Message for the Person Asking Where the Thruston Tablet was Found

The Thruston Tablet was found at some unknown location along Rocky Creek in Sumner County, Tennessee. The exact year in which it was found is unknown. In the year 1870, the state government of Tennessee sliced off that portion of Sumner County, along with pieces of land from other nearby Tennessee counties, and combined these lands to create a new Tennessee county called Trousdale County. Therefore, today the location where the Thruston Tablet was found is in Trousdale County, Tennessee.


Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 12

by Tracy C. Brown

Question No. 12:

I have a good buddy who was recently collecting prehistoric artifacts in a creek bed on federal property. He was moving gradually along the creek bed, picking up artifacts from the bottom of the creek, and putting them into a Home Depot bucket he had sitting beside him in the creek. A federal law enforcement officer arrested my buddy right there near the creek. I do not see how it was legal for that officer to make an arrest like that because my buddy never took the artifacts out of his Home Depot bucket in the creek—and he never took the artifacts in that bucket outside of the federal property boundary line. If he never took the artifacts home with him, I do not understand how they could have arrested him. Are there any laws that allow an arrest like that?


I would have to know all the details of the case to fully answer this question for you. However, a couple of very obvious legal issues come to mind.

First of all, under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA), it is not just illegal for  your buddy to collect artifacts on federal property and take them home with him.  It is illegal for him to even “attempt” to collect artifacts on federal property. Section (6) (a) of the ARPA statute reads as follows:

(a) No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on public lands or Indian lands unless such activity is pursuant to a permit issued under section 4 of this Act, a permit referred to in section 4(h)(2) of this Act, or the exemption contained in section 4(g)(1) of this Act.

The law enforcement officer who arrested your collector buddy probably saw the Home Depot bucket and the artifacts in it as evidence of a clear attempt to remove artifacts from federal property.  What else would your buddy have been doing with the artifacts in that bucket?  Surely he was not planning to sit on the bucket and wait for bluebirds to hatch from each artifact?

All prehistoric artifacts on federal lands are considered to be official federal property—just like a federally owned lawn mower or pickup truck. It is illegal to steal items of federal property by taking them outside of the federal property boundary. Theft of federal property is a crime. Yes, as you said, your buddy did not remove the artifacts in the home depot bucket from the creek and take them outside of the federal property boundary on the way to his house.

Nonetheless, attempted theft on federal land is also a federal crime. There is that old bugaboo word again—–attempted. It works the same way in your home town. Two guys break into the back door of an electronics store at 3:00 a.m. When the police arrive, the two guys doing the breaking and entering (itself a crime) are moving their first item (a big screen TV) toward the back door. What are the policemen going to do? Are they going to say:

Hey you! If you freeze right there and do not pass GO with that TV, we will give you $200 for not passing GO and avoid charging you with theft—and you can both go home for a good night’s sleep.

Of course not!!!  They are going to put the two guys in handcuffs, read them their Miranda rights, and charge them with breaking and entering and attempted theft. Your buddy’s Home Depot bucket with the artifacts in it was evidence of attempted theft of federal property—-just like those two guys moving the big screen TV toward the back door of the electronics store.

Artifact collectors may get together and hatch all sorts of stupid, homemade legal theories about collecting artifacts on federal land. Some do it before committing a crime, and some do it after committing a crime in an attempt to figure out why they were arrested. I have said this before, and I will say it again. Listen up artifact collectors and listen up good:

There is no home-hatched legal theory that allows you to collect artifacts on federal property without risk of arrest and prosecution. There are no special legal loopholes that allow you to collect artifacts on federal property without risk of arrest and prosecution. Figuratively speaking, the next time you hatch one of those homemade legal theories and try it out in the field, you will be hanging yourself with your own rope.

Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 11

by Tracy C. Brown

Question No. 11

Why don’t you professional archaeologists understand that on-line Indian artifact collector forums and treasure hunting forums are sacred safe spaces for us artifact collectors—and just stay the Hell away from them?


You are correct. They are indeed sacred safe spaces. I found that out the hard way many years ago. These days I only rarely have a desire to be a member of one of these on-line forums. However, if certain people with very thick skin are interested in what is currently happening in the artifact collector and treasure hunting communities, these forums are good places to learn about it. New artifact finds by collectors are described and shown in photographs on these forums.

