Saturday, 2 October 2010

Some Thoughts on the "Texas Amateur Archeological Association"

There are a number of artefact hunting groups like this all over the USA, I've discussed some of them earlier here. I was interested in this one because of the material I discuss in the post below this.
Bob McWilliams is the owner of Texas AtlAtl Artifacts. He has been in the artifact business "full time" since February 1994. That is the date he published the first "Texas Cache", the Texas Artifact Magazine issue. Since then he went on to organize the Texas Amateur Archeological Association. He pioneered the idea of lease digs and now operates a successful pay dig operation at several sites around Texas. [...] Bob McWilliams makes his sole living from Texas artifacts. He personally digs thousands of artifacts for the members of his Texas Amateur Archeological association.
He also recommends: Buy Quality Artifacts for Investment

The so-called Texas Amateur Archeological Association (TAAA) is an interesting example of a whole range of issues connected with the exploitation of archaeological sites as a source of collectables. In simple terms according to US law (non-cemetery) ancient sites which are on 'public lands' (state-owned) are protected from looting, those on privately-owned property are not (ARPA). If you own land with ancient sites on it, you can basically do what you want with them. One of the things you can do is lease these sites to organizations like the TAAA who then organize "pay digs" for its members (Membership is $40 per year for a single or $50 for a family membership). These are organized more or less like UK metal detecting rallies and have the same range of associated problems.

So the TAAA seek farmers who are willing to let its members onto their land.

They clearly have a two-pronged incentive, promising the landowners financial reward as well as presenting itself as a bona fide "archaeological" organization. Much the same way as UK metal detectorists turn up on the doorsteps of farmers with archaeological sites in their fields with folders full of press cuttings where the PAS praises its "partners" the artefact hunters for producing so many nationally important "finds".

The TAAA advertise their "digs" persuasively:
"Come join the other members of the Texas Amateur Archeological Association as they search for artifacts left by ancient people thousands of years ago! You will go hunting with other artifact enthusiasts like yourself. You will learn more about what you are finding and the people that made and left these awesome ancient artifacts!"
Dig with the TAAA! Members of the TAAA never have to worry about not being welcome at a dig site! Dig legal (sic), Dig relaxed and enjoy, Join the TAAA and find your "Artifact of a Lifetime!".
Members of the TAAA pay an additional charge (normally $60-$100 per person per day) for access to the site, they camp there and after agreeing to be bound by the "dig rules" (no insurance!) either take part in a "hand dig" or a "backhoe dig". In the latter (which cost more to take part in, $130 - $200 per person per day) a mechanical excavator scoops out the soil from an archaeological site containing stone tools and other artefacts which is then apportioned among the "diggers" who then sift through it (on sieves ['screens']) and pick out the collectable artefacts which they then are allowed to keep. The TAA makes a point of photographing" everything found for its records, but the purpose of these records seems to be more for the purposes of advertising (and maybe liaison with the landowner) than keeping archaeological documentation after all what possible kind of documentation can derive from scooping out bucketloads of midden material or campsite with a mechanical excavator? In their frequently asked questions section in answer to the question: "Is science involved in a TAAA dig?" they state:
We used to take lots of data with each find but our information was not wanted by professional archeologist. We no longer take data other than photos. We document the finds using the members web pages.
Well, it is difficulty to see what "data" a bunch of amateur lithic collectors can create during the trashing of a site by mechanical excavator which would be useful to the archaeologist. I would say that archaeological ethics would require the professional to keep well away from any such enterprise to avoid giving it any kind of legitimacy. The TAAA point out: "The TAAA is not affiliated or associated with any university or state archaeological group". If their website gives a truthful picture of their activities, I should hope not !

Photo: Gouging out artefacts (not just "arrowheads") at the "Bacon Rind Ranch" site (Photo TAA newsletter).

In case prospective members have qualms about ethical aspects, they answer the question: Isn't it against the law to pick up artifacts?": No, that is a rumor put out by those who want to find and keep the artifacts for themselves. Ugh, those nasty selfish archaeologists again no doubt. Not only is it not illegal to "pick up" artefacts, shamefully it is not illegal to trash archaeological sites on private land with mechanical excavators so somebody can make lots of cash selling tickets to collectors. Just like a UK metal detecting rally. Like the ACCG, they are involved in campaigning for "collectors' rights", maybe they could unite?
Thank you for your interest in the TAAA and we hope you decide to
join us as we also fight to keep artifact hunting legal in Texas!
How much effort would it actually take to do some actual archaeological research at these sites rather than just cherry-pick the collectable artefacts? To excavate properly with more discipline, to collect other archaeological evidence (such as charred plant matter by techniques such as flotation) to produce an archive of documentation and recovered material? To actually contribute to our knowledge of the sites the TAAA is active on rather than simply trashing them for commercial gain? Why is the TAAA called an "archaeological" association and not artefact collecting association? Why not call a spade a spade?

TAAA website: Welcome!!! To an adventure in Texas artifact hunting!
A copy of the TAAA Electronic newsletter.
Dig Photos.

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