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Saturday, January 26, 2002

Hammering on the Iceman

Recently, Cal Fulfer told me that the February 2002, National Geographic has a short Geographica article about “Ötzi,” the 5000 year old Iceman mummy found in the Alps in 1991. Cal, an avid avocational archaeologist, thought that the article drew some unfounded conclusions. I agree. Unfortunately, the full article isn’t available on-line, but I’ve managed to lay hands on a print copy.

Some brief background: According to Konrad Spindler, in his book The Man in the Ice, Ötzi was a most fortuitous find. People fall into crevasses in glaciers all the time. Most of the time they are deposited at the foot of the moving glacier in a matter of a few years. For that reason, it was first thought that Ötzi was recently dead. However, in this most unusual case, Ötzi was not encased in a moving glacier per se, but rather in an ice-filled hollow surrounded by rock that fixed the ice in place, preventing it from moving Ötzi or his belongings far.

Among the many artifacts preserved along with Ötzi is an exquisite copper-bladed axe (click on ‘The equipment’ at the left). Because of the axe, a common Bronze Age artifact, it was originally thought that he was about 4000+ years old. Radiocarbon dating later revised this to about 5200-5300 years before present. At this early, usually Neolithic (stone age) date, a metal-edged implement would have been greatly prized.

Recently, X-rays revealed that Ötzi has a stone arrowhead buried in his upper-left chest. It is now generally thought that this was the cause of death. At least it’s likely that he didn’t go far with an arrow in him. Arrows kill by exsanguination and an arrow in the chest usually kills pretty quickly.

And now, the February National Geographic weighs in with this:

“There’s no way anyone can ever really know,” says archaeologist Johan Reinhart, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. “It might have been murder. Or it might have been ritual sacrifice.” Incidentally, that’s “Dr. Johan Reinhard,“ to you, according to his web page.

According to National Geographic: “Reinhart’s experience studying mountain cultures in the Andes, the Himalaya, and elsewhere has convinced him that the Iceman’s death was not a random killing.”

“Look at where he died,“ Reinhart says. “It’s a prominent pass, between two of the highest peaks in the Ötztal Alps. This is the kind of place where people from mountain cultures have traditionally made offerings to their mountain gods. We know that mountain worship was important in prehistoric Europe during the Bronze Age .. and there is good evidence that it may also have played a role earlier, in the Copper Age.”

Basically, Reinhart’s reasoning is that if it were murder, the murderer would have taken the valuable copper axe. Therefore, it must have been a ritual killing or at the very least a burial, with the axe left to accompany him to the afterworld.

“I know it’s controversial .. but it’s time to reexamine the evidence from a different perspective. Let’s look at these artifacts not only relative to each other but also within social, sacred, and geographical contexts.

Indeed. Now let’s look at Reinhart’s observations in another context.

Reinhart is a ‘high altitude archaeologist’. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, Department of Anthropology, writing a dissertation entitled Descriptive Analysis of Shamanism and Witchcraft Among the Purbia Raji of Southwest Nepal.

Reinhart is best known for his work with the Ampato Ice Maiden’ which Reinhart maintains was also a high altitude ritual sacrifice. The evidence for this? The Ice Maiden was apparently bludgeoned to death.

Again quoting the February 2002 National Geographic: “There’s no way anyone can ever really know,” says archaeologist Johan Reinhart. That is true. So why defy Occam’s Razor to spin these elaborate speculations? Perhaps it can be attributed to the ‘Law of the Hammer’.

posted by Swen at link8:43 PM

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Selling Artifacts: The Bottom Line

The Cato Institute’s web site is my home page. I usually find very little therein with which to disagree. Therefore, I was very surprised to read Selling Artifacts (Regulation Vol. 23, No. 4, 2000) by Richard L. Stroup and Matthew Brown of Cato’s Political Economy Research Center.

While the developer’s complaints and many of the problems and costs of the present system are accurately outlined by Stroup and Brown, a number of statements in their article cause me to wonder whether they discussed the topic in any detail with a working archaeologist before publication. Among these:

“Many areas of the United States now have regulations requiring developers to hire archaeologists to oversee excavation at work sites in historic locations.”

36 CFR 800 is the most pertinent regulation: As federal law, there is no area of the United States or its territories where it does not apply. The law applies essentially to any undertaking that is funded, permitted, or otherwise regulated by the federal government. Under 36 CFR 800 all regulatory agencies overseeing such undertakings are mandated to consider the effects of those undertakings on historic properties before funding or permitting said undertaking. All of the problems outlined by Stroup and Brown flow from that consideration of effects.

