Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 7

Question No. 7: You professional archaeologists use the words “looting” and “looter” an awful lot these days. How do you professional archaeologists define those two terms? My collector buddies tell me those two terms apply only to illegal surface hunting and illegal digging for artifacts on federal, state, or local government lands. Is that right?

Answer:

No.  That is not right. In fact, legality or illegality has absolutely nothing to do with the formal definitions of these two terms. Furthermore, these two terms have nothing to do with a person’s age, land ownership, or whether a person has given an artifact collector permission to hunt or dig for artifacts on their land. Read on down, and all of this will be explained in great detail—and with a little illustrative comedy from The Three Stooges

The term looting refers to the act of removing one or more prehistoric or historic-era artifacts from their most recent archaeological context on the ground surface, beneath the ground surface, or underwater—by any person who is not a qualified professional archaeologist (or someone under their training or supervision)—for the purpose of owning the artifacts as private property—and selling the artifact(s), trading the artifact(s), or retaining ownership of the artifact(s) for personal recreation or material investment.

The term looter is defined as any person who commits the act of looting for artifacts in a fieldwork context. Once again, by definition, a looter is any artifact hunter who is not a qualified professional archaeologist—or is an ordinary person operating without training in field archaeology or operating outside of supervision by a professional archaeologist.

I know the key question that is uppermost on your mind after reading those two definitions, so here it is:

Do you mean to tell me that if I am a citizen of Tennessee, I call up my friend Ned Brooks, he gives me written permission to surface hunt or dig for artifacts at an archaeological site on his land—with me in 100 percent compliance with Tennessee cultural resources law and human burial laws—and I go surface hunting or digging at Ned’s place—you professional archaeologists officially define me as a looter?

Yes. You betcha!!! That is absolutely correct!!! I have been involved in American archaeology (on and off—one way or another) for the past 48 years. That was the everyday convention among professional archaeologists, archaeology graduate students, and archaeology undergraduate students throughout my eight years in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). That is how the terms looting and looter were used—every day—in our formal academic discussions. They were used that way in casual archaeological discussions over a beer at a local bar on Friday nights. They were used that way over a brown bag lunch, and they were used that way in the Chevy Suburban on the long drive home from a day of archaeological fieldwork. I have never heard the terms looting or looter used any other way or by any other definition—-whatsoever—by any other archaeologist in the United States across my 48 years of experience.

I have seen a few of the discussions about this subject among artifact collectors at various on-line collector venues. I have read the comments where collectors swear up one side and down the other that they cannot possibly be defined as a looter because they never illegally hunt, dig, or swish around for artifacts on government land or under government waters. They can talk all they want to about it—talk themselves blue in the face if they like—twist it around however they like—but no matter how much they talk or twist—if they are legally surface hunting in a field or legally digging somewhere for artifacts to take home—without professional field training or supervision—the professional archaeology community in the United States officially defines them as looters.

Yes. I know the next question that is on your mind right now, so let us quickly go there and say a few words about that one too:

Well….what about my three-year-old daughter? We go hiking on her grandfather’s huge farm and sometimes arrive at a plowed field with arrowheads in it. If she pockets one of those arrowheads to take home, and her grandpa says it is okay to take it, do you professional archaeologists define my toddler sweety as a looter?

Yes. Your little toddler sweety is technically a looter. Once again, the terms looting and looter have nothing to do with a person’s age, legalities or illegalities, who owns a property, whether a property owner gives a person permission to hunt for artifacts, or whether the property owner says it is okay to take the artifacts home as personal property. All archaeological sites, the artifacts on them (on land or under water), and their specific archaeological contexts are considered to be precious, highly valuable, and nonrenewable cultural resources—regardless of who owns them. The terms looting and looter are framed and used solely in terms of cultural resource protection and proper archaeological qualification concerns—specifically protecting those scientifically valuable resources from surface hunting, digging, and stream bottom swishing by unqualified amateurs.

Here is a quick and helpful list that further explains this, but it is not necessarily an exhaustive list:

(1) If you are an artifact collector and you are legally surface hunting for artifacts on a privately owned tract of land with the landowner’s oral or written permission, then your surface collecting is considered to be looting by the professional archaeology community in the United States.  You are considered to be a looter.

(2) If you are an artifact collector and you are legally digging for artifacts on a tract of privately owned land with the landowner’s oral or written permission, then your digging for artifacts is considered to be looting by the professional archaeology community in the United States. You are considered to be a looter.

(3) If you are an artifact collector and you are legally hunting for artifacts on the bottom of a creek or stream that is privately owned and you have the landowner’s oral or written permission to do so, then your bottom hunting is considered to be looting by the professional archaeology community in the United States. You are considered to be a looter.

(4) If you are the owner of a tract of land and you surface collect or dig for artifacts at a site on your own land—and you are not a qualified professional archaeologist (or someone trained or supervised by one), then you are looting an archaeological site on your own land. The professional archaeology community in the United States considers you to be a looter. (Remember—the terms looting and looter are framed in terms of professional qualifications and protecting a cultural resource—no matter who owns the land on which the resource is located.)

(5)  If you are surface collecting or digging for artifacts illegally on federal, state, or local government lands or you are illegally searching for artifacts in a government-owned or government-controlled river, lake, or stream (or the government-owned or government controlled-banks of these water bodies), then you are looting government property. The professional archaeology community and the government agency responsible for its cultural resources consider you to be a looter.

