Friday, 7 August 2015

Artefact Hunters "Vital" for US Civil War History?

Civil war 
Ben Benton reckons that 'Relic hunters [are] vital but troublesome for Civil War history' (August 6th, 2015). He is writing about the two clowns who were artefact hunting in protected areas in Marion and Hardin counties in Tennessee and in Jackson County, Ala. He however wants to promotye the "Good Collector" myth:
Dr. Anthony Hodges, president of Friends of the Chickamauga  and Chattanooga National Military Park and a local Civil War collector, has as many relics and images from the conflict as some museums. Hodges said he hasn't been an active relic hunter for 20 years but he defends relic hunting on private land. Those artifacts might be lost to time if not for the people with metal detectors who ask landowners for permission to look, he said. "I'm not down on relic hunters. In fact, I'll say a good portion — and perhaps all — of what we know about Civil War artifacts themselves come from the relic hunters. They're the ones who write the books," he said. "The academics don't share that information.
 This is the type of comment one often sees. Having looked through a number of these publications (back in my prehistory I was one of the first to introduce a metal detectorist's book - on buckles - into  archaeological circulation), it seems to me that most of them are artefact-centred, match-the-picture handbooks with price estimates and scissors-and-paste history added which rarely give references by which statements about the artefacts can be verified. I think the issue is not "how many" artefacts collectors have, it is the quality of their archiving and documentation that is the important factor if they claim to be 'preserving' something.
 Eddie Horton sells Civil War relics at his shop, Somewhere in Time, just outside the Chickamauga Battlefield [...] Horton agrees with Hodges that much of the best recovery work is done by enthusiastic history fans with permission to hunt for relics on private land, especially locations where Civil War armies were bivouacked for long periods. "These guys are the real historians. They know where the major bivouac areas are," Horton said. "They love the history of it more than anything else." 
The question is whether in their targeting specific 'productive areas' of a complex site and by the manner of removal of the evidence, and their documentation, the damage being done is being adequately militgated by the production of documentation usable by future researchers investigating that site. If not, the evidence would be better off left in the ground for more sophisticated recovery protocols, instead we have a site where there are major 'holes' in the record where artefact hunters have selectively removed for their own personal entertainment and profit a substantial (and arguably the most informative) part of the resource without adequate documentation.

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