In a community such as Springerville, like almost every place in the Southwest with nearby water, archaeological evidence of ancient peoples is fairly common. The objects linking the past of these places to the present are usually encountered in the things left behind, most often in the form of ceramic or stone artifacts. These objects of curiosity generate a sense of wonder, and it’s almost a natural human instinct to pick up, investigate, and—for some—collect these items. Stone tools from earlier eras and even fossils are often found in ancient village sites, not just in the Southwest, but around the world. The impulse to collect the sorts of artifacts that spark human fascination with the past was no different for the ancients. This desire to collect was also a common pastime throughout more recent history. Here in the Southwest, pot-hunting picnics were a popular family weekend activity, and collections of the objects found made for proud displays in many homes across the Southwest. Today, however, we can see that this type of collecting was damaging our understanding of the past, erasing “pages” of a history yet to be written about those who had come before us.
Our views about who owns the places and objects of the past have certainly evolved, and thankfully, family digging parties have been replaced by avocational archaeologists, site stewards, and many others who have joined organizations like Archaeology Southwest, who are all now dedicated to preserving the places of the past. Fortunately, our legal system has evolved in step with the core principals of Preservation Archaeology, to the point that almost all unauthorized or unpermitted excavations of ancient and historic sites are now criminal activities. Although we need strong laws to stop the strip mining of sites by looters and grave robbers, the application of these laws has been problematic. The arrests in Blanding, Utah, are still mostly remembered and reviled as an example of a government overreach in the rural Southwest.
The debate over who has a right to claim ownership of the past continues to this day, but in the meantime, there are significant collections of ancient objects in family collections that exist in a perceived state of legal limbo. Working in Winslow as a graduate student, and continuing in Springerville for the past few years, I would often hear about amazing family collections that people wanted to share and learn more about, but these people were simply too afraid of the issues surrounding the legality of their collections. Some families see the objects as almost toxic: “My grandfather dug this up, and I do not want keep it, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away, and I don’t want to get in trouble for turning it in.” Others are proud of the heirlooms they have inherited, and they have no intention of parting with or sharing the objects beyond close friends and family. Another faction has an even dimmer view of the business of archaeological research, which they see as taking all of the artifacts to a distant museum, never to be shared with the public again.
Working with Greg Cross, director of the Casa Malpais Museum, we decided to host an “Antiques Roadshow” style event to try and start bridging the gap between public mistrust of archaeological law and families with important archaeological evidence. We found the event to be a marked success. Several fascinating objects were brought into the Springerville Heritage Center for evaluation, and we even had a 12,000-year-old Clovis point donated and its information added to the Fluted Point Database of the Americas. You can read more about the Archaeology Road Show event from the perspective of our evaluator Matt Peeples in his earlier post, and now you can watch the entire even in the video posted below. Despite the success of the event, we have to acknowledge that we did not see items from the larger family collections that we had hoped would be brought to the road show. Still, we hope that this effort helped to start to rebuild some trust between these families and the archaeology community in general. We hope to continue rebuilding this trust with another road show event in the summer of 2014.