Guilty Boxes


When I was very young my family and I used to travel from down south to visit a park in northern New Mexico. It was lovely then, with big trees and a mountain stream that we could wade in running right by the campsites. And wade we did. The rangers were for the most part extremely friendly, but one of them was very officious. This one ranger made a strong point of telling my friends and me not to pick up the shiny black, glassy flakes of stone from the creek bed because they were “semi-precious” stones and belonged to the federal government. We could be arrested and taken to jail, he said, if we so much as touched them. So we did what any red-blooded eleven- or twelve-year-old would do. We collected as many of these pieces of obsidian as we could, put them in our pockets, and took them home with us.

Later, when I was a teenybopper hanging around Girl and Boy Scout camps, a bunch of us sneaked out one night to dig in an “old Indian mound.” Lives there a kid so unimaginative that given the proximity of an old Indian mound they would let such a chance pass by? We dug and sweated for quite a long time in the Texas summer heat, until our first artifact came to light. It was a slender, flattish metal thingy with a curved, pointed tip on one end. Indeed, it appeared to be what in those days we called a “church key.” They were very popular before beer cans went to pop-tops. That was my first and last adventure in pothunting.

When I think of such escapades, I remember that on occasion my grandfather had courted my grandmother by taking a buggy and a picnic lunch to go digging in what is now called a “town ruin.” A town ruin is the Native American site closest to a small town and tended to serve as a sort of unofficial town park. People would go there to spend a relaxing afternoon digging up earlier people’s lives and then put their finds on the mantle over their fireplace. From the late 1800s to the 1950s, this was a perfectly acceptable way to spend a summer day (and in some places it still is). Even though the Antiquities Act of 1906 was in effect, no one paid much attention to it.

These were some of the many ways I was introduced to the history of New Mexico and the fascinating world of archaeology. Needless to say, fifty years and several university degrees later, I felt compelled to sneak back to the place we had camped when I was very young and rescatter the bits of obsidian from my youthful transgression back into the stream, glancing around surreptitiously t o make sure no one saw me do it.

The urge to pick up and carry around small archaeological artifacts found along the way is pretty much irresistible to the average person wandering around the landscape of the Southwest — the excitement of an Easter egg hunt carried into adulthood. The joy of digging up “treasure,” one of the childhood fantasies we all have, hangs on the excitement of finding some wondrous object we can take home to show others for their appreciation and approval. Archaeologists understand this feeling oh so well but have learned to temper it with the understanding that they excavate not for themselves but for a purpose beyond mere self-gratification. To an archaeologist, excavations must be conducted in a way that furthers the understanding of a time and people we cannot reach any other way. It is always hoped that the excavation will give researchers information about the past that they can use to reconstruct a world and time otherwise lost to us. Since New Mexico is pretty much a huge archaeological site with cities and roads on top, there is a tendency for people to pick up “stuff” and tuck it away at home. This has led to a wide range of collections by people who are not scholars, ranging from children picking up sherds and stone tools from the arroyo by the backyard, to avocational archaeologists who have actually tried to excavate conscientiously, to pothunters who raid pre-European sites for drug money.

At some time or other, as people mature and become more aware that taking artifacts is frowned on, they may begin to have second thoughts about their “goodie collection.” This often leads them to try to return the artifacts to the places where they found them, as I did with the obsidian, or to donate the stuff to the local museum. Not uncommonly, they put the purloined articles in a paper bag or box, leave it on the institution’s doorstep, and run away, usually at night or just before the staff arrives in the morning. We call these containers “guilty boxes.”

One such box was mailed to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology from California, with no return address. It arrived one morning in a brown paper wrapper that, when removed, revealed a gaudy Christmas box and a letter. The letter writer explained that when clearing out his (I think it was a he) parents’ attic he had come across a set of human remains that had been given to his parents by a friend many years before. He explained that his parents did not excavate these remains and did not want them. He did not want them, either, and was embarrassed that he had them. So would we kindly take them off his hands? He was sure they were an “Ancient Native American.” He apologized for the Christmas package, but it was the largest box he had, and he realized it wasn’t very “fitting,” but there it was. His letter was so pitifully filled with guilt and fear I had the impulse to pat him on the back and say, “There, there.”

I couldn’t, of course, because there was no way to trace where this box had come from. It did, indeed contain the bones of a pre-Columbian man, though we could not determine if he was from the Southwest or not. We dutifully placed the bones in an acid-free box and respectfully placed them in storage until they could be reinterred in an appropriate place. I carried with me a mental picture in which some third party had given a box of somebody’s bones to these people in California. Was it for a birthday? (“Here, Harry, surprise!”) Or a gift during a visit? (“Thanks for the fun trip. Have somebody on me.”)

