PaleoAmerican Odyssey – Afterthoughts

I have hesitated to post anything about the Paleoamerican Odyssey, in part, because there was so much information and so many conversations that it’s hard to know where to begin.  It certainly made an impact on many of us.  I began drafting posts during the event, but upon reading my own words, most of what I was saying was reaction to the more appalling and shocking things.

PAC3For those who were not in attendance, let us get this straight.  This was not a scientific “conference” in the sense that papers were submitted, examined by a jury of peers, and talks selected. Feelings were mixed but as one colleague pointed out, “this was created in darkness, by an unknown committee, sponsored by collectors in antiquities, and presented to the working Paleoindian community as a completed package of self-appointed rock stars of our business.”

PAC1Some talks appeared as re-runs of Forrest Fenn’s Clovis and Beyond conference (upon which, this meeting was modeled).  Sometimes there was the feel of a very tired Dog and Pony Show.  Angry personal comments came from the podium.  Nevertheless, throughout the meetings, there were many excellent and informative papers concerned with genuine research from North and South America, and more importantly Beringia and Siberia.

PAC2As a spill-over, I had about 29 folks extend the weekend by coming to the Clovis site Sunday afternoon.  I pulled a smattering of artifacts from the type-site for people to examine and photograph in person.  We had a great time talking, knapping, and experimenting in general.  Several inquiries were made as to how to return items bought, sold, or taken from the Landmark over the years and one retired archaeologist told us of a sale he witnessed claiming to originate at the Clovis site was arranged in a “back room” meeting over the weekend.  Sad news for us.  I truly hope they are fakes, but somehow I doubt it.

As comments come in, and I have time to catch my breath, I would like to hear more from attendees as I’m sure we all had differing experiences.  I am also glad to get the opinions of the organizers if there is an interest in communicating openly with the actual archaeological community.  My intent is not to focus on the bad because I think a lot of good happened throughout the event.  I just hope it isn’t overshadowed by the dark side.


About George Crawford

archaeologist, archer, primitive technologist, and wannabee musician ... mostly
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7 Responses to PaleoAmerican Odyssey – Afterthoughts

  1. Bill Wagner says:

    Dear Dr. Crawford

    Since no one else has stepped up, I encourage you to invest 10 minutes in reading the Letter Forrest Fenn wrote on the controversy that conference provoked. His depth of familiarity with the facts underlying “the issue” make this an invaluable “read,” if only because, in opinion as in nature, if the wind always blows from the same direction, the trees grow crooked.

  2. Bill Wagner says:

    That there should be some balance in this, even if it is stongly opinionated.

    For one thing, without the altruistic generosity of “collectors” like Eli Lilly endowing university chairs in archaeology and funding excavations, would US archaeology be where it is today ? Yet “collectors” are archaeological lepers whose very presence contaminates those in the same room with them? Without Carl Yahnig would the Little River Complex even be known ? And the same holds true of the Shoop site and Bull Brook assemblages — all unpaid salvage work by “collectors” shared with professionals. Without Gramly’s crew of “collectors,” would anyone know (essentially) anything about Cumberland? And would Olive Branch have received the attention it did?

    Some time, as a thought experiment, imagine yourself the Commisar of Archaeology, whose word is law. Then announce what is to be done with the (literal) millions of artifacts in private hands. The sole limitation is that this — whatever you decree — must be feasible in the real-world as it is today.
    Give them all to museums and universities ? These struggle to curate what they have already. They’ve no room, no additional personnel and no infrastructure to handle them.

    Give them back to the Native Americans? Like previous “deacquisitionings” haven’t resulted in many of them being quickly sold with museum tags still attached?

    Option three (however bitter and grudging): allow people to continue owning them, encouraging them to overlook decades of contempt from the professional community and share them with you. People already own (and are excellent curators of) renaissance master paintings, ancient Greek coins, precious gems and 18th century Cremonese violins. Cost = zero.

    (As part and parcel of that, you could even mandate that the multiple thousands of journal articles on these that our tax dollars have made possible be made available at no additional charge as part and parcel of the freely acknowledged responsibility those in the scholarly pursuits have to educate us.

    What have I overlooked ?

    • All fine points Bill and I’ve heard much of this from Fenn before. I’m just not sure how that applies to the post specifically. Thank you for the comments though. This would be a better conversation around a campfire or over a drink somewhere.

    • So, I’m traveling right now and could give you a better response if I has some time to consider how you’d like me to fix the Federal governments treatment of cultural resources.
      For your first point: Collectors are just collectors; some good and some bad. I have met and worked with extremes of both. They do not fund most archaeology in the US or elsewhere and I have personally had pretty great relations with most of them when they don’t have a chip on their shoulder about something.

      Second point: I don’t think totalitarian anything works. I don’t have those bigger answers you are looking for and I just really enjoy spending 40-50 hours per week learning and teaching anybody who wants to also learn about prehistory and survival strategies. That’s what I do, not govern. I do know, from being a Federal and State contractor that the reason that the good and safe curation facilities are always hurting is because they are political pawns or seen as unimportant by the populous and the elected officials. Most people don’t even know they exist so why should they fund them? Right? Curation is actually easy and, having traveled extensively, have seen it done well for relatively little money in several of our states and other countries. I really think they get hit hard out of a combination of ignorance and spite.

      As for giving things back; I don’t really think this is a realistic option and those of us in the business are aware that this is a political move to try and make up for atrocities of the past. How do you even know who should get them? The government usually gets this one totally wrong and lets mid-level, uninformed bureaucrats make the important decisions. I don’t know how many get sold after the fact. It would be pure speculation.

      As for other collectors, you are right. Nobody in America is getting them taken away (that I’m aware of) unless they are stolen or acquired illegally. Archaeologists and historians utilize these collections at every chance when the collectors make the information available. We wouldn’t know they exist. Again, I’ve had some really good experiences there. I am not personally a collector of anything so I just don’t really get the need that people have to hoard things but I don’t begrudge them their obsession.

      As for the last point, I don’t think that is a real one. Most cultural resource work is done with mostly government dollars. Nearly every project (many hundreds) that I have been connected with has a report that is available to the public for free or at a small printing price. This is part of the CFR. This isn’t the decision of the archaeologists since we are just the contractors. The Agency gets to decide how it is distributed (DoD, Forest, NPS, DoR, etc.). Most of these reports are pedantic and boring and not much interest to the public. The good stuff is done later, taking the data collected and analyzing it more deeply and learning even more. We mostly do this writing in our “spare time” since what we do is more of a calling than a mundane job. These articles are generally published in professional journals which are not government entities and work for some sort of profit. For non-subscribers, copies are often available for free online or at a nominal cost since we work in a capitalist environment and nothing is truly free. These are all available through the libraries in our country and abroad. However, what we do is somewhat obscure so we have to use the interlibrary loan system much of the time. The ONLY time I have been made to limit information is when working with private collectors. The logic, somehow, is that they own this object and want it to be acknowledged, but want to keep all the specifics secret. This part makes no sense to me (why do the measurements or casts or photos need to be secret?). Having spent a lot of my career working with various parts of the Defense Department, I know that they redact some information, like specific locations, as they don’t want people sniffing around their bases and other properties.

      These are just my thoughts and not law so please take them with a grain of salt and know that I don’t really have much say in the big picture. All I can say is that it’s been better than a “real” job.

  3. Bill Wagner says:

    Thank you, Doc ! I know more now than I did before. The more perspectives there are on the table, the more comprehensive understanding can be. It’s a lot more nuanced now.

    Again thanks for your educational outreach.

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