Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 3

Question No. 3: Why do you, as a professional archaeologist, write such long and detailed comments and responses on our on-line artifact collector forums?  Why do you think we want to read all of that?


This one is easy to answer. Professional archaeologists are taught to write archaeological reports, monographs, journal articles, etc. in as much detail as possible and with as much precision as possible. The idea is to always tell as thorough and complete a story as possible about the prehistoric or historic human past—in terms of what the available information and data will allow. Archaeologists may put the framework of an archaeological site report together, and tell the reader as full a story as possible. However, these initial stories often contain information and data holes that need to be filled in to make a story about the past more complete. Filling those holes often requires a lot of extra, secondary research time and writing. The holes may be filled by waiting longer to publish a report, or they may be filled by a later addendum to the report. In some cases, holes may be filled over time with a series of archaeology journal articles specific to filling in each hole in the overall story. The whole idea is to tell a full, detailed, and meaningful story—-and that requires many detailed facts and words.

Based on my own past experience, some artifact collectors feel “put upon” if they have to read anything longer than two or three sentences. To them, reading through three or four good-sized paragraphs feels like pulling teeth or climbing Mount Everest. This sounds like a problem with artifact collector literacy to me because it is not at all hard for numerous people to read through several paragraphs with excellent comprehension.

Back in my K-12 days, I remember quite a number of my fellow students in middle school and high school who could barely read at all:

The c-a-a-a-a t an dawg j-j-j-j-umphed ovr thuh mooooom.

I mean really!!! What do you do with something like that in an adult? Are we professional archaeologists supposed to write all of our archaeological reports, journal articles, and commentary so a nearly illiterate person can understand them? Must we take a 400-page archaeological report and write an eight-word synopsis of it so some odd number of illiterate artifact collectors can get the gist of it? Please? Give the parameters of everyday reality a little bit of a break here!!!

The exact words escape me now, but sometime in the past, I actually ran into a main post at an on-line artifact or treasure hunting forum—and it was not much bigger than this one:

I walked into the field. Picked up a Morrow Mountain.

What were the very serious, nonsarcastic artifact collector replies to this comment on the forum?  Try this on for size because it is very close to the comments I actually saw in response to that so-called story:

Wow Joe!!! That was one really great story you just told. We really enjoyed getting the complete rundown on that. Thanks a lot for your wonderful words!!!!!! We all appreciated it very much.

That is not a story!!!  I do not know what it is, but it is not a story. Let’s use the human body as an example. A story is like a whole human body, and this artifact collector just walked into the forum with the broken-off end of a collar bone. At the very least, a full human skeleton is the beginning of a story, and a real story is that skeleton with all the meat on its bones. We are talking about a complete, highly detailed story told in paragraphs.

Artifact collectors are always wondering why so many professional archaeologists do not take them seriously. This is one very good reason. I laughed my butt off when I first read that so-called “story” and the congratulatory responses to it on that forum. Illiterate and half-literate artifact collectors give the whole artifact collector community a bad name in the eyes of  the professional archaeology community. Those archaeologists who hate artifact collectors can easily use things like that as a convenient tool to unfairly tar and feather the entire artifact collector community.

One way to avoid this kind of problem would be for artifact collectors to get together and establish their own very serious national organization, similar to the Society for American Archaeology, and require members to meet certain established criteria to be accepted into the national collector community—and set the bar for entrance into the community to be higher rather than lower. For example, you could require each member to have at least a high school diploma and a certain required level of practical literacy to enter into the community. If the artifact collector community were able to speak with a solid, unified national voice, it would be much easier for the already organized and unified professional archaeology community to come together with you, hash out issues, and come to some reasonable cooperative agreements. Right now, that is impossible because the artifact collector community is made up of thousands of different artifact collectors who all want to spin off in their own personal directions.

Yes, I know. This has been tried before, and you failed. It would be nice if professional archaeologists could deal with a rigid, self-controlled, and written-standards-based artifact collector community that speaks nationally with one voice. You need to try it again and work harder at keeping it. Work hard to keep the artifact collector illiterati from destroying the organization “just so they can keep feeling comfortable.”

