Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 5

This artifact collector question is going to sound outlandish to my professional archaeologist colleagues, but an artifact collector quite seriously posed a version of this question to me just a few short years ago.

Question No. 5: You professional archaeologists have already learned about all you are ever going to learn about the prehistoric Native American cultures and peoples in Tennessee and the United States. Given how much you already know and how little is left to learn, why don’t you professional archaeologists just quit your profession and turn all your archaeological sites over to us artifact collectors so we can rescue the artifacts still left in the ground before they decay away into nothing?


Famous American educator Robert C. Snyder can answer the first portion of that question for you, which is also true of American archaeology. Here is the money quote Snyder offered to a group of gifted high school students in the 1970s:

I am so very weary of hearing that the world is going to be blown up—that youth is not to be trusted—that there is no chance for greatness today—that most of the frontiers have been conquered. Let me say to you that all of these suggestions are untrue and will not come to pass, for we are actually just in the infancy of civilization, and you are living in a glorious age and day. Man is just beginning to crawl, so to speak.

We professional archaeologists have learned a lot about ancient Native Americans and historic-era Americans since the early 1800s. What we know now will pale in comparison to what we will know 100 years from now. When you consider the fact that professional archaeology, in the fully modern sense, began in the early 20th century with the famous Chicago Field Schools, sponsored by the University of Chicago, American professional archaeology is still in its infancy and “just beginning to crawl.” You would be amazed at the number of local geographic areas in the United States where very little to zero truly modern professional archaeological studies have ever been conducted in any real depth. Archaeologically speaking, the northwest half and central portion of the Tennessee county where I live are virtually unknown to professional archaeologists because so little professional work has ever been done there.

The artifacts—individually and all by themselves—in an archaeological site are not the most important and most valuable aspects of the site.  The archeological context of those artifacts is the most important and valuable aspect of every archaeological site. Basically, archaeological context consists of the three-dimensional spatial relationships that exist among the artifacts, features, human burials, dog burials, postmolds, postmold patterns, stratigraphy, soil characteristics, geological characteristics, and many other things on the ground surface of an archaeological site and buried in the soil beneath it. Digging by archaeologically untrained artifact collectors erases those contextual relationships—and it erases them forever—so no person in the future can read the complex story of the prehistoric cultures and peoples that is written in the soil on an archaeological site. When archaeological context is not recorded in detail on paper during an excavation, it is gone forever.

For some reason that is hard for me to fathom, most of the artifact collectors I have ever known do not understand this—even after it is explained to them—or they do not want to understand it because a trophy for the den wall is a much higher priority than erasing the most scientifically valuable aspect (archaeological context) of any given archaeological site. Artifact collector activities render archaeological context anywhere from damaged (to various degrees) all the way up to totally extinct on archaeological sites. How do we professional archaeologists feel about that? It is like you might feel if some guy named Buford proudly walks into a hunting lodge in Arkansas some future day and says this to his friends:

Hey guys!!! Look at this!!! I just used my .22 to kill off the last known bald eagle in the United States.  This kind of bird is now extinct, and I’m proud to say that I’m the guy who made it happen. Good or bad, my name is going to be in the history books for sure now! This old Haliaeetus will never leucocephalus another limb in this forest again!!!

My friend Harvey is a great taxidermist, and he’s going to make this dead bird look “real natural like” for me and rig up this baby so I can mount it on my den wall.

We professional archaeologists plan to keep on doing professional archaeology, and we will never quit trying to learn more about prehistoric and historic cultures and peoples here in the United States.  We are here to stay because there is far more left to learn than what we already know.  We will not abandon our profession, and we will not turn our surveyed archaeological sites over to artifact diggers so they can pillage them for artifacts—and in the process—erase the highly valuable archaeological context at those sites.

Most of the artifacts on the ground surface and in the soil on American archaeological sites have been there for 50 to 13,000 years. Lithic artifacts and well-made ceramic artifacts are pretty durable—with human remains, bone artifacts, and antler artifacts less so—primarily because of soil acidity. Outside of the threats posed by land development, most artifacts will keep on the ground surface and underground for a very long time into the future.

Yes. I know it is illegal to kill bald eagles, and no one in their right mind would display one they had killed because of that————-yet. With President Donald J. Trump and his evil minions in office, our recovering national population of bald eagles could be put in danger of extinction once again. The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 is widely known to be one of the chief items on Trump’s list of statutes and regulations to be gutted or severely weakened.  That would be such a shame when you consider all of the progress that has been made so far in protecting bald eagles (and other species) while increasing their populations throughout the United States.

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 5

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

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