Avocational Archaeologists and the Designation of a World Heritage Site

Here is a link to the article below where I talk about the important role of avocational archaeologists in the recent designation of the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I conclude that this type of engagement is critical for the future of archaeology.


Recognizing the Role of Avocational Archaeologists

Carl Alexander circa 1960s sorting Poverty Point Objects

This week I am finishing up writing a long overdue article on surface collections from the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana that Louisiana Archaeology will publish this fall.  Poverty Point, nominated for a World Heritage Site listing, is one of the earliest examples of monumental architecture in the Americas.  The Louisiana Archaeology article will interpret the provenience of artifacts from surface collections on the six C-shaped concentric ridges that at their ends extend 1200 meters along the Bayou Macon.  The gist of the article is further demonstrating the socio-economic organizational complexity of the earthwork complex at 1800 B.C.  The material basis for the project comes from the surface collections of Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected artifacts at Poverty Point over a 25-year period when the site remained in private hands prior to public ownership in the 1970s.  Alexander labeled the artifacts he collected with basic provenience information.  The article I am completing this week would not be possible without the more than 100,000 artifacts collected and provenienced by Alexander.

I discussed with the editor of Louisiana Archaeology that I wanted to highlight Carl’s role in the project more than in an acknowledgment at the end of the paper.  We agreed to place the paragraphs below in the article’s Introduction:

Before beginning the discussion of the artifact types, I wish to acknowledge the role of Carl Alexander in this article.  Simply put, were it not for his work at Poverty Point in the 1950s and 60s the data on which this article is based would not be available.  I don’t know Carl’s life details or his long-term passion for Poverty Point that kept him walking cotton fields year after year, picking up artifacts, and labeling where they came from by ridge and sector.  What I do know is that his persistence allows us today to provenience in excess of 100,000 artifacts he surface collected in order to interpret the organization of prehistoric activities across the ridge system at the site.  I believe the significance of Alexander’s contribution is equal to that of any other individual’s work or research project conducted at the site to date.  Were Mr. Alexander alive, I would list him as a co-author on this article.

I believe acknowledging the role of Alexander is of particular importance today.  In the era of television programs such as American Digger and Antique Roadshow where cultural heritage is first and foremost measured by economic value, Alexander reflects a different measure.  I found the same measure in conversation with Jerry Pankow, an avocational archaeologist who maintained meticulous field records and labeled artifacts from his salvage excavations at the Poverty Point culture Claiborne site in Hancock County Mississippi.  I find the same measure in my current employment as Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS).  Despite professional archaeological excavations in the late 1930s, the first published report on the Chucalissa site was written by an avocational archaeologist, William Beaudin.  He reported the first house excavation at the site conducted by MAGS, an avocational organization that formed in 1952 specifically based on interest in the Chucalissa site.  Today, MAGS continues to provide critical support for the operation of the C.H. Nash Museum.

Too often the role of nonprofessionals is selectively considered, focusing on poorly documented excavations, selling of artifacts, and other less than desirable activities.  For Alexander, I don’t know the details of how his collections were divided into the three components in the 1968, but I assume that there was some exchange of money.  I would not doubt that Alexander also sold other portions of his collections through time.  I suspect that is how the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma ended up with such a fine collection of Poverty Point materials labeled with Alexander’s ridge and sector designations.

I raise acknowledging avocational work in these introductory comments for two reasons.  First, I believe it is important to acknowledge those on whom one’s research is built.  Second, the three examples of avocational archaeology I note above are outstanding examples of making the discipline of archaeology relevant to the public who pay the salaries and fund the facilities that curate our nation’s archaeological collections.  Professionals must embrace these interests in a mutual collaboration, drawing on the strengths of all parties to further the preservation and presentation of our nation’s cultural heritage.  Carl Alexander’s dedication to and knowledge of the Poverty Point site and his willingness to share with the professional community continues to benefit us to this day, and beyond.

Today, many states in the U.S. have active programs where professional archaeologists work in concert with avocationals in training and research.    The Society for American Archaeology presents the Crabtree Award each year “to an outstanding avocational archaeologist  . . . (who) made significant contributions to advance understandings of local, regional, or national archaeology.”  As we move toward organizing events for National Archaeology Day on October 20th, we must be certain to include the contributions of the many Carl Alexanders to our discipline.

What positive avocational archaeology experiences do you have to share?