Finders Keepers


Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Sadly native american sites are still not all that safe from looters or vandals now. It is tricky when talking about thousands of years old remains. I know most Native Americans see them as ancestors which needs to be respected, But the farther back we go the less likely those remains are actually ancestors or even in a related group. There is no easy answer.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      I agree – NAGPRA currently attempts to give remains to the tribe currently living in that region but there is not an easy way to make a direct connection without DNA tests.Report

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    This is a really interesting post Mike.

    The wiki link doesn’t go into great detail about who the Slack Farm looters were – presumably they weren’t dirt poor since they came up with $10,000 for the right to dig the farm (though, there were ten of them, and $1000 apiece might have been doable and a sound investment, depending on how much they made on the black market). But I am thinking of, say, pyramid grave robbers in Egypt and other places, where you are sometimes talking about very poor people taking what is literally buried treasure from people who died long, long ago and using it to survive in the here and now.

    On the one hand, they are potentially destroying valuable knowledge. On the other hand, there is something unseemly about leaving ‘gold’ (literal or figurative) in the ground with dead people, when there are hungry ones above ground who could use it more. On the third hand, we expect the dead to be respected and not disturbed (but for how long?)Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      “but cursed be he that moves my bones”
      — William Shakespeare.

      I think they said that was less than 50 years. English burial sites were crowded affairs.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      The present will always have a contentious relationship with the preservation of the past and the safeguarding of the future. In fact, that relationship is sorta what the present is.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      @glyph I agree it’s complicated, especially if the people are poor. I have long said that it’s hard to fault someone who poaches a deer out of season to feed their family and if i was in the same situation I would be tempted to do the same.

      I’ll have to check on the folks from Slack Farm and see if I can find out more about them. I don’t know if they were in financial troubles or just saw a way to make some easy money in a time before this kind of stuff was illegal.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I was thinking more about the people who paid to do the digging than the farm owners who got paid, but yeah. If I owned a farm and was struggling (…maybe even if I wasn’t) I might reason, well, it’s *my* land, so…Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        And please do more archaeology posts. This stuff is fascinating to me! 😉Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      “On the one hand, they are potentially destroying valuable knowledge.”

      How valuable is this knowledge? What do we gain from knowing that the Egyptians buried their dead with rubies and sapphires but not silver or bronze? And how many people should go hungry so that we can gain that knowledge?

      This isn’t medical research that will save lives. Isn’t ancient human history like this ultimately just trivia?Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Eh, I know there are some questions about Jared Diamond’s theories about why civilizations succeed or fail, but knowing as much as we can about how people lived (and why they don’t now) can theoretically help us avoid the mistakes they made (although of course in the long run we’re all dead).Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I guess the difficulty is in assessing the value of any particular artifact in that endeavor to understand. Surely this particular arrowhead can’t be the lynchpin upon which our understanding of the former inhabitants of the land relies. But if we say that about every arrowhead, we’ll have none to study. I’d venture to guess that we quickly reach a point of diminishing returns on particular artifacts. A certain critical mass may be necessary to draw broad conclusions (e.g., one arrowhead isn’t enough to determine that an entire group hunted but one hundred might be) but after that we’re probably not dealing with anything of much value.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        There’s also the destruction involved. One isn’t really destroying an arrowhead, but having a vase (or god forbid paper) improperly cared for may lose all value entirely.Report

      • @kazzy

        I’m not sure I know the answer to your question (and for the record, I have no background in archaeology). I think a partial answer–and one that jives with your “critical mass” suggestion–is not so much that any given artifact can be decisive in telling us the secret, but that it’s important to be able to look at such artifacts as systematically as possible, and taking them away one by one impedes that process.

        So, it’s not so much that one or two artifacts are taken away, as it’s that at a given site, we do better knowing all the available artifacts and how they may interrelate with each other.

