There is much controversy and misunderstanding in the public sphere over which practices make for sound archaeology and which make for looting. In reality, the difference between the two is very simple: the goal of an archaeologist is to learn about culture through objects that have been preserved through time, whereas the goal of a looter is to collect and profit from these objects. Looting is dangerous because looters are often extremely reckless in their dealings with artifacts; since they do not have the training required to deal with precariously preserved sites, they often end up destroying huge parts of a site’s historical record, even if by accident. Slack Farm provides just one example of what happens when looters demolish a site: once hailed as one of the last untouched and preserved Mississippian settlements, Slack Farm is now a wasteland of destroyed human and cultural remains. Its historical record is completely wiped out.
One problem that archaeologists face when attempting to prevent looting is that popular cultural representations of archaeology often integrate looting with the archaeological process, blurring—and in some cases completely eliminating—the distinction between the two. One example of this can be found in 1999 film The Mummy: the “archaeologists” in the movie all sign on with the goal of finding gold-encrusted Egyptian artifacts that can be sold for high prices. And yet, the movie is advertised as being about an “archaeological dig.”
Misrepresentations of archaeology are not only found in movies. Recently, a new television show was created that caused uproar in the archaeology community. Called “American Digger,” the show features an ex-wrestler who digs up artifacts using “state of the art technology”—in other words, power tools—and sells them for a profit. At least two Facebook pages have been created in protest of the show, but through this medium of debate, another problem has been revealed: that of the lack of respect for professional, trained archaeologists. Many people believe that if amateurs don’t dig up certain artifacts, they will remain uncovered forever and nobody will get to enjoy them. Others implore archaeologists to stop bothering amateurs that have adopted archaeology as a hobby; after all, everyone is entitled to have fun, right?
Unfortunately, these people are missing the point of archaeology, which is to study past cultures and wider cultural patterns that relate to current times. Once an artifact is brought out of the ground and out of its matrix, it can never be studied in context again; therefore, when amateur looters take artifacts, their historical value—and what could be very important information about the past—is lost forever.
Established archaeology organizations have regulations to keep valuable information from being lost. For example, the Societies of American and Historical Archaeology and the Register of Professional Archaeology all agree that pricing or bartering artifacts is unethical, since it takes away from the educational goals of the field. Additionally, all three organizations provide for the consideration of cultures that might lay some claim to the artifacts, promoting very careful and methodical excavation. Ultimately, all three organizations aim to spread knowledge about their findings in a timely fashion, and to make their data available to the public. Organizations like these hopefully make the goals of true archaeology more clear, and garner respect among those who seek information about—and not price estimates of—the past.