Artifacts Left in Context…Priceless: Why You Can’t Put a Price on the Past

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FPAN regularly hosts what we call “Public Archaeology Days”. This is a day where we have the opportunity  to meet and interact with the local community and educate them about their local cultural resources. Many

Public Archaeology Day at the Wakulla History Museum and Archives.

people will  bring us their personal artifact collection and ask us what their artifacts are worth. My answer is simple, artifacts are priceless!  Archaeologists do not, and should not, appraise artifacts. However, I am always more than happy to help identify their artifacts and educate them on why we do not appraise artifacts. Artifacts are non-renewable resources that provide a window into our understanding of past cultures and lifeways. The information and knowledge that can be gained about our past is priceless. According to the Register of Professional Archaeologists Code of Conduct it is unethical for archaeologists to take part in the commercial exploitation of artifacts, which can be interpreted to include the appraisal of artifacts.

When you purchase an artifact at a show, flea market, online or anywhere else you can never be certain where it came from. There are laws that prohibit the taking of artifacts from burials, state and federal land. If somebody knowingly or even unknowingly purchases artifacts that have been illegally excavated from state or federal land, they may be seized without that person receiving financial compensation. Additionally you could find yourself facing jail time and possibly a hefty fine. It is also important to mention that the enforcement of these laws has been stepped up by law enforcement within the last few years. Additionally, here in Florida many counties and cities have their own preservation ordinances. In some cases, such as in St. Augustine, these ordinances apply even to private property. So you can never be certain what risks you are taking when you are tempted to purchase that arrowhead at the flea market or see a cool artifact for sale online.

Not only are there legal ramifications for purchasing or excavating artifacts from an archaeological site, but there are ethical concerns as well. This is especially true for burial sites, both historic and prehistoric, but can be easily applied to all archaeological and historical sites. With burials especially, by disturbing the site or owning something that was taken from a burial site you are damaging a sacred space and may be interfering with Native American or other religious ceremonial expectations. The Society for American Archaeology has understood for awhile now that the selling and buying of artifacts out of archaeological context is essentially destroying the archaeological record in the U.S. and around the world. This results in the destruction of sites and the information that they potentially can contribute to our understanding of the past.

This brings me to a brief explanation about context.  So let me digress for a moment to help you understand the importance of archaeological context.  Context, archaeological speaking, refers to the relationship artifacts have to each other and the situation in which they are found.  This is just as important, or some may argue even more important, than the actual artifact. The artifact can only tell us so much, but where it was found and what it was found with help to provide archaeologists with the whole story. When you take an artifact out of context we lose part of that story and thus, we lose the potential to fully understand the past.

Okay, with that being said we can now move on. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also long recognized that the illicit antiquities market is a major problem worldwide. In fact, this organization has found that together, with the trafficking of illegal drugs and arms, the “black market” trade of antiquities and cultural objects constitutes one of the most persistent illegal trades in the world! As part of UNESCO’s efforts, many countries from around the world have assisted them in creating an international legal framework to recover stolen artifacts that have crossed into other countries and prosecute offenders.

You can find modern replicas and traditional crafts at events, such as this pow wow in North Florida.

So with this being said what you can do to help solve this issue? Well, one thing you can do is avoid taking part in the commercial exploitation of artifacts, and instead, understand that these objects are truly priceless and can provide us with a great understanding of our shared past if they are studied (in context) in a scientific manner. Instead of purchasing artifacts, look for replicas or modern crafts made by Native Americans or craftsmen from other cultures. You can legally purchase modern clothing, textiles, pottery and other beautiful and unique traditional crafts from contemporary craftsmen in stores, at festivals, online and in many other venues. In addition to supporting the artist, you will be supporting the local legal economy and ensuring the continuation of a traditional craft.

If you ever do come across an artifact, don’t think of it in terms of its monetary value. Instead contact the proper authorities. The best thing you can do is leave the

In stead of the real C.S.A. buckle, opt for the the replica! You can easily find one at any Civil War reenactment!

artifact in place, record the approximate location on a map, and take a photo with a well-known object (like a coin) in the picture to serve as a scale. Then contact your local FPAN office. They can help ensure that the site is properly recorded and that the proper authorities are notified.

Lastly, become an activist! The FPAN Northeast office in St. Augustine wrote an amazing article on their blog, “The Dirt on Public Archaeology” that discusses how to effectively be an activist for our priceless cultural and historical resources. Make a  choice to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.