Reflections on Artifact Collecting and the Science of Archeology
See related: Our Paleo Past
By Dale Weisman
I admit it: There’s something magical about spotting an arrowhead on the ground, picking it up and holding it in my hand like an ancient talisman. I imagine the keen intelligence, the sculptural ability, and the skillful hands that deftly chipped the projectile point from a rough chunk of chert hundreds or thousands of years ago.
For some collectors, the artifact’s appeal lies not with its timeless beauty or archeological significance but with its monetary value. An authentic, finely crafted and sought-after projectile point – an Andice, a Perdiz or a Scottsbluff, for example – can fetch top dollar at an artifact show or when sold online. Follow the money in the artifact collector market, and it often leads to a pay-to-dig site on private property or sometimes to a looted site on public or private land dug up by trespassing “pot hunters.”
It’s understandable and perhaps forgivable to pick up an artifact lying on the surface of the ground. But to dig up a significant archeological site – taking scores or hundreds of artifacts out their historic or prehistoric context and leaving behind piles of dirt, craters, and uprooted plants – is a destructive act on a much larger scale that I find disturbing.
I’ve seen the destruction first hand. Several years ago I participated in a Texas Master Naturalist clean-up project on public water quality lands south of Austin. Looters had dug up a large burned-rock midden (a prehistoric trash heap containing organic material and artifacts), leaving a house-sized crater ringed with huge piles of dirt and rock. We spent much of the day filling in the depression and replanting disturbed vegetation. The only good news in this sad story is that the looters eventually were caught and fined.
Collecting artifacts on public lands, such as a national or state park, is illegal. However, it’s perfectly legal to dig for artifacts on private land (with the landowner’s permission). There are no laws in Texas or elsewhere in the United States regarding archeological sites on private property except for laws pertaining to sites with human burials, which differ from state to state.
Some landowners with middens or other archeological sites on their properties allow collectors to dig and remove artifacts for a daily fee. While this pay-to-dig practice is legal, the results are irreversible. Digging up a Native American site obliterates the archeological record contained in the strata – the layers of soil that have accumulated for thousands of years.
Each artifact reflects an individual or shared behavior that sheds light on how a person or a culture lived and behaved in prehistoric times.
Archeologists are interested in lithic artifacts buried in well-stratified sites. Each artifact reflects an individual or shared behavior that sheds light on how a person or a culture lived and behaved in prehistoric times. The layers of soil provide useful information about our ancient past that archeologists, paleobotanists, paleontologists, and other specialists can interpret using sophisticated techniques that are not available to the average collector or digger.
An object lesson in how diggers often destroy the archeological record of an area is the Gault site in Bell County. For nearly 70 years, multiple landowners ran the Gault property as a pay-to-dig site, collecting in later years up to $25 per digger per day. Maintaining a pay-to-dig operation was more profitable than trying to run cattle on the hardscrabble land. Over the decades, countless collectors dug up the site, destroying much of the prehistoric record. The Gault site contains one of the largest burned rock middens in Central Texas – longer than a football field and originally six feet high. Pay-to-dig collectors greatly reduced the midden’s size in search of artifacts. Fortunately, they didn’t dig deep enough to disturb the underlying layers containing artifacts from the Clovis culture and even earlier cultures.
One sunny afternoon I sat at picnic table in a wildflower-dappled pasture on the Gault Site, now a protected archeological preserve, and talked with Clark Wernecke, the executive director of the Gault School of Archeological Research. Our conversation brought into focus the important role archeology plays in the scientific study of human cultures.
‘We are ultimately trying to understand human behavior. If we understand past behavior, we’ll understand ourselves better and where we are going in the future.’
“Archeologists are only interested in people,” Clark explained. “We are ultimately trying to understand human behavior. If we understand past behavior, we’ll understand ourselves better and where we are going in the future.
“We study people through material artifacts and environmental data left behind. In other words, we look at people’s garbage. Instead of being like Indiana Jones searching for the Crystal Skull, we are more like Sherlock Holmes. We like to call ourselves CSI Prehistoric.”