When archaeologically interesting things are found by collectors—things we professional archaeologists who are not haters would like to know about—it would be nice to know that every artifact collector in the community is capable of writing a highly detailed and well-written full story about what he or she found—and precisely where it was found. Is that asking too much? Yes, I know some of you try to do that in the Central States Archaeological Journal, but I seriously wonder how many artifact collectors are simply incapable of writing a detailed and coherent story about their personal finds. I would bet—just an off-the-cuff bet—that the number of artifact collectors who write such pieces for collector journals are few in number compared to the total artifact collector population in the United States.  Why am I concerned about that?  Simple:

For professional archaeologists, the artifact itself is nearly nothing—nearly nothing. The exact contextual circumstances of your find are EVERYTHING. Artifact collectors who find an artifact on or under the ground are proud of saying: “I rescued a piece of the past,” as if you have done something really wonderful for American prehistory or history.  In most instances, you have not done anything even remotely wonderful. It may be a nice-looking object made of rock, bone, or baked clay, but that is about all it is—a near nothing by itself. Knowing the exact, detailed location of your find on the landscape and under the ground, and the details of the specific archaeological context in which it was found, are EVERYTHING. That is where the truly valuable prehistory and history lies—in the location and context of the find—not in the artifact all by itself. The location and specific context in which the artifact was found are the things most in need of rescuing.

I have to tell you the truth—as a professional archaeologist. Whenever I hear an artifact collector proudly boasting about some artifact he just found and how he just rescued a piece of the past, it grates on my ears like fingernails on a slate blackboard. Why?  In reality, the artifact collector brought home a nice-looking piece of rock, pottery, or bone—and left the most valuable thing about that artifact in the ground—and more often than not—that most valuable thing is lost forever.

What happens when you try to explain all of that to many artifact collectors:

That there thing you just said.  I don’t understand that. It just screws my brain cells somethin’ awful. You get all the valuable prehistory and history straight out of the artifact alone don’t you.  I mean. You know a lot about archaeology after all them years of university studying—and knowing all of that—you just put the artifact down all by itself on a table top—and then all of a sudden like—the artifact speaks to you or something—and then you just write down whatever it says to you—and whatever it says is the valuable prehistory and history. Ain’t that about right? I always thought that was what you archaeologist guys were a doin’, and that’s why gettin’ the artifact all by itself is the most important thing.

No.  That is not what we professional archaeologists do today.  If you have been reading some old antiquarian books written between 1820 and 1930, like Gates P. Thruston’s Antiquities of Tennessee, I can see how you might have gotten that very wrong idea about how archaeologists work.

Americans no longer drive horses and buggies to get around town. We drive modern technological wonders like this thing:


With the possible exception of Paleo-Indian points, the idea that an artifact, sitting alone on a table top, speaks to a professional archaeologist the valuable story of prehistory and history is the sadly mistaken and largely discredited archaeology of a long ago, horse-and-buggy time in American history. For the most part, American archaeologists do not work anything like that today. American archaeology has advanced light years beyond that way of working—and archaeological context really is EVERYTHING today.

Therefore, American artifact collectors, the next time you proudly hold up an artifact you just found and say that you have just rescued a valuable piece of prehistory or history—and you think you deserve some sort of hearty congratulations for that from the American archaeology community—think again. If you do not know the precise—let me emphasize the word precise—provenience and context in which that artifact was found—then you have done almost nothing of any real value for American prehistory or history. Please be aware that “over yonder on Ned Baker’s farm” is not precise provenience and archaeological context. It is a low-level start——-but a lot more precise and detailed information than that is needed.

As it stands right now, any illiterate freakazoid named Bubba is automatically a member in good standing of the artifact collector community in the United States. The only requirements for entry into the community are an insatiable hunger for acquiring new artifacts and the ability to say:

Duh-h-h-h-h, that one shore is purdy.

You know that. I know that. Do better—and please quit asking us to excessively abbreviate what we write for your slowest community members. They  had their chance in K-12 English years ago, and they blew it!!! We should not have to cater to that at such a low level today. Many of us try to write more lengthy archaeological synopses in simple, everyday language for ordinary citizens, and we try to do that well.  However, we cannot practically go to extremes with it just because some artifact collector never learned how to read or write well.

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 3

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

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s