The Epic Battle Between Archaeologists and Looters

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.

Why is Archeology So Misunderstood?

In order to figure out why archeology is popularly misunderstood, we need to begin our discussion with the primary source of our education about archeology: namely, pop culture.

Human love for entertainment has caused society to pick and choose the aspects of archeology to portray. We love adventure, and we are very much intrigued by the remote past: to us, ancient cultures are mysterious and exotic, simply because their lifestyles were very different from our own. Humans are often not nearly as interested in the “recent past” (let’s say the past century or two) because the system of values put in place during this time is familiar to us. Societies that contradict our worldview are much more interesting: for example, many are shocked by the ancient Mesoamerican practice of human sacrifice. This shocks us and compels our curiosity; the ideas of vast treasure, ancient rituals, and curses thrill us in the same way. Popular portrayals of archeological endeavors will often appeal to this.

A complementary force at work here is our modern tendency to brutalize past cultures in order to separate ourselves from the “less civilized.” We don’t want to believe that the Native Americans that we so insensitively displaced had such advanced cultures. In elementary schools, the histories of the most advanced Pre-Columbian cultures—such as those of Cahokia and Pueblo Bonito—are ignored. For the sake of fostering patriotism, we teach that this land was mostly uninhabited, and that the few who lived here were nomadic teepee-dwellers with little accomplishment to speak of. The archeological discoveries (the monumental structures, advanced trade networks, and splendidly crafted artifacts) that tell us otherwise are pushed out of sight.

Combined, these two forces create a culture that pushes real archeology off to the side, and invites pseudoscientific, entertaining “archeology” to fill that void. What we are left with is the stereotypical, pop-culture based archetype: an adventurer, decked out in khakis, who braves rough terrain and unspeakable perils to dig for the lost treasures of the ancient world. In the fictitious worlds of these brave heroes, the goal of archeology is to search for wealth or mysterious objects and to take them away to a museum for display.

It’s our responsibility to remember that this image is false, and that real archeology is about studying the trends and behavioral processes that set us aside from other species of homo – that construct our identities as human beings. Additionally, archeology almost never involves removing an artifact from its context, or provenience, without careful study of the context (as Indiana Jones’ go-fetch style might suggest); an object outside of its matrix and away from potential associations automatically loses its meaning ( Ashmore).

The uncovered information can then be used to help us reflect on decisions and issues that we encounter during our lifetimes; for example, if we can look at how past cultures dealt with the changing climate, we can make informed decisions about how to deal with climate change now. In other words, archeology brings the lessons of history to light so that we can actually use them.


Side Note: On the way to visit the Ashokan Reservoir this week, we drove on “Clayton Peg Leg Bates Memorial Highway,” and were curious about the man behind the name. It turns out that Mr. Peg Leg Bates was a black man who lost his leg in a cotton gin accident. He turned his tragedy into a blessing, however, and learned to tap dance on his peg leg (which was carved by his uncle, Whitt Bates). He led a career on Broadway.  Later in life, he and his wife Alice ran a country club in Kerhonkson (thirty miles from here), hence the memorial highway in this area.