Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Amateur archaeologist = Defined

Six months ago, roughly around the time I started this blog, NPR published a story by Micah Schweizer about the artifacts of the Hopewell culture from Indiana, many of which had recently been displayed in the Indiana State Museum. The article cited Charlie Lacer, who drew attention to the prehistoric culture through his early collecting:

“Amateur archaeologist Charlie Lacer began walking the Mann fields in the 1950s, collecting what he found along the way.

"You could find stuff that you could not find [on] any other site around here," Lacer says. "I mean, there [were] just tons of materials there. You couldn't pick up everything you saw — you had to be kind of selective, particularly if you were carrying this stuff in your pockets."

Lacer managed to stuff a lot into his pockets — 40,000 artifacts that he donated to the Indiana State Museum two years ago. Four hundred of those pieces are now on display in nearby Evansville for the first time ever.”

This description of an “amateur archaeologist” who somehow came into possession of 40,000 American Indian artifacts just by field walking immediately brought the words “mad sketch” to mind. However, some actual research revealed that Charles Lacer Jr. began collecting when he befriended Paul Mann Sr., the farmer whose land Lacer walked; he would pick up the artifacts that were plowed up in Mann’s fields. As he grew older, Lacer actually became a well regarded avocational archaeologist whose avid record keeping gave order to the artifacts he kept and later helped the archaeologists at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. Lacer noted in the article hyperlinked that he could have sold his collection, but preferred preservation over profit.

These key details are totally lost on me through Schweizer’s phrasing on NPR.

I had planned on blogging about this when the article was actually published, but I got busy. Now, I have another excuse because it seems the BBC made a similar mistake when they recently referred to metal detectorists as amateur archaeologists, and credited them with helping to preserve Britain’s history. Metal detectorists are a very touchy issue in the UK; archaeologists like Paul Barford believe they are actually destroying Britain’s history by obliterating the archaeological context of artifacts for their own personal enjoyment or profit. Consequently, the term “amateur archaeologist” is super inappropriate. However, a quick Google search proves that the term “amateur archaeologist” is in fact so ambiguous and lacking official definition that misuse of the term is all too easy to accomplish. Way back in January, I asked Prof. Maxine Oland (whose intro to archaeology course I took at Williams College this past term - Hi, Prof. Oland!) if she could elaborate on the specifics of what exactly it means to be an amateur archaeologist. She directed me to a definition provided by Dr. Siobhan Hart:

“Avocationals are archaeologists in that they see sites as resources requiring documentation and protection, and not as a source of artifacts for profit or prestige, as characteristic of private collectors, pothunters, and looters. Yet avocationals are distinct from professionals in that they have not received the extensive training in fieldwork, laboratory analysis, methods, and theory that professionals obtain, though they often have a significant amount of informal training and accumulated knowledge. Unlike professionals, avocationals do not make their living off of archaeology, but like professionals, many adhere to a code of standards prescribed by the archaeological organizations to which they belong at local, regional, and national levels (e.g., Archaeological Institute of America, Eastern States Archaeological Federation, or state societies like the Massachusetts Archaeological Society). These codes set standards for documentation of surface collecting and excavation similar to the basic standards that most professionals adhere to and require observance of all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations governing access to public and private lands and the removal of materials. With imminent threats to archaeological sites in the face of rapid development, avocationals play a crucial role in the documentation, preservation, and stewardship of sites. They self-identify as stakeholders in many archaeological projects that take place in their communities.” (Hart, Siobhan M., "High stakes: A poly-communal archaeology of the Pocumtuck Fort, Deerfield, Massachusetts" (2009). Open Access Dissertations. Paper 11.

So, just to clear this up, amateur or avocational archaeologists are defined by their adherence to laws and codes of archaeology and their personal investment in the preservation of the history they interact with. Now we all know!


  1. Hi Meg- Super blog!

  2. Thanks for that post clarifying that term. I am not as familiar with the US situation as the UK, but would like to point out that the absence of formal "training" is not such a problem when there are (as in the case of Britain) a sufficient number of good and clearly-written "how to" books about archaeology which set out how these things are done. After all archaeology is not really rocket science and "doing it properly" is not exactly very difficult. Which is what makes it so annoying when it is reduced by some people to just "finding old things". Good blog.