Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 1

by Tracy C. Brown

Artifact collectors sometimes ask professional archaeologists various questions. In many instances, they receive either no answer at all, or they receive a terse answer that is vague and hard to understand.  I have never been an artifact collector. However, I grew up with artifact collectors in my life and later became a professional archaeologist. Therefore, I know both sides of the fence really well and feel sufficiently able to answer most of the questions artifact collectors might ask—or at least offer my own personal opinion.

Just like the so-called “half-breed” (half white man and half Native American) in the 19th century American West, I do not feel totally at home in the artifact collector world or in the professional archaeology world—and frequently feel some degree of rejection by both sides. What does that look like?

I am the only professional archaeologist who has been officially kicked off for life from both the Arrowheadology.com website and the Arrowheads.com website. In both places, I learned quickly that the artifact collectors there were Superman and I was kryptonite. They claimed I did not play well in their sandbox. However, I think having a professional archaeologist hanging around just made some of them feel really angry and uneasy. I now wear both rejections as a badge of highest honor. 

My first professional archaeology rejection came about one year after graduating from high school. It occurred in early June of 1972 at a time when I was trying hard to figure out what my university major would be and what kind of career I would like to pursue. I tried very nicely and politely to talk face-to-face with a Nashville area professional archaeologist about forging a future career in American archaeology. (Every young person making a life-changing decision likes to get tips from a pro.) Although we had never met previously and did not know each other at all, this archaeologist proceeded to treat me—just a teenage kid—like the worst pond scum that had ever lived. The cynicism, gruff treatment, and humiliation that were dished out to me angrily inside just three minutes are something I will never forget as long as I live.

That sting was incredibly painful, and it went very deep. I was to later learn through true stories from my close friends (both archaeologists and nonarchaeologists who knew archaeologists) and from my own personal experience that the realm of professional archaeology in the United States is home base for numerous difficult, toxic, mean-spirited people with nasty personalities and unkind personal dispositions——far more so than in any of the other professional disciplines in which I have worked over the past 45 years. This is why I have never been particularly fond of many other professional archaeologists (but not all) and why I almost never choose to hang out socially with most other archaeologists (but not all).

The new series here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog is called Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists. Each question in the series is numbered sequentially——beginning with Question No. 1 today. I sometimes must answer questions generally when there are actually many exceptions and subtle nuances that would take a whole day of writing to capture. Unfortunately, I do not have that kind of time.

Furthermore, I strongly suspect some artifact collectors and professional archaeologists will not wholly like or approve of some of my answers and opinions for various reasons—and will detect a bit of snark that is present in some of my answers. When you see that bit of snark, please remember that both sides pissed me off many years ago. Just consider it to be your side’s bad attitude reflected straight back onto you by the mirror of my writing.

I am sure some artifact collectors will object to what I write in some of my answers and how I portray artifact collector thoughts and attitudes. I would just like to remind you once again that I grew up with artifact collectors all around me, and I know the collector world very well. You will not be reading anything I have not observed personally or read about in the collector world over the past 45 years. You may say: 

Well, I am nothing like that, and I don’t think that way or have that attitude—or misperception. 

True. Exceptions do exist. In such cases, just be aware that I am not writing about you personally. However, I am writing about the many other artifact collectors who do think that way, do talk that way, and do have such attitudes and misperceptions. Please also try to remember that I am not very happy with the attitudes and behaviors of numerous fellow professional archaeologists. Therefore, it all balances out (more or less) after all is said and done.

Now, let us begin by answering Question No. 1. This is a question I have heard and read in various versions from numerous artifact collectors over the past 30 years.  Here is the question:

Question No. 1: Why don’t you professional archaeologists and museum directors pull out all of those great artifacts you have stored away in those hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on those ceiling-high steel shelves——and display them all so the American public can file through and see them?

