Thesis abstract ‘Collectors as Taphonomic Agents for the Archaeological Record’

13th January 2014

Jill L. Ruig

BA(Hons), Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, University of New England, Armidale, October 1995

This thesis investigates the activities of collectors and the impact that collecting has had on the archaeological record in particular on historical sites. Despite heritage legislation, collectors have been allowed, through the inaction and therefore the passive sanction of heritage law enforcement agencies, to destroy historical archaeological sites for personal gain.

There is Federal, New South Wales and Queensland heritage legislation that is applicable to collectors of historical artefacts. However, the majority of the Acts are too restricted in their application, though some could prove useh1 if their provisions were enforced. Many have not been tested in a court of law. No precedents have been set and there has been little opportunity to identify inherent weaknesses. In order to determine how collectors perceive our heritage laws, various popular publications such as Australian Gold, Gem and Treasure, Australian Bottle Review, Australian Antique Bottle Collector and Australian Antique Bottles and Collectables were studied. Several of the Acts and their provisions are well known to collectors, the information (with some misinformation) being disseminated throughout the collecting community. Acts which are well known to the collectors are those administered by heritage officials who have implemented education programmes specifically aimed at collectors. However, the majority of the heritage Acts are blatantly ignored. Collecting continues apace, demonstrating that current enforcement procedures are ineffective in protecting historical archaeological heritage.

Published records of 440 collecting episodes provided the raw data for analysis of various aspects of collector behaviour: the scale of activities, collector methodologies, types of material collected and sites exploited, sector of the community most likely to target this source of collectibles and the Australian states where this type of activity is most frequent.

The illicit collection of artefacts has important implications for the archaeological profession. For accurate archaeological analyses and interpretation of artefact assemblages, it is essential that the effects of collectors are identified and taken into account. To do this, it is necessary to first gain an understanding of the field methodologies that are being promoted in popular magazines and subsequently employed by collectors on historical sites.

An analysis of the data shows that collectors are systematic and thorough in their approach to collecting archaeological materials. The methods and strategies used are very similar (albeit uncontrolled) to those used by the archaeological profession: preliminary research, predictive modelling, identification of potential sites, site reconnaissance, survey, test excavation, fill excavation, interpretation and dating of the cultural materials found. Each of these is illustrated in this thesis with actual accounts of use within Australia as described by the collectors themselves in the popular literature. Most of this material has been published over the last 25 years and is freely available to the general public. Through popular magazines, manuals, maps, videos, shows and meetings, collectors are actively promoting collecting to the wider community as an acceptable pastime, and the idea that heritage legislation is ineffective. Although these publications are widely available, I found no evidence of heritage law enforcement agencies using this source to stem the flow of historical archaeological materials into the hands of private collectors.

Ruig, J.L.
Thesis abstract 'Collectors as Taphonomic Agents for the Archaeological Record'
June 1997
Thesis Abstracts
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