        Those are more thoughts than anything, and I don’t think they really answer you question.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        They certainly help, @gabriel-conroy . There does seem to be value in examining a particular site in as in tact a fashion as possible. So perhaps a solution is to say, “This site is open to whomever and that site is restricted to archaeologists.” One whole site is presumably better than two half-full or even two 3/4-full sites.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        In the past it would not be considered unethical for someone to excavate a site scientifically and then sell the artifacts for profit. At some point that changed. You are right that those items have value. the question is whether cultural value trumps personal value i.e. is it more important that it reside in a museum for future generations to learn from or more important to be sold and help someone feed their family. That is the really complicated ethical discussion and despite my wish for everything to be in a museum, I am also a realist about what people do when they have to survive.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @kazzy – yeah, that’s kind of what Mike’s post is about. Any one arrowhead in isolation doesn’t tell us much. Context is key to understanding. A number of arrowheads found in a particular area, near the midden heap and by the river where they presumably were traded with another tribe (all examples made up at random) starts to tell us something about how the people lived.

        So if that whole area gets totally dug up by different untrained people, each out for themselves, the big picture can’t be reconstructed, even by people who might otherwise be able to do so.

        I guess in the Slack Farm example, the ideal solution (assuming the farm owners knew what they had on their hands) would have been for them to go to the govt. and/or research universities, and ask for A.) qualified people to come in and do the archeological work on the area and B.) compensation for the objects found (since the farmers were motivated by money – and anyway, they are a farm, you can’t just come in and dig up all their fields and deprive them of their livelihood without compensation).

        If the govt/universities can’t or won’t compensate them (or at least assist them), then I’d say it’s a tragedy, but it would be up to the landowner to decide how to handle the situation. Hopefully they’d be able to figure out a way to monetize the site without totally destroying its informational value.Report

      • Avatar Chris Kimsey says:

        There are many different kinds of “looters”. I think this idea of poor folks looting to just get by is not very applicable in the USA. I know it is more common in the South America. In the USA you have rural folks surface collecting on their ranches and farms. Then you have the serious serious collectors who go out every weekend and then go to the meet-ups and try and sell. I think these people do serious damage to the archaeological record. Which is the only way we have to learn about the past for per-literate societies (setting aside oral history for the moment).

        Finally, there is the drug connection:

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Good point. If the relevant groups who would properly handle the materials aren’t willing or able to pay a fair price for them (with all sorts of caveats about what constitutes “fair”), it is much less objectionable when others fill in the gap.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    You have a similar issue in Europe, where a lot of Greek artifacts are in other countries’ museums on the grounds that these countries could better protect them during the 19th century.

    The issue is tricky. It takes both money, inclination, and time to preserve historical artifacts. You also want the artifacts to be accessible to as many people as possible for educational purposes. There is no easy answer.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “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.”

    It’s not so clear. Not for me at least. These sites also have a financial value. Why should historic value trump financial value? I’m inclined to accept that historic value does trump financial value, but I think if we are going to enact policy based upon that valuation system, we need to substantiate it a little more thoroughly.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      The issue is somewhat simpler on federal lands. On private lands such as the farm cited, if you forbid the farmer to sell artifacts found on his land that is a taking and requires compensation, under the 5th amendment. But from another point of view, what exactly is the law if an unrecorded cemetery is found, how is that handled? (Take the case of how a european cemetery would be handled and apply it to any burial )Report

      • Avatar Chris Kimsey says:

        I think some of this depends on the State. But most have laws protecting human remains and cemeteries, a lot of these actually fall under old public health laws. I think that in most case these apply even on private lands. Then NAGPRA for Native American remains. Non burial related sites and artifacts on private land are generally unprotected except up to the discretion of the land owner.Report

  5. Avatar Wardsmith says:

    It isn’t just Indian artifacts. My cousin bought a house near Chesapeake and there were woods nearby with all these small hills. Everything is flat there so I asked about them. Was told that slaves had built them as bulwarks during the revolutionary war. Then his kids aged 8 & 10 took me on a short walk to where they played and in no time we had a handful of musket balls, which the kids in the neighborhood used as marbles in their games. Years later of course those hills were flattened into more housing and parking lots.Report

  6. Avatar Chris Kimsey says:

    As a professional archaeologist (CRM in the west for 10 years) this is an issue we all talk about quite often. The “who owns the past” question is very complicated these days. On the one hand I am always trying to get my father-in-law (that redneck asshole) to quite gathering hundreds of arrowhead from the Great Basin. It is interesting to record sites on well traveled BLM land where at some sites you rarely find projectile points and then to work on military bases that have been closed to the public for 60+ years. On the bases the sites are comparatively pristine (minus the stray bomb crater).

