,” (Old West mining lingo); get them thrown off the site; and start excavating the site themselves so they can, and I quote the artifact collector mindset:

Git all the really good artifacts for themselves.

Unless the archaeological site is unique in some important way, like a Paleo-Indian site with huge mastodon skeletons and Clovis points embedded between their ribs, that is not likely to happen. Professional archaeologists require substantial funding to excavate a site, process artifacts in the laboratory, properly curate them, and write large reports. Such funding is often quite hard to obtain in the large amounts needed. Money does not grow on trees, especially in the department of anthropology at your local university.  So, it is highly unlikely that any professional archaeologist will ever “jump your claim,” as you so often put it, on any average archaeological site. I am not saying it has never happened somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. I am just saying it is highly unlikely to happen with most sites.

In addition, as I explained in my response to Question No. 1 a few days ago, professional archaeologists are not out to “git the really good artifacts for themselves.”  We excavate for information and data——not artifact trophies to hang on our den walls. Information and data. Got it?  So, unless you are doing something clearly illegal, most professional archaeologists would simply like to know where your site is located and what you are finding there just so we can fill out a relatively confidential State Site Survey Form for the site and write down a few syllables about what kind of site it is, where it is, how old it is, and what is being found there—all just for future scientific reference purposes down the road in time and to permanently record the site for Tennessee posterity. Simple. Easy. Painless. No arrest if your activity at the site is legal. So, quit with all the jitters!!!

(B)  Some artifact collectors are afraid a professional archaeologist will call up a private property owner who has given them permission to surface hunt or dig for artifacts on his land. They are afraid the professional archaeologist will ask the landowner to kick them off the property and forbid them from further collecting on the property. Quite frankly, I have never done that because private property owners often do not like third-party strangers meddling in their private business affairs and private agreements they have made with other people. I do not recall any archaeologist ever telling me that he or she has done that. I am not saying it has never happened somewhere in the past on some tract of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean, but it is not a common practice in my realm of experience.

In the past, I have asked property owners to preserve significant archaeological sites that qualify as historic properties, care for them wisely, and turn down any future requests to surface hunt or dig. No one was actively hunting or digging on those sites at the time. However, if you want to preserve a significant archaeological site for posterity, you cannot have people hunting and digging it to death. That is just basic common sense. I think you can understand that.

Some private property owners do not like professional archaeologists (often officials from a state agency or university) who might try to meddle with how they manage their own land. They get really nervous when the word “state” enters an archaeology discussion. (Been there. Seen that.) I have visited farms where the owner was split-britches happy to greet me and let me walk all over his property all day long to determine if an archaeological site is present. Then I mentioned the words “fill out a State Site Survey Form,” and the word “state” suddenly freaked out the farmer. You know——it goes something like this:

Naw!!!  Naw!!! Naw!!! I don’t want the state involved in anything about my property. There’s no tellin’ what they’d do.  They’d cinch my ass on something, and pretty soon I might not even be able to drive my tractor up there on my own land. Deals off son. Now get outa here.

(3) Some professional archaeologists may come across to artifact collectors as know-it-all academic snobs. The letters M.A., Ph.D., and RPA after a name can be really intimidating to some artifact collectors, especially if the collector never graduated from high school or only has a high school diploma. In addition, so sorry to say, the graduate degrees are sometimes accompanied by a nasal-snarling, aloof, and highly negative attitude that many archaeologists have toward artifact collectors. I can understand why some artifact collectors would feel uncomfortable at the prospect of having to talk with someone who behaves like that. I always try to be friendly and congenial when I talk with people about archaeology. However, like all people, I have occasionally been known to lose control over my emotions and have my own bad actor moments.

All professional archaeologists are not snarling, aloof, and intimidating. Some of us truly are interested in what artifacts you have found (and where), and we enjoy having a good conversation with you. If you are looting an archaeological site, we are not going to help you do that, especially if what you are doing is illegal, but we do not mind a good conversation with you about artifacts and archaeology.

I honestly think artifact collector paranoia about professional archaeologists has become far too inflated in recent times, usually by uninformed and speculative discussions among artifact collectors. I have observed these discussions on-line at artifact collector forums. These discussions and speculations among collectors pump collector fear and anxiety up as big as the moon sitting beside the Earth. That balloon is so very full of speculative hot air, and it is a wonder the whole balloon does not explode right in collector faces. Unless you are indeed doing something illegal, such high anxiety, fear, and paranoia are unfounded.

Nonetheless, I will say this. Some of my professional archaeology colleagues might disagree with it, but I will say it anyway. I have known some——let me underline some (but not all) artifact collectors who hate professional archaeologists with an almost perfect hatred (See Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). I have also known some professional archaeologists——let me underline some again (but not all)——who hate artifact collectors with an almost perfect hatred. One of those people was an old, dear, very close, but long deceased friend of mine, Dr. Patricia Cridlebaugh. I mentioned the term “artifact collector” to her in a casual archaeology conversation 43 years ago, and her back bowed up like a house cat ready for a slashing match. The associated hiss was silent——but at the same time as audible as a sudden clap of thunder.

I really and truly think these little perfect hater groups (on both sides) are doing an enormous disservice to the American past. Your mutual hatred achieves nothing useful for the American archaeological record, and enormous amounts of important archaeological information and data are being lost as a direct result of your little fits of mutual hate, rage, and  grudge holding. That is unconscionable, and the continuation of it is even more unconscionable. Both sides should be ashamed of themselves. Seventy-five years from now, I can almost guarantee you the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is going to look back to our present time with total disgust at all of the archaeological information and data that were needlessly lost between A.D. 1960 and 2093 because you toddler brats (on both sides) were too busy hating each other to realize how much was being lost forever——when you could have taken action to record at least some of the information and data that were briefly available to you through a little congenial talk with your adversaries.

