IMPORTANCE OF DOCUMENTING FINDS
|Central States Archaeological Societies 2003
Part One: A Story About A Kid who Documented Artifacts
When I first began collecting artifacts as a ten year old in 1981, my father told me to keep everything I found,
including broken pieces, and to keep the items separated by which site I found them on. When I expressed reluctance
to keep small sherds of pottery from one site, dad said, "Go ahead and keep them, someday an archaeologist
might want to study them." Little did he know that in nine years when I was a student at Indiana University,
his prophetic advice would be fulfilled.
One day between classes I decided to go to the archaeology lab to find out about careers in archaeology. When I
got there and told them my name I was eagerly greeted by an archaeologist who knew who I was because he had been
given my name by the farmer who owned the site I had collected the pottery from as a child. He expressed an interest
in seeing my collection from the site, 12Lr329. Two local collectors, Bill Meadows (who has gone on to become an
anthropology professor) and the late Bob Edler, had previously shown him the site, but they had limited firsthand
experience collecting the site and few Late Prehistoric materials, which was the focus of his research. He expressed
an interest in seeing what I had collected from 12Lr329, and set an appointment to view my collection.
When he arrived at my house that weekend I eagerly showed off my fine collection of points from the site. He graciously
looked at them, but was visibly disappointed. After about an hour he asked, "Do you have any ceramics from
the site?" I was a bit dismayed at his lack of interest in my arrowheads, but I obliged and retrieved my two
shoe boxes full of pottery. His cynical, disappointed look was quickly replaced by a look of awe and excitement.
"This is fabulous," he exclaimed. I was amazed to see his incredible interest in my boxes of junky old
sherds that nobody else would even pick up. He soon explained that these ceramics could be used to pinpoint the
time of occupation of a site to a much narrower frame than stone tools could. Additionally, these sherds represented
a culture that was thought to exist in very limited amounts, if at all, in the East Fork White River watershed.
The following summer due largely to the accounts of Edler, Meadows, and my father and me, the archaeologist chose
12Lr329 to be the site for the I.U. field school in archaeology. In two years of excavations they found the remnants
of an Oliver Phase village (ca. A.D. 1280-1400) surrounded by a stockade wall (http://www.gbl.indiana.edu/abstracts/clampitt/contents.html). This set the stage for a focused
study of Late Prehistoric settlement along the East and West Forks of the White River carried out by Indiana University
to the present. In fact, I felt somewhat honored again in 2002 when the field school was held at another site I
had collected and reported, 12Lr500, which is just about a mile downstream from 12Lr329. My willingness to collect
all relevant artifacts and my readiness to share my findings with professionals led to university field schools
at two sites, as well as test excavations at a handful of sites, and the recording of several hundred other sites
I have collected.
This account has explained how my zeal to collect and record less than pristine artifacts and to keep them well
provenienced has led to some important discoveries and a better understanding of the past. Everyone of us who collects,
even children, encounter information that could be beneficial to unraveling mysteries of the past, and could lead
to important surveys or excavations. We should all consider ourselves keepers of priceless information, and should
never count out the significance of the contributions we can individually make to archaeology.
Part Two- How and Why to Document Finds
It is important to record artifacts, and there are many reasons for documenting finds. These reasons include
paying tribute to the past, gaining knowledge and developing understanding about past cultures and ourselves, preserving
memories of hunts, making artifacts easier to study, protecting collections from theft, and adding value to pieces
by having good provenience and documentation to accompany them. I will discuss each of these reasons below.
The primary importance of documenting finds is, in my opinion, to remember the people who once lived on these sites
and never let them slip through time to be forgotten. Included in this purpose is the quest to learn as much about
the past as we can, and to preserve that knowledge once it is obtained. I have worked with archaeologists documenting
people's collections, and many folks had beautiful personal finds and unique pieces that could have been rich with
information about topics such as chert distribution, lithic manufacturing methods, point type distribution, and
settlement patterns. However from a scientific point-of-view they were worthless because without a provenience
the plethora of information contained in these artifacts was of limited or no use.
