Thursday, March 02, 2006

Truck Stop Special

A bit of levity did manage to poke its head through all the bishop-induced angst yesterday. Of course, it's archaeological levity, so it may not fly with anyone but Homer. Anyhoo. I study the stone artifacts my company digs up, virtually all of them from prehistoric times. After 11+ years of doing this in Tucson, I'm pretty familiar with the kinds of arrow and spear points people made throughout Arizona over a timespan of about three thousand years, give or take a few centuries. So yesterday, when I was looking at the points from a site up in the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson, something jumped out at me.

How is the point on the right different from the other three? Hint: the other three are real artifacts. The one on the right is a fake, the kind of "Indian-made!" schlock you find in a basket by the cash register at just about any truck stop in the vicinity of a reservation out here. The notches and serrations you see on the three points to the left were flaked into the stone by an ancient knapper pressing a sharpened antler tine against the edge of the stone hard enough to remove small chip after small chip, a delicate bit of sculpting that's not easy to master. The notches in the point on the right were filed into the stone with a quarter-inch rasp; the scratches from its teeth are visible without a magnifying glass.

I brought this bit of forgery to the project director's attention. She returned to my office an hour later to say she'd told another guy here about it, and it clicked with them that the fake point was probably related to the other weird artifact they'd found at the site, a small sherd of a Mimbres pot. The Mimbres sherd was troublesome because it properly belongs in New Mexico about a thousand years later than the time this site dates to. But it all makes sense now. Apparently one of the local jeep-tour outfits that hauls winter visitors around archaeological sites takes the liberty of "salting" the sites beforehand--sprinkling "artifacts" on the ground so that the visitors will have the thrill of finding an Actual!Indian!Artifact when they get out of the jeep to walk around. We chuckled and then, of course, got pissed.

This is problematic for a few reasons. First, and most importantly from our perspective as archaeologists, it muddies our data and masks what was actually happening at the sites we study. It creates false patterns that we have to take the time to investigate, and could lead to very wrong conclusions. Plant enough Mimbres pottery on a Hohokam site and we'll have to infer some significant, long-distance trade relationships that didn't actually exist, and we'll write prehistory wrong. No, it's not really germane to anything that "matters;" it doesn't slow the search for a cancer cure, it doesn't impact national security. But it's dishonest and prevents us from discovering the truth, or as close to the truth as we can get.

The other aspect of this that galls me is the misleading experience being served up to the hapless tourists. It cheapens the actual archaeological record, somehow, if people leave here with the misconception that artifacts are commonplace, scattered around like cigarette butts in a parking lot, there for the taking. The main draw of the tours in the area of this particular site is a rock art panel. That should be enough of a draw. Traveling through the desert, even if it's in the back of a pink jeep with a canopy, past cholla and saguaros and mesquites, to suddenly come across a rock face with designs pecked into it by ancient hands thousands of years ago, should be enough. To recognize the designs--that's the sun, that's a lizard--is to bridge the chasm of two millenia and completely different cultures. If the two-thousand-year-old artist were to suddenly materialize and walk out from behind a cactus to stand next to the tourist from Minnesota, the tourist from Germany, as they look at the panel, they would not be able to understand his words, nor he theirs. But they could all point to the sun on the rock and then to the sun in the sky and be speaking the same human language.

That should be wonder enough.

Scattering truck stop souvenirs on the ground only cheapens the experience, only blinds the tourists to what is real, takes away the motivation to look deeper, beneath the surface, to discover the common humanity underneath.

1 comment:

Homer said...

I wish I had thought of sprinkling truck stop arrowheads on boring sites!