    The other big, and from my perspective, more important issue is the relationship between Native Americans and Archaeologists. Things have improved substantially, but are still very fraught. There is a trend many archaeologist are worried about in which even non-grave associated materials such as lithic waste and dietary bone are being reburried without full analysis. Sometimes this blows up in public:

    The tribe’s response of “don’t tell us our own history” is hard for a white archaeologist to respond to given the history of ethnic cleansing. Things really hit the fan when you have to dig burials because a project cannot be rerouted or had enough money to buy people out. Then you have to do the work while you are being yelled. Its kinda weird!Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      Chris – good to have a fellow shovel bum participating! The problems you are describing in the west and with prehistoric sites is exactly why I liked doing historic sites in the east.Report

      • Avatar Chris Kimsey says:

        Ha! historic east coast archaeology=lame. I kid though.

        I also think it is important to make clear that I have worked with many different Native American tribes and individuals and have formed close working relationships and friendships with many people. Some companies and agencies have started hiring Native Americans as archaeologists and not just monitors, and this has produced some of the best results.

        With NAGPRA it really depends on who the MLD (most likely decedent, the person who gets to make decisions about what happens to the human remains) is. I have worked with MLDs who are fine with destructive analysis like Radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, and stable isotope analysis. Other insisting on only the very basic infield osteological analysis and no photos only drawings of remains or artifacts. Then reburialReport

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        You guys are just jealous because we know what we’re digging up. You know the old saying about the prehistoric guys: “If you can’t figure out what it is, it’s probably ceremonial.”


      • Avatar Chris Kimsey says:

        Historic Archaeology is sort of harder than prehistoric, there is so much stuff to know with that damn written record and what not. I like it though, and luckily in CRM you have to/get to do it all!

        As for “ceremonial” I roll with a bunch of behavioral ecologists who think that humans are just rational economic/ecological decision making machines with no free will so….. not so much with the ceremonial.

        Why did you get out of the archaeology thing? You seem like a good writer which is always hard to find. I know the money sucks……Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        It was less about the money and more about the travel (okay, it was a little bit about the money) I was newly-engaged and my daughter was getting older and the thought of being away from home so much was unappealing. I tried to keep my hands in it for about five years, doing some freelance work occasionally. My day job just kept growing and growing and now i’m really just a fanboy with a couple of degrees and some field experience on my resume. Hopefully in my golden years I can get back out there as a volunteer or something. I do miss it a lot though….

        As for ceremonial, my favorite example was an SHA conference we went to once where this guy had spent six months cataloging the rims of all these clay pots they were finding at a Mississippian site on the Ohio River. He claimed there was a measurable increase in how much the rims flared out over the life of the site. He was convinced this design choice meant something important. Apparently ‘artistic license’ never really seemed like a possibility. All the historic guys were kind of chuckling to ourselves afterwards.Report

    • Avatar Anne says:

      @mike-dwyer Thanks for the post I love this stuff. My undergrad is in Anthropology (hung out with lots of Archaeologists) and Art History my graduate degree is in Art Conservation and Art History.

      “He was convinced this design choice meant something important. Apparently ‘artistic license’ never really seemed like a possibility.”

