Living in Nevada, there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t hear someone that either has lived here for a significant portion of their life, or all their life, and about how many arrowheads they have in a bucket back home. It makes me angry and sad when I hear about it. What’s even more sad is that they have no idea that what they did is/was wrong. The only one to blame for that is archaeologists and our failure to educate.
Most people out here grew up with either hundreds of thousands of acres of desolate BLM land out their back door or frequently visited the open desolation on hunting, hiking, or camping trips. It’s almost impossible to walk out in Nevada and not find some sort of artifact. The challenge is to not pick it up.
Why Shouldn’t You Pick Up Artifacts?
There are many reasons why you shouldn’t pick up artifacts. One of the most obvious reasons is that they don’t belong to you. I don’t care if you’re a Native American on your ancestral lands-they’re still not yours. They belong to your ancestors. Native Americans aside, the artifacts don’t belong to anyone else either, but, at the same time they belong to everyone. All of us share a history that is tied to the artifacts lying on the landscape. Even if those artifacts predate European contact the people that created them are the ancestors of the people that early Europeans first interacted with all those many centuries ago. So, reason one is that they don’t belong to you–they belong to all of us.
Another reason is that archaeologists actually can’t protect sites that don’t have the right types of artifacts on them. Let me explain with a story I’ve told to others many times but is the best example of this that I know.
A couple years ago a colleague of mine and I were surveying portions of a small two-track road in central Nevada. The road was going to be widened and straightened so large drill rigs could get to geothermal well sites. We found a site that straddled the two-track for at least one hundred meters on both sides. I actually don’t know how far it went because we didn’t have permission to survey outside the corridor.
This site was loaded with artifacts. There were at least 10,000 flakes of different sizes and materials all over the place. There were also at least eighty early stage bifaces. An early stage biface is simply an early form of a projectile point that didn’t quite make it to the full point form for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the flintknapper simply broke the point during construction and sometimes there was a hidden material defect and the point broke naturally. Habitation sites, or often-visited hunting camps, are usually filled with these sorts of artifacts. There are usually portions of broken, and sometimes complete, arrowheads (what we call projectile points or ppts–in the South they sometimes call them pp/k which means “projectile point / knife”) as well. However, on this site, there were no such artifacts.
Everywhere we went we were looking for partial or complete projectile points because they are diagnostic. They can tell us the site’s age and possibly who was there. The style of the point might tell us what types of animals were being hunted as well. Basically, larger points are for larger animals (and usually were hafted on spears) and smaller points are for smaller animals (for atlatl darts or for use with a bow). We didn’t find a single diagnostic point or point fragment.
The only possible reason for our lack of success in finding a diagnostic artifact was that they were all picked up. Now, it’s possible and often likely, that other tribes picked up complete points centuries ago and reused them. Some tribes have taboos against that practice because the point carries significance from the ancestors. I’d bet that sometimes points were picked up and reused, though. The other possibility, and far more likely at that, is that ranchers, miners, and recreation seekers picked up the points over the last one hundred years or so. Like I said above, the site was bisected by an old two-track road and had easy access by 2WD vehicles and horses.
So, this fantastic old site is now bisected by a twenty-five foot wide hard packed road and is largely destroyed. Why? Because we couldn’t tell much about it without the diagnostic artifacts. Would the site have been saved if the artifacts were there? Possibly not. But, if it would have been too expensive to excavate then the geothermal company might have elected to go around it. As it is we exhausted the data potential of the site with the first recording. There was no further reason for excavation.
Finally, you shouldn’t pick up artifacts because others would like to enjoy them too. Why should you be the only person that gets to enjoy the history and artistry associated with the artifact? Why can’t others be mesmerized by the stories that artifact could tell? Why can’t others have the ability to sit down on that landscape and imagine the past and the people that lived there and used that artifact? It’s selfish and insensitive to think that you should now posses that artifact.
Artifact Collecting and Metal Detecting
One thing that I just don’t understand is that there are entire clubs out there dedicated to ripping history out of the ground for the purpose of “owning” it. Can you really own history that isn’t yours? If you managed to find a piece of a Civil War uniform owned by one of your ancestors then I could see a reason for wanting to own it. Otherwise, it doesn’t belong to you and you should leave it there or tell someone that could get it into a museum and see that the artifact is properly cared for.
Many collectors online claim that they are only searching for artifacts on private land so what’s the harm? What’s the harm? Really? I know that collecting on private land is completely up to the land owner but that is simply not the point. What if violent crimes were allowed only on private land? Would that make it OK? No, it wouldn’t. So, why is it OK to destroy archaeological sites on private land so you can beaf up your own private collection and brag to your fiends online?
How Archaeologists Can Help
First, we can be more approachable. We love to talk about our jobs but we refuse to discuss the locations of sites for fear that they will be looted. Artifact hunters think that we will get them in trouble and will put the artifacts in a box where they will never be seen again if they tell us about a site. It’s a stalemate that has developed over many decades and it will be difficult to overcome. In a perfect world no site location would be confidential and no one would desire to loot a site. That way a family could look up a bunch of sites to go visit for the weekend and they could enjoy them in their natural states. Of course, that will likely never happen in our lifetimes.
The next best option is to constantly talk about the fragility of archaeological sites and how they should be revered and protected rather than looted. Destroying the market for artifacts would help too. If they weren’t worth anything then no one would loot them. Unfortunately there is always someone that collects something. That will never end. So, we have to communicate the preservation of sites to anyone that will listen. If you are a CRM archaeologist and are reading this blog then start your own blog! You have many stories that you could tell about sites that were looted or destroyed in one way or another. Tell people why that’s a bad thing and what happened to it because there was nothing for you to record.
This post is way too long so thank you for making it this far. That’s enough for now. Go tell someone why you love archaeology and why you want to save it for others to enjoy.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!