Many of us are natural explorers. We are fascinated with the nature, cultures, and objects that surround us. We often ask ourselves, where did something come from, how did it get here, who brought it here? These are the questions archaeologists ask themselves and hope to answer in their work. As citizens of science, it is important that we all work together to preserve the archaeological record so that it remains intact and continues to teach us for years to come.
What is Archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of the study of human history through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists do not dig up dinosaur bones. That is the job of a paleontologist. Archaeologists focus on all of human culture across space and time. An artifact can be defined as an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest. Examples of artifacts can include tools, art pieces, animal bone, clothing, and almost any item made by humans that you can think of!
Within the Antelope Valley region, shells, stone tools (which are called lithics), and ground stone artifacts for processing foods are commonly found. These items were from Native American tribes that occupied the area. For hundreds of years, several Native American tribes have called the Antelope Valley their home. These groups include the Serrano, the Vanyume, the Kawaiisu, the Kitanemuk, the Tataviam, and the Tongva or Gabrielino indigenous peoples. Prior to these tribes, which still exist today, their ancestors were Paleoindians. They were the first inhabitants of North America who occupied the region approximately 12,000 years ago! In addition, historic artifacts can also be found from various homesteaders in the area. For example, cans, old homes, and tools from old Antelope Valley residents are considered artifacts. According to the Office of Historic Preservation, any item over 50 years old can be considered a historic artifact.
What’s so important about artifacts?
These items can all be used to tell us about the past, and at times, in a great amount of detail. For example, if an archaeologist finds a stone too, they can see where that artifact originated from through identifying its geochemical composition, or what its made of, and then trace how far it came from to where it was left. Some artifacts found in the Antelope Valley are made of a volcanic glass known as obsidian that can be sourced to the Coso Volcanic region, which is located over 100 miles away from the Antelope Valley! Due to its far distance of procurement, it is assumed that the obsidian was likely brought into the area through the process of trade. An archaeologist can go further into analysis with the stone tool and identify what types of techniques were used to make it. These different techniques may be associated with a certain time period or a certain group of people, so we can tell who made the artifact. In addition, chemical analysis of the artifact can be used to tell an archaeologist what the artifact was being used for. For example, if we find blood residue from a rabbit on the tool, we can infer that the tool was used for processing and or hunting a rabbit. In addition, if an artifact is found at a certain depth in the ground, that can indicate how old an artifact is. These are just some of the ways archaeologists are able to use artifacts to learn more about what events happened in the past. Below are some examples of artifacts found in the Antelope Valley (See Figures 1 and 2).
Examples of artifacts:
Figure 1: Obsidian Projectile Point; projectile points or arrowheads are used to tip arrows or spears to hunt prey (MOAH Collections)
Figure 2: Schist Metate and Mano; a mano is a stone that is placed in one’s hand and is used to grind down foods, such as acorns. A metate is the larger stone which is laid flat and used as the surface to grind foods on (MOAH Collections).
The Looting Problem
There are incredible amounts of detail that can go into analyzing an artifact, which can help us all understand the people that were making them, including their relationships with other groups through trade, their traditions, and their subsistence strategies. By gathering information about the past, we can learn more about what other cultures’ have valued and have done, which can guide our own lives today. It is extremely important that an artifact remain where it was found so that when an archaeologist does find it, the artifact can tell its story. If an artifact is taken, it loses its context and an archaeologist may be unable to place it spatially and temporally in time, which means that a part of history is lost. If you find an artifact, leave it be! It belongs where it was found.
A looter can be defined as someone that disturbs an archaeological site and steals artifacts for financial or personal gain. Their actions negatively affect the interpretation of history as well as the spiritual well being of the cultures and communities they steal from. Many people may not be aware of them, but there are criminal penalties for damaging an archaeological site and stealing artifacts.
Laws to Protect Archaeological Sites
Quoted from Archaeology Southwest: ‘Federal laws have been in place to protect archaeological resources for more than a century. The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, was the first measure taken to preserve sites; however, decades later the law’s language was deemed too vague to offer adequate protection from looters and vandals. In response, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was enacted in 1979. ARPA forbids the damage, excavation, or removal of archaeological resources on public and Indian lands without a permit, and prohibits the buying, selling, transport, or trafficking of illegally obtained items. Criminal penalties for first-time offenders include prison time, fines up to $250,000, and forfeiture of property used in the violation (including vehicles and boats). In addition, the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) declares it a federal crime to traffic in Native American human remains and associated grave goods”’ (Archaeology Southwest).
In addition to the looting of artifacts around the Antelope Valley, sites can also be damaged from various irresponsible recreational activities. For example Petroglyph sites, places where drawings or markings on a landscape, have been vandalized across the United States, including within the Antelope Valley from graffiting as well as shooting activities. Earlier this year, a panel of ancient petroglyphs in the Indian Head area of Big Bend National Park in Texas were vandalized with the carving of names into the rock face (See Figure 3). Not only are these actions damaging physically to the sites, it is also tremendously disrespectful to the indigenous people whose ancestors created those images. These material remains have connections to traditions and cultural identities, holding immense importance both spiritually and scientifically (Archaeology Southwest).
Figure 3: Damaged panel of ancient petroglyphs in the Indian Head area of Big Bend National Park in Texas (National Parks Service).
What you can do to help!
In order to help preserve history, please work together with preservationists and follow these guidelines on how to protect and appreciate archaeological sites:
Keep artifacts in place! Do not remove, relocate, or collect artifacts. Their information potential is lost when removed from context.
Ancient architecture is fragile. Do not sit, walk, or climb on walls.
Do not touch, alter, or move petroglyph or pictograph panels.
Do not stack rocks or leave other traces of your presence.
Do not share site locations on social media. Remember that GPS coordinates may be embedded in your digital photos.
Engage in recreational activities AWAY from archaeological sites.
Promptly notify law enforcement of any vandalism or suspected violations by calling 1-800-637-9152*
(Guidelines cited from Archaeology Southwest)
If you ever see a looter, do not engage with them! Looters are often dangerous individuals. Relocate to a safe place and call your local authorities to alert them of the situation.
National Parks Service
2022 Ancient Rock Art Vandalized National Park Asks for Help