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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (05/2006) Relic Hunter (02/2006) Relic Hunter (08/2006)   Vol. 40 May 2006 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the May 2006 edition of W&ET Magazine

Pot Hunters

By: Ed Fedory

Pot Hunter... never a name lightly launched, nor meant in any complimentary fashion... always hurled with venom, and highly derogatory. In a world that has grown so terribly "politically correct," it would seem that this term, this title, this label, has somehow been overlooked.

As a general rule- it might even be a law, for all I know- the term looter usually follows in the next breath. Often, though not inevitably, the term relic hunter makes an appearance... and often several stage calls.

I am sure there must be some kind of theorem, originating in the stratospheric levels of ivory tower historical (you can read hysterical, if you must) and archaeological academia that postulates the theory, so often taken by impressionable minds as fact, to wit:

Relic Hunter = Pot Hunter + Looter

For the more radical adherents to this way of thinking, it might be written as an equation: RH=PH X L ($)

No matter how you write it, shorten it, or abbreviate it, the term pot hunter when applied to those of us who relic hunt, at its best, inaccurate... at its worst, borderline slander.

The term pot hunters has its origins as a description for those who illegally dig up the remains of Native Americans for the grave offerings with which they were buried. These recovered tribal and ritual artifacts are often sold, kept for private collections, or both. To my way of thinking, that's just plain and simple grave robbing!

How different it appears, however, when your name is followed by an assortment of letters, or preceded by the abbreviation Dr., indicative of some advanced degrees in anthropology or archaeology. You are then funded on either state or federal levels with taxpayers' money... dig up the grave... cart the bones away for "forensic research," and haul away the grave offerings for research and conservation in the hopes that at some time in the distant future, if additional funding can be found, they will be put on public display. It is no wonder tribal councils and governments across the nation are up in arms, demanding the return of ancestral remains and the reclamation of their religious artifacts.

Some facts about how the state and federal governments are handling the artifacts they do recover are a little disturbing. For example, 1992 figures showed that the National Park Service owns 24.6 million archaeological artifacts... of which 16.8 million still needed to be cataloged. Additionally, a colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers stated that over the last 15 years the Corps of Engineers has spent $165 million on the recovery of archaeological resources, but rarely addressed the curation and conservation needed for these collections. "The result is that many of our collections cannot be accounted for, and most show considerable evidence of neglect and deterioration." In American Archaeology it was reported that, "In Maryland, thousands of artifacts were stored in acidic boxes, lying in attics, closets, basements, even in the local U-Store-It. Some objects were scattered all over the states in the homes of the archaeologists who had excavated them."

This, to my mind, is something less than reassuring.

In light of such facts, I think that most relic hunters should be applauded for their often noble efforts, rather than vilified... for their work in preserving the past, ahead of the tractors and the metal-destroying fertilizers... ahead of the giant earthmovers and suburban developments.

Yes, a lot of history is being lost forever- eaten up by progress- devoured by the ever increasing demands of an ever increasing population. I don't think any reasonable archaeologist would disagree with me when I say that it is impossible to locate, conserve, and catalog every site before they are overrun. Seriously, I see more of a need for cooperation than for slanderous name-calling. Fortunately, there are a handful of archaeologists who find working with relic hunters far less distasteful than their peers do. Most, however, would rather kiss an electrical outlet than shake our hands.

Interesting enough, relic hunting is a perfectly legal activity... perfectly legal. All you have to do is follow the rules, and that's simple enough, because there are only two rules to remember: 1) Be sure you're on private property, and 2) Be sure you have permission.

You see, that's the big WHY behind all the noise, barking, and name-calling. Laws protect the public domain... ARPA (the Archaeological Resource and Protection Act) and the Antiquities Act are the two major ones, but the searching for and recovery of artifacts and relics on private land, with permission, in this country, is allowable by law. The laws of this country are a double-edged sword... they cut both ways... they protect the public and the private, the majority and the individual. It's all pretty much grade school civics, and pretty simple when you get down to it- meat and potatoes- brass tacks, and a good balance. There was a fair amount of common sense floating around in that candle-lit chamber in Philadelphia a couple of centuries ago... of that I am sure!

There are some groups that would love to rip out those basic and formidable underpinnings of American rights. They would, if they could, but they can't. Hence, the continual name-calling and incessant barking.

"While legal, relic hunting is morally indefensible and objectionable at all times." I'm just trying to remember where I first read that beauty! It was either in a magazine article, or in one of those radical, archaeological website manifestos. Even crude words scrawled on a back alley wall would have been more astute, entertaining, and far more illuminating. However, the last thing I think we really need to hear is an object lesson on "morality" from someone who'll take some hardworking stiff's tax dollars before they'll pick up a shovel to dig on land he can't dig on, and then turn around and call him a moral derelict because he wants to dig on the land he can dig on.

Am I the only one this doesn't make sense to? I don't think so.

Another important set of facts to consider is the vast amount of public lands that archaeologists have at their disposal. As of 1994, the federal government owned and controlled almost 28% of all land... over two billion acres! Collectively, the states own almost another 9% of the remaining land. I may be wrong, but that sure looks like an awfully large amount of land for them to dig on.

Most of the relic hunters I have met over the years-their numbers legion, and hailing from a great number of states- take a large amount of care and pride in their collections. Long hours are spent conserving, identifying, and properly displaying their recoveries. The provenances of relics are listed and catalogued. Many also keep accurate journals and notes on particularly significant hunts. Rarely do they sell relics from their collections. Far more are given away, or donated.

Additionally, many relic hunters feel the obligation to make themselves and their collections available to local organizations and schools in hopes of kindling and fanning the flame of interest in our nation's past- and we do this on a voluntary basis, the questioning hands raised and the wide-eyed awe being reward enough.

To keep this column fair and more or less unbiased- to achieve a certain balance- we have to admit that there are members of this relic hunting brotherhood who make us less than proud. They mine relics for profit- history means little, and the rarity of the relic is equated only with an increase in financial gain. There are "nighthunters" who trespass on sites, both public and private, to secure relics for sale. Fortunately, they are few in number, forming only a small percentage of our ranks. However, when generalities are drawn, our critics usually focus on the transgressions of a few and tarnish the efforts of the majority.

Seriously, I don't have a problem with archaeologists in general. They often go to great lengths to help illuminate our past, and in many cases they are the stewards of our history and historic sites- efforts that are as laudable as they are monumental. But with this stewardship comes the responsibility to conserve, catalogue, and display the vast amount of artifacts that are rusting and deteriorating in boxes and under blankets of dust in dingy back rooms, basements, and attics. Their efforts, energies, and voices should be focused and directed toward seeking the funding to accomplish the goal of educating the public and preserving the past. Hopefully, such lofty summits can be achieved with a little less vitriol and a lot less name-calling.

Just the way I see it.

Jus' Ed.














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