The Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the primary organization for professional archaeologists in the United States and North America, held its annual meetings in San Francisco, California, from April 15 to 19, 2015. One of the highlights of the 2015 meetings was a forum session organized by Dr. Bonnie Pitblado, a professional archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, and Dr. Michael Shott, an archaeologist at the University of Akron. The formal title of this session was Cons or Pros: Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors. Initially, some SAA members were concerned that this session, once underway, might be riddled with conflict and controversy among the attending archaeologists. Some American archaeologists are opposed to private artifact collecting in any form, so much so that any such rapprochement with collectors is viewed as unconscionable and unthinkable. Other professional archaeologists are more variable and moderate in their perspectives on artifact collecting. In turn, these moderate to extreme positions on the part of professional archaeologists have often upset the American artifact collecting community because its members believe they are doing nothing wrong by collecting artifacts. Because of shared interests in our ancient past, the collectors believe professional archaeologists should embrace them as allies and accept artifact collecting as a reality that is never going to depart from the American way of life. Generally speaking, it would be fair to say that the two camps have been in varying degrees of disagreement with each other for many decades. Fortunately, the discussions among the archaeologists in the SAA session went well and were productive.
The November 2015 edition of The SAA Archaeological Record, a bimonthly archaeology magazine, contains a collection of eight excellent background articles on the theme “Cons or Pros of Consulting with Collectors.” In these magazine articles, Dr. Pitblado, Dr. Shott, and several of their colleagues lay out some of their current thinking and past experiences on this topic. However, we need to emphasize that these articles just present their initial thinking as they travel down the long road toward more and better collaborations with artifact collectors. What they say is not necessarily written in stone and is subject to future revision or redirection—as are all things in science—based on future interactions with members of the artifact collector and professional archaeology communities. You may read these articles at the following link:
If the contents of these eight articles spur any specific questions or concerns on your part, please feel free to bring those up for comment and discussion under the 10 information categories that may be clicked on the Main Page of this blog.
This blog is not officially sponsored by the SAA, but it is an attempt to extend and expand the original SAA forum to the national level via the social medium of blogging and to bring artifact collectors into the discussion. Its purpose is to create and facilitate direct discussions between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors, leading to a lively and honest exchange of thoughts, feelings, impressions, ideas, perspectives, and concerns about the prospects for future fence mending and more collaborations between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors in the United States.
2.0 Objectives of This Blog
With the foregoing purpose in mind, the objectives of this blog are to:
(A) Inform the blog reader about the many issues that divide archaeologists and artifact collectors today.
(B) Measure (in an ethnographic sense) the actual dimensions of the current disagreements between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors―something that has never really been attempted on a national scale.
(C) Review and analyze the overall results from this on-line exchange to better define what separates the two sides and what they have in common. The results of this review and analysis will then be used to help determine the prospects for mending fences between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors and to identify new avenues that can lead to productive future collaborations between the members of the two camps.
3.0 Major Concerns of Professional Archaeologists and Artifact Collectors
Historically, how did professional archaeologists and collectors of artifacts fall into disagreement? This requires a brief look at the history of American archaeology. However, it should also be emphasized that the points of disagreement between the two camps are far more numerous than those few examples provided in Sections 3.1 and 3.2.
3.1 Concerns of Professional Archaeologists
Over the span of time in the late 20th century, many professional archaeologists came to believe that artifact collecting encouraged both the direct and indirect destruction of prehistoric and historic-era archaeological sites, which were viewed as precious, nonrenewable resources belonging to all Americans. The prevailing 19th century notion that collected artifacts alone would speak to antiquarians and archaeologists about the human past gradually gave way to the crystal clear realization that our readable record of the past lies not so much in the artifacts by themselves―but primarily in the undisturbed layers of soil on archaeological sites and the 3-dimensional spatial relationships among features and artifacts within intact archaeological sites. Archaeologists defined these spatial relationships and the writing in the soil as archaeological context. When highly controlled excavations are conducted by professional archaeologists on an archaeological site, undisturbed archaeological context is readable just like a page in a book. Random, uncontrolled digging by nonprofessionals on a site usually disturbs or destroys its archaeological context forever. It is just like running a page in a book through a paper shredder, making the portion of the story on that page unreadable.
Professional archaeologists became deeply concerned because artifact collectors all over the nation were doing random digging for artifacts on sites and collecting large numbers of temporally and culturally diagnostic artifacts on the ground surfaces at sites. Because artifact collectors were directly disturbing and destroying numerous archaeological sites across the nation, many professional archaeologists wanted to put an end to private artifact collecting in the United States in an effort to preserve and protect sites.
