Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 9

Question No. 9: My Uncle George is an artifact collector like me. Some professional archaeologists did excavations at a site in my county back in the 1990s. My Uncle George used to dig for artifacts on that site, and he found a bunch of them too. He also had a lot of rare historical background information and old documents on that site. George provided all of that background information to the professional archaeologists and showed them all the artifacts he had found at that site before the excavations began. When the written report on the excavations came out, the “Acknowledgements” section effusively praised my Uncle George for the help he provided and called him a valuable “avocational archaeologist” without whom the project could not have been completed. Well, during the excavation summer, my sister went to a bar one Friday night here in the county, and some of those archaeologists were loud and drinking heavily at the table next to her table. She said the archaeologists were laughing and joking about my Uncle George and saying terrible things about him. Why would they say such terrible things about my Uncle George in that bar and then praise him so much in that written report on their excavations?  I don’t get it, do you?


Yes, I do.  Many professional archaeologists strongly dislike artifact collectors who dig for artifacts because of all the damage uncontrolled digging without appropriate recordation does to archaeological sites and the archaeological context of the various artifacts and features beneath the ground surface at the site. A few other professional archaeologists just plain hate artifact collectors. That is why they were joking around and saying bad things about your Uncle George in that bar.

The two-faced approach many professional archaeologists take toward artifact collectors can be easily explained by looking at the subject of human social roles. Unfortunately, many people take a one-time, shotgun approach to social roles without really thinking about what they are doing.  For example, most people see your uncle as a man named George, and they think his role in life is just “being Uncle George.” Social roles and social role playing are really much more diverse and complicated than that.

In reality, each human being has many different social roles that they play in life, and they may switch from playing one role to playing another role (or 7 roles) multiple times throughout any given day. For example, your Uncle George may play the role of dad and the role of husband. When he goes to work in the morning, he switches to play the role of civil engineer. He also plays the role of manager for the entire civil engineering department.  If he goes to church on Wednesday night, he plays the role of usher, and he then switches to the role of deacon during the church service. He has team bowling scheduled after church on Wednesday nights, and he goes to the local bowling alley to assume the role of highest scoring team bowler. When he gets home at night, he assumes the role of late night garbage disposal man, and from there he quickly switches to the role of dog care specialist, which he does every night of the week when he walks the dog right before bedtime—a role assigned to him by his wife Sylvia. You see?  Each of us plays many different social roles in life each day.

Now, we go back to Uncle George, role playing, artifact collecting, and professional archaeologists. When your Uncle George is out in a field digging randomly for artifacts, he is playing the role of artifact collector, and his thoughtless, indiscriminate, random approach to digging for artifacts destroys valuable intact archaeological deposits, usually without him even knowing that he is doing something bad. Professional archaeologists detest it when your Uncle George plays this role because of all the destruction that happens when he plays it.

When your Uncle George found out about the proposed professional archaeological excavations at that archaeological site in your county and decided to help the professional archaeologists out one morning, he switched his role playing to avocational archaeologist for several hours (perhaps not recognizing the name of that role and the fact that he had assumed that role). Your Uncle George told the archaeologists everything he knew about the site; he shared all of his old documents on the site; he told them where he had been digging on the site; and he showed them all of the artifacts he had found on the site. Moreover, your Uncle George was very patient with the visiting archaeologists by allowing them to take multiple photographs of the prehistoric items in his collection, take caliper measurements on some artifacts, and do whatever else they needed to do with the items in his collection.

By taking on that social role as an avocational archaeologist, Uncle George did a very good thing for once with artifacts and archaeology. The professional archaeologists praised him for that in their written report—because avocational archaeologist was indeed the role he assumed for those few hours. Later that afternoon, your Uncle George may have switched his role back to artifact collector and may have begun random digging for artifacts at some other archaeological site.

The professional archaeologists at the bar table next to your sister’s table were joking about your Uncle George and saying terrible things about him because of his role play as a destructive artifact collector. They were not being judgemental on his whole life, his whole character, or his many other social roles in life—just his role as a destructive artifact collector. Later on in the following year, when the archaeologists were writing the professional report on their excavations, they fondly remembered those very special few hours when your Uncle George switched roles (however briefly) to the new role of avocational archaeologist. They really did appreciate that switch and all of the help he provided—and they were more than willing to publicly praise him for all of that help he provided in that new—but brief—role as avocational archaeologist.

In addition, there is a good manners factor that always enters a professional archaeologist’s head when he is writing the Acknowledgements section in an archaeological report.  It would be bad manners to say:

Highly destructive, stupid shit artifact collector George Doe helped us out some.

No sane archaeologist is ever going to write something that rude and all-sweeping into the text of a published archaeological report that will end up on a library shelf for the next 200 years. Therefore, when it comes time to write an archaeological report, professional archaeologists choose to use good manners and always remember positively a person who helped them out in one of their best social roles—avocational archaeologist—no matter how brief and/or discontinuous that particular social role play might have been.

1 thought on “Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 9

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

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