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The Impossible Idealism of the “Professionals-Only” Relic Hunt (A response)

I saw a post that caught my eye, especially this headline:

The Impossible Idealism of the “Professionals-Only” Argument

An excerpt:

….The argument against these [reality] shows illustrates the divide between traditional archeology and amateur enthusiasts, and is the most common argument that I have seen from those who are neither professionals nor hobby diggers.  The argument claims that relic hunting damages the integrity of historic sites, and such recoveries should only be performed by professional archeologists in every circumstance.  It isn’t simply against these shows, but the very act of relic hunting….. This argument is unfortunately, in large part, misinformed and counterproductive to the stated goal of preservation of our history…

I do believe that not all sites should be available to relic hunting.  The most basic example is undisturbed pre-historic sites.  Since there is no written record of these human activities, the only information that we can gather is through painstaking archaeological excavation, and this should be left to the professionals…..

The argument of destruction of American cultural heritage falls apart, however, when applied to most sites which are searched by amateur relic hunters.  There aren’t enough professional archeologists, time, or money in the entire United States budget to conduct a full archeological excavation at all of this nations modern-historical sites.  Even if there were, very little new evidence would be gained by such an endeavor.  The lifestyles of 18th and 19th century America are well documented.  Civil War troop locations were well recorded (that’s how I’m able to find these sites in the first place!), and typical camp life is well understood.

At this point, however, we move into less-supported

….Many volumes of relic identification guides have been written by relic hunters based on their recoveries.  To leave these relics in the ground would be to allow them to decay to nothing, and as another relic hunter put it so eloquently, this would be nothing short of “looting by neglect.”  There is nothing more saddening to a relic hunter than excavating a Civil War era button and watching it crumble away to nothing (quite literally) upon recovery thanks to years of plow damage and heavy fertilizer use….

I have to add a few bits of opinion here, and I do so in the form of questions:

  • What percentage of relic hunters have undertaken the production of useful reference guides as mentioned?
  • Do those reference guides advance the understanding of these sites – or just help with identification?
  • Do relics decay to nothing in the ground at the pace and severity as the relic hunting community claims?
  • The risks to lost context is obvious, but what is the actual post-recovery risks to the artifacts vs. artifacts in the ground?
  • If a civil war button is excavated, and recorded (even as it crumbles) is this not preferable to excavation and private collecting, and would more careful Archaeological extraction means allow more successful preservation?

I find myself now seeking balance.

  • Which is more likely on the site over hundreds of years-timeline, destructive development or Archaeology?
  • What is the actual timeline where Archaeological activity would realistically occur, and to what percentage of sites would  be targeted or affected by relic hunting?
  • Assuming amateurs had the means and motivation to build a high-quality dataset from the sites they find/visit, would that offer a compromise position each group could accept?

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