Who Owns the Past?

Craig Childs has authored Finders Keepers, A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. He’s an amateur archaeology enthusiast who explores sites in the American West. But he doesn’t take any artifacts. Childs believes such things belong, well, to themselves, and to the places where they were left by their ancient makers.

He seems fully alive to the contradictions and dilemmas this somewhat mystical idea entails. Like leaving sites vulnerable to weather and looting. A telling story concerns Childs stealing an ancient pot displayed in a little library, in order to put it somewhere in the desert. But he doesn’t defend this action. Instead, he ruefully concludes that he actually made a bad thing even worse.

Much of the book concerns the battle against looting and the illicit antiquities trade. It discusses a 2009 raid in Blanding, Utah, with federal agents arresting a slew of leading citizens, and confiscating literally truckloads of artifacts (some of which the owners insisted came legally from private land). And here again Childs is conflicted, sympathetically portraying the victims of such raids, and lamenting two suicides among them.

However, he never adequately comes to grips with the interests at stake. He actually seems to posit an interest on the part of the artifacts themselves. Of course, those seized in Blanding probably just went to some warehouse. And anyway, Childs’s notion is again a mystical one, and ultimately incoherent. Inanimate objects don’t have interests. Only people – living people – do. Nothing has meaning except insofar as it affects the feelings of beings capable of feeling.

That would include archaeologists. Yet Childs doesn’t care much for them either, describing most as sanctimonious prigs who disdain getting their hands dirty with actual digging. And he sees there is already a glut of pre-Columbian archaeology. The populations were quite large, and flourished for many centuries, so museum store-rooms overflow with their leavings.

Childs recognizes that it’s private collectors who really treasure these things. Perhaps oddly, despite his own quasi-religious reverence for pre-Columbian artifacts, he laments the high prices they fetch – which simply reflects how much other people love them too. Childs does worry about unrecorded sites destroyed by greedy treasure hunters. But a beautiful ancient ceramic, even in its original site context, may add little or nothing to our historical understanding – because archaeologists have already exhaustively studied such things – yet it can make a private collector’s heart race. Who should get to possess it? What is the interest – the human interest – to be served?

Craig Childs

Though Childs himself is obviously besotted with his own notions of connecting with the past, he sees a craving for such a connection by others, through possessing artifacts, as violating some right of the objects to remain unmolested. But, again, Childs is conflicted. Another story concerns Mario, who shows him some undisturbed Mexican archaeological sites. Then, back at the man’s house, the author sees a pre-Columbian pot on the kitchen table. Its taking would, to Childs, have been desecration enough. But, worse yet, because Mario’s wife didn’t like the color, he spray-painted it gold!

However, after pondering, Childs reaches a surprising conclusion. He reflects upon how often pottery was re-converted by early peoples themselves, and places Mario’s actions in that context: “This is what this ancient utility vessel was made for to begin with: a good kitchen, a man and a wife . . . .” Mario, he writes, “was engaging in his own conversation with history.” One might well ask why this shouldn’t apply equally to collectors who lovingly display artifacts in glass cases in their homes.

I’m a big fan of archaeology myself – we can’t know where we’re going if we don’t understand where we’ve come from. But, especially with regard to well-studied cultures like those of this book, a point of diminishing returns is reached. Much of today’s archaeology – like much of what passes for “research” in modern academia – is basically trivial. It’s far from clear why the passions of collectors must be sacrificed for the sake of such archaeologists’ fetishes.

In the end, Childs allows that we “cannot fault the desires we have to hold onto these artifacts,” and ordinary citizens should not be barred from such a direct connection with the past. For the pots in a collection, he says, this is now their “context,” the place they are most deeply appreciated. Confiscating them for transfer to “the black hole of a lockdown facility” seems “ludicrous.”

But, having conceded all that ground, Childs’s final redoubt is to assert that “having every last one is overkill.” Yet that seems unjustified, given what he himself has said about the vast supply of these artifacts. Surely there is enough to satisfy all interests. I’m reminded of the Israeli or Palestinian zealots who insist the entire land belongs to them, though it’s big enough to easily accommodate two co-existing states. Likewise, what Childs poses is not an either/or dilemma. There are more than enough ancient sites and artifacts to enable the archaeologists, the collectors, and the Childses, all to fulfill their hearts’ desires.


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