Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 4

Question No. 4: You professional archaeologists seem to be afraid we artifact collectors are going to get all the good artifacts before you do. Listen up! There’s millions and millions and millions of archaeological sites in the United States, and they are chocked full to bursting with great artifacts. The supply of ancient artifacts at these sites is virtually endless!!! We artifact collectors could hunt and dig for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more years, and the artifact supply would never run out. These sites have enough artifacts to go around for everyone. After we artifact collectors take our fair share, there will still be many millions of great artifacts left over for you “archies” or anyone else who wants them. That being the case, why don’t you archies just get out of our way and quit hounding us about our collecting activities?


The term “archie” is a casual nickname artifact collectors sometimes use for professional archaeologists in the United States. Personally, I see it as a disgusting epithet—like the “n-word.” However, in the face of terms like pothunter, pot grabber, looter, and grave robber, I can see why artifact collectors came up with the term archie. But I have got to know. Does Archie wear a pith helmet—and if so—what does Marmaduke wear?

(1) Yes. Millions of archaeological sites are out there on the American landscape. However, all of those sites are not “chocked full to bursting with great artifacts.” A very large number of them are ephemeral campsites represented by light lithic scatters on the ground surface. Artifact collectors could dig for weeks or months on those sites and never take home any artifact suitable for mounting and hanging on a den wall. Sites like those probably far outnumber the archaeological sites that are “chocked full to bursting” with great artifacts. Therefore, the intact archaeological sites that do harbor some really great artifacts are fewer in number than you might think.

(2) Huge numbers of archaeological sites with great artifacts have already been pillaged by 19th century antiquarians and numerous early U.S. government archaeologists (or people working for them) who were not using modern approaches to site excavation and recording. Over the past 118 years, many more sites have been surface-collected to death or pillaged by the digging of artifact dealer minions and artifact collectors. All of the foregoing people acquired many great artifacts—and in doing so—they erased all or a portion of the archaeological context of those artifacts forever. As a result of it, the detailed prehistoric and historic stories written in the soil at those archaeological sites are gone to various degrees, and no one will ever be able to read those stories because they were erased. Archaeological reports that would fill whole libraries have been lost forever because archaeological sites were destroyed by artifact collectors before they could be properly excavated and reported.

(3)  Yes.  We do have many archaeological sites all over the country that have never been excavated at all or have never been fully excavated. Many of them contain great artifacts—especially sites out West. However, the supply of great artifacts in these sites is not virtually endless. What happens to the refrigerator in your kitchen if you get stuck inside your home for several weeks and cannot go to the supermarket? That refrigerator soon runs out of food. It will go empty. Archaeological sites are just like that refrigerator. They go empty of great artifacts on the ground surface and deep underground if artifact collectors surface hunt them to death and dig them to death. Professional archaeological activities on sites are equally destructive—the major difference being that the archaeologists record a site in detail on paper with notes, standard field forms, maps, and digital photographs as they surface collect or excavate.

Just to reiterate, if you surface collect a site to death or dig a site to death, then a day will come when no more great artifacts are present on the ground surface or below the ground surface. Artifacts are not living things. They do not marry each other underground, have wild sex with each other, and reproduce an endless supply of “baby great artifacts” that grow up underground to become “adult great artifacts.” However, to be quite honest with you, I have actually heard artifact collectors talk about an archaeological site with enthusiastic hope so unbounded that their unconscious minds were clearly pointed toward the notion of an endless supply of great artifacts at the site. Mounds run out of great artifacts. Caves run out of great artifacts. Stone box cemeteries run out of great artifacts. Open field archaeological sites run out of great artifacts. Listen artifact collectors!!! Archaeological sites run dry. How does that happen?

Here is one very good example. I know about a small Mississippian period stone box cemetery in the Inglewood suburb of east Nashville that has been pillaged to death by artifact collectors for many years. Many of these collectors were completely unaware that numerous other collectors in the past had already dug out this cemetery completely—and thoroughly destroyed it. How did that happen?  It happened something like this:

1930 – “Wow!!!  There’s stone box burials here. Let’s dig as many burials as we can find!!!”

1940 – “Geez Tommy! I just found an Indian grave. I bet no one else has ever dug here. Let’s start digging.”

1950 – “I bet lots of graves are here. We must be the first to know about them. Let’s dig.”

