As seen in the May 2006 edition of W&ET Magazine
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.
Hunting open fields after harvest is how most relic hunters search for our nation's past. We detect on private property with both permission and minimal impact.
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!
Careful removal of surface rust is only the initial step when conserving ferrous artifacts. After several additional steps, the porous metal will be sealed, preserving it for future study and display.
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 Colonial clasp knife, just out of the ground, needs careful conservation to stabilize the rust. Delicate artifacts such as this are never just thrown into a box and forgotten.
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.
Relic hunting often leads us to explore history from different angles... some of us re-enact, while others try to duplicate skills from the past. My buddy, Charlie Ashby, decided to learn how to knap flint and presented me with this beautiful antler-handled knapped knife.
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.
The recovery of coins, buttons, and musketballs has very little impact on the archaeological record. Many of the objects we recover would otherwise continue to deteriorate due to the elements and harsh chemical fertilizers.
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.
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.
On significant sites, recoveries are carefully mapped out, and reports on soil conditions and recovered relics are written. Memory does not serve well over time, and some form of record-keeping is important.
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.