SAA Task Force on Professional Archaeologists, Avocational Archaeologists, and Artifact Collectors

Dear Peer-Reviewer:

In November 2015, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) Executive Board drafted Motion 136-54.5, creating a task force (TF) to “define appropriate relationships among professional archaeologists, avocational archaeologists, and responsible artifact collectors in light of the SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics and legal statutes,” producing a statement for dissemination to SAA members and other archaeological stakeholders.

The SAA Board asked Dr. Bonnie Pitblado (University of Oklahoma) to chair the TF, and Pitblado in turn asked Dr. Michael Shott (University of Akron, OH) to help spearhead the effort.  Pitblado and Shott assembled a 13-member TF representing 3 continents, all archaeological sectors, and the avocational and collecting communities.  In addition to Pitblado and Shott, TF members include Scott Brosowske (TX), Virginia Butler (OR), Jim Cox (OK), Chris Espenshade (PA), Angela Neller (WA), Giovanna Peebles (VT), Peter Pilles (AZ), Richard Shipley (UT), Guadalupe Sanchez Miranda (Sonora, Mexico), Rafael Suárez (Uruguay), and Suzie Thomas (Finland).

After eight months of discussion, the TF has developed a draft statement per SAA’s Motion.  The statement represents the consensus view of TF members.  However, the TF wishes to gain additional feedback from as many archaeological stakeholders as possible prior to finalizing the statement for submission to SAA for Board approval and formal dissemination.

The TF would therefore be extremely grateful for any input you are willing to offer about the working draft.  If you have lots to say, please do not hesitate to write as much as you like—and know that the TF will read every word.  If you just want to register something like “looks good,” that too will help the TF gauge if we have or have not struck a balance that works for most stakeholders.  As we note at the end of this document, we will be able to consider all feedback we receive by August 26, 2016.

We ask that reviewers share a few key bits of demographic information to help the TF contextualize the input we receive.  We would appreciate it if you would answer the following few questions.

Please copy and paste the following questions into an email (to Bonnie Pitblado, Chair, at with your comments; OR, copy and paste into a Word document with a copy of the Statement – – BELOW – – and your comments!

  1. With which demographic do you currently identify? (you may check more than one)

  • Artifact collector

  • Avocational archaeologist

  • Professional archaeologist, Sector(s): _________________________________________

  • Archaeology/Anthropology student, UG or Grad Student? ___________________________

  • Museum professional

  • Other stakeholder (please elaborate to help the TF be as inclusive as possible): __________________________________________

2. Have you identified with an alternative demographic (as listed in question 1) at some point in the past? (For example, some professionals began their archaeological pursuits as artifact collectors).

  • Yes

  • No

Please elaborate on your response if you like: _____________________________________

  1. What geographic region do you consider your home base?

  • USA, State/Region: _________________________________________

  • Canada, Province/Region: _________________________________________

  • Central America, Country/Region: _________________________________________

  • South America, Country/Region: _________________________________________

  • Europe, Country/Region: _________________________________________

  • Other Continent/Country/Region: _________________________________________

If you would like to provide a short description that captures who you are in more detail, we encourage you to do so.  You can use your name if you like, although you certainly don’t have to.  If you do use your name, we will not use it in any report or other document that we write.  For example, you might say something like “I am an accountant and part-time farmer in Missouri, and I have collected artifacts from my fields for 30 years, and in that time I have never worked with an archaeologist” or “My name is Bonnie Pitblado and I am professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.  Virtually all of the archaeological research I have ever done has benefited from the involvement of non-archaeologist partners.”


Thank you for answering those questions.  Now, please read the following the statement and share your thoughts in whatever form you like—affix them to the end of this document; insert them as comments within the text; write them in an e-mail; whatever works best for you.  The TF deeply appreciates any and all insights from as broad a cross-section as possible of people with a passion for archaeology and its physical expressions.

Draft statement for review by stakeholders

We ask that readers of this statement understand that the task force intends for the document to be read and interpreted holistically.  For example, if a reader focuses upon a task force recommendation in isolation, without contextualizing it based on the preceding premises, he or she may draw conclusions that the task force did not intend and does not condone.

The task force identifies the following as its operating premises:

  • Artifact collecting and metal detecting will continue no matter what SAA does or does not do.

  • All archaeological collecting, whether by professionals, avocationals or collectors, impacts the archaeological record and its interpretation, and mitigating that impact is always the ideal.

  • The terms “professional archaeologist,” “avocational archaeologist,” and “artifact collector” are defined differently by different people, and many shift their affiliation and activities over time. For example, a “collector” today may identify as a “professional archaeologist” next year.