I can offer a few other related thoughts and tips about theses forums that may be of interest to professional archaeologists, archaeology students, and the average person who is not an artifact collector or treasure hunter. This will be done in a listing format. Furthermore, I would like to emphasize that the list is general in nature and does not apply to any one forum in particular. From what I have seen on-line over the years, it appears to me that all such forums have much in common. Here is the list:

(1) You have to register, get a username, and obtain a password to fully access one of these forums. The people who own, operate, and moderate these forums like to have electronic life and death control over the forum members. The elements of registration are useful for that.

(2) These forums are classic echo chambers. They have rules for the members who make posts to the forums. They would say the purpose of these rules is to keep order on the forum—kind of like with Roberts Rules of Order. In my honest opinion, they serve a parallel subcurrent purpose. Just like with the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union, the rules are really designed to establish and nurture an ideological party-line with regard to artifact collecting; make sure all members will stay within the boundaries of the ideological party-line; limit any expressions of authentic truth (as opposed to party-line truth); stifle any dissent that does not mesh with the party-line; and establish excuses to (figuratively speaking) fire a bullet into the brain of any member who violates party-line ideology.

(3) Since the year 1960, artifact collectors and artifact collecting have been under vicious and unrelenting assault by the professional archaeology community in the United States. Professional archaeologists (in consultation with federal and state legislators) have been instrumental in the enactment and promulgation of many cultural resource protection statutes and regulations with real biting teeth (fines and imprisonment). These statutes and regulations have adversely impacted artifact collecting in all 50 states. Moreover, the professional archaeology community rarely misses a news media opportunity or a face-to-face opportunity to point fingers at artifact collectors and tell them how bad and immoral they are for looting archaeological sites.

Artifact collectors on the receiving end of such stone throwing have a desire to seek shelter from the incoming missiles. The members of artifact-collecting and treasure-hunting forums view their favorite forum(s) as sacred safe spaces where they can meet with their own hobby kinsmen and be safely sheltered from the persistent verbal missiles thrown at them by professional archaeologists. Let me emphasize that one more time—–sacred safe spaces where they do not have to hear or tolerate criticism of what they do.

(4) If you are a professional archaeologist or archaeology student, and you would like to become a member of one of these artifact-collecting or treasure-hunting forums, I kindly recommend that you refrain from telling the other members of the forum that you are a professional archaeologist or archaeology student. If you do otherwise, the owners, moderators, and members of these forums will quietly flag you as a potential threat and watch you closely under a microscope, assuming that you have joined the forum with some evil motive designed to harm artifact collectors and/or their hobby. The best thing to do is just keep mum about your true identity; take on a good ole boy handle name; lurk on the forum; behave like one of the locals; and put on your best Forrest Gump impersonation if you choose to post anything on the forum. In other words, play dumb—or you will blow your cover.

(5) Never make any main post  or comment on a forum that is in any way, form, or fashion critical of artifact collectors, artifact collecting, or treasure hunting. Artifact collectors—even the ones who are dumber than dirt—have a very high personal view of themselves. Forum members tend to be highly sensitive just like the Christian missionaries in a famous Tom Petty song:

…Missionaries walking backwards—touch’em and they bleed…

You do not have to cold cock a forum member on-line to make him bleed. Just a very soft, slightly grazing touch on the shoulder will create a massive hemorrhage of bad feelings, and the forum members will jump on your ass like a duck on a June bug.

(6) Listen up professional archaeologists, archaeology graduate students, and archaeology undergraduate students. If you join one of these forums, just remember one very important thing. The artifact collectors and treasure hunters know everything about artifacts and archaeology—and you know nothing. Even if you have a Ph.D. and 60 years of experience in American archaeology, you still know nothing—and the artifact collectors know everything. This appears to be some sort of unwritten rule on these forums. Openly contest their collector truth with real truth, and you will get an earful of outrage.

(7) If you are a professional archaeologist, an archaeology graduate student, or an archaeology undergraduate student—you are pursuing some line of important archaeological research—and the forum members become aware that you are an archaeologist or archaeology student, certain kinds of questions are forbidden (as an unwritten rule). For example:

(A) Never request the contact information for another artifact collector who is not a member of the forum.

