Amateur Archaeology: Collecting and Curating Our Past

My grandmother recently sent me pictures of various Native American artifacts that her father-in-law had collected from the farm fields of southern Michigan. “What can you tell me?” she asked. It’s a common question, and one that archaeologists are often asked anytime they are shown an artifact collection.

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The collections are often exquisite examples of Native American lithic technology and early frontier resourcefulness. Unfortunately, all too often, the curators of these wonderful collections are unable to answer one simple question: “Where did you find it?”

 

By where, I do not mean the county, or even something as specific as “somewhere within this 300-acre field.” I mean where. Can you take me to the exact spot?

 

Every artifact has a vertical and horizontal context. The vertical and horizontal context of an artifact is as important as, if not more so, than the artifact itself. Horizontal context is the geographic location in which an artifact is recovered. When archaeologists survey an area for archaeological sites, this horizontal dimension is typically recorded with a GPS unit. The precise location of where an artifact is recovered can be extremely important. By examining the relationship of certain artifacts to the geographic landforms (such as flood plains, terraces, hilltop ridges, etc.) on which they were discovered, archaeologists are able to determine patterns of land use over time. These patterns might be in response to changing climatic conditions; they might be in response to changes in culture and new lifeways. There is much that the scientific community still does not know.

 

When you collect an arrowhead, spear point, or any other artifact from the ground surface, you are removing that artifact from its horizontal context. It’s therefore critical that collectors, if they wish to be good stewards of that history, carefully record and document those artifacts. The advent of smartphones has made this an easy task. There are multiple free GPS applications for both iPhone and Android that will allow you to record fairly accurate coordinates. Other, more advanced applications, offer that functionality paired with an artifact inventory that you can maintain and download to your PC or Mac.

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Rumors and misinformation persist. Contrary to popular belief, in Kentucky, recording archaeological sites that you discover on your property does not minimize your rights as a landowner. You are free to develop your property, and free to refuse access to any archaeological site on your private land.

 

Documenting your findings, however, does make you a participant in ongoing research. You become a member of a larger community that includes other amateur archaeologists, as well as professionals. Thousands of archeological sites throughout Kentucky are well-known to locals, but not to the professional archaeologists conducting research in that same locale. By recording sites you discover on your property, you add to that communal body of knowledge upon which archaeologists rely. Your discovery could, someday, force archaeologists to re-think prior suppositions on Native American or pioneer land use.

 

Archaeologists and historians do not own the study of our past. All Kentuckians, and many Native tribes, are owners of the shared history of this great state. And all Kentuckians can add to that shared knowledge. All of us are custodians of Kentucky’s history. By working together, and by documenting and sharing our discoveries, we can better illuminate not only our past, but also our future.

 

Some Important “points” to remember:

  • It is a felony to disturb both Native American and historic burials, even if the graves are unmarked. Never dig for artifacts. Digging for artifacts destroys the vertical provenience of anything you might recover. Digging into a burial is immoral, unethical, and highly illegal.
  • Never collect artifacts from state or Federal land. This is highly illegal.
  • Never collect artifacts from land unless you own the land or have been given permission from the landowner. Collecting artifacts from land that you don’t own and without permission is illegal.
  • Always carefully document the artifacts that you recover. Even better, record these discoveries with the Office of State Archaeology so that your discoveries can benefit current and future research.

 

 

Zachary Konkol is a former archaeological field technician and 2003 graduate of Murray State University. He now works under contract to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

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