      Conservators run in to this type of thing with art historians ALL the time. We come at it from a materials, technology, chemistry side of things. Often the limits of the technology ( how fast or slow your potters wheel spins) or materials dictate the final product. @zic can back me up on this with weaving, knitting, crochet etc. the technology used to create limit how designs can be made. This is not to say that an artists aesthetic decisions are not the primary factor but those decisions are constrained by many other things. Art historians sometimes come up with all sorts of reasons why choices were made by an artist but hardly ever look at material and technological constraintsReport

      • Avatar Anne says:

        I realize this is seems to be the opposite point of your comment but shorter version…people often look at one factor to the exclusion of all others and that never gives a true pictureReport

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        @anne !!!!!!!Report

      • Avatar Anne says:

        @kazzy !!!!!Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        100% on target, @anne

        I know the same is true of music, too; composition from different eras reflect the limitations of the instruments; the kinds of runs one can play on a piano, for instance, might not work on a harpsichord with its more primitive mechanics.

        And @mike-dwyer I’ve been thinking about this piece all day. The hills here about are riddled with cellar holes that were once farm houses, barns, and mills, taking advantage of the bounty of small waterfalls all about for power to turn machinery. There are strong state laws to protect such sights, but of course, no one to enforce them. “Bottling” is a common activity — digging through those old places for old bottles, which can fetch good money in the antique market.

        I’m more likely to collect plants, a cutting from an old rose bush or lilac gone wild or a couple tubers from a stand of day lilies.

        I feel less good about this past time then I did, and I thank you for this piece, but: I have a few pot shards from the Sonoran desert, arrow heads and grinding stones from Maine, etc. They were in places never to be a site of a dig; and would only decay to dust and rock. Yet they’ve been with me through many a classroom discussion/story-telling session, help bringing life to people who might otherwise be forgotten.

        So my feelings are mixed here.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        I hunt on a farm here in KY that is historically significant (I wrote about it a while back). While turkey hunting this spring I stumbled across two broken arrowheads, which I have never found by accident like that. Knowing that the context was broken (the field has been plowed regularly for 200 years) I didn’t feel at all guilty to pick them up. Also knowing that I was hunting in the same spot as prehistoric hunters from at least 1,000 years prior felt like I was meant to find them. I offered them to the landowner after I took a few pictures. He politely told me they were mine to keep. They will definitely be in my pocket the next time I take my nephew hunting and he and I will sit on a rock at some point and talk about them. With that opportunity I say academia can do without them.

        (Bottling is so popular in New England isn’t it? If someone finds an old privy site it doesn’t stand a chance, and man that is some fine digging.)Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        Thanks Anne ! You and I took similar paths. I did Anthropology and History (double-major). Anthropology was a funny experience. I did my degrees back-to-back instead of concurrent, and I came from a very conservative history department with some professors that had been teaching for a very long time. In the anthropology department the politics were completely different. Once, at a departmental meeting I heard the department chair giving some girls advice on how to deal with tear gas when they went to protest at a World Trade Summit meeting in a few weeks. Clearly I was not in Kansas anymore. The archaeology tract students just wanted to go dig and get dirty. The cultural folks wanted to live with llama ranchers and write dissertations. But man those hippy chicks were cute…I will give them that. Archaeology tends to attract tomboys that would rather just be one of the guys.Report

      • Avatar zic says:


        Thank you for that response. I would never disrupt a significant find. But my grinding stones, arrowheads, and pot shards all came from roadsides/fields, and would have simply been lost to time.

        My grinding stone is a thing of beauty. I saw it from the kitchen table at my mother’s house; a culvert had collapsed from road traffic, and the stream it carried had washed out on the sides of it; eroding the remains of an old cow pond, and breaking down one bank. It’s about eight inches long, and just round enough to fit into the hand, allowing a good grip without worry of getting your fingers underneath; the top side smooth and almost oiled looking. The bottom, the working side, is deeply grooved. The remainder just looks like gray stone. I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought if I hadn’t used similar-looking grinding stones at Plimoth Plantation when I worked there, and seen the way corn can score a piece of granite schist. Most of the people who would have used such a stone left the area in King Phillips War; and the land was resettled as repayment to British subjects who fought in that war in the mid 1700’s (Phipps Canada, the grant was called). The original barn, built before the Revolutionary war, fell down in the 1970’s; the house was built after the men returned from fighting in the Revolution; center-chimney post and beam cape made of hand-cut oak beams.