  • Avocational archaeologists, including many artifact collectors, have often been valuable partners to archaeologists, sharing their passion for the past, local expertise, and preservation ethic. Archaeological knowledge throughout the Americas and world has advanced as the direct result of artifacts and data that collectors have shared with professionals.

  • Some artifact collectors do not share the values and interests that unify professionals and many avocationals, instead viewing artifacts primarily as commodities with financial value.

  • The nature of the relationship among professionals and other archaeological stakeholders varies across the Americas and world. To successfully collaborate, all parties must be mindful of local traditions, the importance of tribal concerns, unique laws governing heritage, and so on.

  • Professional archaeologists have an ethical obligation to engage with those who possess knowledge of a project area or an interest in the past.

  • Professional archaeologists have frequently failed to productively engage with avocationals and artifact collectors. Consequently, we do not know the nature and degree of undocumented collecting’s effect upon the archaeological record.  This knowledge gap threatens archaeologists’ ability to draw meaningful conclusions about the prehistory of any area that has been collected.

  • Sharing knowledge via public education and outreach is the single best way to maximize awareness of and strong stewardship for the archaeological record on the part of all stakeholders.

Building on these premises, the task force strongly recommends that professional archaeologists actively engage avocationals, including “responsible” and “responsive” collectors, in their work.  Although the task force concludes that labels reinforce divisiveness, in general, we define “responsible” collectors as those who:

  • Obtain landowner permission to collect artifacts

  • Limit collecting to the ground surface or plowzone, where impacts to sites due to collecting can be more readily mitigated than when uncontrolled excavation has occurred

  • Record and are willing to share at least basic provenience information for collected artifacts

  • Avoid commercializing their artifact collections

  • Serve as strong stewards for their collections during and beyond their lifetime

The task force uses the term “responsive collector” to refer to collectors who are not yet aware of archaeological standards and therefore may not have maintained them, but who are receptive to learning and applying them.

Because, as stipulated, collecting is popular, cannot be stopped, and alters the documented record, our only recourse for the sake of preservation and research is collaboration as a cornerstone of appropriate relationships with collectors.  The task force emphasizes the following points as keys to successful collaboration among stakeholders:

  • Collaboration can only succeed in an atmosphere of respect. Professional archaeologists must respect non-professionals for their particular knowledge and experiences, and professionals should expect respect from non-professionals in return.

  • Collaboration among professionals, avocationals and collectors will often involve compromise. There is no perfect professional, no perfect avocational, and no perfect collector.  However, imperfect people can collaborate in good faith to improve care for and understanding of the archaeological record in its entirety.

  • Archaeologists must use both their common sense and their best training and skills as anthropologists to decide how to best engage responsible/responsive collectors in their work.

  • Collaboration must not lead professionals to breach the principles they have pledged to uphold as members of SAA or other archaeological organizations. Professionals have an obligation to know, understand, and apply those principles in their practice of archaeology.

  • Professionals can neither force nor should they expect collectors to follow the ethical principles to which professionals subscribe. However, professionals would do well to recognize that when they treat avocationals and collectors with respect and a spirit of non-condescending education, many collectors will voluntarily uphold most or all of the ethical principles professionals do.

  • Professionals and avocationals including collectors must recognize that people are capable of profound changes in their attitudes and behaviors. Archaeologists should not immediately dismiss prospective collector-collaborators because they at some point violated what we define today as basic standards for responsible collecting.  Likewise, collectors are encouraged not to “write off” all professional archaeologists because some have been disrespectful in the past.

  • Professionals and responsible/responsive collectors should collaborate in the documentation of private collections. SAA should consult European partners for models of collaboration that could be adapted to variable North, Central and South American circumstances.

  • Above all else, the key to productive collaboration lies in vastly increased public education and outreach by all archaeologists. To paraphrase the words of anthropological foremother Margaret Mead, archaeologists should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can preserve the past; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

    Peer-Reviewers:  Again, please provide feedback below, as part of the text itself using “comments,” in the body of an e-mail, or in whatever form works best for you.  Return your input to the TF member who sent you the draft, or if you are not sure where it originated, to TF chair Bonnie Pitblado (  You may also send responses by “snail mail” to Bonnie Pitblado:  455 W Lindsey St., Rm. 521, Norman, OK 73019.

    All responses will be kept confidential, and no reviewer names will be used in communications with SAA or in any other context.  The TF will be able to consider all feedback received by August 26, 2016.