Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Not much happened today.  Well, unless me getting my ass handed to me by my 60-ish year old Field Office Manager boss as "not much...."  And by that I am not referring to me having gotten into trouble. Stanley is a super nice guy, who also happens to be the only other full-time archaeologist in the office aside from my boss.  Oh, no.  You see Stanley is a freaking beast when it comes to hiking around Montana.  I didn't quite believe the rumors around the office...until today.  I literally all but ran up and down hills in order to keep up with him.  I can only dream about being that awesome when I am his age.  In fact, the next time someone asks me what my long-term career/life goals are, I'm going to say "I want to be in half as good of shape as Stanley."  Aside from that, I forgot my phone in the truck and so didn't get any pictures, was the only one to take water out on our 2 mile hike in 97 degree heat (who was the smart one?!), and we found a spinal column (possibly a bison) eroding out of the side of a hill.  That's pretty much it.

But!  I did have time today to think about some stuff.  Namely looting.  Word of warning, I am so not using any reference materials for this, only my own personal ideas, and whatever scraps of stuff I can remember from graduate school.  I should also warn that I may or may not bust out with some archaeological jargon in this.  You have been warned.  

So, what had me thinking about this, you ask?  Well, several things, none of which actually have anything to do with looting.  Mostly I started thinking about it when one of the environmental seasonal girls asked if we ever excavate anything, and we said very rarely, and then she asked about what we do with it after we excavate.....and that was what mostly got me thinking.

Looting, per an archaeologist's perspective, is the unscientific excavation/removal of artifacts from the ground, graves, tombs...I'll even throw in historic sites that are above ground.  Looting is often tied to the art market....I don't know what the percentage of this relationship is, and I would doubt the word of anyone who claims to know exactly, because it is a massively integrated...thing...that seems to have a life of its own.  Then we get into the illegal international transportation of artifacts, and even fake artifacts (which are another can of worms altogether, one I will not talk about in this post). This is problematic for archaeologists because any artifact removed from its snug little home, either in or on the ground surface, without recording the 3-D coordinates (provenience) or recording other artifacts found in the area, erases any useful data that an archaeologist can use.  Meaning archaeologists will have a thing, but nothing that helps to tell the story about where that thing came from.  Context.  Archaeologists don't just love it, they need it.  Oh, and publishing.  Archaeology is all about publishing the results of excavations, because archaeology is all about disseminating data.  

A very super common occurrence is that people find stuff on their lands.  Private lands.  Farmers especially seem fond of walking their fields and finding artifacts.  At my field school, the farmer who was so very kind enough to let us dig up part of his fields, had boxes upon boxes of artifacts he found.    

And here is where we come to the part that drives me a little (A LOT) crazy:  some archaeologists will call any excavation NOT completed by a trained (in a field school) archaeologist, looting, and therefore bad. Wait.  Not just bad.  Earth shattering bad!  The world is over.  Um...boohoo?  Can they sound any more like a 15 year old girl who was just told she can't go to the sleepover because she needs to go to her Grandma's 70th birthday?  Too specific?

Here's why I say boohoo:  archaeology is essentially looting in a scientific manner.  Archaeological excavation kills research subjects.  Any archaeologist who says otherwise is delusional.  You see, during archaeological excavation, we lay out a grid square with a known location in the world.  This square, or rectangle, can be any size the archaeologist feels is necessary to get a good enough look at the area.  Excavation then is either completed by digging down by arbitrary levels (say, 10 cm), and/or by natural strata (which is basically the natural change in the soil color). 

As they dig down, the shovel minion will keep the soil to be screened, or bag the artifacts found whilst digging.  Screening allows you to find smaller artifacts that you can't see through the dirt.  These artifacts are always bagged with artifacts found in the same level or stratum.  Depths of these are recorded, along with soil color per the Munsell chart, soil texture (e.g. loam, silt, clay, or combination thereof).  During some digs, the EXACT location in the ground will be recorded for super special artifacts.  This is (in my experience) done with diagnostic artifacts, which are artifacts that are super specific in design or decoration, which have a known date and/or culture of production. 

