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What we really know about the past

The Context and Consequence of Looting

So, there is a relativity hot topic floating around the inter-tubes these last couple of weeks. Well, it’s floating around the incredibly small portion of the Internet occupied by archaeologists. There is a show called ‘American Diggers‘ coming out on the Spike Television Network. It’s basically a reality show where ex-wrestler ‘Rick Savage‘ and his ‘team’ pay people to dig up their backyard in order to find things and sell them. Needless to say the archaeology community is not impressed.

I’ll quickly add my voice to the other archaeologists who are writing about it out there in the cyber-world and say that I, too, am against it. Here are just a few people not pleased with this show:

I wasn’t going to write much about the show, or why I don’t like it—partially because I haven’t seen it, partially because I think complaining about bad programing from the channel that gave us Manswers is a little too much like banging my head against a wall— but mostly because I think there are enough smart people talking about it to make my voice redundant. I have signed the petition, both of them actually, and even e-mailed Spike TV’s press contact (, and I would encourage you to do the same. I was going to leave it at that.

Who's ready for some well researched and not at all sensational television?!?!?

But then I read a great post on the subject by Rae Harper* over at Experience Archaeology, where she reminded me that situations like these can be opportunities for education, not just opposition. Very true. So I’m taking the advice of a fellow public-minded archaeologist: I’m going to use this as a chance to talk about why context matters.

I want to also note, before we move on, that there is a difference between looting, salvaging, pot-hunting, and amateur archaeology. Meg Lambert does a very good job of explaining it. Go. Read. Learn. Done? Good. Back to talking about why we don’t like looting.

In my mind, the main reason archaeologists get pissed off about looting is not so much that the artifacts themselves are being stolen (though we don’t really like that), it’s really that when you stick a shovel in the ground, pull out an artifact, dust it off and put it on a shelf you lose almost all of the story that object can tell. In archaeology, context is everything. If I’m honest, for-profit looting pisses me off a lot more than someone grabbing something and taking it home, as the sale of artifacts encourages more looting, but neither are that good. I understand why there is a market for it, I have already written about how humans tend to place emotional attachments on artifacts rather than the context surrounding them, but if we just buy artifacts the thought of losing all that information makes my teeth itch.

What kind of information are we talking about? Everything, really. How deep the artifact is buried. What kind of soil it’s in. What other artifacts are found nearby. These are just a few. I have spent days trying to figure out exactly how many different pits, trenches, burrows, and other disturbances have affected the small section of a site I’m digging. Only after we have that information can we begin to make sense of the artifacts we recover. Is that antler tool the same age as that bone pendant? We can’t even begin to figure that out until we know what’s going on in the surrounding soil. It’s one of the most irritating catch-22s of archaeology. A clear picture helps you dig better, but the picture only becomes clearer as you dig. Its why we burden ourself with all the tiresome paper work, note taking and mapping that looters ignore.

Heck even Indy took a few notes from time to time

There is a great example of why context matters in another recent news article  I wanted to write about. In case you’re too lazy (or not interested enough) to click the link above, here is a short summary: two archaeologists have written a book about the Solutrean Hypothesis. They have actually been working through this idea for years now, but it’s in the news now. Why? Was there a new find? New data? Nope. Hell it’s not even that new a theory: it was first proposed in 1941. So why is this in the news now? Well, John Hawks thinks it’s all due to a particularly good publicity blitz in order to support this new book. I think he’s probably right, but I don’t have a problem with it—as long as it encourages thoughtful consideration of this and other competing theories of how people came to North America.

I won’t spend much time on whether or not I think the theory has any validity. I don’t. It has a wall of conflicting evidence in both the geography of early sites, the DNA evidence, and the about a billion other things. I’m not going to get into them. But if you’re curious, here are some links:

  • (unfortunately, unless you want to pay, or can get it through a school’s library, you’re kind of out of luck on that last link–but it’s an important work so I had to include it)

I also won’t go into the problems with racists and white supremacists taking a hold of this theory and manipulating it for their own design. Stanford has personally rejected this use, and I think a scientist shouldn’t be afraid of what some ignorant ass is going to think of your theory. That being said, scientists should be ready and willing to publicly fight against said use and need to be aware of how people will view their work. I promise I will eventually write more about racism and the use of archaeology, but right now I want to focus on the importance of context.

