Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is it worth?

I often get the question, “do I get to keep the artifacts that I find on a dig?” This question also inevitably get paired with, “how much are these artifacts worth?” Both of the these questions come from the public's fascination with archaeology and its misunderstandings of the field. As a professionally trained archaeologist, who has done some time in grad school (still doing time!), ethical questions on the treatment of cultural material arise. What good would it do to have a vast collection of arrowheads in my house, and no one to appreciate, study, or ask research questions dealing with them? I have heard the flip-side of this, “well what good are artifacts kept in boxes in a museum where no one can see them.” This is a valid point also and stems from archaeology's habit of amassing huge collections of materials that a person could spend a lifetime examining, and even then run out of time.

Archaeologists find themselves in the middle of this debate. I was on a field school once where a collector constantly walked the field we were working in. He would come over and chat with us, explain to us his fascination with artifacts and how many he had collected over the years. One day, toward the end of our dig, he comes in from the field holding an ornately decorated pipe bowl from the period that our site dated to. He showed it to the students, and myself, and then promptly placed it in his pocket and went home. We had never found a pipe like that before, or after that day. He did not give us a chance to photograph or document the find. The effect on the students was profound. How could someone with such an object walk away with a piece of history in their pocket and not even let the scientists exam it?

Our obsession with dollar figures on artifacts has fueled a rampant black-market, while devastating sites across the country. Stakeholders set the value of cultural heritage. We as a community and country can generate more wealth by utilizing the artifacts in heritage tourism, local museums, and universities that by placing them on our walls, stored is shoeboxes, or sold at flea markets.
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