Answer:

Many artifact collectors just assume that professional archaeologists are exactly like them in one very important respect. They think American archaeologists and the discipline of archaeology itself are all about locating and digging up fantastic artifacts of high monetary value. In their minds, they believe finding wonderful, museum-grade artifacts is the most important thing professional archaeologists do——-above all else. Because archaeologists have such great educations in archaeology, they must surely know all the right places to excavate first on an archaeological site so they will be certain to find and lay first claim to the very best museum-grade artifacts. In other words, they think American archaeology is all about getting the very best artifacts and getting to an archaeological site first to grab’em before anyone else can.

While that might look right in the context of an Indiana Jones movie, it is actually not right at all. Indiana Jones movies present a highly distorted and downright wrong view of what professional archaeologists do, how they do it, and why they do it. If you harbor the notion that you know a whole lot about archaeologists and American archaeology from watching Indiana Jones movies or watching “digger shows” on The Discovery Channel, you need to throw away everything you think you know about archaeologists and American archaeology——and start all over again from scratch.

Many artifact collectors think American archaeology is nothing but a “big artifact hunting game” professional archaeologists play. Moreover, archaeologists are so good at this game because their archaeology education in college consisted primarily of many in-classroom hours devoted to nothing else but teaching students where the best artifacts are located on sites, how to find the really great and most valuable artifacts first, and how to dig very carefully—so no artifact will get broken, which would reduce its monetary value. Their opponent in this huge game is the artifact dealer or collector, and whoever gets to an archaeological site first and grabs the largest number of high-quality artifacts wins the game. Right?

WRONG!!! DEAD WRONG!!!!

All those hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on ceiling-high steel shelves in anthropology department basements and huge museum storage rooms are not chocked full—almost to bursting—with eye-popping artifacts that would blow your socks off and make any artifact collector salivate with insatiable hunger. Truth is—if I were to show you what is really inside most of those hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on the ceiling-high steel shelves, the first words out of your artifact collector mouths would be:

You’ve got to be kidding!!!  Y’all find all this small crap—and actually keep it!!! You take the time to write little letters and numbers on every chert chip and sherd?  This is crazy!!! We thought all those rectangular boxes were stuffed full to bursting with fantastic artifacts! Boy, were we ever wrong!

ATTENTION ARTIFACT COLLECTORS!!!  ALL POINTS BULLETIN!!!

I want you artifact collectors out there—especially the novice collectors and those with hard-to-penetrate heads—to get this inside your brain cells—and never forget it—never ever forget it. Please? This is going to sound harsh, and it might hurt your feelings. It is not my intent to hurt your feelings. I am expressing this like a U.S. Marine Corps drill sergeant so you will never forget the main factual points I am about to make. Ready?

Professional archaeologists are not just like you, and you are not just like professional archaeologists. American archaeology is not at all a big game about who gets to the fantastic artifacts first—and grabs’em to take home.  We do not excavate archaeological sites in order to find the best quality, most fantastic, highly wonderful, blow-your-socks-off, museum-grade artifacts. We do not. Only artifact collectors do that. Only artifact collectors do that. Only artifact collectors do that. Got it?…………. Got it?…………………..Got it? …………………Good.

Professional archaeologists excavate archaeological sites to answer research questions that were laid out in a formal research design. They perform archaeological excavations to obtain information and data pertinent to answering those questions about the prehistoric and historic human past. Now, repeat after me: “Information and data.” One more time: “Information and data.” One more time: “Information and data.”  Got it?…..Got it?…….Got it?…..Good.

Artifact Collector Interlude

Artifact Collector: You archaeologists ain’t in it for the really big artifacts? I jist don’t understand that. I always looked at it kinda like this.

The university anthropology department’s archaeologist and helpers go out to the archaeological site. Because the archaeologist is real educated in archaeology, he knows the right places to dig first to find the blow-your-socks-off artifacts quicker than anyone else. Him and his helpers then starts a diggin’, and they find 15 really great artifacts right off the bat. They are worth $10,000 each. They take’m back to their lab, clean’m up real careful-like so they don’t git broke (cause broke artifacts ain’t worth nothin’), and then they sell them artifacts to a big museum for $150,000—and that hard cash keeps the anthropology department a goin’. You know: salaries, legal pads, paper clips, and the like. You seem to be a tellin’ me that American archaeology ain’t nothin’ like that at all?