These archaeologists were also concerned about the buying, selling, and trading of Native American and historic-era artifacts on the national and international artifact markets in order to build private artifact collections. Professional archaeologists came to believe that the buying, selling, and trading of artifacts indirectly leads to the destruction of archaeological sites by encouraging more people to begin artifact collecting as a hobby, thereby eventually creating a higher level of demand for new and better artifacts. This demand, in turn, pushes artifact dealers, their associates, and some collectors in their struggles to find new archaeological sites, dig out their artifacts without 3-dimensional spatial controls, and meet the increased level of demand for collectible artifacts. Within the realm of artifact collecting, this is the way the famous economic Law of Supply and Demand operates.
3.2 Concerns of Artifact Collectors
On the other side of the fence, artifact collectors became concerned about professional archaeologists for a variety of reasons. For most of American history, collecting Native American artifacts and historic-era artifacts was a legal and honored American hobby (like collecting postage stamps and coins). It enjoyed widespread public acceptance and support, and it still does in the eyes of many millions of ordinary Americans today. Even the Boy Scouts of America once encouraged it to a limited extent as a vehicle for teaching boys about Native American culture. With this already strong and long-standing foundation of public support for their hobby among the American people, artifact collectors were naturally concerned that professional archaeologists were trying to end a legitimate, legal, and widely accepted hobby collectors cherished as much as life itself.
In the early and middle 20th century (in some regions of the nation), professional archaeologists eagerly befriended artifact collectors to tap their unique knowledge about local archaeological sites. This was knowledge essentially unknown to the professional community. Through the often very close professional archaeologist–artifact collector friendships formed in those days, the professional archaeologists were able to quickly learn the regional archaeology and use it as a foundation for increasing our understanding of prehistory in those regions. Unfortunately, from the artifact collector’s perspective, the professional archaeology community in some of those regions one day decided to express its long-term gratitude to its valuable collector friends by suddenly condemning all artifact collecting—and their friends in the collector community along with it. Some professionals labeled all artifact collectors as deeply and fundamentally unethical people who committed unconscionable acts of destruction against our shared American cultural heritage. They were soon treating collectors as pariahs, even though artifact collecting was legal in the United States―as it still is today. The affected members of the American collector communities in these regions of the nation felt used, slighted, betrayed, and embittered by the archaeological professionals they had once admired and counted as friends.
During the late 20th century, professional archaeologists would further upset American artifact collectors by lobbying federal and state politicians to pass cultural resource management laws that had the effect of restricting artifact collecting on federal and state lands, in federal waters, and to a limited extent on privately owned lands. Feeling confused and threatened by these newly passed laws and the regulations promulgated under them, many artifact collectors who had once been very open and public about their collecting activities and the contents of their collections began to move underground in the sense that they were less open about their collecting activities, cautious in allowing access to their collections, and very careful to avoid contact with professional archaeologists―who were now regarded with suspicion and fear. Under these new circumstances, some artifact collectors were far less inclined to assist professionals with their research than they had been in earlier times.
Christian theologians have long posited the existence of sins of commission and sins of omission. Just as past professional archaeologists have tagged artifact collectors with sins of commission because they willfully destroy archaeological sites, a number of artifact collectors (in response) have charged American archaeologists with having the same level of disregard for archaeological sites by sins of omission. Private construction projects have destroyed numerous archaeological sites throughout the nation, and they have continued to do so with each passing year. Many artifact collectors have come to believe that professional archaeologists have just as much of a responsibility to save, protect, and preserve those sites as the ones the collectors are destroying―and that complaints about insufficient funding and lack of influence with private developers are poor excuses for professional archaeologists to look the other way and do nothing as bulldozers rip through hundreds of these archaeological sites each year. Many artifact collectors believe the archaeologists are being hypocritical and unfairly picking on them while they deftly ignore their own professional shortcomings in protecting the archaeological record.
The college catalogs of most American colleges and universities have traditionally listed at least one course in art appreciation, and in many of these institutions, taking that course has been a requirement for graduation. Whether they have thought about it consciously or not, artifact collectors have long regarded themselves as keen appreciators of fine art for its own sake―a basic and important American cultural value. Many artifact collectors have decried the wholesale destruction and loss of valuable prehistoric art (for its own sake) to the teeth of the bulldozer pans on the privately owned sites discussed in the preceding paragraph. For such sites under immediate threat by earthmoving operations, one common collector retort across the years has been: “If you professional archaeologists cannot afford to preserve these privately owned sites or do controlled excavations on them, you and the site owners should at the very least allow us collectors to come into these sites and salvage the precious Native American fine art that lies beneath the ground surface before the bulldozers destroy it.” Many artifact collectors are proud of their appreciation of ancient art for its own sake, and they feel such sentiment is fully in line with traditional American values and should not be demeaned by professional archaeologists who falsely claim that the sole concern of collectors is artifact monetary value.