(B) Never ask for the name or contact information for any specific artifact collector who owns a particular artifact that is pertinent to your research.

If you inquire about such matters, the forum members automatically assume that some legality issue must surround the collector or artifact in question. Forum members do not want to answer questions like this one because they are afraid a fellow artifact collector will be arrested or one of their artifacts will be confiscated as a direct result of their answer. Ideologically, the worst thing an artifact collector can possibly do in this world is to betray the confidence or safety of another artifact collector. This unwritten rule is an almost Holy Bond.

Today intense anxiety and paranoia run wild in the artifact-collecting and treasure-hunting communities in the United States. Simple inquiries along the lines of those above—even if totally innocent and on the level—will be regarded as prima facie evidence that you are up to no good. Very often, archaeological research is all about asking key questions, tracking down the locations of certain types of artifacts, and trying to get in touch with their owners. Personally, as a result of this Holy Bond, I have found that using these forums as a tool to advance archaeological research is nearly worthless. Forum members are highly suspicious and not particularly open to answering the key kinds of questions that really can advance a legitimate research effort. If you pose one of those forbidden key questions on a forum, you will quite likely get stomped on like a cockroach!!!  Been there.  Seen that. Got stomped.

(8) Artifact collecting is viewed as a sacred brotherhood (and sisterhood) on these forums—in my opinion a bit of perverse brotherhood or sisterhood. You might be surprised at this, but a number of artifact collectors do not approve of digging for artifacts—and they will tell you so. They also have no problem saying it straight to a digger’s face. What is the perverse part? If a shovel digger or a bulldozer digger is criticized in any way, form, or fashion on a forum—by a noncollector—the collector members of the forum who dislike digging quickly run to the odd-man-out digger and surround him with a massive group hug of love, joy, protection, and support. This weird brotherhood of collectors is a lot like what President Donald J. Trump said in his 2016 campaign:

[I could] stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody [and not] lose any voters.

(9) Beware of knee-jerk hotheads and bullies on these forums. Public school playgrounds have them and so do these artifact-collecting and treasure-hunting forums. Some artifact collectors just plain hate professional archaeologists—some with an almost perfect hatred. In my honest opinion, those few people tend to be the hotheads and bullies on these forums. If you are a professional archaeologist or archaeology student—and you do or say something they perceive to be incorrect, off-color, or offensive—and it does not take very much—the hotheads and bullies will come after you with a passionate, single-minded, and enduring vengeance for every hurt collectors have ever felt at the hands of professional archaeologists.

If you are a professional archaeologist or archaeology student—and they know that—you will be shown zero mercy. Worst of all and oddest of all, when one of these hotheads or bullies cuts loose with some mean-spirited diatribe, nearly every other member of the forum snaps into the marching line right behind him just like a U.S. Marine recruit falls in line behind his drill sergeant. I am not sure why the more calm and level-headed collectors do this, but it often looks as if they do not have minds of their own. Maybe they are just afraid of the hotheads and bullies. Me? In times past, I have verbally handed some of these hotheads and bullies their heads on a platter—because that is precisely what these bullies and hotheads deserve. Sure. It will get you kicked off the forum forever. However, one prominent artifact collector in the Nashville area taught me one simple thing many years ago:

If someone gets on your back—get’m off!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(10) Do not start a discussion about the federal/state statutes and regulations that protect cultural resources and adversely affect artifact collecting. These laws and regulations are a unique sore point with artifact collectors. It has been my personal observation that most artifact collectors on these forums do not know their ass from a hole in the ground when these statutes and regulations are batted around. The ignorance is monumental!!! The collectors are prone to generating homespun theories about the law and collecting—theories that will get them into trouble if they try to implement them in the field. Moreover, some of the collectors are highly averse to points of correction coming from a person who really does know these statutes and regulations well. If you do try to correct one of these collectors, he will most likely blow his stack with anger at the facts; retreat into psychological denialism; or insist that you cannot possibly know what you know. It is just plain crazy!!!