We all think we will always remember where all of our finds came from, and nobody forgets where they found that
five inch Adena or that E-notched Thebes, but those fifty Meroms and Matanzas can become hazy over time, not to
mention the hundreds of broken pieces. Even for the lucky individuals with minds like steel traps, it is much easier
to compare, study, and analyze artifacts if they are some way organized by provenience. I have tried to document
collections of people who remembered every find, but they had all of them jumbled together and it took two hours
to record ten points from a single site. Had their collections been organized by provenience, hundreds of artifacts
from dozens of sites could have been documented in those same two hours.
Recording sites by provenience can also help preserve memories. Maybe that broken drill was the last thing you
found with Grandpa before they put him in a nursing home, or maybe that blunt was the only thing you found the
day Kennedy was assassinated. Placing a locational context and even a date with your artifacts can bring back memories
of hunts long forgotten.
A well-documented collection, particularly with photos, tracings, and measurements can protect pieces from theft.
It's hard for a guy to sell a point at a relic show that has your initials and date found written on it in permanent
ink, especially when you've given everybody at the show a flier with a picture of the stolen point on it. Another
effective way to protect your collection from theft and to preserve information about your artifacts is to document
your collection with photos or articles in a journal, such as the CSAJ. Having an artifact published in a journal
read by thousands of people in several states further reduces the market for it if it is stolen, and shares the
artifact with many people in the process.
In addition to providing archaeological information and security, documentation adds a rich history and monetary
value to artifacts. Someday when our time has passed it will be important to our descendants who inherit our collections
to know where we found our artifacts. Knowing where, when, and by whom an artifact was found adds to the joy of
owning a fine relic, and can bring a premium price if the point is sold.
Having discussed reasons for documenting artifacts, I'm now going to discuss a few methods of documentation. The
first and easiest component of documenting a collection is keeping finds from different sites separate. This can
be as simple as throwing (gently) finds in different boxes or zip-loc bags according to provenience, or as elaborate
as carefully numbering each artifact, recording some measurements and information about it, and logging it into
a computerized database. Either way, it is an important part of responsible collecting and learning about the past.
Keeping artifacts labeled can be done in many ways. Ideally a person would individually label each piece, but for
someone who finds a lot of stuff it is simply not practical. I generally put broken pieces in plastic bags labeled
with basic information such as site, date and artifact types, and I label good pieces with permanent ink. A substitute
for permanent ink is to write on adhesive labels and stick them on the artifacts, which avoids the process of directly
marking the surface of the point. I used to use this method until I heard the story of an old gentleman who had
diligently labeled his collection with stickers his entire life. After he died, two men at the estate sale were
overheard saying "The first thing we need to do with these points we bought is take these stupid labels off
of them." That horrified me, and from that day on I've used permanent ink. At first I hated to deface the
points by writing on them, but now I see the provenience information written on the point as adding to the aesthetics
of the point, much like the signature on a Picasso or Van Gogh. Even so, I write as small and neatly as possible,
I always write on the "ugly" side of the point, and I try to pick an inconspicuous spot, such as on the
side of a step fracture or on a piece of cortex remaining on the point. I realize the information is not really
permanent, even permanent ink covered with a protective coat of clear nail polish can be removed, but not as easily
as an adhesive label.
Perhaps more important than physically labeling the points themselves is recording the data about them. If basic
information about a point is recorded and the point is lost or sold, the knowledge is still preserved. Of course
a description and photo are no substitutes for the actual artifact, but they do contain much of the information
that can be used to study the past.
I've been fortunate enough to have gotten state site numbers for most of my sites, which makes proveniencing them
much easier and more precise. This is the best method to use to record sites, and makes the information universal
to professionals studying the sites. Even if you don't have or don't want state numbers for your sites, something,
such as your own numbering system (for instance "John Smith creek site number one") is better than nothing
and can be very useful if it is cross-referenced with locations on a map. It is very simple to record exact site
locations by using UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) grids on USGS topographical maps, by using GIS units, or
by simply dividing sections on the quad map into smaller sections to describe the exact location of sites.