        For both groups of people, the location — a stream running down to the river (the transportation system) on intervale land, sloping to the south, is pretty ideal. Good rapids for fish weirs, spring flooding to keep open and fertile fields, plentiful supply of maples for sugar, and excellent deer-wintering yards just a few hundred feet up the hills.

        /and an old out house is the best place to unearth old whiskey/rum bottles; the wife wouldn’t go looking for them there! Fine digging, indeed; rich, deep soil without stones — just the occasional whiskey bottle.Report

  7. Avatar Patrick says:

    I’ve given this some thought since the post went up and I think where I’m going to come down is on the side of preserving the knowledge, and not the stuff.

    That is, I’m okay with saying, “Hey, you found this archeological site (presumably on land to which you currently hold title), it’s entailed while some folks come in and study it for some finite period of time, but all the stuff they find, you hold title to that.”

    I can see a legitimate argument for having some sort of authorized buyer program. Optimally, you’d want someone to get the stuff who can take care of it properly.

    But I don’t think I buy into the “because somebody who has been dead for a long time made this thing, it – as a piece of property – can be legitimately entailed as part of the commons in perpetuity.”Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      Patrick – my initial inclination is to agree with you, however my love of history was really formed from visiting museums and being able to see and touch Old Things. I remember very clearly being at a museum where they had a church pew that was about 400 years old and you were allowed to sit in it. Sitting there and thinking about what the lives of the people who had sat there before me were like was a transformative experience and set me on a path towards what ultimately became my field of study in college. I can’t imagine getting the same results from a picture.

      On the flip side though, most artifacts never see a display case. 99.9% of the items I dug up during my time in the field are sitting in a box in storage somewhere. So it’s a tough call. If giving up the artifacts meant opening more sites to study I would be all for it. The problem is that a lack of study is almost always tied to a lack of funding, not access. We had to turn away dozens of historically-interesting projects every year because there were no funds and had to take on others that were far less attractive because someone managed to secure a grant. ‘Tis the academic life I suppose.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        UBC’s Anthropology Museum has a lot of “pull out this drawer and look at the artifacts” so more stuff can be somewhat on display.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        We had to turn away dozens of historically-interesting projects every year because there were no funds and had to take on others that were far less attractive because someone managed to secure a grant.

        And yet there’s a private market for people to sell this stuff, which is why they warez it in the first place.

        There seems to be an alignment problem here.

        Again, I’m all on board with the idea of having some sort of vetting process. I mean, let’s say I find an original copy of the Declaration of Independence behind some portrait of somebody’s grandma that I buy in a flea market somewhere.

        I’m not going to want to keep it, because I can’t take care of it properly. I’d *like* it to go to somebody who *will* take care of it properly, which probably means a archival document repository run by an actual museum somewhere. On the other hand, I really need to replace my electrical wiring.

        Optimally, there would be a way to align those things 🙂Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        you could simply lend the manuscript to the museum.
        That’s what all the rich boys do.Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    First point — more archaeology, please. This was interesting, fun, and challenging.

    Second point — I’m given to understand that in Egypt, the practice is becoming one of digging up the mummies, studying them, exhibiting the cool artifacts to defray costs, and then burying them all again as near to the way they were found as possible. Is this the best available practice, a model to be emulated, too much? (Or am I not correctly informed?)

    Third point — once, I received an antiquity as a gift, a Roman soldier’s lamp, which was dug up from a field in Britain. It was sold by a dealer, with documents attesting to its provenance. I’m not sure what commercial transactions led it to become available for purchase, though, and I’ve no reason to think it was ever studied in any rigorous way. Am I a small part of the problem?Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Gifts are gifts. I don’t hold anyone culpable for what is given to them as a gift (though you might donate it to a museum, or lend it to them — I know someone who’s made significant donations to a particular museum in NYC…)

      Also: that gift is fairly tame. Nothing at all like being given someone’s preteen daughter (as a “future wife”).Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      I think that gift is fine; after all, what have the Romans ever done for us?Report