(11) Some of the artifact collectors and treasure hunters on these forums are nice, sane, leveled-headed, and congenial people who are quite knowledgeable about artifacts and archaeology. Interacting with these people is a truly joyful experience. The thing I have never understood is this. Why do these nice people on the forums tolerate the collectors who are knee-jerk hotheads and bullies? If I were the owner of one of these forums, they would be the first people banned for life—and I would not give a damn whether they are a fellow collector or not.  Brotherhood with hotheads and bullies is no brotherhood at all.

Questions Artifact Collectors Pose to Professional Archaeologists: Question No. 10

by Tracy C. Brown

Question No. 10: My artifact collection contains one really unusual-looking artifact, a kind I have never seen before. I would like to show it to a professional archaeologist, have him look it over, identify it for me, and tell me how old it is. My collector friends are warning me not to do that. They say professional archaeologists in departments of anthropology, museums, and other professional archaeology venues have a long-time, dishonest, and frequently played con game they use to steal artifacts from collectors like me and ordinary citizens who just walk in off the street with an artifact. They say the con game works something like this:

I will take my artifact to a museum and meet with the professional archaeologist. The archaeologist will welcome me and treat me like his oldest friend. Rather than give me the information on my artifact right then, the archaeologist will ask me to leave the artifact with him for a couple of weeks so he can study it more closely—to give me a better and more thorough opinion about it. Of course, I will do that like most folks will do. Then I will come back two weeks later to pick up the new information and my artifact at a scheduled time. When I inquire at the front desk, they will tell me that the archaeologist I talked to before is not there that day, but I can talk to another archaeologist on the staff.  That other archaeologist will come out, talk to me for a minute, and tell me that no one at the museum has ever heard of me or my artifact. I will plead to get my artifact back. Then the archaeologist will angrily tell me to leave the museum and order me to never come back again. I will never get the information I requested, and I will never see my artifact again.

My collector buddies have left me with the impression that this con game is played very often, and they regularly advise artifact collectors and ordinary citizens all over the country to avoid showing artifacts to professional archaeologists for this reason. They also tell them to never leave an artifact overnight or for any other long length of time with a professional archaeologist—or they will never, ever see their artifact again. Is all of this really true?


No. It is not true. “Come now, and let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18). If a widespread and often repeated con game like this actually exists among professional archaeologists in the United States, I would know about it after being around professional archaeologists and artifact collectors most of my life. I do not play such con games with artifact collectors or ordinary citizens—and neither does any other professional archaeologist I have ever known. While a rare bad apple may exist in every social barrel, most professional archaeologists and museum directors are ethical, honest, and conscientious people who try their level best to do the right thing, and they succeed most of the time. That being the case, stealing legal, privately owned artifacts from artifact collectors or ordinary citizens through some nationwide, know-the-secret-handshake con game does not ring true to me.

Almost nothing escapes the notice of the American news media (both print and electronic). Editors and reporters are constantly sniffing nearly every nook and cranny of the United States for truly interesting stories. What reporter would be able to resist printing this headline:

         Local Indiana Jones Runs Con Game to Steal Artifacts from Citizens

If a widespread (or even just local) con game like this were to really exist, it would make big headlines in the local news media and national news media. I have not seen any old or recent stories in the news media about this supposed con game.

If a professional archaeologist did steal an artifact from a person, do you seriously think that person is going to simply shrug their shoulders and go home to brood? Of course not, that person would do the same thing I or anyone else would do. Go to their local police department, get an attorney, solicit a judge to issue a search warrant, and come down hard on the professional archaeologist (and their institution) who stole the artifact in question. Moreover, if this supposed con game were implemented often by professional archaeologists all over our country, artifact collectors and ordinary citizens would be up in arms about it and leading street demonstrations. Huge numbers of professional archaeologists would be cooling their heels for theft in local jails or state prisons. That has not happened in our American past, and it is not happening now.

No professional archaeologist has ever mentioned the existence of this supposed con game to me. I have heard about it only from the artifact collectors who pass it around by word of mouth (and occasionally in casual written form at on-line artifact collector forums). The whole notion of this con game is part of what I call artifact collector folklore.

Frankly, I am inclined to formally define this so-called professional archaeologist’s con game as nothing more than a widespread urban legend among American artifact collectors. The original sources of such urban legends are often hard to identify. Some urban legends are rooted in a real past incident that involved a bit of truth, something misunderstood to be truth, or  some odd perversion of the truth. I cannot say for certain where this urban legend about a professional archaeologists’ con game to steal artifacts began, but I have one really excellent historical candidate for where it may have begun.

