The Breach Between the Scientist and the Faddist

Before Henry Shetrone was the Ohio History Connection’s Curator of Archaeology, he was a dedicated avocational archaeologist and… “How does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.” In 1910, William C. Mills, then Curator of Archaeology, wrote to a colleague that Shetrone was “a very estimable gentleman, and … one of our foremost collectors in Ohio.” Mills hired him as his assistant in 1913.

In 1912, Shetrone contributed an article to The Archaeological Bulletin, the publication of the International Society of Archaeologists, in which he addressed “The Skeleton in the Collector’s Closet” – “the breach between the scientist and the faddist.” Shetrone addressed the community of collectors urging them to collect responsibly, keep careful records, and leave the excavation of mounds “to those who are prepared to do it scientifically.”

“A specimen or two ‘from a mound’ may be attractive, but their value is infinitely greater when removed by someone capable of accurately noting and recording every little circumstance, and of possibly gleaning information of real value.”

Shetrone recognized that “every individual specimen, whether rude flake or highly specialized artifact, taken in connection with the locality and circumstances of its finding, and in connection with other specimens, adds a letter or a word to the page which goes toward making the completed book – the history of the aboriginal American peoples.”

One of his principal conclusions was that “those of us who take a vital interest in the archaeology of our neighborhood, county, state or country, realize that the material on which we are expending so much time, solicitude and perhaps funds, and which holds such a warm place in our hearts, is not at all secure in its future, no matter how conscientious and scrupulous we may be in its accumulation and preservation. A number of us, no doubt, take satisfaction in knowing that our efforts are being watched with approval by scientific men and bodies, and some few at least, will be able to do what all should be glad to do who can – to provide for the placing of their material in some one of the many worthy museums or societies, when personal curatorship is no longer possible. …”

“Then, in case you should inadvertently hit a street car head-on, your collection would not be a nameless wanderer on the face of the earth.”

“The alternative is to have our collections distributed piecemeal to faddists who bid the highest prices, scattered to points hundreds of miles distant from where they were made and should remain, records lost or perhaps, even false ones supplied.”

It is now more than a century since Shetrone published his plea for collectors to pursue their hobby in such a way that their collection could make a contribution to our knowledge of America’s unwritten history. I am sure he would be saddened to learn that the situation has not changed much since his call for the elimination of “this lamentable canker from an otherwise useful and delightful pursuit.”

There are avocational archaeologists every bit as dedicated as Shetrone, but there still are irresponsible and even unscrupulous collectors who value the objects for their own sake and not the wonderful stories they could tell.

Shetrone had it right, though.

“It is ‘up to us’ who realize the seriousness of the situation and the great good to be accomplished, to determine whether we act now, or whether the cause is to be allowed to drift into utter hopelessness. … It is not an Augean task, but one which will call forth every impulse of zeal and perseverance.”


Posted January 27, 2015
Topics: Archaeology

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