Artifacts and Ethics
History Belongs to Everyone
by Thomas J. Elpel
The artifact was slender and long, perhaps one and a half inches in diameter and fourteen inches long, tapering at both ends. Apparently a uniquely shaped stone for grinding grain on a metate, it had been shaped from a piece of hard sandstone through many hours of careful pecking with another rock. It may have lain in the sand below that overhang in the canyonlands of southern Utah for a hundred years, or perhaps a thousand. Either way, it was in mint condition as if its creator had just finished it and reached through a window of time to place it on my lap.
Whatever its history, it was on my lap, and it way my dilemma. According to the law I should have left it there and I should not have even disturbed it from its original resting place. Archaeologists and anthropologists need to study artifacts in context of their original locations. By examining artifacts where they find them, these professionals can piece together a story of the past and give a voice to these otherwise silent vestibules of time.
The right thing to do was to put the artifact back. However, the moment that I set it down would have been the moment that someone else in the group would have gleefully picked it up and hauled it a thousand miles away to sit it on their bookshelf or to hang it on their living room wall, a piece of knowledge forever lost to the public.
I did not want the artifact on my own living room wall anymore than I wanted it on anyone else's wall. I would learn little from it, and humanity would learn nothing. To pack this unique and exotic artifact home for display would have degraded it from a voice of the past to just another testament of materialistic ego.
In context, or out of context, I felt that this unique piece should be kept in the public trust. I did not know what legal consequences I might face, but nonetheless, I decided to take it to the local state operated museum/archaeological center.
I first looked around the museum to ascertain that it was indeed a unique artifact. The museum displays had nothing like it. I cautiously queried the museum staff with hypothetical questions: "What if a person were in this situation......?" I asked. When I felt certain that I would not be penalized for disturbing a historical site then I brought in the unique stone. I gave it to them and I marked the location of the site on a topographic map. This established a local context for the artifact, even if the immediate context was forever severed. More so, it established the site as a potentially valuable archaeological site in need of study by a team of experts.
The people at the archaeological center never acknowledged that I made the right decision. But they never said that I was wrong either. It is possible that since they worked for the state it would have been inappropriate for them to be informing people that it is alright to disturb historic sites. I decided that from then on I would do something to protect any artifacts I came across that were at risk of being taken or damaged.
Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School in Pony Montana, and the author of numerous books, including Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills. Artifacts and Ethics was published in the Society of Primitive Technology's Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Issue #7, Spring 1994.
Dear Mr. Elpel,
I read your article on line about the artifact you found. We in the profession appreciate your considerate ethics for historic preservation. Since you are out in the field a lot and are likely to encounter artifacts of this nature again, I suggest you might discretely cover up the surface find, note its exact location, and report the find to the state archaeologist. He/she will be happy to receive the information, and may ascribe a site number for the find. In time they most likely will recover the artifact, preserving all available scientific information for posterity. Museums in general don't have the resources nor authority to do this. It depends of course on who owns the land, but generally it is the state archaeologist who is your safest bet. It's called an inadvertent find, and you would not generally incur any liability. Hope that helps.
P. Christiaan Klieger, Ph.D.
The California Museum
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