Saturday, March 7, 2009

Buying and Selling Artifacts...An American Tragedy

While writing this post, I have to admit right up front that I am not a collector, nor a professional scientist, and I have never worked at a "dig" professionally or otherwise. I am just a person who has a passion about our prehistoric past and preserving what we can of it - and while this might seem like a simple task to tackle, the controversy over buying and selling artifacts, it certainly is not simple and that all I can tell you is what my personal perspective on the situation goes....

I believe that it is a conflict of interest to have anyone who sells artifacts to be involved with scientific archaeology....Working a site and selling artifacts is unacceptable.

Last month I did a presentation about the Murray Garden - a site that was worked on in the 1880's - -before archaeology even was a profession. The purpose of that presentation was to share the all but lost information about a "people" that once lived in our region, but were annihilated by the Iroquois; and the last handful known to be alive were wiped out in 1763 by a bunch of murderers called "The Paxton Gang." At that point, the Susquehannocks, as a people, were taken from us.

A hundred years before this horrible event, they lived here and left their imprint upon our region. The evidence of these people can be seen and celebrated at SRAC today. To me, just as much as any other person in the history of this community, whether they were a red man, white man, or any other color, they are a part MY region's heritage.

My presentation on the Murray Garden brought a crowd that left the lecture area with standing room only and I was proud to share the knowledge that I had gained while studying this site which gives us a glimpse of the Susquehannocks and what they were doing while they were here. Some of the artifacts that I discussed were pieces of shell-tempered pottery that had faces on them alongside copper spiral-shaped items. This evidence and other items actually led me (as a non-professional) to date the site at approximately 1600 - 1625 AD. If you wonder why this is so important to me - you just have to visit my first website, to know that I have been passionate about this part of our history and prehistory for a long time and have traveled all over the country searching for answers.

Let's just say that Spanish Hill is a site that has inspired me, and has taught me that we do not have all the answers yet, and that more work needs to to be done...and the only way it can be done is to save evidence and its relativity to the site where it was found. NOTE: Auction blocks do not count as provenience btw...and I know just from some of the collections SRAC has had donated, that when "auction" is associated with an artifact's past that it will be questionable whether or not it can ever be used in serious research.

Meanwhile, some professionals claim that within the next decade more serious work will be done here to ultimately figure out what Spanish Hill and it's ten acres enclosed by an earthen wall and interior ditch was used for, and exactly when the Susquehannocks abandoned their villages in our region. But let's face it, ten years is a long time for more evidence to be picked up only to be sent to the auction block...

Today - The Susquehanna River Archaeological Center is 5 years old and has preserved ten collections (SOME WITH THOUSANDS OF ARTIFACTS) to date. All of this was done without the transfer of one dollar to any collector, and I take pride in our community of collectors that understand that these artifacts are not "pretty rocks that can be sold for alot of money," but EVIDENCE of a people that lived here. Whatever they decide to do in the end with their collection, I feel quite confident that collectors and members of SRAC are of like minds with us about the importance of preserving the evidence and the sites that they come from.

I tell you all of this so that you can understand why when I saw the following auction occurring today it prompted me to post this.

"The Robert Johnson Artifacts Collection; & Related Library, Part II
Friday, March 6 Library - 4:30 pm
Saturday, March 7 Artifacts - 10:00 am

Artifacts and the related extensive library on Archaeology, Anthropology, & Ethnography all removed to be sold at Hesse Galleries, 350 Main St., Otego, NY sales gallery.

Sale includes authentic Pre-historic & Early Historic Artifacts, many from NY State. Plus an outstanding collection of fifty "art objects": polished and knapped stone faux artifacts.

Saturday Session: Artifacts from the Robert Johnson Collection: Over 300 lots including 17th c. Iroquois items, Pre-historic stone, baskets, bone, silver, wooden items, metal trade items, etc."

...and I could go on and show you the items on Ebay and so on, but you get the idea....

This is something that makes me have to ask the following question:

Are there any professionals involved in buying and selling; and if there are, why are there no rules in place that would cause them to lose their professional license or ability to work at any archaeological digs? Isn't this an obvious conflict of interest??? And should ANYONE involved in buying and selling artifacts be allowed to be involved in state associated archaeological associations, digs or research?

While some say that there is simply "nothing we can do," SRAC made at least a small effort the minute we opened our doors. The following signs are hanging up in our Center:

I would be happy to add to SRAC's membership form any formal statement that is adopted by Pennsylvania and/or New York State Archaeological associations showing their opposition to the selling of archaeological evidence.

BTW - - here is the official statement of the Society for American Archaeology concerning this:

"The Society for American Archaeology has long recognized that the buying and selling of objects out of archaeological context is contributing to the destruction of the archaeological record on the American continents and around the world. The commercialization of archaeological objects - their use as commodities to be exploited for personal enjoyment or profit - results in the destruction of archaeological sites and of contextual information that is essential to understanding the archaeological record. Archaeologists should therefore carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the commercial value of archaeological objects. Whenever possible they should discourage, and should themselves avoid, activities that enhance the commercial value of archaeological objects, especially objects that are not curated in public institutions, or readily available for scientific study, public interpretation, and display."

Tell me your thoughts.


  1. It has been said that, ”nothing cheapens the value of an object, as that of ownership“ I understand the thinking and have succumbed to the mindset of ‘wanting something.’.
    I consider myself a fortunate person to have had an opportunity to acquire “Art Objects” and many accurate reproductions and some items that may be the genuine artifact. Most of these items come from the estates of dead collectors or their families. I always would like the object to have a provenance as to where it was found and when, but, if it’s a beautiful item (in my mind) and not too expensive, I will buy it anyway. I don’t mind paying a couple hundred dollars for a birdstone that , if could be proved to come out of a mound be worth $4000. I have never had the good luck to find a birdstone, but have found a few fantastic items which a couple of, would be lost again. I did have the rare opportunity to discover along with my future wife, a jade ceremonial bowl in a Tioga Co. creekbed that was authenticated by Dumbarton Oaks and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. I was told that they could tell me if it was fake, but not tell me if it was genuine. They both agreed that it was not fake. It was also agreed that the bowl originated in South or Central America . How it ended up in a creekbed in Tioga Co. is the big mystery.
    If I had not purchased the reproduction Hiawatha Belt now on display at S.R.A.C. where would you see another one? When Mario Cuomo was governor he illegally gave away all wampum belts in the N.Y State Museum . Those belts were all legally obtained by the State and were the property of all the people of the State. I’m not sure if these shouldn’t have been returned to the Native Indigenous People but, it could have been done legally. Do you think ordinary people like you and me (not being an archaeologist, ethanologist, or museum director) have a chance at seeing these belts. In the 1700’s every meeting between the Native American leadership and the whites in power ended with the exchange of a wampum belt. I would like you to note there are some wampum belts on display at the Seneca Museum in western New York.
    I went to the Bob Johnson estate auction mentioned by our director and was fortunate to purchase many out of print books and some very nice artifacts most of which are reproductions. I did purchase several “Swords, Scepters, and Eccentrics” that are the epitome of the flint knapper’s art. I attribute this to a Mr. Tussinger who supposedly found these fantastic items during the Depression. He is supposedly the greatest flint knapper of his time. These items are truly the best ever. Some of these are around 20 inches long.
    I would like to bring these fantastic items to S.R.A.C. to share this opportunity with others like me that appreciate good craftsmanship if it doesn’t offend too many of our patrons.

  2. John -

    Please reread this post and the following one. I don't think you understand my points about selling EVIDENCE.