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Some Perspectives on Archaeological Collection

Prepared for the Cedar Mesa Project Volunteer Group

By: Winston Hurst


  1. The archaeological record is the imprint left on the landscape by past communities and cultures. This imprint consists of sites, features, artifact assemblages, individual artifacts, sediments, and particularly patterns in the distribution of these things (the way they vary in form across space and through time).
    • When a person walks across the land, he or she leaves a trail of footprints that can be read by an observant tracker. Communities and cultures also leave robust and powerful records imprinted in the land, which can be read through careful observation and analysis. In most cases, this is the only record that exists, because only a few of the world's cultures have left written records, and these only for the relatively recent past. Well over 99% of the human experience, even at the level of culture and community, has left no written record whatsoever. In any case, written records are always biased and incomplete.
    • The true record of the human experience is not written history, but the archaeological record. Once its meaningful patterns have been shuffled and scrambled, it cannot be put back together.
  2. An archaeological Landscape is a landscape imprinted with an archaeological record. Utah's canyon country is a powerful archaeological landscape, containing one of the cleanest (least confused by continuous reoccupation and change) and most fascinating archaeological records in the world.
  3. A site is a location containing clustered/concentrated archaeological evidence such as one or more features, concentrations of artifacts, etc. There is no precise definition of a site, and in fact a site is an arbitrarily defined piece of an archaeological landscape, defined for the convenience of archaeologists or land managers. It may consist of twenty stone chips in a dune blowout, a single petroglyph, or acres of ruins with hundreds of features and thousands of artifacts. The site is the fundamental unit of archaeological documentation and management at the present time. A formal file is kept by the State Archaeologist's office (back up file also kept by the Bureau of Land Management) that assigns a file number to each site as it is formally documented, and uses that number to file a descriptive record of a site that keys to the number on a locational master map.
  4. A feature is something made by humans that cannot be easily carried off and put on display. Features include firepits, storage bins or pits, granaries, masonry buildings, rooms, benches, milling bins, rock art panels, etc.
  5. An Artifact is something made and/or used by humans that can be picked up and moved around. Artifacts include pots, potsherds, flakes, stone tools, sandals, etc.
  6. An assemblage is a group of artifacts found together in a meaningful cluster. This is a flexible and informal term that can be applied at the level of a site or a room or an activity area. Assemblages convey more information than individual artifacts do. Assemblages of artifacts tell us a site's age, function and cultural affiliation; individual artifacts, taken in isolation, do not.
    • Think of assemblages as choruses of voices or ensembles or orchestras of individual instruments. An individual violin or even an entire section of violins alone cannot give us the Brandenburg Concerto #3. By studying an individual violin, we can learn much about that particular instrument=2E By studying the family of violins, we can learn much about violins in general. But we must have the full orchestral assemblage in order to hear the depth and range and full magnificence of Bach's music.
    • Perhaps a better analogy is a color photograph or computer image, or a painted image, because these rely on spatial distribution much as archaeology does: By studying individual paint/ink dots or pixels we can learn about how the dots were formed, the nature of the pigments, etc. By studying all dots or pixels we can learn more about the full range of pigments and their application. But only through study of the full assemblages of dots and pixels, including their precise spatial arrangement or organization (patterning), can we see and understand the image and the message that it contains for us.
    • We can no more read the archaeological record from individual artifacts than we can hear a Bach concerto without all the instrumental voices, or receive the information from a painting or image without all its constituent color bits, properly organized into meaningful patterns.
    • A similar analogy can be drawn using a poem or history book: the message lies not in the individual letters, but in the precise, patterned arrangements of those letters on the page. But those patterned arrangements do not exist apart from the individual letters. The shape and placement of the individual letters make up the patterns that convey the message, and the overall patterned arrangement gives meaning to the individual letters.

  7. Assemblages are important indications of age: A single Bluff Black-on-red potsherd or pot can be assigned to the late Pueblo I period (800s AD) based on its inherent properties and what we've learned from previous studies of assemblages of sherds in good archaeological context. A single Bluff Black-on-red sherd found in a particular location tells us us that someone, at some time (possibly yesterday) dropped a sherd that was made in the 800s in that place. A cluster of 100 Bluff Black-on-red sherds from a variety of different vessels, in combination with other types known to have been made in the 800s, tells us that that location was probably used for some activity or set of activities involving multiple pots sometime during the 800s.
    • If the assemblage has not been distorted by collection of certain kinds of pottery in preference to others, the ratio of Bluff Black-on-red to other types such as Abajo Red-on-orange and Deadmans Black-on-red tells us more precisely when the site was occupied (predominance of Abajo over Bluff and an absence of Deadmans tells us the occupation was in the late 700s or very early 800s; dominance of Bluff with a smaller but significant amount of Abajo and an absence of Deadmans tells us the site was occupied in the early 800s. A near absence of either Abajo or Deadmans suggests a date in the late 800s. Predominance of Deadmans with some Bluff indicates occupation during the 900s.

