Facts About Artifacts
We hear people say, "What's the harm in collecting a few arrowheads or pieces of pottery?"
Archeological sites are delicate, limited resources. We can't replace them. Many professionals believe that the last undisturbed archeological sites in Texas may be destroyed in the very near future. If everyone carried away a bit of an ancient site or simply rearranged it slightly at its present location, we would soon have nothing of value left. Any disturbance of an archeological site may hinder future scientific studies. We are trying to manage special kinds of parks where the property will be held in trust long after you and I are gone from the scene. Also, we have no way of imagining what incredible improvements may exist in future archeological techniques. Our goal is to conserve nationally recognized landmarks for future generations. If parks weren't protected, time, land development, and relic collectors would destroy our most important historical and cultural resources.
"Still, what's the harm in picking up an arrowhead or two?"
Context is very important for archeologists, who carefully document all information and material they retrieve. Context is the relationship of things found in the ground. If documented, these relationships can tell us a surprising amount of information: who lived at a site and when; what they ate; what the climate was like; what their culture was like and how far and how much they traveled. By removing even a single artifact from a site you may prevent scientists from ever learning who lived there. In fact, the unrecorded removal of any objects from a site can distort the archeological interpretation of that site.
"But people have collected from Indian sites for years!"
Maybe, but at this point we MUST begin preserving what is left. When game laws were first enacted, people resented the limitations, but now we all understand how important these limits are for the preservation of our state's wildlife and natural resources. Unfortunately, cultural resources cannot regenerate; their destruction is permanent. Therefore, we must all be responsible for protecting those places where the mysteries of our state's past may one day be revealed.
"I'll go collecting at the Lake!"
Be aware that major reservoirs, their dryland boundaries, and any other kind of public land in Texas (state or federal) comes under protective antiquities laws. Relic hunting on these properties is illegal and you might get a stiff fine. The penalty for removing or even disturbing archeological sites on state parks is severe: as much as $1,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail. A piece of pottery or stone hardly seems worth the risk.
Historical artifacts as well as prehistoric artifacts are protected by law. Metal detectors are prohibited in State Parks and State Historic Sites. Old hardware, glass and ceramic fragments, even scraps of building materials can reveal important information about past events and life at a site.
Pictographs (rock paintings) and other irreplaceable cultural resources are endangered by mindless individuals who damage and destroy these art treasures. Skilled conservators are required to attempt to remove the damage. The process is expensive and time consuming. Judges may be tough on these vandals, requiring them to pay restitution for a nearly "priceless" art treasure or work many public service hours related to their crime. Laws are being enforced, but they are not in the spirit of cooperation which archeologists and park managers, as educators, try to promote. We ultimately rely on the courtesy and intelligence of everyone.
"What about private land?"
It is not illegal to collect on private lands with the owner's permission. However, an increasing number of Texas property owners are realizing the importance of an undisturbed archeological site. They take pride in preserving Texas heritage for future generations. When it comes down to it, rarely can private individuals muster the time, money, equipment, and skills necessary for proper archeological research. This work requires many hours of well-oriented laboratory analysis, write-up and eventual publicationbeyond the fieldwork. Many of the required skills come from years of practical field experience combined with specialized academic studies. Perhaps you can now see why, with a limited number of archeological resources, and with a shortage of research money, the archeological community is so prone to be preservation minded and hesitant to "dig up" what sites remain. Disturbing human remains under most circumstances may be interpreted legally as a combination of misdemeanors and felonies, besides being outright disrespectful. Stop and think a minute: would you like someone to disturb the grave of you or your ancestor? Can't we finally afford a feeling of respect toward American Indians? It is not by accident archeological parks were developed in the 1970s and 1980s rather than in the 1920s, or 1880s – when prevailing attitudes were different.
"But there's valuable treasure in old Indian camp grounds!"
It is a widespread folk belief that Indian sites have exciting, valuable treasures, and that archeologists are in competition with the public for wealth. In fact, the archeologists are not in competition with thepublic. In fact, the majority of ancient sites are simply refuse scatters associated with the same old bodily and social functions we perform today. Further, archeologists value artifacts only as a material link to understanding the behavior behind the artifacts. Research plans guide the collecting of materials by archeologists. In other words, specific questions are asked before any fieldwork takes place, and artifacts are not mindlessly gathered for the sake of acquiring more "goodies." The storage capacity of most American museums is already exceeded, and additional artifact curation must be justified before digging.
"I know all about the international conspiracy of professional archeologists to hoard the good stuff and keep us mystified! They'll never take my collection away from me…"
Again, legitimate researchers are information, NOT artifact, oriented. Modern archeology unfortunately continues to be perceived as a cross between the Wacky Professor and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is sometimes the belief that inside information is either being concealed by the professionals, or they wish to keep the average person from seeking that knowledge. Professionals across the country actually need well informed people to offer their time and experience for projects. Regional and State archeological societies provide training and opportunities for individuals to participate in archeological field work for individuals. Concerning private collections, one problem is that they are usually undocumented. When the owner's memory fails or the artifacts are redistributed (which is inevitable), their scientific worth is lost. A national phenomenon of artifacts in cigar boxes is presently circulating from Maine to California. Uncle Charley collected them everywhere he traveled in his work ("He was a regular nut for anything Indian"). A couple of generations later, Uncle Charley's grand-nephew decides to get serious and donate his share of material to a museum, which tells him the artifacts are basically worthless in terms of research value. If you have a family collection, document it!
"As long as I document where I collected the artifacts in my personal collection, is any other archeological information lost?"
Yes. Most archeological sites contain a wealth of information not readily apparent to the untrained eye. Archeologists typically study not only the so-called "collectibles," such as arrowheads and whole pots, but less obvious types of material remains such as flintknapping debris, broken pottery sherds, charcoal pieces, and animal bone. Modern analytical techniques even make it possible to extract information from such unlikely sources as soil samples. Because private collectors are often more interested in the artifacts than in the information they can provide, these less obvious sources of information are generally destroyed or rendered useless during non-scientific digs. Even when private collectors are interested in archeological information, they seldom will have the necessary training or funding to excavate the materials correctly.
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