Where in the hell am I?

January 13, 2016

Public archaeology, citizen science, and bad ideas.

Filed under: archaeology, archeology — Tags: , — John @ 8:46 pm

ArchaeoTwitter (or at least certain segments) was buzzing today with news from Florida that the Legislature there was considering issuing archaeology permits to any citizen (First Coast News story about proposed bill). I was busy in the field, so didn’t have time to delve deeper, but my initial response was “Um, very bad idea” along with confusion, as more or less in the US there’s nothing stopping a citizen from digging on their own property (or on someone else’s private property, with their permission). Why would they need, or want a permit?

As it turns out, it’s because people (primarily artifact collectors and dealers) want the right to dig for and collect artifacts from submerged, state-owned waters (rivers and lakes, among others). Not only collect these artifacts, but keep them. In exchange, they pay $100 and are supposed to report the location. The archaeologists get the location, the collector gets to keep the goodie (or sell it), win-win, right?

Not at all. Eminent archaeology blogger (and University of West Florida professor) has an excellent discussion of the proposed legislation and the many problems on her blog at Forbes, co-written by Sarah Miller of the Florida Public Archaeology Network (a great organization that offers many opportunities for people in Florida to be involved in, and “do” archaeology. Among the problems is that, when a similar program existed years ago, the reporting rate was roughly 20%. And while the perception may be that the artifacts belong to nobody, because they’re on public land, it’s the opposite: they belong to “everyone”, the citizens of Florida, held in trust (and protected by) the state and designated agencies.

And then there’s that word that all of us archaeologists use, because it’s that damned important: CONTEXT. The most important data one can get from an artifact is the context in which it was found. This includes the location, sure, but also what kind of soil it was in (and the Florida bill would allow digging with handheld tools), what else was found with it, how deep (if buried), what was above and below…you get the idea. This is all important information, as among other things it helps archaeologists to assess the integrity and significance of the context. A 4,000 year old projectile point might be associated with a 2,000 year old projectile point, which can lead to further questions about the archaeological record, or associated with a 20th century bottle fragment, which means that the deposits have questionable integrity.

Public archaeology is important for many reasons, and archaeologists could, and should, do a better job of making their data, their reports, and (in some cases) the artifacts available AND accessible to the public. We can also continue to look for ways for the public to assist in archaeological work in the field and in the lab.  Organizations like FPAN and many of the local and state avocational organizations have such opportunities (note that the collectors group in Florida refers to themselves as an archaeological society, but don’t seem to understand archaeological ethics). Of course, they don’t allow you to keep the things you find. And that’s because professional archaeologists don’t, either. Nor do we sell them.

Citizen science is a buzzword these days, and rightly so. The public can, and has, made important contributions to science in many disciplines. There is a place for citizen science in archaeology, ideally through avocational associations and stewardship networks (and always with a stewardship approach). I’ve read some great work, and the SAA Crabtree Award is presented annually to an outstanding avocational archaeologist. The 2015 winner of this award was Tom Middlebrook, recognized for his work in East Texas on the Caddo and contacts with the French and Spanish. Also in Texas, the Texas Historic Commission created the Texas Archeological Stewardship Network, for training and supporting avocational archaeologists in activities including the finding, recording, and monitoring of archaeological sites. I imagine that opportunities like this exist in every state, because WE WANT the public to be involved.

But where archaeology as citizen science ends is reckless digging and collecting. An amateur astronomer doesn’t blow up their newly discovered star or planet. But the archaeological record is non-renewable. Once a site has been excavated, it’s been destroyed. We mitigate this damage through detailed documentation of the work, scientific collection and analysis of the artifacts, a report of the work and the findings, and finally curating the artifacts in a repository where they are available to other scientists, and (in some cases) able to be included in exhibits and outreach programs.

The Florida bill is bad policy, a bad precedent, and shows ignorance of what archaeology is. It boils down to people wanting to go onto publicly-owned land and keeping what they find, in many cases to sell for a profit. If the Florida legislature was seriously interested in more opportunities for their constituents to learn about, and do archaeology, I suggest throwing support and funding behind FPAN and other avocational organizations that practive ethical archaeology. They might also consider funding museums, so that more artifacts don’t “get hidden away in some box” but can be on display in educational interpretive exhibits.


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