  8. Assemblages are important indicators of site function: In a normal Puebloan household potsherd assemblage, we see about 70% grayware cooking and utility pot fragments, around 20% painted bowl fragments, and about 10% painted jar fragments. When we see an assemblage very different from this, it is a clue to the specialized use of the space or site where the assemblage was found. In burial assemblages and shrines, we see a much higher percentage of painted bowls. In a storage location, we see more jars.
    • The presence of a piece of a cooking pot does not tell us a place was used for cooking; the presence of a lot of cooking pot fragments, particularly in association with a firepit and an assemblage of utensils used in food preparation, certainly does indicate cooking in that location. The chorus speaks to us the individual sherd is like an isolated sound.
    • A non-pottery example: An assemblage of of stone flakes with some stone tools including mostly broken-off tips of knives and projectile points commonly characterizes a hunting kill and butchering site, where points were broken and resharpened in their hafting. An assemblage of stone flakes with projectile point bases and discarded, resharpened points commonly characterizes camp sites where hunters sat about the fire and replaced broken points, removing them from the hafting, discarding them, and replacing them on the shaft with new ones.

  9. Assemblages tell us a site's cultural affiliation. In the Cedar Mesa area, an important part of the cultural history involves the interplay between Puebloan people with ties to two different regions: the Kayenta area to the south of the San Juan River, and the Mesa Verdean area to the east of Comb Wash. In any site we are likely to find some pottery from each of these areas. One or two sherds can therefore tell us little about cultural affiliation. If the ceramic assemblage remains intact, The relative proportions of Kayenta to Mesa Verde pottery can tell us much about cultural affiliation. For example, if Kayenta pottery predominates over Mesa Verdean pottery in a specific site, this is one indication that the inhabitants of this site were oriented more to the south, and probably had kinship/ethnic connection to the Kayenta region. Patterns in the distribution of Kayenta vs. Mesa Verde oriented sites across space and through time tells us much about the changing relationship of the Cedar Mesa region to
  10. But isolated artifacts are also important. An isolated artifact is an artifact found alone, in isolation from other artifacts or cultural features. It is not part of an archaeological assemblage per se, but it is an important part of the archaeological landscape. Although individual isolated artifacts tell us little (like the single Bluff Black-on-orange sherd discussed previously), compiled maps of the locations of many isolated isolated artifact finds, analyzed by style/age etc., can tell us much about changing patterns of landscape usage through time, such as hunting patterns, trail routes and so forth. Once again, it is the pattern that emerges from the combined voices of the many artifacts that speaks to us, not the individual artifact. And, even though it is not part of a site or an assemblage, it might still be an important part of the archaeological record.
  11. Archaeological sterilization is the process by which
    (1) an archaeological landscape is stripped of its cultural richness through collection or reshuffling of its artifacts and obliteration of its sites and features; and
    (2) individual artifacts are stripped of their connection to a specific place and their meaningful association with other artifacts, cultural features (buildings, living surfaces, monuments, storage bins, fire hearths, shrines, etc. etc.) and sediments.

        This can happen suddenly as a result of intensive undocumented collection, pothunting, erosion, highway or building construction, land modification efforts such as chaining, and so forth. More often, it happens one bit at a time, through attrition, as a result of casual collection of one artifact at a time, foot impacts on trash middens, repeated gentle or not-so-gentle touching of or climbing on walls, etc.
  12. Preferential collecting is the removal of a certain class of artifacts by collectors in preference to other classes, resulting in a distortion of the character of the site assemblage, thus changing the assemblage's voice and message. This can lead to misinterpretation of the site's age, function, even cultural affiliation. Normally, whole projectile points and larger, more elegantly decorated sherds are the first to be taken, followed by point bases and the larger and more elegant of the remaining sherds, etc. Each casual collector takes just one or two souvenirs, further distorting the site assemblage, silencing or distorting its voice and sterilizing its record.

Conclusion: So -- What's wrong with collecting just one souvenir artifact, or piling artifacts on "museum rocks" for the enjoyment of others? The answer is simple: it distorts and confuses the only record we have of a whole chapter in the human experience. It is analogous to eliminating or rearranging the color pixels in digital image, or scrambling or erasing individual notes in a musical piece, or cutting a letter out of a poem. The whole gives meaning to the individual bit, but the the whole cannot be read or heard without its individual bits, meaningfully organized.

The artifact, left in its primary and meaningful location, enriches and enhances the power and interest of that location, and is in turn empowered and enriched by its association with the location and other artifacts. Removal of the artifact from its primary location strips both the artifact and the location of some of their power to stimulate and inform. Both artifact and location are culturally sterilized.

A collector collects artifacts (the letters in a manuscript or dots in an image) archaeologists examine and interpret meaningful patterns in the arrangements of artifacts (the image, or the poem...)

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"All evidence suggests that tourism is the greatest single threat to the archaeological resources of the Colorado Plateau."
Rick Moore, Grand Canyon Trust.

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Revised '9-Jun-2001,11:10:14'
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