1960 – “John. We might find some great artifacts here.  Because we are the first collectors ever here—we should dig all these burials.

1970 – “Fred. I don’t think this cemetery has ever been dug. Let’s get after it.”

1980 – “Joe. A bulldozer snagged this here grave. I bet this cemetery has never been dug. Let’s dig it!”

1990 – A new house sits on top of this small, dug-to-death, and completely destroyed stone box cemetery where no great artifacts are left.

Archaeological sites do not contain a virtually endless supply of great artifacts. The supply dries up from either one intensive round of thorough collector digging or with multiple, incremental instances of thoughtless, socially nonconnective collector digging over time (as shown in the hypothetical chronology above). One collector’s hands often never know what another collector’s hands have already done in the past on an archaeological site.

The exact same thing happens with surface collecting in deep-plowed fields. If deep plowing, which is rare nowadays, goes 18-24 inches deep over time, it will eventually pull up nearly every nice artifact from that depth range. The only way it would pull up more great artifacts would be for a plow to go deeper into the top of the ancient living surface under the plow zone layer. If one or more surface collectors go to that field every year in the month of March for a number of years, the available number of great artifacts on the ground surface will run out. If surface collecting (and digging) goes on for hundreds of years at all archaeological sites (along with the destruction of sites by land development), a day will indeed come when all of the great artifacts are gone from all of our archaeological sites. What will the artifact collectors of the future do then?

So many times—so very many times—I have heard artifact collectors say words along these lines:

If I can just get these young kids interested in collecting artifacts, that interest will be so strong that when they are teenagers they will never steal a car, knock over a liquor store, or otherwise become juvenile delinquents. Collecting artifacts could quite literally save a kid’s life. Surely, saving a kid’s life is far more important than saving an archaeological site and its context.

Bubba. You do realize the problem with that—I hope!!!  One hundred or 200 years from now, some little boy or girl is going to say:

My teacher told me people used to find American Indian artifacts in plowed fields. I think that would be fun, but all the really interesting artifacts are gone now.  People took all the artifacts out of the ground. Nothing good was left for me to find on my grandpa’s farm or anywhere else around here. It’s really sad. I’d like to see what a real arrowhead looks like in a field, pick it up, hold it in my hand for a moment, and give it a close look.

That is what will happen one day if artifact collecting speeds on down the road at its current rate!!! Mark my word. It will happen. Today’s artifact collectors and land developers are careening down the highway to this future Hell right now—and that day will come. What you are doing as an artifact collector is not all about you and an ancient object you want out of the ground right now. What you are doing now destroys important things and adversely affects other people—both now and far into the future.

Kids can collect all sorts of things that are far less destructive than collecting artifacts and remain occupied with them enough to stay out of trouble. I grew up as a very poor kid in a tough, “poor white trash” (an indelicate term from the American South of the past) neighborhood. Collecting postage stamps—like my long-time archaeologist friend Dr. Gerald Schroedl does—kept me occupied, happy, and out of trouble in the midst of my childhood poverty and deprivation. The notion that artifact collecting alone has the power to save the lives and futures of kids is utter bullshit. Other hobbies and activities do it just as well.

(4) I very much doubt that professional archaeologists will ever get out of the way of artifact collectors and quit hounding them about their collecting activities. We care too much about preserving archaeological context, and we will do whatever we can to protect it from artifact collectors. The loss of it adversely affects the way professional archaeologists make their living—and it will continue to do so in the future. Because American archaeology is so poorly funded, trying hard to identify and preserve sites for the future—for posterity—is the best we can do right now.

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the principal professional organization for archaeologists in the western hemisphere, has a set of nine baseline ethical principles (click here) it expects all professional archaeologists to abide by in their work. Artifact collectors often wonder why most professional archaeologists are hounding them about their collecting activities. What is the root of it all? If you wonder where all of that ill will toward artifact collectors comes from, I am about to show you. It comes from two long-standing SAA ethical principles that professional archaeologists take as seriously as medical doctors do the famous Hippocratic Oath. Please take a look at these two SAA ethical principles:

Principle No. 1 – Stewardship

The archaeological record, that is, in-situ archaeological material and sites, archaeological collections, records and reports, is irreplaceable. It is the responsibility of all archaeologists to work for the long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record by practicing and promoting stewardship of the archaeological record. Stewards are both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people; as they investigate and interpret the record, they should use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation.

