Artifacts tell stories of the people that used them and the places where they spent their lives, says Arizona author Craig Childs.
A red seed jar Childs found in a canyon in the Four Corners can narrate the life of the Native American family who once used it in their home. The array of pots and jewelry surrounding a teenage girl buried in the Southwest can paint her portrait as a princess, someone greatly revered in her community.
So what happens when archaeologists, hikers, looters or just curious passersby remove those artifacts from where they came? Legal or illegal, is taking them morally permissible?
Childs, who has written 12 books primarily on migration and also has written in a variety of major news outlets, posed these questions Saturday to a crowd at the packed Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, concluding that they have only fuzzy answers.
“It seems as though we don’t know how to handle the past,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves if my life should be the next stop for (this object).”
Childs advocates for letting the artifacts be, allowing the items to sing their own stories as they are passed to younger generations or crushed to dust by a calving boulder and blown into the wind, as was the case with the red seed pot he discovered.
His personal directive even brought him to stealing a pot from a museum’s backroom, hiking with it back to the canyon from where it was found and leaving it to the elements. He still struggles with that decision, vacillating between the compulsion to return it and subsequent regret in acting as another robber in the artifact’s timeline.
Childs is one voice of many in the discussion on the ethics of archaeology and the collection of artifacts. Chip Colwell, the senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, published a book in 2017 that traces the history of what some regard as stolen artifacts from indigenous populations across the world as well as the efforts to repatriate them. Museums — long resistant to returning bones, pots, ceremonial goods and other artifacts to their tribal owners — are starting to understand what Colwell describes in “Plundered Skulls & Stolen Spirits” as the importance of repatriation and the inclusion of indigenous voices in museums.
Like Childs, Colwell questions the merits of stockpiling artifacts in climate-controlled rooms where their voice as a storyteller is cut off. So, too, is the role they play in a community, sometimes perpetuating the erasure of a culture by colonization, Colwell writes.
Though, ultimately, Childs says he cannot dictate the choices made by individuals, he wants people to pause before picking up an item of interest.
To the mostly older audience, Child said, “Many of us are at the artifact age, 50, 60 years ... so ask yourself what (you would) want done with your stuff? With your bones?”
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