It may have begun with a series of events and actions that occurred with the first discovery of an Adena sandstone tablet exhibiting engraved bird heads. This artifact was found in 1942 by a 12-year-old boy who was digging for artifacts within a bluff top mound in Parkersburg, West Virginia. This boy’s name was Edward Low, and the artifact he found there is widely known today as the Low Tablet.

The full story of Edward Low and his tablet is far too long and convoluted to describe in full here. Suffice it to say that a much older Edward Low eventually took his Low Tablet to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) so a famous Ohio archaeologist, Dr. Raymond Baby (pronounced “Bobby”), could closely examine it. Mr. Low left the artifact with this archaeologist and the OHS Museum for 36 years.

In the year 2007, after Mr. Low had found out the incredibly high amount of money the Low Tablet was worth, he wanted the OHS Museum to give it back to him. The OHS Museum claimed that Mr. Low had donated the Low Tablet to the Museum in 1971, and the museum had old internal paperwork indicating that it had indeed been a gift. Furthermore, Mr. Low admitted in a legal document (Defendant’s First Request for Admissions) that on September 2, 1971, he had called Dr. Baby on the telephone and told him that he would give the Low Tablet to the OHS—all the while knowing that the OHS had long considered it to be a gift. Mr. Low later claimed that he had merely loaned the tablet to the OHS. In an attempt to get his artifact back, Mr. Low filed a major lawsuit against the OHS in the case of Edward Low vs. Ohio Historical Society. The OHS won this initial legal action, but an appeal was soon filed. More legal wrangling ensued over the next several years. Mr. Low died one day while this wrangling was still underway, but his surviving family kept it going. An Ohio court eventually dismissed the case. In the end, the Low family was never able to legally reclaim the Low Tablet as its personal property, and it remained in the possession of the OHS.

Today the Edward Low Dispute (as I call it), and the now closed legal storm surrounding it, are legendary in the American artifact collector community. Many artifact collectors swear up one side and down the other that Edward Low and his family were unfairly and royally screwed by the OHS and the court system. Based on no particular evidence at all, numerous artifact collectors have speculated that the OHS forged the internal documents indicating the Low Tablet was a donation. Most of the artifact collectors who make such wild claims have never even read the original court records. They have just read highly biased artifact collector tomes about it, or they have heard collector grapevine gossip about the Edward Low Dispute. They have chosen to believe whatever is said just because a fellow artifact collector said it——————-and “by God” everyone must surely know it is impossible for an artifact collector to ever be wrong about anything (LOL).

American court documents are a matter of public record in the United States, and they are available to the general public. I am one of the few people who has actually obtained and read the original court documents pertinent to this dispute. After studying all of those documents carefully and in detail, I have concluded to my own personal satisfaction that the Low Tablet really was a gift and should have remained at the OHS Museum. The contents of the OHS internal documents and court documents clearly indicated that to me. That was also the conclusion of the jury in the initial trial (Edward Low vs. Ohio Historical Society).

The Edward Low Dispute and the folklore surrounding it offer today’s American artifact collectors a key opportunity they desperately want and need. Since at least 1960, artifact collectors and artifact collecting (either as a hobby or as a material investment) have been under unrelenting assault by the professional archaeology community in the United States. The urban legend about a professional archaeology con game to slyly steal artifacts from artifact collectors and ordinary citizens has become a useful public relations (PR) tool to stab back at professional archaeologists in vengeance for all of the emotional pain they have inflicted on artifact collectors. Furthermore, properly distorted and finessed, the Edward Low Dispute, all by itself, has become a figurative but quite useful quick slip of the switchblade knife between the ribs of professional archaeologists for the same reason—vengeance that gives the professional archaeology side bad PR.

In light of all that I have written above, I have come to my own personal conclusion about this so-called con game many artifact collectors believe professional archaeologists are running to steal artifacts from collectors and ordinary citizens. I am hereby calling bullshit on it. Do you hear that artifact collectors?  This long-time, con game accusation of yours is nothing but pure bullshit.

