Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 8

Question No. 8: I once overheard a college archaeology student mention something I had never heard of before. It was some sort of book with the title Pothunter Picture Book. I could not find that anywhere on Can you tell me anything about this book?


Yes. It is not the title of a book. It is a pejorative term some (but not all) professional archaeologists and archaeology graduate students throw around in casual conversation to express and emphasize their extremely low opinion of artifact collectors. I am not sure how old this term is. To the best of my recollection, I first heard or read it sometime in the 1970s, but I have encountered it a little more often in recent years (perhaps in the last 20 years). I suspect it is most often used by archaeology graduate students in casual conversation. Just speculating, young graduate students tend to be a lot more concerned than most people about their current social status within the realm of archaeology—and they tend to mentally measure themselves against various other people—which might explain why this term shows up in their conversations.

Generally, the pothunter portion of the term refers to artifact collectors in the United States who surface hunt, dig, or swish around on stream bottoms to find the Native American artifacts needed to enhance and grow their collections. The term pothunter was most commonly used for such artifact collectors before the advent of the term looter, which is widely used today.

Pothunter was used primarily in the 1960s, 1970s, and a portion of the 1980s. This was a time before most states had enacted burial laws that protect Native American burials from vandalism and looting—-and before enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). Those were the days when American artifact collectors understood that museum grade artifacts were often (but not always) placed with the ancient dead during prehistoric Native American burial ceremonies. Whole pottery vessels were commonly used as burial furniture (an Old World archaeology term) to accompany the dead. Many artifact collectors concentrated on identifying human burials and digging into them to find and take home various kinds of artifacts. Over much of the nation, whole, undamaged pottery vessels in human burials were considered to be really great prizes to enhance a personal collection—hence the term pothunter.

Just as a brief and quite local aside, the term “pothunter” quickly became a misnomer for artifact collectors in one area of Middle Tennessee by the middle 1970s. Artifact collectors in the Middle Cumberland region were still digging into stone box burials at that time, and Mississippian pottery vessels were sometimes found with the dead and taken home by collectors. However, local artifact collector tastes at that time were quickly shifting away from ceramic vessels and toward shell artifacts of the Mississippian period, such as long strings of conch shell beads, columella ornaments, and particularly engraved shell gorgets:

This shift in local interest was sparked by a few artifact collectors who discovered a stone box cemetery right next to an island in Old Hickory Lake. Most of the burials were in shallow water next to the island. The ancient individuals buried in many of those stone boxes were accompanied by what the collectors perceived to be a far more than normal occurrence of Atlantic conch shell artifacts. The stone box burials next to this island were intensively and extensively looted by local artifact collectors in the early to mid-1970s. Old Hickory Lake was a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in the 1950s, and USACE was still administering the dam, lake, and some properties along the lake and within it when this looting occurred. Therefore, the island where this stone box burial cluster was discovered may have been under USACE ownership or control when the looting occurred. For all practical purposes, it has long been my perception that this island and the underwater stone box burials were just a small portion of a much larger Mississippian period site (then underwater) that was thoroughly destroyed by USACE construction activities and looting by local artifact collectors.      

The picture book portion of the term pothunter picture book refers to two different types of publications American artifact collectors are known to enjoy. One type consists of the various artifact collecting periodicals many collectors receive by subscription in their mailboxes at home. Several such periodicals have existed over the years. One such periodical is entitled the Prehistoric American (GIRS 2006). Such periodicals are well-known for the many high-quality, glossy, color photographs of artifacts that are distributed throughout their pages—along with some text about the artifacts.

The second type of picture book popular among American artifact collectors is the Native American art or coffee table book. Two examples that come to mind are Sun Circles and Human Hands: The Southeastern Indians—Art and Industry (Fundaburk and Foreman 1957) and the far more recent book entitled Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South (Townsend and Sharp 2004). Such publications are filled nearly to the brim with glossy, high-quality color and/or black and white photographs of Native American artifacts. These picture books focus on Native American artifacts as beautiful and well-executed works of art that represent the highest artistic achievements of ancient Native Americans—-hence all of the glossy pictures in such books.

What about the pejorative use of the term pothunter picture book? Basically, some professional archaeologists and archaeology graduate students (but not all) use the term pothunter picture book to objectify and juvenilize artifact collectors.

My two kids are grown now, but when they were both toddlers, they loved kiddie books filled to the brim with art work and colorful photographs. The overall notion of the pothunter picture book is that most artifact collectors are so juvenile of mind (i.e., like toddlers) that they cannot be bothered with learning the deep academic details of American archaeology. They can only handle and engage with American archaeology by looking at books filled with fancy photographs of “blow-your-socks-off” artifacts. In other words, the term pothunter picture book is used to put artifact collectors down and make them look small like toddlers. It is a clever way for some professional archaeologists and archaeology graduate students (but not all) to play Tarzan for a casual moment in a conversation about artifact collectors and say, in effect:

Me everything——-you nothing.

The term pothunter picture book also has an odd sexual connotation to it. Playboy magazine was known for decades as a periodical that published high quality short stories and other kinds of modern literature that were of high interest to college English professors and their students. During the 1970s on college campuses, a popular thing to say was:

Yes, I am buying a copy of Playboy, but I am only doing it for the literary content—not the nude photographs.

Maybe so, but everyone knew the nude photographs were a very close second, and male masturbation was a major use for both soft and hard pornography.

Sometimes professional archaeologists and archaeology graduate students have seen the pothunter picture book as the artifact collector’s Playboy magazine. What is the idea here? Once again, artifact collectors cannot be bothered with learning the deep academic content of American archaeology, so they seek out pothunter picture books to get a good mental orgasm from looking at the glossy pictures of fantastic artifacts—and the more great artifact photographs packed into a pothunter picture book—the more mental orgasms artifact collectors can get. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the 40th anniversary edition of the artifact collector journal Prehistoric American–-just like Playboy magazine—contained a large, glossy, centerfold photograph of a magnificent Native American pipe (GIRS 2006).

One of my professional archaeology colleagues and I believe strongly that a Ph.D. archaeologist and several Ph.D. ethnographers should team up to do a very deep, comprehensive, and concise ethnographic study of the small, obscure tribe known as “American Archaeology.” When their honest final report is published and the whole truth about this tribe comes out, we feel reasonably certain the members of the tribe will capture the ethnographic team, torture its members for days on end, and conclude their suffering by burning them alive at the stake. American archaeology has a long history of being a vicious, war-like tribe that rages against selected outsiders and outside groups—and even consumes some of its own members. This tribe also has a lot of dirty laundry in it, and it has a more than disturbing unwillingness to honestly face up to and deal with the tribe’s many problems—most of them social problems that exist within the tribe.

It was necessary to air just a little bit of that dirty laundry to answer this question. My answer was not designed to offend anyone in the American archaeology tribe or to offend the tribe of artifact collectors. I just answered this question to the best of my ability, based on my own personal observations over the past 48 years.


Fundaburk, Emma L. and Mary D. F. Foreman (Editors) 1957. Sun Circles and Human Hands: The Southeastern Indians—Art and Industry. Self-Published by Emma L. Fundaburk,  Luverne, Alabama.

Genuine Indian Relic Society, Inc. (GIRS) 2006. Prehistoric American: Celebrating Our 40th Year of Publication, (XL) 4: 3-60. Hynek Printing LLC, Richland Center, Wisconsin.

Townsend, Richard F. and Robert V. Sharp (Editors) 2004. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. The Art Institute of Chicago. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 8

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

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