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Not so fine a line

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I applaud Craig Childs for furthering public awareness about the destruction of archaeological sites, and agree that archaeologists need to be more concerned about whether or not an artifact should be collected, and what happens to it after it is collected(HCN, 4/28/08). . But in his effort to conflate archaeological investigation with pothunting, he makes various errors, some minor, some more egregious. One rather substantive error is that he apparently confuses archaeological methods with archaeological goals. Childs contrasts the detailed recording typical of archaeological excavations with the wanton destruction of pothunters, but suggests that it is predominately this distinction in methods that separates archaeologists from pothunters. He fails to indicate that archaeological excavation is but one aspect of archaeological research; indeed he fails to mention that archaeology involves research at all.

Contrary to what Childs indicates, the goal of archaeology is not simply to collect artifacts so they can be "saved" from pothunters, development or the ravages of time, but to learn about human behavior. The reason that archaeologists are so methodologically meticulous is because they seek to understand the nature of the web of interrelationships between artifacts, the structures in which they occur, and the landscape upon which they are found. In his accompanying editorial comments, Jonathan Thompson suggests that archaeologists need to "look around" to study a structure's "geographic context" and "learn from the descendants of those who once lived here." He should be comforted to know that this is exactly what archaeologists do. Archaeologists seek understanding of the myriad relationships between artifact, structure and landscape by comparing what they have seen and recorded to ethnographic accounts and information provided by Native Americans. In fact, this is one of the main means by which archaeologists gain insight in to past human behavior. It is unfortunate that Childs chose not to address this goal of archaeology in his article, for if he had it would be clear that the line between archaeological research and pothunting is not fine, but sharply distinct.

Glenn Stuart
Tempe, Arizona

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