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In Defense of Avocational Archaeology


By Jeb A. Taylor, Associate Editor

In this country, there exists a high degree of enmity between institutional and avocational archaeologists/ collectors. Historically, the goals of both groups were pretty much the same: the retrieval of artifacts from archaeological sites. Any conflict that existed between them was probably more the result of competition than differences of purpose.

As time passed, however, institutional archaeologists began to place more emphasis on the retrieval of information and less on the artifacts themselves. The intentions of each began to diverge.

Retrieval of information from archaeological sites requires a great deal of discipline and training. These attributes are generally lacking in avocational archaeology. Consequently, institutional archaeologists have come to regard avocational archaeology as wanton, and destructive of cultural resources.

In an attempt to protect archaeological sites, institutional archaeologists have instigated laws that require permits to excavate on public land. The issuance of permits requires compliance with rigid archaeological standards that cannot generally be met by avocational archaeologists. Consequently, institutional archaeologists have effectively stopped avocational archaeologists from excavating archaeological sites on public land.

Additionally, probably in an attempt to further distance themselves from avocational archaeologists/collectors, professional archaeologists have adopted a code of ethics that prohibits them from participating in any activity that promotes or condones illegal artifact collecting and/or commerce. Certainly it would be inappropriate for professional archaeologists to be involved in illegal collecting activities, but they actually have very little capacity to affect artifact market values or commerce.

In any event, overly strict implementation of this code has prompted many, especially young, professional archaeologists to regard all artifact collectors condescendingly as pot hunters. This attitude has alienated them from both avocational archaeologists/collectors and the general public.

Avocational Archaeologists/Collectors

Today, the vast majority of avocational archaeologists/ collectors are surface hunters. They hunt plowed fields, lake and river shorelines, and other areas subject to erosion.

Through the years, avocational archaeologists/ collectors have provided a wealth of information to professional archaeologists. In fact, when the author was recently reviewing the histories of major sites on the High Plains, it became evident that more than 80% of them were brought to the attention of institutional archaeologists by avocational archaeologists/collectors. Unfortunately, due primarily to the prevailing condescending attitudes promulgated by professional archaeologists, avocational archaeologists/collectors are no longer as inclined to share that type of information with them.

Avocational archaeologists/collectors can be:

  • male or female
  • young or old
  • of any religious persuasion
  • of any ethnicity
  • of any profession

Although the prevailing attitude of many institutional archaeologists is that avocational archaeologists/collectors are inherently evil, most of them regard their hobby as a wholesome and healthy pastime. Ex-President Jimmy Carter relates in Sharing Good Times (2004:58):

One of my lifelong habits has been scanning the ground for projectile points and other archaeological artifacts of Native Americans. Since leaving the farm, I’ve continued this habit even in city parks, golf courses, college campuses, and along other paths that thousands of people may use each day. In fact, I’ve been surprisingly successful in finding arrowheads even in these kinds of public places. 

and (2004:59):

Finding an especially beautiful point was a source of pride, and I was always eager to get back home and display it to my admiring parents and siblings. I had accumulated several hundred by the time I left home for college and the Navy, and I added to the collection whenever possible.

Most people wouldn’t regard Jimmy Carter as a “pot hunter,” but thousands of other avocational archaeologists/ collectors, who are no different from him, are considered just that. There is, unfortunately, a darker side to artifact “collecting”. A small number of unscrupulous individuals do clandestinely excavate cultural sites on public land and on private land without the landowner’s permission. This is a serious problem, particularly in the West where cultural sites are often located far from civilization and are difficult to monitor. This type of activity is looting and is not condoned by most avocational archaeologists/collectors.