I’ve been working my way through Craig Child’s book Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. The book explores the ethical side of archaeology and our relationship with ancient artifacts. It delves heavily into the role played by pot hunters and other amateur diggers, some digging for the love of history and others digging for the money to be made on the black market. For me it renews an old internal debate that often came up during my time as an archaeologist.
Academics will tell you that any non-scientific excavation of a site destroys the context of the objects found and prevents us from learning anything meaningful about the people who inhabited that space. This is true and I have joined my colleagues in mourning the partial destruction of sites when we have discovered looters’ pits. One of the most famous cases of looting occurred in my own state in the 1980s when the site of a Mississipian village dating back to 1400 CE was systematically destroyed by 10 individuals who had paid the property’s owner $10,000 for access. Part of the destruction at Slack Farm included the uncovering of over 700 graves. When the site was discovered it gained national attention and helped create momentum for the North American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This law now protects Native American sites on federal land and makes the traffic of stolen goods a federal offense. The individuals involved were never fined or served any jail time.
Federal laws have helped protect native sites however they do little to protect post-European sites, which were the focus of my work during my time in the field. So for example, when we did the initial survey for the Portland Wharf Project, a site dating back to the late 18th century and occupied primarily by whites of European descent, there was nothing that could be done about the dozens of looters’ pits we found throughout the site. For nearly 40 years the locals had seen the uninhabited area as a sort of playground where they could dig as they pleased. During our work there many told us that they had dug there recently and saw nothing wrong with what they did.
Childs’ book focuses on the American Southwest which is loaded with important sites. Because of the arid climate and the nature of the peoples who once inhabited those lands, many sites are not buried but in fact exist above ground and can easily be found. Human remains as well as grave goods and other ceremonial artifacts are well-preserved and thus make the area a target for black market diggers and casual explorers.
These kinds of stories represent for most a clear case of right and wrong. Prehistoric and historic sites have academic value and thus most people believe they should be protected, even if it is just at the local level. Where the ethics get a bit murky though is when we talk about the casual artifacts found often by accident or in a clear case of broken context. A good example of this is the person that stumbles across a projectile point while walking a field or maybe a bit of broken china when digging in their garden.
My position has always been that fostering a love of history in the public means overlooking small offenses. There is a big difference between systematic looting for profit and picking up a single item that you stumble across.Once a shovel goes into the ground for the purpose of finding something, things get complicated.
The question I would ask is, who owns our history? Is the Native American 1,000 years removed from their ancestors more entitled to the artifacts of their lands than whites who have only been on the continent for a couple of centuries? If I buy a historic piece of property, do I have the right to renovate and completely change a structure that dates back a century or more? The TV show This Old House would be out of business if we drew a line preventing this. I can not find fault with someone who keeps an old home in livable condition even if that means changing the structure. There is a conversation to be had about the march of progress and our relationship with the past. In an era where we have more respect for historic and prehistoric context than ever before, at what price does conservation come?
* Below: Slack Farm at the point where it was discovered by local officials and digging stopped.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.