Sure. If you dig up a large carved statue like “The Ancestor,” which is the Tennessee State Artifact, and you take it to a professional archaeologist and say:

Look at this huge artifact Fred and me just dug up on Tennessee Valley Authority land…

Well, you just openly confessed to violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and other federal laws—including the one against theft of federal property. That is one artifact you will never get back—along with your pickup truck—because that statue was never your property to begin with. It is stolen property that must go back to its original owner (TVA and the American public). Anything so blatant as that lies outside the boundaries of this con game I have heard so much about from artifact collectors over the years.

The original mistake both sides made in the Edward Low Dispute was their failure to draw up and sign a legal, mutually binding artifact loan contract or artifact donation contract. Either document would have left no basis for any dispute over final ownership of the Low Tablet.

Paranoia and anxiety run wild in the American artifact collector community these days. Nonetheless, if an artifact collector ever wants to show a legally obtained and legally owned artifact to a professional archaeologist or museum director—and she is afraid she will never see her artifact again—all she has to do is have her attorney draw up a contract (or other written agreement) saying that the artifact is being loaned for archaeological examination for a specified period of time. A few sharp, close-up, color photographs of the artifact with a centimeter scale in each photograph should be part of the contract. The owner of the artifact and the professional archaeologist or museum director must both sign the legally binding contract or agreement. When the specified time in the contract or agreement expires, the professional archaeologist or museum director must surrender the artifact to its owner. That should dispel most of the unwarranted collector paranoia and anxiety about temporarily leaving an artifact with one of us professional archaeologists for examination.

A Note about Showing Up Out of “Nowhere” to Be Marginalized, Oppressed, Abused, and Killed

Most professional archaeologists have encountered a unique oddity with regard to the average American citizen and their perspective on the American Indian. My parents were born in 1910 and 1911. They never knew a single American Indian personally because hardly any American Indians lived in their Middle Tennessee town (Gallatin, Tennessee) in the 20th century. Their knowledge of American Indians came from reading childhood books and stories about the Wild West or from watching fictional re-enactments of it in cowboy and Indian movies or in the various western drama series on television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Their generation’s knowledge of the American Indian went back in time to only about 1492, and I suspect that is still true for many American citizens today. They apparently thought the American Indians immigrated to the United States (from a place called Central Casting) not too long before the white man arrived in the New World. Moreover, the primary purpose of the American Indian immigration from Central Casting was to be marginalized, oppressed, abused, and killed in the movies and on TV to entertain the overall American population.

Beginning in 1971 and continuing (off and on) until about 1977, I worked a job at The Parthenon (the Metropolitan art museum in Nashville). I did everything from working in the gift shop to caring for the famous Cowan Collection of American paintings to working in The Grotto Art Gallery, which was a massive display of American Indian artifacts from Tennessee, Mesoamerica, and the Peruvian lowlands. During my time there, particularly in the gift shop and The Grotto Gallery, I must have seen or talked to well over one million people from all over the world.

Most of our museum visitors were American citizens—some from Tennessee—but mostly from places like Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, etc. When I was working in The Grotto Gallery and talking to our many visitors, one thing became crystal clear to me over time. Most of our visitors had a time-depth perception of the American Indian that went back (at best) only a few centuries to Christopher Columbus in 1492—and in far, far, far too many cases—only about 100 to 175 years in the American West (courtesy of the movies and TV). Most of our visitors had no idea when or how the American Indians first arrived in the United States—except that it must have been on some key date just a few short years before the white man first arrived in North America. Of course, in their minds, this was the key date when the first American Indians made their initial long trek from Central Casting to first populate the United States.

I was absolutely appalled at how massive and widespread this ignorance was—and how incredibly deep it went. It was not lodged in just one age group. Kids were affected by it. Some of the kids arrived at The Parthenon from other summer vacation stops. They were dressed in plains Indian headdresses and outfitted with rubber tomahawks, mimicking the American Indians who were shot by the blue pony soldiers on TV nearly every night in the 1960s. Teenagers bore this weight of ignorance, middle age people exhibited it, and so did the old ladies from Wisconsin. Most of these people knew one thing for sure though—American Indians had always lived in a portable structure called the tipi—all of them:

Well, the ones we see on Gunsmoke do.

