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Preserving archaeology and culture for our future
Yuma Wash 2005 (J. DeJongh)

Artifact Collecting?

Artifact Collecting and the Preservation of Archaeological and Historical Sites

Although collecting ancient artifacts can make for some very beautiful personal collection displays and is usually not illegal, I find it rather disheartening whenever I see ancient artifacts collected for people’s personal collections or for resale. Please let me try to explain why.

Most people don’t realize that the piece of painted pottery, the stone projectile point, the glass bottle, or the coin or other metal object that they’ve discovered somewhere outdoors, is part of a cultural context — an association of several items that all date to about the same time period. Though these outdoor scatters of artifacts are usually not very noticeable and may not seem to be significant, they represent places where people conducted activities long ago, and as such they are sites of ancient human activity, also known as “archaeological sites.”

Any concentration of artifacts in which many of the items present are more than 50 years old is considered an archaeological site under federal and local government regulations. Removal of artifacts from archaeological sites — whether prehistoric items or historical glass and metal objects — literally removes pieces of history.

Relic collecting, from simple gathering of a few pot sherds to organized pot hunting and other unauthorized commerce in antiquities, is one of the most destructive forces decimating our nation’s and the world’s cultural heritage. This fact has been recognized internationally by the enactment of restrictions and severe penalties for trafficking in archaeological artifacts. These actions against trafficking in artifacts have been taken by many local, state, federal, and international governments because rather than occurring alone, most ancient artifacts are associated with other artifacts strewn over the ground, even if there is no architecture visible.

Even though a relic collector might not see ancient structures or other cultural features in the vicinity of artifacts that catch one’s eyes, surface artifacts often indicate locations where prehistoric people built houses, or conducted activities centered around outdoor fireplaces, storage pits, or agricultural works, or where they killed game, or collected wild natural resources, or buried their dead, or participated in historical battles. Taking artifacts away from one of these sites not only removes clues to what was going on there, it also removes the best information available for identifying the site’s age, because many ancient artifact styles were only used during particular eras. Therefore, that collected artifact could have been used to help determine the approximate age of archaeological features still buried in its immediate vicinity if it had been left in place for archaeologists to study and to plot on an accurate map.

Artifacts and other cultural materials found on and below the ground at archaeological sites are often the only source of information that we have to answer questions about an ancient people’s way of life — to make scientific interpretations about what they looked like, what they ate, how they constructed their houses, what language they spoke, what they believed in, and how they created beauty in their lives. When an artifact is removed from its original context in an archaeological site without carefully recording where it was found and what other kinds of items were associated with it, the artifact is lost to scientific study, and the positions of other things with which it was associated are usually disturbed too badly to recover any additional useful information.

The loss of individual artifacts from archaeological sites is compounded when the collected artifacts are introduced to the marketplace. News about the sale of antiquities, especially when the items fetch high prices, only encourages members of the public who are unaware of the destruction caused by artifact removal from archaeological sites, or who don’t care about such destruction, to go out and collect more relics from archaeological sites. Regardless of whether the items they collect are for their private enjoyment, art projects, commercial gain, or other purposes, the practice of artifact collection without proper scientific documentation destroys more and more of our cultural resources. Giving, trading, or selling the artifacts to other private collectors further compounds the problem by making those relics unavailable for scientific study.

For these reasons I always try to discourage individuals from collecting ancient artifacts for their own use, and that they not buy jewelry or other art items that include pieces of prehistoric pottery, arrowheads, or other ancient artifacts. As a possible alternative, there are many modern artisans who make replicas of ancient pottery. Persons interested in finding jewelry or other art that looks just like it contains real, ancient artifacts, are encouraged to find some artisans who make replicas of such artifacts and ask them to use some of their broken pieces in new art creations. However, if you do this, please advise potential buyers, gift recipients, and other users of these artworks that your creations use modern replicas of ancient pottery, because to use real ancient artifacts might give someone the idea that it is okay to collect such items, and that such collections destroy priceless information about our cultural heritage.

As an alternative to selling archaeological materials, I encourage people who have collections of artifacts to consider donating them to reputable anthropology or science museums so that they can be used as educational collections or for cultural research. I also encourage persons who find artifacts that they think may have historical or archaeological significance to make a note of the artifact locations (but leave them where you find them), and contact an archaeologist so that the item can be located on a map and a record can be made of it.

If you find artifacts in Arizona that you think may have historical or archaeological significance please make a note of their exact locations (plot them on a detailed map if you have one with you), and call the Arizona State Museum at 520-621-1271 so that the Museum can locate the site on a map and make a record of it.

Incidentally, it is illegal to collect artifacts from any federal property, and many states and cities have laws and ordinances that also make collection of artifacts from their properties illegal. On federally administered land such as national forests, national parks, monuments, and recreation areas, military and Indian reservations, national wildlife refuges, and land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, it is considered theft of government property to collect artifacts from the land.

Also, some states, including Arizona and New Mexico, have laws that make it illegal to disturb ancient human burials within their boundaries, even if the burials are on private property. Therefore, if any artifacts you find might have come from an ancient grave, you could be prosecuted for possessing them. For further information on the topic of artifacts from human burials in Arizona you can contact Dr. Todd Pitezel at the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Tucson AZ 85721-0026 (telephone 520-621-4795; email pitezel@email.arizona.edu).

I always welcome people to contact me if they have questions about whether or not to collect relics. I am also willing to discuss archaeologist’s concerns about the use of metal detectors and to help metal detector clubs develop ethical guidelines for their members.

Allen Dart, RPA, Executive Director
Old Pueblo Archaeology Center
PO Box 40577
Tucson AZ 85717-0577
(520) 798-1201 office
URL www.oldpueblo.org

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