Craig Childs - Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession

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"It belongs in a museum." -- Indiana Jones "Does it?" -- Craig Childs

Jul 25, 2012
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Skilled writing, original ideas, examination of archaeology, collecting, and why we do it...

Cons:No maps, photos, diagrams, etc.

The Bottom Line: An intriguing and insightful look at archaeology in America and beyond.  


For better or worse, since 1981, whenever anyone brings up archaeology, my first thought is of Indiana Jones.  Now that I'm all grown up and respectable-like, I know that the real field of archaeology is less bullwhip and more dustbrush, and I'm sure there's some math involved somewhere.  At the heart of it is this question: To whom does the past belong?  That question is also at the heart of Craig Childs' 2010 book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession.  I've seen the book probably a dozen times, and finally decided to pick it up last week.  The cover, showing the interior of an Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloan kiva, reminded me of places I've seen in the Southwest, and figured I'd give it a shot.

The book was both more personal and deeper than I expected it to be, with the page-turning pace of a thriller.  Childs starts out with his experiences as a boy, growing up in Arizona, and the casual way they'd come across potsherds and arrowheads, and just kind of chuck them into the sand; and then his appreciation for artifacts growing over time, but not his conviction that these things should remain where they were left ages ago.  So if you come across a pre-Columbian basket in passing, you should just leave it where it is, not make it part of some private collection , or sell it on eBay, or even donate it to a museum.  It's an interesting idea, and enough of a departure from how we've handled artifacts for centuries to make Childs' ideas seem a little bizarre, even to him.

The chapters of the 274-page book are grouped into four sections: a description of archaeology, an appraisal of "vandalism and other acts of removal," a look at the museums and collections that artifacts end up in, and then finally, Childs' own philosophy that artifacts should be left in situ, where they were left by their original owners.  

Throughout the book, the author gives firsthand accounts of finding artifacts in the Southwest, and how he developed his own ideas about how they should be handled--and how they should be left alone.  He understands the compulsion to collect artifacts, and he interviews people who have been involved in the illegal pothunting, the collectors who buy their finds, and also more legitimate archaeologists and museum curators, who Childs seems to consider only marginally better than the poachers.  

Some of the most interesting passages to me personally involved a series of raids in Southeastern Utah--the Four Corners region, which is one of the richest in terms of artifact yields.  An entire community was torn apart thirty years ago, and then again about three years ago in a series of raids by law enforcement, taking thousands of artifacts, resulting in prison terms for dozens, and driving at least three men to commit suicide.  It's something that made headlines in Utah but I never really understood--here Childs is able to explain what happened in greater detail, with personal insights and background that makes it more comprehensible, if not justified.  

The one thing that would have made Finders Keepers more interesting would be a section of photographs, maps or diagrams--his words are descriptive enough that I didn't feel slighted at all, but there were times that I had to put the book down and google an object or location that he was writing about to get a better understanding of the book. 

This book was entertaining and insightful, and there are parts that are downright poetic.  Childs loves the same landscapes of the Southwest that I do, and with an understanding of the layers of history and time that few possess.  I loved reading this book, and I'm looking forward to reading his other works.  If you're interested in archaeology, particular in the Southwest, you'll enjoy Finders Keepers.   


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