Monday, June 06, 2011

Archaeology vs. Treasure Hunting (reprint)

This article is a reprint from: Roberta Estes and I both feel that the more that this destructive act becomes known, the less it will happen.  Pics of "Spongebeard Stinkypants" were added by me.

There's more to real archaeology than hunting for the cool display pieces.  The point is to find the history of the culture that you're researching.  Everything must be studied in context, as Roberta points out.  Furthermore, these artifacts become the property of the property owner on whose land they were found.  Professional archaeologists, for instance would never keep or sell any artifacts - they will study them, catalog them, and then return them to the owner.  I strongly suspect that these treasure hunters have already listed their finds for sale on Ebay or other auction sites.  Treasure hunters are only after a profit. If any artifacts have been kept from your property (especially within the last five years or so), please contact me here or Roberta Estes at the link above.  We will report this to the proper authorities.

Do not let Spongebeard Stinkypants ruin your site!


Archaeology vs Treasure Hunting
by Roberta Estes

From the snaphaunce article, one can easily see how important archaeology and the resulting research it enables is to history - more specifically - to the search for the Lost Colonists.  The smallest piece, unrecognizable to most of us, certainly to an untrained eye, may indeed hold the clue, and the answer we all seek.

Who among us isn't mesmerized by the thought of finding that artifact that will solve the mystery of the Lost Colony?  But like most things in life, there's a right way and a wrong way to go about that elusive search.

I was recently appalled to find the following information (with names blanked out to protect the guilty) on the internet on a site selling metal detectors.  A small group of people accompanyed an individual who claimed to be a "pro", but who is not an archaeologist (nor was the group accompanied by or working with an archaeologist) discovered and removed over 400 artifacts from a location under study as a possible site of the Lost Colonists.

Quoting directly from the website, is their description of what was done:

We...headed to the Outer Banks at daybreak.  We were all a bit surprised when the first signal was received after only a few sweeps.  Digging through the tree roots and vines, I reached the midden layer and from 10" pulled out a large flat button with engraving on the front as well as some gilding remaining dating from the early 1600's! This was the oldest North American metallic artifact I've recovered on land in more than 45 years of detecting and a great omen for the next few days.

Another area
wanted to try the metal detectors out on was a tract that had been examined on previous visits using the Random Shovel Test Pit method.  Laying out a test square, commenced a methodical scan of the area with the new detectors flagging any metallic object located.   After the section was scanned and targets flagged, a survey map was generated showing the location of each target and if the target was shown to be ferrous or non-ferrous by the metal detector.   Due to time and resource limitations, only the indicated non-ferrous items were recovered. Within the test square area, located 41 metallic targets.  All of the artifacts recovered were found at depths ranging from 12 inches to 30 inches.

Did the metal detectors provided help evaluate the Indian village site?  Well, the point that stood out after less than a day of scanning the site was that the Random Shovel Test Pit method which is considered to be standard operating procedure for most archeological surveys had in fact painted a picture totally opposite to what the metal detector survey had revealed. 
summed it up by stating "We located and recovered more artifacts and higher quality artifacts in 3 days with only 4 people than we had using conventional methods in 10 days with 20 people at a cost of $11,000.  More importantly, the metal detectors identified the existence of artifacts in a section of the site that had been deemed barren through past excavations and archeologist assessments!"

After 3 days in the field, more than 400 items were recovered.  All of us that spent time at the Croatan site quickly recognized the value that metal detectors have as a tool to increase the efficiency of data obtained in archeological surveys by locating high-value areas of standard archeological methods might otherwise fail to find.

So what is wrong with what these people did?

Archaeological artifacts aren't just antiques sold to the highest bidder or the prize to the luckiest guy with a metal detector.  The context in which artifacts are found gives them meaning, helps provide an age, and gives them a story.  They can't be reliably analyzed outside of that context.  Furthermore, treasure hunters or those who sell artifacts on the black market routinely engage in this sort of plunder with no consideration for history or the damage they are doing.

Let's look at the button they found, for example.  They state that the button was from the early 1600s.  In the early 1600s, Hatteras island had not been settled by whites.  In fact, it was not even visited, according to the records, until 1664.  So how did a button get to Hatteras Island and in the midden?  And where was it in the midden?  What was located around it would tell us a lot about its age.  Was it a trade item from Jamestown?  Or, given that a professional archaeologist was not involved to date the item, was the date off?  Could the button have been from the time of the colonists? If so, and if it was found in the proper context that would suggest or confirm that the button was intermixed with Native items and perhaps also other nonmetal English items, such as pottery that could also be dated - this button could indeed be, or could have been, the smoking gun to prove the colonists went to Hatteras Island.  Furthermore, it could have identified where they lived, the colonists village site. The treasure hunters presumed it was the Native village site.....but maybe not.  But now, it can never be more than a treasure hunter's bounty for the day - in his or her personal collection.  Bragging rights to sell metal detectors, nothing more.