And what is this “information and data” stuff?  I don’t understand that. How do you dig information and data out of the ground? Do you mean to tell me you can put a shovel in the ground and pull up the number “3” in your shovel?  That jist screws my head up sumpm’ awful.

Archaeologist: Correct. I am telling you American archaeology is not anything even remotely like what you are thinking it is. The information and data part is harder to explain, and I will do that for you in another blog post. So, for now, we go back to the subject of artifacts curated (permanently stored) in rectangular cardboard boxes.

Yes, we professional archaeologists excavate for information and data—not blow-your-socks-off artifacts. We excavate for information and data—and keep whatever tangible artifacts we happen to encounter along the way—also for information and data purposes. Most of it is small artifact crap you would never even dream of bringing inside the back door of your house and mounting in a picture frame to hang on your den wall.

Most of those rectangular cardboard boxes you may have seen stacked high to the ceiling in museums and departments of anthropology contain millions of pieces of chert flaking debris (cores, flat flakes, decortication flakes, shatter material, bifacial thinning flakes, etc. and some unbroken and badly broken unifacial and bifacial tools). Those boxes also contain millions of pottery sherds——most of them small sherds. They also contain lots of broken animal bone and some shell that was slightly worked (or most often) never worked—and all sorts of other small crap. Occasionally, one of those boxes might contain a few complete but rather average pp/k’s or other complete stone tools—or none at all.  You might even find a small pot, an elbow pipe, or some other decent artifacts in some boxes—but they are often few and far between. Some of those boxes contain charred bits of plant remains. Other boxes contain human bones that range from a few bits of surviving bone from one ancient human burial all the way up to a complete human skeleton from another burial—just human bones—no artifacts in those bone boxes.

About the only thing we usually do not save permanently is firecracked rock from prehistoric fire pits. We find a lot of it. It gets weighed in the lab (in kilograms), and it is then thrown into the nearest dumpster outside the lab.  There is too much of it, and it is way too heavy to safely store—and not all that useful in terms of providing important information and data.

Yes, we do process and analyze all of the foregoing small crap artifacts, which would be worthless to you, in our archaeology laboratories. Doing it is so utterly boring it will quite literally numb a human brain. If you have ever written tiny trinomial site numbers and catalogue data on thousands of chert flakes and small pottery sherds, you know what it is like. (Been there. Done that.) I have been brain-numb for weeks or months on end as a direct result of it. I have packed those rectangular boxes for final curation storage——-and know what is in most of them.

Please allow me to close with a friendly warning. Personally, I like most friendly artifact collectors—–but not all of them. I know most artifact collectors are honest people who never intentionally commit crimes. However, if the few worst people among you have ever gotten together over a beer on a Friday night and hatched a plan to break into a department of anthropology basement or museum storage room to steal several hundred of those tantalizing rectangular cardboard boxes, I would strongly advise against it. When you truck off with all those boxes and you start opening them up like gifts on Christmas morning, you are in for one hell of a huge disappointment. If the cops nab you, and they probably will, you will do a lot of lamentation, mumbling, and crying about the tons of chert chips and small pottery sherds (with little numbers written on them) as they drag you in handcuffs to the back seat of the squad car. Just think about all that danger and effort for all those little chert flakes and small pottery sherds you would never dream of picking up while surface hunting in a plowed field. Believe me. It is just not worth it!!!

Now Bubba? Do you understand about the hundreds or thousands of rectangular cardboard boxes on the ceiling-high steel shelves—and all the small crap artifacts inside most of them? There is no way the American public would want to file through a museum and see the small crap artifacts that fill most of those rectangular boxes. Do you understand?  I can’t hear you! Do you understand?  If not, maybe Lady Gaga can help you out:

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

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

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