#172 Open Letter To Arrowhead Hunters

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.

#121 Should Metal Detectors be Regulated?

A response to the article, “Artifact Club: on the trail of historical treasures” published in The Bulletin online at http://www.bendbulletin.com/article/20120812/NEWS0107/208120350/

As I was reading some archaeology news articles today I stumbled across this little gem.  Please, go take a look at the article before you read my comments.

Let’s start with the title.  Putting the words “artifact” and “treasures” into the same sentence sends the wrong message to the public.  This goes back to the Spike TV and National Geographic shows about artifact hunters and the message that it sends to the public.  Does everyone know that it’s illegal to take artifacts from public lands or lands that you don’t have permission to do so on?  No, they don’t.  I know some very smart people that grew up picking up “arrowheads” off their property and out on hikes on public lands.  They didn’t know it was wrong.  They still don’t know it’s wrong.  

For those that don’t know, we often only have the projectile points and debris from making projectile points to record a site with.  We can tell a lot about the people that lived or visited a site from the debris they left behind.  I’ve personally recorded many hundreds of “lithic scatters” which are just collections of debitage, or “chipped stone” that was the result of making projectile points and other tools.  If there is nothing else left except for the chipped stone debris then there isn’t much we can learn from the site other than the fact that someone did something there. With careful analysis we can sometimes discern what they might have done on that site but that’s about it.  The points (arrowheads) sometimes allow us to discern who was on the site, not just what they did there.

The article begins by talking about the historical background to the artifacts that the people in the article are finding:

They look for places where pioneers heading west climbed from covered wagons to assess a creek crossing. Places where blue coats and gray coats camped and perhaps traded gunfire. Places where families picnicked and played at the water’s edge.”

After detailing the history that is being lost to the pubic because a few people decided to keep the artifacts (or sell them) for themselves and not let everyone know about the history they found and what it means, the article author glorifies the act by calling the artifacts “buried treasure”.  Nice.

The members of the Mid-Western Artifact Society each wear a “utility apron” to put artifacts and trash in.  There’s no GPS or any desire or effort made to provide a provenience for the artifacts.  At one point the author says, “Every item tells a story”.  Yes, they do.  Their location and their association with the other artifacts on the site also tells a story.  In fact, they tell a more complete story than one artifact, out of context, sitting in a shadow box on your bookshelf.

These club members are not always digging on private land either.  There are more than a few references to digging on public park land.  I’m not sure about local ordinances but that doesn’t sound legal.  It might be, of course, but it’s certainly not ethical.

According to the article 2,416 coins were found in June and 4,426 coins were found in May.  Astounding.

I have no problem with the events they have where coins and other artifacts are actually buried so members can have fun finding everything.  That actually sounds pretty fun.  Of course most of the buried “loot” was likely taken from legitimate archaeology sites.

The ethics section of the article discusses the club’s insistence that they follow local ordinances and always get land owner permission for private land.  They mention that property owners often will take a split on whatever is found.  This is similar to the Spike TV show.  Again, they don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing.

I know that doing pretty much anything on private land is not illegal.  And, I’m not say that it should be illegal.  People just need to be informed and educated as to the importance of artifact provenience as it pertains to the interpretation of sites.  That’s a tough thing to do, I know.  The Discovery Channel isn’t going to do it.  We have to.  Tell your friends and family why taking an artifact from a site (or moving it) will hurt our ability to interpret the site.

The last bit of the article relates a story about the group being contacted to find a lost wedding ring.  That’s a great application for a metal detector and I’m glad they were able to find it.

So, back to my post title: should metal detectors be regulated?  Maybe.  I can’t imagine too many uses for metal detectors that don’t involve hunting for artifacts.  Of course if you regulate metal detectors you’ll have to regulate shovels and trowels as well.  No one wants that!  I guess I don’t have a solution to the problem, aside from education, of course.  Education is the key to so many of our problems.  You’d think we’d have learned by now.  Guess not.

Thanks for letting me rant on this topic.  It’s upsetting that they article has such an upbeat tone and that there was no effort to contact an archaeologist to get that side of the story and an opinion on metal detecting clubs.  Again, inform your family and friends about this topic.  Don’t yell at them and don’t be a dick about it.  That attitude will get you no where.  Just tell them what we would have learned if the artifacts had stayed in place and how leaving the artifacts in place is much more valuable than cashing them in.  Tell them it’s valuable to everyone if the artifacts are left in place, not just one or several people.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field.