4.0 A Few Summary Thoughts
A considerable number of artifact collectors really are destroying archaeological sites by uncontrolled digging for artifacts. They are also buying, selling, and trading artifacts, a practice that does indeed whet the economic demand for more and better artifacts, which in turn leads to the eventual destruction of more archaeological sites in the United States. From the perspective of American archaeology, nothing about this package is good for our rapidly dwindling archaeological resources.
However, as far as this particular dispute goes, it can be argued that professional archaeologists are no less destructive of the archaeological record. American archaeology is a money-poor discipline operating in a modern culture that runs on money. Preserving, protecting, and studying archaeological sites requires funding and the enthusiastic support of a perpetually interested and engaged public that can raise that badly needed funding by various means and deliver it. While members of the American public in general are fascinated by archaeology―even wildly so on a shallow intellectual level―American archaeology does not enjoy significant monetary support and dedication from the American public, as do many other organizations, disciplines, and endeavors throughout the United States.
It can be argued that one primary reason for this public neglect is that professional archaeology is one of the few enterprises on the American stage that often goes out of its way to make controversial public statements and perform provocative actions that ultimately have the effect of alienating its potentially largest, wealthiest, and most enthusiastic base of support among the American people―those citizens who simultaneously collect artifacts and hold a deep and abiding interest in American archaeology―a level of interest that goes far deeper than the shallow fascination typically found on the American street corner. That being the case, at least hypothetically, it would appear that the archaeological record could be better protected in the future if the professional archaeology camp and artifact collector camp can find ways to come together like they once did decades ago; resolve their differences in a way that is acceptable (or at least mutually tolerable) to both sides; mend fences with each other to some workable extent; and find new pathways to a higher level of collaboration to preserve, protect, and study our shared American past.
5.0 How You Can Help with our Research on This Topic
This blog is structured specifically to collect needed information on this topic of professional—collector relations and to create a powerful, interactive, and direct discussion between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors on the assorted issues that divide the two camps. Some of those issues may not even be known or clear until they are later distilled out of the discussions on this blog, but we do expect those issues and many other interesting pieces of new knowledge, information, and understanding (as well as some pieces of misunderstanding) to fall out of these discussions. Therefore, we need you professional archaeologists and artifact collectors out there on the American landscape to SPEAK UP on this blog. Do not be shy. Do not be afraid. Do not hold back. Speak up and say whatever is really on your minds. If you would like to use your real name when making comments, you may do that. If you would like to be anonymous by using a fake name rather than your real name, that would be fine too.
This blog is constructed to be user friendly. You DO NOT have to register, be a member of WordPress, or create your own blog page to ask a question, make a statement, or otherwise comment on this blog. Just type your comment directly into the provided Leave a Reply box at the bottom each blog page and click to submit. If you wish, you may also type out your comment in a word processing program such as Microsoft Word, copy it, and paste it into the Leave a Reply box. There are no word limits on the lengths of your comments.
However, we do need to know two things about you just for research purposes:
(A) We need to know whether you are a professional archaeologist or an artifact collector when you post a comment on this blog. This is just so we will know from which side of the fence your thoughts and opinions are coming.
(B) We also need to know the region of the nation you represent because we suspect there may be significant regional differences in the relationships (or lack of them) between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors.
Therefore, when posting a comment, please indicate your group membership (professional archaeologist or artifact collector) and the region of the United States you represent. If you are not a professional archaeologist or an artifact collector, please either stay out of the discussion or let us know that you are just an ordinary citizen in your comment.
VERY IMPORTANT: One of the main problems with the long-standing disagreements between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors is the fact that they are almost always hypercharged with emotion, which often makes it difficult for the interactors to stay calm and sort emotions from facts during discussions. Therefore, we would like to make it clear to both sides that we are not looking for a debate here. Debating is a form of verbal warfare designed to overcome and slay an enemy with words to chalk up a victory. We want no warfare here, and our moderators will not tolerate any warfare here. It matters not whether you are the most prestigious professional archaeologist in the United States or the most important artifact collector in the United States, we will block your ability to comment on this blog or permanently end your access to this blog if you get abusive or go loco during our discussions. Our moderators have nothing to lose as a result of your anger. Please click on the Blog Policy button at the top of our Main Page and read it before posting. Our earnest desire is a peaceful, honest, free-wheeling, and civil delivery of the information we have requested under our clickable blog page headings on our Main Page, and we kindly expect our commenters to engage in a civil discussion rather than a heated debate. We look forward to hearing what people from both sides have to say. We value your thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, opinions, and concerns―no matter how small or large they might be. PLEASE PARTICIPATE.