An undertaking is defined at length in the regulation. However, in situations such as Stroup and Brown discuss an undertaking is essentially an activity that has the potential to disturb historic properties. Historic properties are historic or prehistoric sites, objects, structures, and such that are eligible for nomination to, or listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as determined by the State Historic Preservation Officer in consultation with the federal regulatory agency.

Stroup and Brown outline the current disincentives of historic preservation—which encompasses a great deal beyond archaeology—relatively well. They proceed to propose a solution to the problems they’ve defined: a free market in antiquities:

“In one sense, this sentiment is correct: the market is currently an enemy to archaeology. Few trained archaeologists participate in the market and receive value for artifacts. But if they did participate productively in the market and if the law clearly defined ownership of sites and artifacts, many of the problems that plague archaeology would become relics of the past.”

Lee Cronk and D. Bruce Dickson, professors of anthropology at Rutgers and Texas A & M, respectively, have responded to this proposal For the Record, explaining that archaeologists value artifacts for different reasons than do collectors of antiquities. This is true. Succinctly expressed ‘it’s not what we find, it’s what we find out’ [and I am channeling this, it’s archaeological cliché]. Artifacts removed from context, “.. regardless of how high a price they might fetch on the open market, are scientifically worthless.” Indeed. So what?

There is a fatal flaw in Stroup and Brown’s proposal. Unfortunately, Cronk and Dickson do not see it. They are academicians and unfamiliar with the costs of doing archaeology relative to the current market value of artifacts—and there is a thriving market for the many antiquities legally held by private collectors in the US. The flaw, simply put: There is no money to be made selling archaeologically recovered artifacts.

The costs of doing archaeology outlined by Stroup and Brown are very real: Additional direct cost incurred by my clients in the last two years has been in the low six-figure range per year. If I had made a mistake or my clients had encountered an unanticipated [thus un-avoided] discovery this figure could have rapidly mounted into the high six-figures, or worse. Most of this is absorbed by my and my client’s overhead, including a variety of fees paid to the state and federal regulatory agencies.

On January 14, 2002, I encumbered $500 curating the prehistoric artifacts I’ve collected in archaeological context over the last two years. I will pay the curation facility at the University of Wyoming to process these materials and store them in perpetuity. The stipulations of my various state and federal Cultural Resource Use Permits require this, as the artifacts are ultimately public property.

The twenty-two artifacts I’ve just submitted include: 15 projectile points, almost all of which are fragmentary; five bifaces, again mostly broken; one hafted endscraper, the stone blade from a hide-working adz; and a hafted stone knife. That’s all, folks.

One of these artifacts—WR01-13-IF-3—is a rare and spectacular Folsom projectile point. The first I’ve found in over 25 years as an archaeologist. These are about 11,000 years old, very nearly the earliest generally accepted evidence of occupation of the western hemisphere.

WR01-13-IF-3 was broken and discarded when the knapper attempted to apply the first flute. Because of this fortuitous circumstance the evidence of the manufacturing process is revealed, up to the point of fluting. On completed Folsom points the flutes remove much of the evidence of earlier stages of manufacture. As this artifact was discarded after the first flute dived outre passant and removed the distal [point] end, the flaking of the opposite side remains intact. This makes the artifact very valuable to a lithic technologist.

Unfortunately for Stroup and Brown’s proposal, the point is not complete and that destroys a good deal of the value of the artifact to a collector, even if it could be legally sold under the current, restricted market.

I don’t know what a collector would pay for a complete Folsom point. I don’t have a copy of the price guide. However, the last time I looked at a guide the suggested retail price was in the general neighborhood of $10,000. The value of broken artifacts drops precipitously. Also, please remember that this is the first single artifact that I’ve ever found that could be valued at more than about $100, maximum. At best, the remaining 21 artifacts might be valued at a few hundred dollars, all told. Some are exquisite to my eye, but most are fragments.

The rarity of these materials is a factor in their value to collectors. Universities, museums, and curation facilities are generally cash poor and some have proposed selling artifacts as a solution. The market value of artifacts in the current, restricted market is too low by a factor of 10. As availability affects price, Stroup and Brown’s proposal would increase the availability of artifacts reducing their relative value further. Artifact mining might be supported by the sale of artifacts but not archaeology.

Anthony A. (Swen) Swenson
Wind River Archaeology

posted by Swen at link9:19 AM

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

I can't believe that this name wasn't taken. Does no one read Ellison anymore? Well I've got it now buckos! Stand by, I'll be busy for awhile. But I'll Be Back. .. And then we shall dine.

posted by Swen at link8:14 PM


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