“Briefly stated, the history of archaeology in the Northeast has been in no way different from the history of archaeology elsewhere: its birth was as relic collecting, for the pure and simple interest of the objects recovered. It was soon recognized that without supporting data such objects were little more than curios, and that even with supporting data as to provenience – all too frequently so vague as to be of little value—they still were closely akin to curiosities and the undertaking little more than antiquarianism.” (Douglas Byers, Peabody Annual Report, 1948)
Since beginning my project at the Peabody, I’ve been intrigued by how American Indian artifacts were collected in the first few decades of the 20th century. At the time, the practice ranged from small-scale hobby collecting to commercial-minded efforts to acquire and sell artifacts for profit, to museums collecting for “scientific study.” The Peabody archives offer a glimpse of how artifact collecting, mostly on a small scale, was conducted, documented and perceived. That distinctions were made between “collectors” and professional archaeologists seems clear, even in the early 1900s. And yet, as the quote from Byers above indicates, relic collecting is part of the story of archaeology in the United States. What role did it play in this story, and what common purposes and/or divides developed between the various actors interested in archaeology and artifacts?
I first noted documentation of avocational artifact collecting in Warren K. Moorehead’s records (1890s-1930s). Moorehead, the Peabody’s first curator and subsequent director (1901-1938), was well known to amateur collectors; he wrote publications catered to them, such as Prehistoric Relics (1905), purchased artifacts from them, sold artifacts to them, and included images of collector artifacts in his two-volume The Stone Age of North America (1910) (which he then marketed back towards those same collectors). Collectors wrote him, seeking his expertise, as well as those seeking to sell larger collections. He was criticized by his professional peers for being overly focused on artifacts and not exercising rigorous archaeological science. Years later, in 1973, retired Peabody Curator Fred Johnson wrote in a letter to a graduate student: “Moorehead was very definitely not an archaeologist even in the frame of reference of his times. He has never published an important archaeological book or paper. He was a collector, a confirmed looter of archaeological sites and he had no other purpose in life than to secure by any means, regardless of any kind of ethics, specimens which were the ‘best,’ unique, unusual, etc.”
Despite those accusations, and the appearance he gave at times of being a salesman, Moorehead denounced those who destroyed sites to acquire artifacts, and had advocated for the preservation of archaeological sites in the past. In “Commercial vs. scientific collecting” (1905) he wrote: “.. [commercial collectors] have ransacked the graves, mounds and cliff houses, dragged forth the humble arts of simple aborigines long dead and sold them for a few paltry dollars. The destruction of archaeological testimony wrought by these vandals is something beyond compute” (114). In contrast, he describes the simple joys of avocational collecting: “For the local student who collects for his own pleasure, we should have nothing but commendation, for at some future date his cabinet may be preserved. His expenditures, his trips to favorite localities that he may personally roam over freshly ploughed fields, his hours spent in arranging his cabinet during winter evenings are all labors born of love” (114). He also notes that these small collections are “gradually drifting to the permanent museums,” rejoining collections obtained through professional excavations.
While looking through the photographs of artifacts sent to him, I was struck by the “arrangement of the cabinet,” how collectors artfully arranged their artifacts into patterns or staged them to be photographed. Current Peabody Director Ryan Wheeler told me the practice continues to this day. It’s almost as if the deliberate act of collecting is put on display through these creative arrangements: the hand of the collector in accumulating these collections is manifest.
A fuller portrait of one such collector emerges in the Peabody archives. Massachusetts native Roy Athearn, born in 1895, began collecting artifacts as a boy in the early 1900s. He collected over 13,000 artifacts during the course of his lifetime, within a five mile radius of his home in Fall River. He took extensive notes on the circumstances of his finds, ensuring his collection was well documented. He was a member of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society. Below is a photograph of his home, taken in conjunction with an analysis and assessment of his collection carried out by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1982.
To learn more about avocational and professional archaeology in the United States in the early 20th century, Ryan pointed me to a few books, one of which was Setting the Agenda for American Archaeology : The National Research Council Archaeological Conferences of 1929, 1932 and 1935 (2001). Within the NRC, the Committee on State Archaeological Surveys was founded in 1920 under the Division of Anthropology and Psychology. One problem the committee sought to address was “.. the fact that a nation’s fascination with the past was leading to a rapid destruction of archaeological sites and the commercialization of antiquities.” This had less to do with individual collectors than with state-level museums and historical societies, who carried out excavations with little training or expertise, and “had no guiding voices on how to explore the past without destroying the very record being examined” (x). The committee decided that one solution to this problem might be in reaching out to and educating non-professional archaeologists in standards-based archaeological method, through distribution of instructional literature and organization of seminars on the topic. To really appreciate these efforts, one must read the rest of the book, but a common purpose between disparate actors begins to take shape through the idea that avocational archaeologists could be enlisted in preserving contextual information of sites. How did this play out over the rest of the century? And what was the position of museums during this time, such as the Peabody? What divides continued to exist and what relationships evolved? These are all questions I’m curious to investigate further.
The Temporary Archivist position is supported by a generous grant from the Oak River Foundation of Peoria, Ill. to improve the intellectual and physical control of the museum’s collections. We hope this gift will inspire others to support our work to better catalog, document, and make accessible the Peabody’s world-class collections of objects, photographs, and archival materials. If you would like information on how you can help please contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler at email@example.com or 978 749 4493.