The Importance of Amateur Archaeologists

ClaiborneLast week I participated in a forum about professional archaeologists working with “amateur” or “avocational” archaeologists. The session, “Cons or Pros: Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors?” was organized by Michael Shott and Bonnie Pitblado at the Society for American Archaeology meetings held in San Francisco. In their introductory comments at the session both organizers emphasized the need for a cordial and respectful discussion, perhaps anticipating a polarized response to the question. This concern reflects a comment made by a professor of mine in graduate school who stated “There is no such thing as an amateur archaeologist. Would you go to an amateur brain surgeon?” To which my immediate response at the time and today is something like – Give me a break!

The session organized by Michael and Bonnie went off without a hitch. Solid and important questions were raised such as the ethics of working with collectors who obtained their materials through legal but less than desirable circumstances and the problem of repositories bursting at the seams with cultural materials mitigating against taking on more artifacts, regardless of context (see excellent comments by Robert Janes on this issue). But all participants in the session noted the important role that “amateur” archaeologists played over the years and recognized the need to fully embrace and acknowledge that contribution today.

The discussion caused me to reflect on several points:

  • A quote I have referenced several times over the years in this blog was from my first field school instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis who said something like “If you cannot explain to the public why they should be funding this site museum and excavations, then you might as well go home.” Pat’s comment flowed from her belief in the need for accountability in research on public lands and in recognition that almost all archaeology, whether through CRM, private foundation, or outright public financing, ultimately is funded through tax dollars paid, or not paid in the case of charitable contributions.
  • I published an article a couple of years ago on the surface collections from the Poverty Point site. The majority of the collection was made by Carl Alexander, an avocational/amateur archaeologist. Carl recorded the ridge and sector of the artifacts he collected over a 30-year period when the site remained in row crop, prior to purchase by the State of Louisiana in the early 1970s.  In 2014 Poverty Point was designated a World Heritage Site.  Today, Carl Alexander’s surface collections account for at least half of what we know about the material culture of the site. Interpretations based on his collections continue to be instrumental in guiding today’s professional research efforts.
  • During my tenure as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site I gave archaeology month presentations at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point culture Jaketown site. The first year I spoke in Belzoni I talked about the spatial distribution of artifact types noted by Carl Alexander at the Poverty Point site. I asked the farmers in attendance if they noted similar patterns where different types of artifacts were recovered at Jaketown. Heads nodded. The second year I spoke in Belzoni, the same farmers talked about the artifact distributions they noted over the previous year. Today, there is a small museum in Belzoni composed of collections donated by those farmers.
  • I first ran into Jerry Pankow sometime in the early 2000s. He had come to the Poverty Point site to discuss his “amateur” archaeology excavations at the Poverty Point culture Claiborne site in Hancock County Mississippi. Jerry and members of the Mississippi Archaeological Association diligently conducted excavations at this major Poverty Point culture site as bulldozers destroyed the site for a construction project. Jerry showed me his detailed field notes of 5 x 5 ft. units excavated through midden deposits at the site. He recorded cultural materials in arbitrary 5-inch levels, providing an excellent stratigraphic profile on stylistic and material culture change through time – a point of critical importance interpretively for the Poverty Point culture.  In fact, these temporal markers were first documented by another avocational archaeologist, Clarence Webb, a pediatrician from Shreveport, Louisiana. When I first met Jerry he wanted to publish his notes. Jerry was quite insistent on how the material should be published and could not come to an agreement with any of the regional journals. He self-published a brief 35 page xeroxed pamphlet. While preparing my comments for the 2015 SAA meeting session, I discovered that in 2014, Jerry had expanded the original publication to double the length, again self-published but now available through I got a copy and am impressed. I am hopeful of getting hold of Jerry to convince him to publish his tabular data.

My experiences with avocational/amateur archaeologists lead me to several conclusions:

  • First, the contributions of avocational/amateur archaeologists for understanding the Poverty Point culture of the Southeast is a critically important part of the total corpus of knowledge that exists about that prehistoric culture today.
  • Second, concerns over looting of archaeological resources, the commodification of this country’s cultural heritage, and a lack of public funding for archaeological research are all concerns expressed by the professional archaeological community. We are well-served to embrace the avocational community who have a proven track record and can develop the grass-roots support to address these issues.
  • Third, the premier professional archaeological organization in the U.S. is the SAA – the Society for American Archaeology, not the Society for Americana Archaeologists. In noting this distinction we are reminded that the interests of the discipline are appropriately placed before the self-interest of the practitioners.

