Archaeologists, Collectors, and Mueum Collections:

Insights from the Robert H. Weber Collection


The relationship between professional archaeologists and private collectors has been tumultuous. The main case against private collectors is that often they acquire artifacts illegally. Furthermore, and most important from a research standpoint, they collect artifacts with less attention to detail than an archaeologist would. For these reasons I believe that many private collections that have been donated to museums such as the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) are shunned by researchers. I would like to address this situation and discuss some insights I have gained during my time as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico and intern at MIAC.

For the past several years I have been cataloging the Robert H. Weber Collection as part of my dissertation work and a Bureau of Land Management museum internship. Robert H. Weber was a geologist and avocational archaeologist who spent roughly fifty years working in the deserts of New Mexico. He earned his doctorate in geology from the University of Arizona in 1950 and began working for the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources in Socorro. Weber always had a passion for archaeology, which flourished in Socorro. As part of his “second career,” he received formal training from the New Mexico Archaeological Society by participating in numerous excavation projects in the area. Weber was no stranger to professional archaeologists and collaborated with researchers such as George Agogino, Vance Haynes, Bruce Huckell, Vance Holliday, and Robert Dello-Russo. He also generously made his collection available to graduate students, providing material for at least three PhD dissertations — four, if we think positively and include the one I’m working on now.

Weber’s involvement in the archaeological community was important, but perhaps his biggest contribution was the discovery of close to 100 sites in and around Socorro County. Beginning in the early 1950s until his death in 2008, he recorded, mapped, collected, and analyzed artifacts from sites in the northern Jornada del Muerto, Plains of San Agustín, and Rio Grande Valley. Although he did not discriminate in his archaeological pursuits, Paleoindian sites were Weber’s primary interest. The first people on the continent and the last people to coexist with large Pleistocene mammals, particularly Bison antiquus, lived during this time period, from 14,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Paleoindian sites are rare, and what remains of these prehistoric hunter-gatherers’ lives is written largely through stone tools and the bones of mammoth, bison, and other prey. The Robert H. Weber Collection includes over 12,000 individually cataloged artifacts, close to 500 pages of notes, and topographic maps that cover almost all of Socorro County. Most of the artifacts are from the Paleoindian period. Weber labeled each artifact and in his notes described their attributes and location with extraordinary detail. He also left small rock cairns, affectionately known as “Bob piles,” to mark where he found an artifact. This collection truly represents a lifetime’s worth of work that any career archaeologist would be proud of. In fact, because of Bob’s dedication to understanding Paleoindian archaeology, several recent publications concerning the distribution of Clovis points in the United States show Socorro County standing out as one of the densest areas of Paleoindian occupation.

However, despite his archaeological training, dedication to mapping and documentation, and collaboration with archaeologists, much of the collection was obtained from public land without a permit. Without permission from federal and state land managers, he crossed that fine line between archaeologist and private collector, which to some made him a “looter” or “pothunter.”

To be clear, not all private collectors are the same, and there is a wide range of collecting behaviors. On opposite ends of the spectrum are those who are part of an inquisitive, well-meaning public that genuinely cares about prehistory, and those who collect artifacts for personal gain. Bob Weber is an extraordinary example of the former. I’m sure all of us have heard about important sites being looted, or collectors that have encountered legal trouble concerning their ill-gotten gains in a Tony Hillermanesque fashion. But it can go both ways. About thirty years ago, a professional archaeologist in southeastern Idaho took a Folsom point from a collector, telling him that (and I paraphrase), as a collector, he was unworthy of having such a fine example of prehistoric technology. Needless to say, archaeologists were not invited to examine too many other private collections after that. Consequently, that part of Idaho remained unknown to archaeologists until recent efforts by a team of Utah State University archaeologists made important inroads with local collectors and were able to document and analyze numerous collections. While this is certainly an extreme example, it highlights the degree to which archaeologists and collectors have disagreed on the correct way to handle our cultural resources.

Perhaps more common, at least in Paleoindian studies, is a local collector telling an archaeologist about a site and showing off the artifacts he had collected. In fact, since I became an archaeologist, I have been on several boondoggles out to sites—once all the way to North Dakota—that were brought to the attention of archaeologists by a collector. Certainly these little excursions distracted me from work I should have been doing, but they also made me realize several significant aspects of the archaeologist’s relationship with private collectors. First, we have to realize that much of the collecting occurred prior to the strict cultural resource legislation that we have today, especially when it comes to surface finds. Second, many of these collectors represent a curious public who just want to know about what they’ve found. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many of these sites would never have been discovered if not for these private collectors.

Often, the relationship between collectors and archaeologists is mutually beneficial. Many of the best-known Paleoindian sites were initially found by local collectors and avocational archaeologists. The Mockingbird Gap Clovis site serves as an excellent example of this mutually beneficial relationship. Mockingbird Gap ranks among the largest Clovis sites in the United States, covering an area 1 km long and 1/2 km wide. Weber discovered this site in the mid-1960s and returned repeatedly for forty years, collecting 1,400 artifacts, including over 200 Clovis points. He even went as far as creating a plain table map of this huge site on which he point-plotted most of the surface artifacts, excavation blocks, and topography in excruciating detail. In addition to his individual efforts at Mockingbird Gap, he also helped conduct a field school with Eastern New Mexico University, shared information with several contract projects, and collaborated with the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona on archaeological and geoarchaeological research.