Principle No. 3 – Commercialization

The Society for American Archaeology has long recognized that the buying and selling of objects out of archaeological context is contributing to the destruction of the archaeological record on the American continents and around the world. The commercialization of archaeological objects – their use as commodities to be exploited for personal enjoyment or profit – results in the destruction of archaeological sites and of contextual information that is essential to understanding the archaeological record. Archaeologists should therefore carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the commercial value of archaeological objects. Whenever possible they should discourage, and should themselves avoid, activities that enhance the commercial value of archaeological objects, especially objects that are not curated in public institutions, or readily available for scientific study, public interpretation, and display.

A bunch of overly grumpy professional archaeologists in widely separated places did not just wake up at the same time one unusual Thursday morning and independently decide all artifact collectors are bad news and in need of hounding. Today it all goes back to the two above principles, which are taught to undergraduate and graduate archaeology students at American universities. Archaeologists with different personalities tend to brain process these principles in different ways—often in very emotional ways.

A few days ago, I mentioned my late friend, Dr. Patricia Cridlebaugh (known affectionately as “Pitty Pat”), in the answer to another artifact collector question here on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. She hated artifact collectors. Once upon a time, she quite seriously said to me:

I would rather see every ancient artifact in the United States destroyed than let even one of them fall into the hands of an artifact collector.

Strong stuff!!! However, I think this was just Pitty Pat’s very emotional way of saying that artifacts by themselves are not all that wonderful without their precise provenience and full archaeological context information to go with them—and damn it—most artifact collectors take the same reckless attitude toward precise provenience and archaeological context. They might rescue the artifact—but at the same time—-they fail to rescue its other most important aspects. In fact, they destroy precise provenience and contextual information as part of their digging—and that is every bit as reckless and unconscionable as destroying every ancient artifact in the United States.

A number of professional archaeologists are just as emotionally vehement about the above ethical principles as Pitty Pat was. Other professional archaeologists are moderately emotional or even less so—meaning there is an emotional spectrum that professional archaeologists fall into with regard to their personal feelings and the two above ethical principles. Personally, I tend to fall in the middle of that emotional spectrum. Some artifact collector activities really do piss me off. Other things they do, like legal surface collecting on private property with land owner permission, does not greatly upset me. However, I really do wish they would keep better records on their surface finds and precisely where they were found on an archaeological site.

I have to end this answer by telling you about one thing that surprised even me. You artifact collectors out there might want to sit up and take notice of it.

Just a few years ago, in one of the states here in the American Southeast, an artifact collector was in a deep hole he had dug and was scratching around for artifacts in it. I do not recall his name, so we will just call him Floyd for reference purposes herein. To the best of my recollection, he was doing illegal digging on federal or state property. Agency law enforcement got word of his activities and came out to arrest old Floyd and a couple of his buddies who were also digging at the site. When Floyd noticed the officers approaching him fast from afar, he jumped out of his digger hole and tried desperately to run away. During his run, he accidentally fell, perhaps off an embankment, and the hard landing resulted in his death. I later visited a Facebook page (cannot remember which one) where professional archaeologists and other readers were talking about this incident—the first news I had heard about it by the way—and they were laughing, joking, and kidding around about the dead artifact collector.

That surprised me because the death of a person—any person—is usually a sad matter worth serious contemplation. However, I also think this Facebook discussion was reflecting how very serious and how conservation-minded many professional archaeologists and other American citizens are when it comes to preserving the archaeological record in the United States.

Similarly, I have a good friend who loves African elephants (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis). If some poacher in Africa kills a protected elephant, my friend cries her eyes out and very seriously wants the poacher’s head on a platter (See the fate of John the Baptist in the Holy Bible). American artifact collectors need to understand that professional archaeologists and other conservationists love archaeological sites, endangered/threatened species, and vulnerable ecosystems (like ocean reefs) every bit as much as artifact collectors love collecting their artifacts. We get just as upset as you would if I were to visit your house with my hammer and smash your most prized artifacts. Well guess what?  You artifact collectors come to the archaeological sites we value so much with your digging tools and smash our artifact provenience and archaeological context. Is it any surprise that we get so upset about that?  Please——Just think about it.

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 4

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

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