#88: Stop Spike TV from airing "American Diggers"

Looting in Georgia a couple of years ago. Form the SGA website.Spike TV is planning a show where a group of people, commanded by Randy Savage, I believe, go around to historics sites around the U.S., dig up artifacts, tell us how important they are to history, and then sell them.  This is reality TV taken to a new low.  I feel that most reality TV is pretty much a waste of time but this is a waste of our cultural resources and justifies the actions of thousands of looters already out there and probably would encourage others that looting is OK.

So, sign the petition and let's see if we can get the word out.

Go to the Change.org website here:

Stop Spike TV from looting our collective past!

Here is the text of the petition:

Cancel the scheduled show "American Diggers."


I just signed the following petition addressed to: Spike TV.

Cancel the scheduled show "American Diggers."

This show, as advertised by Spike TV (http://aroundthenetworks.com/spike-tv-announces-unscripted-show-american-digger/), will follow a team "led by former professional wrestler-turned-modern- day relic hunter Ric Savage as they scour ... battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history."

"American Diggers," as described, encourages and glorifies looting and the antiquities trade at the expense of American history. Although the items pilfered by the team are acknowledged to have "great historical and cultural significance," these items are sold for individual profit. 

Simply plucking valuable historical items from the ground removes these items from their context. If excavated systematically by a team of trained archaeologists these sites could prove invaluable to our cultural history. The team and Spike TV are clearly more interested in turning a quick profit than in history and education, but by glorifying these irresposible actions they are encouraging the public to follow suit.


[Your name]


Here is an article by Tom Gresham on the Society for Georgia Archaeology website about fines for looting handed down a few years ago:

"Stiff fines handed down for site looting in Burke County"

Sign the petition!


#47 Artifacts in Public

So I've seen two articles in the past week that deal with the private ownership of artifacts.  One is from West Virginia and the other from Texas.

"Indian Artifacts on Display at Saturday Show"

  -From the Fredericksburg Standard, Fredericksburg, Texas October 12, 2011

The story starts out:

"Collectors of rare and ancient arrowheads along with other objects relating to Native Americans will be in town Saturday when the annual Fredericksburg Indian Artifact Show returns"

When the show returns? How often has this show been coming back?  Where do these people get "fresh" artifacts for the annual event?  The article continues:

"As many as 70 tables will be set up by collectors from all over Texas to display historic artifacts for the benefit of buyers, sellers, traders or lookers interested in stopping by the pavilion that day."

Wow.  Seventy tables of artifacts.  That is disturbing.  I understand that it is not illegal to possess artifacts that you found on your own land but is it legal to sell those artifacts?  Also, are vendors required to show a pedigree for the artifacts?  Where did they get them?  Sounds shady.

"Free admission will also be provided for Gillespie County law enforcement officers..."

I guess if you grease the wheels you can slip under the law in Texas.


The second article is from Putnam County, West Virginia.

"Public invited to bring artifacts for identification"

This event is less disturbing than the last one but has similar problems.

"The public is invited to bring artifacts for professional archeologists to view and identify..."

Now, I wholeheartedly endorse the identification of artifacts by professional archaeologists.  It might give the archaeologists a chance to let people know that removing artifacts from public land is illegal.  Hopefully the people coming to the Market found their artifacts on their own property.  There is certainly less public land in West Virginia than in Texas.  However, I just hope that this doesn't encourage people to go out and "find" more artifacts for identification.  As long as the archaeologists refrain from appraising the artifacts then everyone should have a good time.

It seems like the main problem is that many people don't know that collecting artifacts from some place other than your own land is illegal.  Not only is it illegal but it robs the rest of us from enjoying them.  Those artifacts do not belong to any one person.  They belong to everyone and no one.  We should all have the pleasure of seeing a piece of history while we are out on a hike or are just enjoying nature.

Am I way off base here?  Let me know.  I don't have a problem with the West Virginia archaeologists identifying artifacts but I feel that the Texas show is not only immoral but is likely illegal.

Written in Ely, Nevada


2008  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (iPad App), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.   Developed by Handmark, Inc.

LOOT Acronym for the 'Listing of Outlaw Treachery'.

LOOT Clearinghouse An archival database of information on past archaeological incidents and cases which is maintained by the Archaeological Assistance Division of the American National Park Service in Washington, DC.