We measure, we use bags to collect artifacts...

We put our dirt into buckets....
And then we laugh!   
Now, all of this information is then used during analysis to piece together the story of the archaeological site, thereby attempting to find out the story of the people who left the stuff behind.  Because in the end, archaeology uses things to try to understand the people.  And this is important, because at its very basic level, archaeology is part of anthropology and is a study of humans.  

Archaeology is a serious science people.  Respect.
And it is at this point that I feel like some archaeologists forget about the people.  Specifically, living people.  You see, as I said before, farmers seem to be fond of collecting artifacts (just like archaeologists...hhmm...).  Also, people in general like to have stuff...we tend to find value in stuff (be it monetary or educational or that it is just plain special).  Whether it is a $40,000 car or the necklace passed down to you from your grandmother, you find value in these.  In addition, when archaeologists dig stuff out of the ground, they permanently alter it.  It will never be the way it was, and no one else will be able to find it in the ground again.  And anyone who wants to understand that site will have to take the field notes, drawings, photos, measurements, publications, whatever, and use those things to try to see what the site used to be....I hope that makes sense.   It made sense in my head...

Anywho, there is another issue:  people have land...their own land.  Privately owned.  (I said this before, and will say it again, because this is an important aspect of American cultural values...land ownership, its a pretty big deal).  They can pretty much do whatever they want on that land, and federal laws regarding excavations do not apply.  Like the farmers that pick stuff up off the ground, other people can indulge in, what archaeologists refer to as, "amateur archaeology."  These people may excavate for the same reasons as "real" archaeologists:  to gain knowledge about past cultures.  However, "real" archaeologists will refer to this as bad archaeology.  And I am sure there is a whole host of arguments, like "they aren't trained" or "they didn't do it scientifically" or "they only excavate to excavate."  I'm also fully aware that some people dig to look for "treasure."  But again, their land.  

My question is:  why is it that only "real" archaeologists are capable of conducting scientific excavations?  I mean, archaeologists today are excavating and destroying sites that will never be able to be excavated by future archaeologists.  The same site will not exist in ground; meaning, part (or all) of the site will only exist on paper and in photographs.  Also, there was a time, not too long ago, that ALL archaeologists were technically "amateurs."  We're still figuring this out as we go.  Are we seriously any wiser than the people who want to start digging on their lands?  I don't think so.  We simply tend to have been told how to dig in a way that best suits "legit" archaeology.  

Now, I did not go into depth about actual grave robbing and what I consider legit looting.  Those I define as looking for stuff for the sole purpose of making money.  Farmers and people who dig on their land in order to learn what is on their land, or just because they find it interesting, are completely different. 

The very actions of the farmers and "amateur" archaeologists is part of their story, and is therefore worthy in and of itself of anthropological study.  Even legit looting is a part of culture and should be studied.  And one day, however long from now, some people may look back and think, "why was looting frowned upon so?  Let's look at this act in the grand scheme of cultural practices!"  Who knows what they will think of us.  We, as archaeologists, are not any better than the farmers or amateur archaeologists....and maybe, just maybe (though it kind of hurts to actually write this.....) no better than legit looters and grave robbers (gah!  I'm going to go whip myself now).  We simply look at material culture (artifacts) through a different scope.  

And to lighten the mood, here I am in the Army wearing a Navy hat.
Cuz that's how I roll.  

*Note:  Photos of me digging were CLEARLY not taken by me, nor are they mine.  They are the fantastic product of Ms. Becky Daresh, a fellow field school participant at the Heckelman Site in 2012.  She deserves all the credit for making me look like I knew what I was doing.   

**Also, the photo of me wearing the Navy hat also not taken by me (obviously).....and the hat was not mine, though it was awesome.  

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