Do you seriously want the professional archaeologists and avocational archaeologists of the next century writing about you as the George Wallaces and Lester Maddoxes of 20th and 21st century American archaeology and amateur archaeology? I believe there is a very real risk of that actually happening to you one day. You hate mongers on both sides need to cool the highly flammable rhetoric and start talking to each other in a friendly and civil manner.

You can start by contacting Dr. Bonnie Pitblado in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and by taking a close, mind-wide-open look at her trailblazing work for the SAA on a pathway to achieving civility and mutual cooperation between professional archaeologists and responsible artifact collectors——which will eventually stop many of these terrible losses of archaeological information and data well before 2093.

(4) I have already mentioned the giant, moon-like balloon of fear that many artifact collectors create in discussions among themselves. Once again, I have seen it on-line. You torture yourselves about not thoroughly understanding the cultural resource protection laws and regulations. You work yourselves into a speculative tizzy and wring your hands with anxiety——because you heard about some artifact collector named Bubba who was “taken down” by the FBI in Georgia, Florida, or Indiana. You heard that poor old Bubba “t’warnt’t a doin’ anythin’ wrong”——and nobody could ever figure out what poor old Bubba did and how he could have been arrested like that. Worry!  Worry!  Worry!  Some of you even try to hide knowledge of your artifact collections from the general public. From the tense, terse personal conversations I have had with some of you, it looks as if you are afraid of your own shadows. A huge balloon of fear has engulfed you.

I believe 90 to 100 percent of that fear is unfounded, especially if you are not engaged in any illegal activities. However, I would like to say this. The clique of American archaeologists who hate artifact collectors with a perfect hatred is very proud of the fearful tizzies you have worked yourselves into. They like to see it! They love it! They want that fear to eat you alive——even if you are 100 percent legal. They need that self-generated balloon of fear inside you. Why? They hope your level of self-generated anxiety will become so highly intense that your central nervous system will no longer be able to bear the strain——and you will quit collecting artifacts just to get relief from all the pain——and in turn——quit destroying archaeological sites to find artifacts.

Most professional archaeologists really do believe that when you quit collecting——the destruction of archaeological sites by artifact dealer minions and artifact collectors will soon end. Moreover, I think most professional archaeologists (particularly the perfect haters) have convinced themselves (right or wrong) that nearly all American artifact collectors are involved to one degree or another in some form of illegal activity with archaeological sites and/or artifacts. I do not fully share their belief in that untested blanket assumption because I have known numerous legal artifact collectors. Unfortunately, I have also known about alleged illegal artifact collectors——mostly as hearsay through the third party grapevine of gossip.

(5)  I do not know how other professional archaeologists feel about it, but one thing some artifact collectors do just drives me crazy. Once upon a time, I had a 1.5-hour discussion with an artifact collector I had only just met on the telephone. It was a calm and meaningful discussion on my end of the line. We were just having a normal conversation about artifacts and archaeology. Then, every 20 minutes or so, throughout our conversation, the artifact collector would suddenly pause and frantically state a chorus just like this one:

I swear man!!!  You gotta believe me!!! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!  I ain’t done nothin’ wrong man!!! I swear it!!! You believe me don’t you???  I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!  You gotta believe me man!!!  You just gotta!!! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!  I swear.  I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!!!

In that conversation, I never said or implied that this artifact collector had done anything wrong. This chorus was all voluntary, and it wore me out. Let me see. Every 20 minutes or so for 1.5 hours. That works out to what——5.5 repeated choruses? Yep. This collector appeared to think I was some sort of police officer. Let’s see? Archaeologist = police officer (Really?); therefore, police officer = archaeologist. A man gets on a train in Los Angeles and another man gets on a train in Chicago…if A is equal to B and B is equal to C…then A is…  Well, whatever!

Listening to those paranoid choruses was really annoying. This collector was obviously afraid that I was both an archaeologist and a police officer. In reality, I was just interested in some new archaeological information and enjoying the conversation about artifacts and archaeology. I do not want anyone in Tennessee to think that I have a dual function as both a professional archaeologist and a police officer. If I had wanted to be a police officer, I would have gone to the Knoxville Police Academy for an education instead of the UTK Department of Anthropology.

Yes, if I were at a TVA Lake Access for personal recreational purposes, and I happened to spot two guys digging a hole to find artifacts, I would call Erin Pritchard at TVA and report it. However, I never wanted to be a policeman, and I do not want people to think of me as a policeman now. If they do, everything just goes totally weird inside 10 minutes in any conversation about archaeology, and a meaningful artifact or archaeology discussion quickly goes to Hell in a hand basket of fear and loathing.

Look. I am a very shy and introverted person by both nature and nurture——a male Emily Dickinson type if there ever was one. You might not think that from reading my writings here on the blog, but it is true. I tend to avoid people in general and like to keep my nose over my keyboard or inside a good nonfiction book. I would like to keep it that way for the small handful of years I have left on this Earth. So, if you are an artifact collector——and you feel uneasy around professional archaeologists——and maybe feel the need to voice repeated choruses of frantic fear or confess something illegal you might have done in the past with an archaeological site or artifacts, I would rather not hear about it. Go find a Roman Catholic priest somewhere. I feel sure he would be more than happy to hear any frantic choruses of fear, confessions, or concerns you might have.

This question has been answered to the best of my ability. If you have any further questions or comments about my answer, you may make a comment here or send me an e-mail message. And yes, just in case you were wondering, the doctors and the men in white suits let me go out on the asylum grounds to exercise for at least one hour each day (LOL).

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 2

  1. Pingback: Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists—Easy Access List | Archaeology in Tennessee

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