Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Gainesville archaeologist takes issue with treasure hunters

Kathy Deagan (Distinguished Research Curator Emerita, Lockwood Professor of Florida and Caribbean Archaeology, University of Florida) does what it seems far too few archaeologists are doing these days. Upon viewing the media coverage in the St. Augustine Record on Saturday and Sunday about history, archaeology and treasure hunting, recounts that she feels "both dismayed and depressed" and decided to speak out [Kathleen Deagan, 'Guest column: Veteran archaeologist takes issue with treasure hunters', St. Augustine Record January 9, 2012].
The first article to which she refers was by Jennifer Edwards, 'Crews to dig up backyards for TV show, raising objections from city archaeologist' St. Augustine Record , January 6, 2012 (see post above) ;
The second was by Sheldon Gardner, 'Metal detectorist finds rare treasures under sands
Techniques draw praise from diggers, scorn from archaeologists
', St. Augustine Record January 8, 2012 (both articles have interesting comments from members of the public expressing what they feel about artefact hunting). Kathy Deagan wrote:
In the past two days, two programs that are extremely destructive of St. Augustine’s historical integrity have been featured. One is the supposed reality TV show based on people digging up artifacts in their yards for TV and TV producers’ fun and profit. The other is the celebration of treasure hunters’ destruction of important archaeological sites for their own personal fun and profit. Neither of those programs seems to have any clue about how history is revealed and acknowledged
and that is in a country without a PAS mixing up in the public's mind what is what.
Nobody involved in these programs seems to understand what City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt has repeatedly but gently pointed out (and what most fourth graders in Florida already understand) — neither archaeology nor history is about artifacts. And history is not “brought to light” by artifacts.
Ooops, heresy (at least in certain archaeological circles).
After some examples of what stratigraphy can tell us, she goes on:
What troubled me particularly about Sunday’s article on metal detector treasure hunters Bob Spratley and John Powell was the clear statement that “It gets in your blood, and once it gets in your blood….,” he (Spratley) said, a Spanish silver piece of eight worth $35,000 hanging from his neck, “if you want a collection like this, you dig everything.” And you destroy everything that would allow those pieces to be historically meaningful and understood.
In the programme it was claimed that metal detectorists had found the Matanzas massacre site. If so, Deagan says,
it will never be part of St. Augustine’s historical landscape unless the evidence can be assessed independently by the St. Augustine historical communities, and for that matter, the nation’s historical communities. Spratley makes it clear that this will never happen, since he keeps his finds a secret from all. And meanwhile, holes dug into the site based on metal detector hits will destroy any possibility of anyone ever being able to confidently identify what might be one of Florida’s most important places. This seems almost unthinkably selfish.[...] St. Augustine is an extraordinarily unique and special historical place, and it has been my experience that the great majority of St. Augustine citizens are eager to protect and contribute to our real history, and to share the revelations about history that are contained in their property with the whole community, rather than keeping the information secret and wearing it around their necks.

St. Augustine’s economy depends to a great extent on its history. Yet these articles seem to imply a certain eagerness to toss aside what make artifacts into history, and instead embrace what reduces them to fun and profit for a few individuals. This would be a national disgrace in Jamestown, Plymouth or Williamsburg. Come on, St. Augustine, we are better than that!
It goes on all the time in the UK. So what next, set up a Portable Antiquities Scheme in the US?

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