While many of these artifacts are donated by people who want to be purely anonymous, others are donated with great pride. Often they come from children of the original collector who can’t figure out what to do with Granddad’s pottery collection. They arrive as bags of sherds and cigar boxes of what we call “bifaces, lithics, and points” and other people call “arrerheads.” We get them in tea tins, Band-Aid boxes, elegant cases, and cloth bags usually used for snakes or geologic samples.

Some of the largest of these collections were gathered during the 1930s and 1940s, when it was common for people to go to “dude ranches.” People enjoyed the fresh air, camped out, rode horses, swam, and dug up ruins on the ranch for “treasures.” This was considered a wholesome exercise damaging no one. Of course, no one asked the local descendants of the original people what they thought because none of the ranchers or their guests considered that there might be objections.

Some of these early avocational archaeologists kept pretty good records and were quite careful with their finds. Often they consulted with local state or university archaeologists, studied their finds, wrote articles, sometimes set up their own museums, and attempted to educate others about the objects of their passion. Some of these enthusiasts were more sensitive than others about the origin of the objects they displayed. And why should they have been culturally aware? In those days, it was easy to find local “roadside attractions” with insensitive displays, and many state and federal museums were equally oblivious to the concerns of local Indian groups and had things on display that would, today, be considered totally unacceptable. Eventually, as people became more attuned to the objections of the descendants of the people who had made these objects, they began to try to find a place for their collections in appropriate museums.

Generally, artifacts from seriously damaging pothunters never come near a museum or university. Like their counterparts in other countries, these people are digging stuff up to make money. But occasionally the donations from amateur collections bring us real treasures. One collector from the 1930s and 1940s did a lot of “digging around” on ranches between Zuni Pueblo and Quemado and over the state line near Springerville, Arizona. He kept relatively good records for the time and had a small museum where he gave lectures to schoolchildren and visiting scholars. He was visited by some of the more famous Southwest researchers such as Edgar Lee Hewett and A. V. Kidder. His library and the fact that he shared what knowledge he had while keeping records of a sort place him several levels above the usual avocational collectors. When his collections, including many beautiful ceramic types, were donated to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture / Laboratory of Anthropology, they were from identifiable sites and extremely useful for exhibition and research. Most of this pottery was from the Salado period, AD 1300 – 1400; some, such as the type known as Klagetoh Black-on-white, we did not have in our collections at all. He had also excavated rare pallets for grinding paint and the minerals that had been ground on them, as well as weaving tools for making baskets and cloth.

Some donations from collectors are useful, though not nearly as well-documented. We have received many assortments of what we call “lithics”: Pueblo, Archaic, and Paleoindian points, as well as masses of small points from collectors who have picked them up over a lifetime of wandering. Some of these pieces, such as Folsom and Clovis points, are very desirable for study and exhibition. Even when the objects are relatively unimportant, many of these amateur collections have been useful in filling in gaps in museum collections. Archaeology is an expensive type of research. Many archaeologists are unable to do extensive work without state or federal funds, which are usually tied to other projects such as roads or pipelines. Even while we are tut-tutting about pothunters and untrained diggers, some of these older collections fill gaps in knowledge. Some of them are being used by students and researchers who would have no access to artifacts if these collections, no matter how scanty in their documentation, had not been donated.

Anything left on our museum’s doorstep finds a use. If the artifact is too small or obscure to be used for research, we can use it for education or display. We have several boxes of miscellaneous objects that are beautifully made but come from no known location. Some pieces may be used in exhibits in which the origin of the objects on display is unimportant. Since these objects are not useful for research, they can be loaned without fear of having an irreplaceable piece of history damaged. Archaeologists use them in schools or with local groups who want to learn more about the people who lived here long ago and whose descendants are still here, today.

I once lectured to a group of businessmen convening in Santa Fe and allowed them to pass around some pottery sherds, textiles, beads, and bone tools from our educational collection. They were awestruck and later reported that being able to actually handle prehistoric artifacts was a highlight of their visit to the Southwest. Some of these artifacts have been taken to schools to be used in classes for subjects that aren’t even vaguely related to Native Americans — for example, to teach children the concepts of sorting and differentiation. Such a learning experience is much more intriguing when attractive and unusual objects are used.

Museums try to waste nothing. Even the orphaned artifacts left at the door have a use, and, who knows, in the future they may turn out to be as valuable to researchers as their better-documented counterparts.

Dody Fugate is the curator of the H. P. Mera Collection at the Laboratory of Anthropology. The New Mexico Association of Museums recognized her with its 2012 Centennial Hewett Award for leadership and service to New Mexico museums.