Central States Archaeological Societies
Central States Archaeological Societies


Chuck Bair

Central States Archaeological Societies 2003 Fall Journal

Bedford, IN

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.

Oliver Phase ceramics from Lawrence County Indiana

Photo shows Oliver Phase ceramics from Lawrence County Indiana. These sherds were the information the archaeologist was seeking.


projectile points from site 12Lr329

Photo of lithics shows my projectile points from site 12Lr329 that the archaeologist showed little interest in.


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