The reason this Solutrean debate is so easy to start but so hard to conclude is because we have almost no information about the context of these early stone tools (called Clovis points). The stone tools used in these arguments are primarily surface finds, with almost no context to them. As an example, by reading the Washington Post article I posted you’ll see that the stone tool forming the basis of the argument was found off the coast of Virginia by a fishing boat. I assume it came up in a bottom trawling net. With it came a mastodon tusk, which was dated to about 22,000 years ago.

This gives us a perfect illustration of why context matters so much; we have no idea how closely the mastodon tusk and the point were associated. We don’t even know if they were associated at all. The authors make claims about the point being used to butcher the mastodon, which it very well could have been. Or it could have been dropped 8,000 years after the mastodon died. As far as I know there is nothing associating the two things besides their location within a net-length of each other. They might not even come from the same depth, as this method of fishing does a great deal of damage to the ocean floor. They could have come from anywhere. I don’t know how long trawling nets stay down for, but I don’t think they work like buckets. The two artifacts could have come from right next to each other, or from hundreds of meters apart—we just don’t know.

they could have come from anywhere from within one of those lines

It’s why this particular theory has run into a mountain of opposition: the context of their supporting evidence is pretty poor, whereas the evidence for other theories has much stronger context. I’ll give you a good example. Here is an article about early mastodon hunting on the west coast of North America. Now this has a very early date to it: 13,800 years ago. Let’s ignore the fact that this site is in Washington State and has evidence for big game hunting with bone tools before Clovis (kinda contradicting the Solutrean explanation) and focus on why this is a great example of context. This is a mastodon bone with a point lodged in it! Better context simply doesn’t exist. While I can argue that there is no proven association between the stone tool and mastodon found of the coast of Virginia, I can’t make the same argument with the Washington mastodon. The bone point is right in it. Right there. Sticking out of it. Someone made that point. Someone put it in that mastodon. Hell, the DNA on the point shows it was also made from mastodon. That’s crazy!

Yo DAWG! I heard you like big game, so I put a mastodon in your mastodon

You guys know your memes, right?

Let me write both east and west coast stories in a simple way and we can see how context matters. First the Virginia one:

In Virginia, some 22,000 years ago, a mammoth died. It may have died of natural causes or it may have been killed in some other way. Sometime after, or before, or at the same time, a human being dropped a stone tool. Maybe they used it on the mammoth. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe it was dropped right beside the mastodon. Maybe it was dropped hundreds of meters away. Maybe it was dropped in a river and a flood took it out. Maybe it was dropped from a boat. Anyways, 22,000 years later we found it in a net.

Now the Washington one:

13,800 years ago (plus or minus 25 or so years) on the west coast of North America, a mastodon died. Whether it was killed by humans is not fully understood but, due to the orientation of the skull, the undisturbed sediment it was buried in, and the other artifacts found around it, we’re pretty sure humans had something to do with it. Even if humans didn’t kill it, we know they tried to at least once. Buried in one of the mastodon’s ribs was a point. A bone point made from another mastodon. We know they didn’t succeed the first time as there is evidence of healing around the wound. But we are sure that almost 14,000 years ago humans used a point made from one dead mastodon to try and kill another mastodon.

See how much stronger that west coast story is? It’s much more robust, because it has good supporting evidence. It’s why context matters. If a looter had found that mastodon rib we wouldn’t have known anything about the position of the skeleton or the fact that it was found deeper than a 9,000 year old point in undisturbed deposits, or even that it was found in Washington State. You take away the context and the story reads a lot more like the one from the coast of Virginia.

Context matters, and we only get context through methodical and systematic recovery. We cannot get context with a shovel and a hastily dug pit. Those artifacts tell us almost nothing. Which is why everyone is so angry about a show glorifying a guy and a shovel. Not to mention the trade in looted artifacts. It’s not that we lose the artifact, it’s that we lose the story— and we’re storytellers at heart.


* I originally attributed this to  Becky O’Sullivan who post on that blog a lot- my apologies!


6 responses to “The Context and Consequence of Looting

  1. Pingback: Looting and Destruction « archaeologicallinks

  2. Tu'i Proffesa March 12, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Shoot high, they’re riding megafauna!

  3. Crazy Eye Killa March 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Mastodon in my Mastodon, damn this blog is tight.

  4. EHerb March 20, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Have you read The Places in Between? Whole section on local villagers looting the remains of the Ghorid capital. It’s tough to read, even as the author (Rory Stewart) does his best to take it easy on the extremely poor locals who are just trying to make a buck.

  5. Cassandra Harper March 22, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Thank you for mentioning my blog and leading me to discover yours!

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