  8 comments for “The Importance of Amateur Archaeologists

  1. Steve Hanken
    May 5, 2015 at 4:01 am

    As a person who learned his archaeology in the trenches doing CRM work as a shovel bum my thoughts are many. I would agree the point of what we do has to pass muster with the public, and frankly, there are many who simply can’t even talk to the public about what they do for fear they will be letting the cat out of the bag. Well, the cat that holds the bag is the public and the faster archaeology makes friends with the public and learns how to keep them the better off they will be. They are the one’s footing the bill, and the faster you convince them what you are doing is important the easier it will be to continue getting that funding.

    • May 5, 2015 at 12:02 pm


      Thanks for your comments. I completely concur.

    • May 7, 2015 at 10:15 am

      Right you are Steve.

  2. bebowreinhard
    May 5, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Thank you for this. I am working on an article myself on this issue, as it is so easy for me to see, in gathering a master database of copper artifacts, the importance of collectors to museum collections. I’d be nowhere without someone like Henry P. Hamilton, who donated his entire collection in Wisconsin. Unfortunately the tide has turned to all for profit and that’s what is objectionable. I know a delightful collector I’m trying to convince to donate his collection, but the expense they go through collecting means they want something back. Oh – what can you tell me about copper found at Poverty Point?

    • May 7, 2015 at 10:36 am

      You said: “Unfortunately the tide has turned to all for profit and that’s what is objectionable.”

      That may be true of the artifact collector you are dealing with, but I think it would be fair to say that far and away most artifact collectors would rank profit as a low-end priority with regard to why they collect. Most of them really are interested in learning about archaeology and art history, learning about past lifeways, and learning about the actual people who made the artifacts they own—and they would rank all of those things higher than profit. Many of them actually develop childhood education programs, take their artifacts to public and private schools, and use them as visual aids to educate the kids about the importance of archaeology and Native American peoples. In fact, they probably do a better and more frequent job of this than we do—particularly the retired collectors.

      Although we do have looting problems in this country, particularly in the American West, I sometimes wonder whether we archaeologists try to impose a “one size fits all” Old World model of looting, artifact dealing, and profiteering onto an American collecting community that—overall—does not really fit that model.

  3. Don Spohn
    May 5, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    I admire the three points above. On the other hand, can you embrace collectors who trade and sell artifacts to each other? How about those who make a business of buying and selling artifacts?

    • May 6, 2015 at 1:36 am


      You ask an important question. I come back to the point that it is not the amateur vs. professional designation but their actions. I could respond with something like “what about the professional who hordes data, never publishes their results, use poor field methods that limit interpretations.” What we could do are line up practices on each side of the equation that do not maximize the potential of the archaeological record or preserve cultural resources of other folks.

      I suggest that a solution lies for both the amateur and the professional in adopting best practices. Why do we expect the amateurs to operate by best practices when the ethics statements of professional cultural heritage organizations are filled with weasel words such as “should” and “ought to” because they know full well that a sizable portion of the membership will not follow? Why do we condemn TV shows such as Spike TV’s Diggers but PBS’s Antique Road Show goes along unscathed – when both ask the same question of material culture – is it real? how old is it? and how much is it worth?

      Neither the professionals nor the amateurs are a priori the heroes or bad guys in this story. It comes down to what we do as individuals to preserve and present the cultural heritage of this country.

    • May 7, 2015 at 10:06 am

      Artifact collectors tend to buy and trade (among themselves) artifacts that have been out of the ground for quite a long time and circulating around for a long time. In my opinion, the notion that most artifact collectors go to a field to surface hunt or dig out artifacts for the specific purpose of “sell and trade” is mostly a propaganda myth created by us professional archaeologists to broad-brush ALL artifact collectors as greedy vermin. The fact of the matter is that most collectors keep and curate nearly all of what they find for their entire lives—and many have a firm personal policy of never selling or trading any artifact that they actually found themselves on an archaeological site. When they die, the artifacts are sometimes donated to museums or other institutions, or they end up in the hands of heirs who either appreciate them in the same way as the owner and keep them—-or unfortunately—sell them because they know nothing about archaeology. The latter is how they usually end up in the artifact market—not by the actions of the collectors themselves—but by the actions of their ignorant relatives who inherit the items, know nothing about them, do not care to know anything about them, and see nothing but dollar signs so they can by that new Chevy. We need to educate not just the collectors themselves about certain things but also their children and grandchildren who will hopefully be able to see something more in the artifacts than just money—as the original collector did.

      Artifact dealers are another issue. An artifact collector may become a dealer at some point, but again—in my honest opinion—only a very small percentage of artifact collectors ever become artifact dealers in any real commercial sense. My best guess would be 1 or 2 percent—if even that.

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