For those of you who have seen South Park and get my Mr. Mackey reference, good on ya. For the rest of you, I’m sorry that doesn’t make any sense. Today I wanted to talk about a subject that gets brought up over and over for me, and is perhaps something that a lot of people are curious about: Why taking an arrowhead, or projectile point as us archaeologists call them, is bad.
Chances are that you or someone you know has come across a projectile point at some point in your life and were faced with that crucial moment…to pick it up and take it or put it back? Sadly, more often than not, projectile points wind up in people’s pockets and eventually, in some junk drawer or in a shoebox in the back of their closet. Why?
When I ask folks this question the most standard response I get is, “If I don’t pick it up and take it someone else will.” This answer burns my biscuits and is completely illogical. First of all, the thing has been sitting out in the open for likely more than 800 years and been fine, so whats another year or two? Secondly, it is a very deterministic way of thinking. Who is to say that the next person who finds that projectile point is going to pick it up? They might not even see it, or if they do, they might put it back after checking it out. Lets put some trust in our fellow man and hope that through various forms of public outreach and education that he/she knows the proper way to treat an artifact.
So you might be thinking, “What is the proper way to treat an artifact?” I love Love LOVE answering this question, because it shows a willingness to learn. Any artifact, aside from something incredibly fragile (e.g., organic materials such as corn cobs, clothing, or human remains) can be picked up and enjoyed. Be sure to note where you picked it up from, and be sure to put it back in the exact same spot. Hold it in your hand, admire the craftsmanship, take 50 photos on your iPhone, whatever floats your boat…just be extremely careful and always put it back when you’re done.
“Why can’t I pick up any of the fragile items you mentioned above?” This is also a good question. These things (aside from human remains) can be looked at and even photographed, but under no circumstances should they be picked up or touched. First of all, these objects are be incredibly fragile and disturbing them could cause unintentional damage or deterioration. Secondly, a lot of these items can be radiocarbon dated (to learn about radiocarbon dating click HERE) and any modern interference, like touching, can contaminate or negatively affect the dating process. Under no circumstances should human remains be touched or photographed. If you have encountered what you believe to be human remains the best thing to do is to take a GPS coordinate, or mark their location on a map and notify the appropriate land manager immediately.
So I’ve told you why you shouldn’t pick up an arrowhead, but let’s talk about why I want you to leave it. Have you ever noticed that projectile points come in all sorts of shapes and sizes? Each style variation is usually indicative of a specific projectile point type, and those types have known date ranges. For example, take something like this I found at an archaeological site:
This type of projectile point is known as a Desert Side-notched. I know that based on a variety of factors such as general shape, type of side notching, type of basal notching, measurements, and angles. Depending on your area, there are a variety of scholarly articles and books that can help classify projectile point types. In this case, I used an article by David Hurst Thomas from the 1981 Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Volume 3, No. 1, titled, “How to Classify the Projectile Points from Monitor Valley, Nevada”. If you’re keen to check it out, you can click HERE to view the entire article online.
Once the projectile point type is classified, I can look up its date range. In this case, the Desert Side-notched point dates post A.D 1300. So why is this important? Without doing any sort of excavation or ground disturbing activity I was able to date the projectile point, and thus the age of the site. Knowing the age of an archaeological site is immensely important because it I know where it falls chronologically, and how it relates to other known archaeological sites in the area. It can help me determine what cultural group might have made the projectile point, and it can help me determine the sites eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places.
Bet you didn’t know all that was possible from a single projectile point did ya? Well now you do. So now you can see why picking up a projectile point is a bad idea. Not only are you robbing future people the pleasure of seeing something ancient in it’s original context, but you are taking away one of the most critical diagnostic components of an archaeological site.
Oh. And I almost forgot. It’s illegal to take anything cultural from state, federal, or native american lands. The mack daddy of cultural resource laws is the Archaeological Resources Protect Act of 1979 (ARPA), violators of which can be punished with a felony offense. Not that that always happens…in truth, punishment of archaeological offenses is a little murky as evidenced by the 2009 raids in Blanding, Utah.
In any case, I strongly believe that though public outreach and education we as archaeologists can change the way people think about the past. Hopefully something as small as this blog post has educated some of you on why you shouldn’t take home an arrowhead. And if just one person learned something from me writing this, then I’ve done something right.