Let me guess? Your jaw has just dropped to the floor, and your mouth is wide open with amazed disbelief. If you are an American artifact collector and you have read this main blog post all the way down to this point on the page, you may be feeling like that tall Mexican guy with greasy hair in an old episode of The Three Stooges, entitled Sappy Bull Fighters. Please click the white triangle on the following safe video clip, drag the red time ball over to the 6:58 mark, and let it play for about three minutes:

“I Will Ki-i-i-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l You!!!!!!!!!

Well, if I were an artifact collector, I might feel that angry too. Believe me, I am quite familiar with how angry some artifact collectors get when facing up to assorted truths they would rather not see or hear.

Nonetheless, that is how the professional archaeology community in the United States looks at artifact collectors who find their own artifacts out in American fields, caves, rockshelters, streams, etc. It is called looting, and those who do it are called looters. If you are an artifact collector who does any kind of fieldwork to find new artifacts for your collection—and you are not a qualified professional archaeologist (or a person trained in field archaeology or supervised by an archaeologist), then you are considered to be a looter.

I will now add a couple of fairly rare exceptions to what I have said here about looting and looters. Professional archaeologists refer to some persons as avocational archaeologists, a term which is far different from amateur archaeologist, artifact collector, or looter. This term includes people such as my late friend H.C. “Buddy” Brehm, who lived in Nashville, and his still-living local friend John Dowd. They are not considered to be looters because they know how to do professional quality archaeological fieldwork and have worked very closely with professional archaeologists for many years. They are highly intelligent people who, in my humble opinion, could have easily earned an M.A. or Ph.D. degree in anthropology or archaeology, if they had ever had the time away from work or had wanted to do so. Avocational archaeologists have made wonderful contributions to American archaeology, and the Society for American Archaeology has given John Dowd a major award for his lifetime of contributions to Tennessee archaeology. (High five John!!!!)

In addition, a few other people (very, very, very few—I might add) ) learn how to do professional-quality field archaeology more or less entirely on their own through a program of deep personal study in books, manuals, and journal articles written by professional archaeologists—and sometimes with a little field school training. Such people are by nature extremely intelligent, and they learn subject matter easily all by their lonesome. In fact, there is a formal term for such rare people. They are called autodidacts. Occasionally, one of these elite few may have a prior professional background in civil engineering, field geology, land surveying, or landscape architecture. Such people are not considered to be looters because they know how to do professional quality archaeological fieldwork—and they do it very well. Such people include—but are not limited to—the late Glenn Black in Indiana, young Richard Polhemus (now Dr. Richard Polhemus) in the Knoxville area, or Mr. S. David Dean in upper East Tennessee.

Many years ago, circa 1979, I was talking to my former professor and long-time friend, Dr. Charles H. Faulkner at UTK, in the morning of the day he first traveled to upper East Tennessee to meet with S. David Dean, who was self-excavating a large rockshelter site for the first time. Charlie did not know quite what to expect, and like all professional archeologists would be, he was afraid that he might just find another ordinary guy doing random, unprofessional digging in a rockshelter. Nonetheless, he was willing to risk checking it out and making a new friend, so he headed out toward Johnson City by car that cloudy morning. When Charlie arrived back at the department, I saw the weird look on his face. He was both shocked and amazed (flabbergasted actually) at what he had seen. Mr. Dean had quite literally self-taught himself how to do the highest-quality field archaeology (transit, grid system, and the whole works), and he was doing it in that rockshelter at a level of detail and quality that even the late British field archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon would have admired. Charlie was really impressed!!! S. David Dean, in association with East Tennessee State University, went on to make many excellent contributions to the archaeology of the Volunteer State—and he continues to do so today.

Now, hold on just a minute artifact collectors. After reading what I just wrote, I know what some of you are thinking because I grew up around artifact collectors. You have read Tribes That Slumber or Hiwassee Island by T.M.N. Lewis and Madeline Kneberg (or other popular books on archaeology); you have taken a close look at Antiquities of Tennessee by Gates P. Thruston; you know about that old 1876 book written by Dr. Joseph Jones; you own a copy of Sun Circles and Human Hands, and you read a copy of the Central States Archaeological Journal every quarter of the year. You love ancient Native American cultures and their artifacts with all of your mind, heart, and soul. That is all well and good, and very admirable, and I am glad you do. However, that does not put your level of knowledge about archaeology, particularly professional field archaeology, in the same class with the best avocational archaeologists or self-taught archaeologists in Tennessee or the other 49 states.

Excellent avocational archaeologists are light years ahead of you in what they know about archaeology in general and how to do competent, professional-quality field archaeology. Your little bit of knowledge about archaeology, as an artifact collector, is not a free ticket out of being defined as a looter by the professional archaeology community in the United States. If you are out on the American landscape surface hunting fields, digging random holes to find artifacts, trawling your fishing boat along a lake edge to pull artifacts out of the eroding banks, or scuba diving to feel around for artifacts on the bed of a river, most American archaeologists will use the term looting to describe what you are doing. They will also describe you as a looter.

It has always seemed to me that many artifact collectors in the United States are confused about the accepted and formal use of the terms looting and looter, exactly what they mean, how they are used in professional archaeology conversations or publications, and to whom they apply. I have tried my flat-out best to explain all of that to you in detail above. You might not like what I had to say, and it may even hurt a bit. I am sorry if it does. I was not trying to hurt your feelings. My sole purpose was to explain to you about the terms looting and looter, and how professional archaeologists regularly use them. It is my sincere hope that what I have written will be of some help to you.

Video Clip Credit: Columbia Pictures Corporation

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 7

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

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