I've recorded nearly every find I've ever made. I don't have photographs and sketches of each artifact, but I do
have tallies of point and tool types and the materials they are made of and precise locations for each of my sites.
I have a database where I can retrieve information about all sites with a certain type of artifact, all sites a
certain distance from water, all sites with a certain soil type, or just about any other type of information I
wish to study. This was very time consuming to do initially, but now it is easy to keep up with. I simply add each
day's finds to my database as I find them. Now even if something happened to my collection tomorrow, the information
is still preserved and available for study.
There are many excuses people use not to document sites, but there are better reasons to counter them. Many people
don't document artifacts because they don't have time. I can't argue with this one. Today's hectic lifestyle makes
any time for hobbies hard to come by, and most of us would rather be finding new stuff than labeling old stuff.
However, simply sorting things by provenience doesn't take much time, and digging through old finds and recording
them can be enjoyable on a snowy day, and you might be surprised by what you can learn by tallying up artifacts
and comparing sites.
Some people have "secret sites". We all have those hot spots we don't want even our best buddies to know
about. We fear that if we submit these to an archaeologist they will come dig up our site or somehow another collector
will get into the files at the state or university office and will find our secret site location. Well, sadly,
this can happen. In the case of these secret sites, I'd recommend recording the information and saving it for later.
Many of my "secret sites" have now been bulldozed and paved over, and I could care less who knows I used
to find celts where Wal-Mart now stands. Things change, and ten years from now you might be able to contribute
valuable information about your secret sites without compromising your relic hunting opportunities.
Many collectors don't report sites because they say "Archaeologists are jerks!" I've worked with many
archaeologists, and unfortunately this can also be true. Archaeologists are people, and like people in any other
profession, some are insolent, arrogant snobs and some are wonderful people. If you've encountered an archaeologist
you didn't like, but you would still like to record your finds, get to know some more archaeologists until you
find one you do like and trust. As a starting point, ask other collectors who have dealt with archaeologists to
find out their opinions about which ones are "collector friendly".
Another reason many people don't record their finds is because they think nobody cares. Sometimes a local archaeologist
has limited funding and simply due to funding and time restrictions, can not record important information collectors
have to offer. If nobody in the professional field will record your finds and help preserve information about the
past, do it yourself. In the computer age it's very easy to produce a document, complete with photos and graphics,
that describes your finds and experiences in the field. Write it up, print out two copies, keep one for yourself
and donate the other one to the local library. Just because professional aren't studying it doesn't make your information
any less valuable. I know as a child I'd have loved to read about the findings of other knowledgeable local collectors.
Just be sure to be conscientious in your writing and be sure to be very clear about which passages are facts and
which ones express your opinions and theories about your findings.
Finally, some people don't provenience artifacts or document finds because they just don't care. They don't want
to learn, they don't want to honor the people who lived in the past, and they don't care if anybody else learns
anything. That's fine, we don't live in North Korea, and it's a free country. I just hope these guys aren't hunting
my sites and I hope they decide to eventually do some form of documentation with their finds.
This article has explained how I was able to contribute to archaeology by documenting finds, even as a child. I've
given some reasons why documenting finds is useful and important, I've very briefly mentioned a few methods that
can be used in the process of documentation, and I've tried to counter some of the common reasons why people don't
document their artifacts. I hope I have encouraged many of you to record your finds in order to learn about the
past, share your knowledge with others, add both intrinsic and extrinsic value to your collection, and help make
this a productive hobby that our children can enjoy for many years to come.
Photo shows Oliver Phase ceramics from Lawrence County Indiana. These sherds were the information
the archaeologist was seeking.
Photo of lithics shows my projectile points from site 12Lr329 that the archaeologist showed little