What’s so bad about collecting artifacts?

What’s so bad about collecting artifacts?

Archaeology is about studying material remains and environments to understand the past. Archaeologists carefully excavate a site and record the precise location of each object and feature. They make this special effort because any kind of digging is destructive. As soon as we take a special artifact out of the ground, we lose lots of other information.

A dark brown pit feature stain surrounded by lighter brown clay soil.
This dark stain, or “feature,” has been bisected. Archaeologists only excavated half of the material to preserve the rest for the future.

In most cases, we don’t dig if we don’t have to. It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to do good archaeology. After we excavate artifacts, archaeologists are responsible for doing analysis, sharing that information, and keeping the artifacts safe and stable. We know about important sites all over Virginia that haven’t been intensively excavated. And if they’re not under threat, that’s OK. When we do excavate a site to understand it, we often only remove a sample of the artifacts. Archaeologists in the future may have access to tools and technologies that can tell us more than we could ever know today.

Archaeologists look at all the information, not just rare or valuable artifacts. We don’t sell artifacts. In fact, if you show us something and ask us what it’s worth, we probably won’t even know. Something as regular as an old trash dump can tell us amazing things about the daily lives of people or broad patterns of history, but only if we can study all of the materials together.

A pencil drawing of an archaeological profile with many layers.
An example of a drawing an archaeologist makes to record stratigraphy, or layers of soil and other material that make up a deposit. Only careful excavation and record keeping can capture this information.

Digging artifacts without keeping field records makes understanding history impossible.

When we see unfortunate news stories like this one about illegal metal detecting and site destruction at Petersburg National Battlefield, we often see questions like these in the online comments:

Aren’t these cool things just rotting away in the ground? Let’s get them out so people can enjoy them!

This is both true and false. It’s true because nothing lasts forever. An iron object buried in the soil for 150 years is definitely going to corrode. However, digging it up could actually make it worse by “shocking” the material. It takes a lot of training to learn how to conserve artifacts and sometimes washing or coating objects can even cause long-term problems. Only in the rarest cases do we rush to remove objects from the ground.

Sometimes we choose not to dig specifically because the sites may be so very important. This is especially true for places of burial. For example, what looks like a village site is also very likely to be a burial place for the ancestors of today’s Virginia Indians. Civil War battlefields are treated as hallowed ground. Besides the fact that knowingly disturbing human burials is against the law, these places and the people who hold them sacred deserve our respect.

It sounds like archaeologists are digging stuff up all the time. I’m frustrated that the public can’t see any of the artifacts or reports because they’re locked up in storage.

We couldn’t agree more. While budgets and staffing don’t give us the ability to design big, impressive museum exhibits all the time, we want to hear from you. We’re working on making reports and collections available online so the public can see our amazing Virginia heritage. What kinds of things would you like to see? What’s important to you?

What about collecting artifacts I see on the surface?

If you’re on private property and have permission of the landowner, there’s nothing preventing you from doing this. But remember that records of your find are important. If you’re not prepared to fully document your collection and to take care of the objects you collect forever, they’re better off staying where they are. If you think you’ve found something special and want to make sure it’s recorded with us so that Virginians can know more about our material culture, contact us.

Remember: It’s always illegal to remove artifacts from state or federal land, or from bottomlands of creeks, rivers, and other bodies of water, without permits.

I love history and artifacts but I don’t have a college degree in archaeology. How can I get involved?

Interested members of the public should check out the Archeological Society of Virginia. There are chapters throughout the state that meet regularly. By working with ASV, you can learn about all kinds of Virginia sites and artifacts and get hands-on training and experience.