Without the involvement of a professional archaeologist, meaning an individual with at least a bachelor's degree in archaeology, conducting a properly documented removal of the objects, the artifacts lose their meaning - and their authenticity can never be proven or documented after that.

If the treasure hunting group had been fortunate enough to find that elusive artifact that might prove the survival of the colonists, they probably would not have been experienced enough to realize the discovery they might have made.  In fact, they may have destroyed that critical evidence, proving that the colony survived, far more important than the artifact itself, in their quest for metallic treasure.  Furthermore, anything not metal, and specifically not ferrous metal, was sacrificed and ignored, possibly irresponsibly destroyed in the retrieval of the coveted metal objects.  Cherry picking is treasure hunting and plunder.

Where are these artifacts today?  They certainly aren't being cleaned, evaluated, studied and cataloged in a university or professional setting, available for future researchers and to be made available through academic writing to the public.  They are forever lost to history.  As the treasure hunter said - it's his best find in 45 years of treasure hunting.  Did he find the colonists forever lost to history?  We'll never know.

It a situation such as this where the results are so critical to history, this type of behavior is at least unethical.  For someone who knows better and does this intentionally, it's worse.

The commentary about the previous dig taking 10 days, 20 people and costing $11,000 is referencing a legitimate, professional archaeological dig where Charles Heath served as the professional archaeologist.  Yes, that would be the same Charles Heath that has been involved in the excavation and analysis of the snaphaunce in the previous article and who worked with Dr. Phelps.  And yes, archaeologists do expect to be paid, as do all professionals.

What should have been done with the metal detectors is that the items should have been mapped and flagged, and an archaeological crew brought in to retrieve the items, preserving their history and context.

Louisa Pittman, an archaeologist on our team from the University of Bristol reviewed this article for me, and she reminds me that the use of metal detectors is not inherently bad and they are used in a limited capacity in legitimate archaeological digs.  However, the items are not extracted out of context.  Mostly, metal detectors are used after the dig and before the backfill to be sure nothing was missed.  The difference between using metal detectors responsibly and destructively is how the tool is applied by the people involved.

For more info on the difference between treasure hunting and archaeology, take a look at this article

Are you interested in what has found on Hatteras Island during legitimate archaeological digs?  Great....let's take a look!

Dr. David Phelps Hatteras Island Excavations

In the McArthur collection in the History Center in Manteo, Beatrice McArthur clipped some newspaper articles about Dr. David Phelps archaeology digs which I've partially transcribed here, hoping they might help preserve the history of Hatteras Island.  Unfortunately, Dr. Phelps field reports were never completed before his death, and the information must be gleaned from reports such as this and eyewitnesses who participated in the digs.  Some of the artifacts are currently housed at Eastern Carolina University.

Ms. McArthur did not record the names of the newspapers, so I have not reproduced their stories verbatim.  I have extracted pertinent information from various articles and combined them into a somewhat coherent article.  Most of these articles appear to be from 1997.  This first portion carried a hand written note that said June, 1997.

Dr. David Phelps has spent the past month digging test excavations at a site in Buxton which led to the discovery of what Phelps believes is a workshop that dates between 1650 and 1729.  The crew discovered a littering of lead shot, lead slag and fragments of brass and copper.  Further excavations led to two hearths, mounds of sand which have been discolored and changed in texture due to the repeated heat of intense fires.  It was the red color and density of the sand as well as the abundance of ash content surrounding the mounds which allowed the crew to identify twin hearths.

So far, excavations have turned up a lot of European artifacts; white clay smoking pipes, gun flints, lead shot or various sizes, glass bottles and ceramic fragments.

While none of it confirms the existence of the Lost Colonists, Phelps said, it's helpful in understanding the life of the Croatoans.  "All these things suggest a strong trading relationship with the Europeans".  We're beginning to see what it was like for folks from 1650 to 1715, probably not as good when they owned the whole island."

He called a peach pit discovered a few days ago "a major find".

The peach suggests that the Croatans were trading with other southeastern tribes or with the Spaniards who introduced peaches to the Americas and were growing them on Florida plantations in the 1600s.

One NC historian has suggested that the Spaniards had a trading post on the Roanoke River, Phelps said.  Because no arrowheads have been found it is believed that the musket had replaced the bow and arrow.

The town midden, the area where Croatans threw their trash, overlies evidence of the post molds of Croatan houses.

Phelps and his crew also made a unique discovery of a number of bone rings, made from bird bones and approximately 3/8 of an inch in diameter.  According to Phelps, these rings have not been seen anywhere else in archaeological digs.  The rings could have been used in early trading, but Phelps is unsure about their direct purpose.  He added that bird bones are a common find and decorated bird bones have been found in archaeological excavations along the east coast, but never shaped like a ring.

The Buxton site itself belongs to Ronald Midgett and his wife.  During the past year and a half Phelps and his crews have made 3 test excavations at the site before the 600 square meter major excavation of the workshop area.  The crew initially came upon the workshop after opening an area beside a 24 square meter test pit from last year.  Due to the lack of household debris and the presence of more than one hearth Phelps dismissed the idea of the area once being a house.