Inevitably, we talked about diggers and looters and their impact on archeological sites in Texas. “Everyone hates looters and trespassers who jump your fence and dig holes,” said Clark. “But the truth is, almost all archeologists started as collectors who picked up stuff when they were kids. Where archeologists differ from collectors is that when we pick something up, we wonder how old it is, how did they make it, where did it come from, who made it? Most collectors think that it’s neat looking and put it on their wall and classify it like stamp collecting.
“There is this tension between archeologists and diggers and collectors, and in particular looters, because they are hunting individual artifacts. As soon as you remove those objects from the site, you destroy the story. We are trying to recreate the story, and every little thing at a site tells a bit of the story.”
Archeologists do not dig an entire site – typically only 10 percent of the site’s surface area – unless it is in danger of being destroyed by development or inundated by a reservoir. According to Clark, only three percent of the Gault site has undergone archeological excavation.
We try to leave many areas intact for future generations of scientists who will apply new instruments and tests, resulting in new information.”
“Archeology is a destructive science, and archeologists get only one shot at gathering data from the strata as they dig,” said Clark. “We try to leave many areas intact for future generations of scientists who will apply new instruments and tests, resulting in new information.” When archeologists work at a site like Gault, they dig through each layer with painstaking care, often using plastic tools, bamboo sticks and even chopsticks to avoid damaging fragile chert while unearthing them. In one case, archeologists at Gault removed 16,309 chert flakes from a one-meter square area just five centimeters deep! They wash, measure, number and bag every single rock, and the bagged rocks go from the dig site to the laboratory for analysis.
Archeologists can learn a lot about the lifeways of Paleo cultures by studying their lithic tools, how they were made and used. Scientists examine the edges of tools under microscopes to determine wear patterns. Every tool has a telltale signature of the material it was used to cut, such as meat, hide, grass, wood or bone.
When a lithic artifact is found in situ with organic material such as bone or charcoal, archeologists can use radiocarbon dating technology to pinpoint the age of the organic material and hence the artifact. If organic material is insufficient or not available, archeologists sometimes use optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) technology to determine the age of the surrounding soil. OSL measures the amount of energy stored in grains of quartz and feldspar contained in the buried soil. After the soil is buried and no longer exposed to sunlight, the mineral grains accumulate energy. Optical stimulation in a special lab releases the energy, which is measured to determine when the soil – and the artifact – was buried.
Each day of field work at an archeological site results in 20 days in the lab. The total process is long and laborious, involving much paperwork.
“Some of the stuff found at Gault may not be analyzed in my lifetime,” says Clark. This unanalyzed lithic material ends up in a storage facility like the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) of the University of Texas in Austin.
Artifact collectors often complain that archeologists are really no better than diggers because they also destroy sites through excavation, and then they lock up the artifacts in vast warehouses like TARL, never to be seen or experienced by the general public.
The Texas Archeological Society (TSA) and its statewide regional affiliates also provide opportunities to participate in digs at sites on public and private land. Avocational archeologists have made many important contributions to the archeological record.
Archeology, however, is a scientific pursuit that’s truly open and accessible to the public. From neophytes to students to avocational (amateur) archeologists, anyone can participate in scientific field work at some level and experience the thrill of archeological discovery. Major archeological sites in Texas such as the Gault site and Lubbock Lake Landmark actively involve volunteers in field work. The Texas Archeological Society (TSA) and its statewide regional affiliates also provide opportunities to participate in digs at sites on public and private land. Avocational archeologists have made many important contributions to the archeological record.
Ultimately, what separates professional and avocational archeologists from diggers is the attitude that each individual has about finding an artifact and understanding its significance in the greater picture of human culture.
“Archeologists are not after just individual artifacts,” says Clark. “We are after stories that illuminate human behavior, to try and better understand our species. If you take the artifacts out of the ground without documentation and research, we lose that story, and you never get it back. It’s a little bit of all of our past that is gone forever. All you have left is something to look at on the wall, and I think that’s a shame.”