Upon his passing in 2008, his entire collection was donated to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology. Bob’s explicit desire was for his collection to be available to future researchers. Shortly after the collection arrived at MIAC, my advisor, Bruce Huckell, and I were invited to the museum to see this unprecedented collection. At the time, I was searching for a dissertation topic, and working with his collections presented a great opportunity. Initially, I was impressed and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material. I have now been working with the collection for two years, and as I delved deeper into the material it became increasingly apparent that this collection is extraordinary, both in the amount of material and the level of detail in its documentation. The fact that I have been able to revisit some of the sites he recorded and locate the Bob piles for specific artifacts he collected thirty or forty years ago is a testament to this detail. Clearly, there is enough information to support many dissertation projects.

For example, using the data I am extracting from the Weber Collection, my dissertation examines Paleoindian responses to climate change. Paleoindians were the first people to colonize the Western Hemisphere during the end of the last ice age, about 13,500–10,000 years ago. They were highly mobile hunter-gatherers who commonly, but not exclusively, hunted large game, particularly mammoth and bison. We understand Paleoindians best through their flaked-stone technology, which features iconic and well-made spear points made from high-quality stone. The shape, size, and style of these spear points, or projectile points as they are known in the archaeology business, changed through time, and based on associated radiocarbon dates from across North America we know when each type of projectile point was made. Using the varying projectile point types as temporal and technological markers, the Paleoindian period has been broken down into a series of techno-complexes. The early end of the Paleoindian spectrum includes the fluted-point traditions—Clovis and Folsom—but also includes unfluted varieties such as Goshen and Midland. The Late Paleoindian period includes point types such as Agate Basin, Plainview, Hell Gap, Eden, Scottsbluff, Alberta, Allen/Frederick, and Angostura.

The Pleistocene-Holocene transition includes the Bølling-Allerød, Younger Dryas, and Early Holocene periods, which represent significantly different climatic regimes. The Bølling-Allerød, which corresponds with Clovis (13,500–13,000 years ago), is generally seen as a period of aridity in the Southwest. The abrupt onset of the Younger Dryas represents a roughly 1,700-year episode of a cooler, wetter climate and corresponds with Folsom. Beginning around 11,300 years ago, the Early Holocene can be characterized as having a warm, dry climate and overlaps with the Late Paleoindian time period. These distinctly different climatic regimes would have altered the landscape that Paleoindians inhabited. Since mobile hunter-gatherers moved to necessary resources, Paleoindian subsistence would have been heavily influenced by climatic conditions, and in the semiarid Southwest, the climate’s effect on the availability of water. Water is important not only because humans need to drink, but also because it attracts game and supports important plant resources. When the climate fluctuates, altering the availability of surface water, Paleoindians would have adjusted their settlement and mobility strategies to compensate for the shifting availability of water. Thus, the Clovis, Folsom, and Late Paleoindian techno-complexes should exhibit variation in the locations of sites as well as the activities undertaken at those sites.

I should mention that this is a hypothetical model, but one that I think is reasonable and testable. Preliminary results indicate that there are significant variations in the distributions of Paleoindian sites throughout my project area in Socorro County. Whether this is a result of climate change remains to be seen.

I relate all of this to bring up some important points about museum collections that have begun to ring true as I work through the Weber Collection and my dissertation research. First, from a very personal point of view, museum collections are critical to student research, particularly graduate student research. A PhD dissertation requires generating an enormous amount of data. The days when a graduate student could afford to excavate, analyze, and report on a site for their dissertation are long gone. Excavations, and fieldwork in general, have become extremely expensive in terms of time and money—two commodities that graduate students are sorely lacking. Museum collections, on the other hand, are relatively cheap to analyze and easily accessible because typically the time-consuming and expensive fieldwork, cataloging, and documentation have been completed. Second, working with museum collections provides students like me invaluable training for potential postgraduate careers, as well as informing our own future fieldwork endeavors. In short, understanding how collections are used once they are curated makes for better data collection and organization in the field.

Finally, by using museum collections, students also reinforce those collections’ raison d’être. Museums curate artifacts to preserve them for future generations not only to enjoy, but also to further our understanding of prehistory. Private collections are a large part of the material that museums allocate time, money, and space to preserving, yet when these collections arrive at museums they are often boxed up, cataloged, and forgotten because they were not produced by professional archaeologists. In some cases they may be seen as ill-gotten gains, and in others the documentation, context, age, or provenience of these collections may not be precise, or may not even exist. However, if we as producers and consumers of archaeological knowledge continue to devote an ever-dwindling supply of time and money to preserve private collections, then it is incumbent upon us to look beyond their intrinsic aesthetic value and use them to further our understanding of prehistory, regardless of how these collections arrived at a museum.

To be absolutely clear, I do not condone or support illegal collection, but I do strongly believe that once a collection has been given to a museum, we must use it to the best of our ability. Otherwise, curators end up wasting time, money, and space—reminiscent of the enormous warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Indian Jones.

Chris Merriman, a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of New Mexico, is working on his Phdissertation, entitled Paleoindian Response to Climate Change: A Test Case from the Northern Jornada del Muerto. Since the fall of 2011 he has interned at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture /Laboratory of Anthropology under the direction of Julia Clifton.