Observing all of this ignorance took me back in time to my own school days (Grades 1-12) here in Tennessee. (There was no kindergarten back then in Gallatin, Tennessee.) American Indians were touched on very briefly in our social studies and history classes, usually in the context of those:

…awful red savages who killed our nice, white, Christian settlers for no good reason.

It was all just a quick touch on the shoulder to count coup on the American Indians—and then quickly on to the really important people in American history—such as those dead white presidents and founding fathers on our money. After all, most of our school teachers were white people—and most people in mid-20th century Gallatin knew that real Americans had always been white as the driven snow. (LOL)

Nowadays, I am an old guy who walks with a cane, and it has been decades since I worked in any museum. Is such ignorance of American Indians still so widespread as it once was among the American people? I do not know for sure—but I do have my suspicions about it.

One thing I do know.  The public school administrators and teachers are trying to do much better by the American Indians than they once did in our Tennessee public schools. However, I cannot say the same for all of the American companies that publish K-12 social studies textbooks, which are often based on prototype textbooks created for the public schools in Texas.

Just in case you did not know, Texas is the modern day laughingstock of American K-12 education and home to the infamous Texas State Board of Education (TSBOE). Unlike in most of our 50 states, the TSBOE is a publicly elected body, often dominated by Christian fundamentalist prejudices and right wing extremist ideological shenanigans that directly affect public school curricula and textbook contents. Historically, the TSBOE has shown a strong tendency toward short-changing minority groups in an attempt to make sure that a good K-12 education in Texas is an education of the white people, by the white people, and for the white people—so God help the white people.

One of the social studies textbooks my kids used here in the Oak Ridge public schools began with a long chapter devoted to the Americans Indians, including American Indian prehistory and archaeology. Rather than a quick touch and run, their teachers actually stopped for a reasonable amount of time and dwelled on teaching their students about American Indian prehistory, history, and cultures. That was the good news!!!

The bad news was the content of that chapter in their textbook, particularly the portions dealing with the prehistory of the eastern United States. It had a lot of incorrect information in it. I am not sure how it got that way, but my political activist wrangling with the TSBOE for the last 11 years has taught me one thing for certain. Writing a K-12 social studies textbook from scratch is like making sausage. Watching it being created, written, reviewed, revised, and published is a real mess most people would rather not see.

In the front of my kids’ social studies textbook, I noticed a long list of contributors and consultants with various academic backgrounds. The consultant for archaeology was a southwestern archaeologist who was a professor at a university in one of our Rocky Mountain states. That went a long way toward my understanding of all the textbook errors about archaeology here in the East. American archaeologists tend to be trained in the archaeology of a particular region of our country. Take them out of their region, and things get a little shaky in the knowledge realm.

I sat down with my kids’ textbook one night and did a formal, written review of the section on prehistory, nicely and politely pointing out all of the mistakes in it. I sent my review to the archaeologist who supposedly helped oversee and review the writing of that chapter. The archaeologist never responded to my review. I had hoped this archaeologist and the textbook publisher would correct the errors when they revised that chapter for the next edition, but I do not know if that ever happened.

Personally, I would like to see all of these long-standing clouds of ignorance about American Indians and the prehistory of the United States burned away. The near disappearance of cowboy and Indian movies from our theaters and TV western series from our most watched TV networks is helping with that. Our Tennessee public school administrators and school teachers appear to be trying harder to include American Indian prehistory and history in social studies textbooks—and dwell upon them for a good while in class—and do so respectfully and without bias or prejudice. However, I suspect this is a bit spotty all over the United States as a whole, and we probably have a long way left to go before all of our American K-12 students are able to attain an adequate measure of knowledge, love, and respect for the diverse cultures and very long time depth (at least 14,000 years) of the American Indian in the United States and everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

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. However, when your Uncle George found out about the proposed professional archaeological excavations at that 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). By taking on that role, he 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. 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.

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 burial cluster on an island in Old Hickory Lake. 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 on 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 portion of a probably much larger Mississippian period site (then underwater) was thoroughly destroyed by the looting.       

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 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 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 picture of a magnificent prehistoric Native American pipe (GIRS 2006).

One of my professional archaeology colleagues and I strongly believe 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 end 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.