According to Phelps, the artifacts found at the site are representative of those that could be found throughout the area of Buxton identified as the historic Croatan.  The artifacts
at the site allow archaeologists to piece together the merging of Europeans into the Indians culture after White's return to England. 
At the site the crew uncovered European, Indian and local-made pipes, copper rings and plates, shell beads, Indian and European ceramics and coins drilled with holes to be worn around the neck.
[A] small undated coin was [found with] holes drilled in each end are among Phelps favorite find from the recent dig.  The coin he said is similar to a 1563 coin found on Roanoke Island about 50 miles to the north.
The team also discovered two fire hearths where Phelps said American Indians and colonists may have manufactured weapons and tools together.  Bill Kelso, who directs Jamestown Discovery, said he is "very excited" about Phelps finds.
"We've unearthed twin hearths and all this debris that has nothing to do with household living, lead droppings from molding bullets, copper and brass pieces and all kinds of clay pipes made from red North Carolina soil as well as white English clay.  We think this was their workshop area" Phelps said of the Croatan site near the Pamlico sound in Buxton.
"There was a tremendous amount of European influence here and a lot of borrowing of European technology for such an early time period.  Our guess is that these artifacts go back to at least the era between 1650 and 1729."
The coin and some pottery pieces are probably even older and could have been brought down the barrier island by the Lost Colonists.
Phelps chose the site initially for its dune cover.  "The dune ridge has always been an ideal location for coastal settlements" Phelps explained, citing Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and Kinnakeet [currently Avon] as examples.  The ridge provides protection from wind and storm surge and is close to the neighboring forest.  Phelps attributes the preservation of the underlying strata of Croatan to the forest area.
The forest has also helped to preserve a lower strata which Phelps dates between 800 AD to 1650.  The strata was uncovered and easily visible in a text excavation at a higher area at the site.  The excavation referred to as "the monster" by the crew was about 12 meters square and 2 meters in depth.  Phelps was able to date the strata by a number of Algonquin pottery pieces originally identified on and named after Colington Island.  The Colington pottery, circa 100 to 1500 AD is unique for its addition of ground oyster shells around it which helped in drying clay pottery and prevent cracking.
Unfortunately despite the recent discoveries the month-long excavation ended Friday and the two test excavations and major excavation were filled in.  Phelps stated that he hopes to reopen the workshop site next year and at the same time open test sites westward.  Excavations are tempered by availability of open land and working around trees.  The upcoming months will be spent in the lab researching and writing about the recent finds. 
Lynne Wyche, Marketing Director for the Lost Colony outdoor drame was a volunteer and participated in the excavation.  She feels that the word Croatan found on the stockade and the tree indicates that at least some of the colonists went to Hatteras.
Not necessarily so said National Park Service historian John Gillikin "We know what the work 'Croatan' meant, but not what the message meant" said John from his office at the Fort Raleigh Historical site.  "It could've meant that's where the colonists went.  Or it could have means as a warning that the Croatan Indians were no longer friendly.  We have no idea what happened to the colonists.  We simply do not have enough evidence to even come up with a theory.  All those artifacts show is that the natives were voracious traders with the Europeans, whether colonists or shipwreck victims or what.  I'm not doubting that site is where some of the Lost Colonists may have gone.  This could be a very important discovery in finally finding what happened to at least some of them.  But I'd need more evidence before I'd say so."
Erosion from Hurricane Emily in 1993 unearthed the first remnants of Croatan Indian civilization along a dirt road in Buxton.  Phelps has worked here the past 3 years.  This month's project included 5 ECU students and a dozen Hatteras island volunteers and was the biggest effort yet.  The dig site extends about a half mile along Buxton's dune ridge.
Phelps said that as many as 5000 Native Americans could have inhabited the southern end of Hatteras Island from AD 1000 to 1700.
"There is no way to say how many colonists may have been here.  Possibly a few single men  were sent down to Hatteras to wait for John White to come back with supplies while the remaining settlers head up the Chesapeak Bay" said Phelps.
Dough [who I believe ran the LC play at the time] says that all the word Croatoan indicates is that "at least one literate colonist went to Hatteras.  They probably didn't leave in a group."
Phelps plans to continue digging on Hatteras for at least 5 years.  He hopes that someone will look for evidence of the colonists in the Jamestown area.  He returned to his Greenville lab this week with thousands of Indian and European artifacts that need to be processed and identified.  "Eventually these things should come back to Hatteras island.  They belong here.  What we're trying to do now is to understand the Croatoan society and how those native Americans related to the original European colonists."
Phelps is also presently working on a underwater study off of Roanoke Island and plans to return in the fall for a workshop to train volunteers and formally present the artifacts found at the Buxton site.

1 comment:

nahidworld said...

Planning a real treasure hunting experience for the entire family is simple to do and will create memories that will last a lifetime. Getting your kids outside and active while engaging their minds and imaginations can be fun and exciting for Mom and Dad, too. With a little planning and a bit of imagination, treasure games can bring families closer together and will provide hours of fun and exciting entertainment.