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Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession

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To whom does the past belong? Is the archeologist who discovers a lost tomb a sort of hero--or a villain? If someone steals a relic from a museum and returns it to the ruin it came from, is she a thief? Written in his trademark lyrical style, Craig Childs's riveting new book is a ghost story--an intense, impassioned investigation into the nature of the past and the things we leave behind. We visit lonesome desert canyons and fancy Fifth Avenue art galleries, journey throughout the Americas, Asia, the past and the present. The result is a brilliant book about man and nature, remnants and memory, a dashing tale of crime and detection.

155 pages, ebook

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Craig Childs

35 books332 followers
CRAIG CHILDS is a commentator for NPR's Morning Edition, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Men's Journal, Outside, The Sun, and Orion. He has won numerous awards including the 2011 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, 2008 Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure, the 2007 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and the 2003 Spirit of the West Award for his body of work.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 228 reviews
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,355 followers
December 26, 2018
Childs explores the ethics of looting artifacts, examines the role of archeologists and museum curators, explains the black market for antiquities, and shares some of his greatest moments of discovery in the wild. His account is clearly biased, hinging on his romanticized view of how found-artifacts should be handled, but he provides interesting arguments to support his views (and even calls himself out for being contradictory, at times). Finders Keepers is a passionate account of inward and outward discovery and poses the question: Who should own history?
This is not simply a book of violations. It is a book of choices. It is how we answer the conundrum of archeology, the moral questions it poses. Consciously or not, most of use have already made our choices. This boook will help you understand why you made yours.
Profile Image for Karin.
626 reviews14 followers
July 20, 2014
You can't please everyone. In retrospect there was probably no way that I, a formally trained archaeologist, archaeological conservator, and museologist, would like this book. But I was thinking this would at least be a rational look at the underbelly of antiquities and the thrill and obsession that often accompanies it. That would be a book worth reading.
Childs is on the periphery of understanding. He's picked up some lessons during his travels and applies them across the board. Sometimes he gets close to the mark and other times he's way off. It reminds me of when I encounter someone who learned a basic preservation technique in a workshop and then applies it to every type of artifact in the collection rather than just the type of artifact for which it is meant.
I'm sure he doesn't see the contradictions in his statements or dealings with people from the various 'camps'. But these jumped off the page and drove me crazy. It didn't matter who he was talking to; dealers, pothunters, archaeologists, curators...he came across as someone desperate for approval. So he ended up giving these people the impression that he agreed with whatever they were doing, whether it was illegal, unethical, or academically by the book. Accepting illicit objects as gifts, endorsing an approach when he knows full well it is illegal...ugh. He obviously isn't familiar with all of our codes of ethics. And how he could go on about the importance of provenance and then brag about picking up items he has found, looking them over, photographing them, and putting them 'back'...um, hello!? The moment the object is moved you've just changed its provenance.
As for his museum theft, I nearly threw the book across the room when I read that. Again he has made ridiculous and baseless assumptions and showed his ignorance of museum work. Objects have made their way into museum collections by so many means! The object he took could have been on loan (and now the museum will have some insurance problems), it could have been given by a local First Nation for safekeeping until they were able to establish their own Cultural Centre (there goes the trust between those groups), it could have been handed over by government after being confiscated from a pothunter (that's the last time government will hand anything over to that museum), or it could have been bought from eBay as a way to save it from entering a private collection and being lost to its people and community (and now the board will question whether it should ever make such a purchase again). The possibilities are almost endless. How dare he steal it and drop it off at some arbitrary location of his choosing! How dare he separate it from its brother and sister pots and baskets and other related material culture.
I sincerely hope that people see this book for what it is.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,719 followers
June 20, 2015
I had high hopes for this book about archaeology, but I found it to be muddled and poorly written, and I quickly lost interest. I abandoned it after a few chapters. You may like it more.

Introductory Quotes
"This book is about the underbelly of archaeology, from both a personal and a global perspective. It is a firsthand exploration into the many reasons we loot. To loot is to freely take something that is not yours. There are night diggers pillaging tombs and rioters with bats and crowbars pouring through the unhinged doors of the National Museum in Iraq. There are scientists who say it is looting when artifacts come without paperwork. Museum curators have called it looting when repatriation laws require them to turn over prized pieces of antiquity to faraway countries demanding their heritage back. Fingers seem to all be pointing at each other."

"Why so much contention? We are dealing with the physical remains of human history. What one person takes often destroys it for another, a big gamble when we are here for such a short time, one thin layer of generations atop thousands of years of ancestry. What we do now forever changes the context of artifacts."
Profile Image for JulieW.
32 reviews
February 19, 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Just to give context - there's nothing I'd rather do than hike in the desert southwest, searching the ground for something, anything, that connects me to the people who lived there a thousand years ago. So, I've definitely struggled with whether to pick up a sherd or leave it in place. The best thing about this book is that Mr. Childs didn't come up with a black and white answer as to who should own the touchable pieces of our past. Instead, he gave numerous examples as to why the answer is: "it depends....."
Profile Image for Xarah.
354 reviews
July 23, 2013
I found Childs' writing style very nice. It felt like he was engaging in a conversation. It was quite approachable and he was able to portray the issues in a clear light.

I don't agree with all of Childs' view points, however. While he talks about laws that protect cultural resources, he doesn't full grasp the reasoning behind it, especially when taking into account what an archaeologist does. We do not just go, dig in a site, and collect items for museums or repositories. We also search to understand the past; not just at that one spot, but in a much larger framework. Some of the artifacts on the site, whether it's a unique type of stone used for make a projectile point or a painted ceramic bowl, we hope to discover more of just the coolness that is the object. Stone material used may come from miles away indicating things like the cultural group traveling long distances or maybe a trade network was established. Ceramic objects are the same. These items also can show us a continuation of cultural traditions, or the advent of a new tradition, possibly influenced from another cultural group moving into the region.

Then there are the items that no one but archaeologists get excited for: the soil, animal bones, the site location, etc., etc. These are items and debris that can tell us diet, the function of a site, and more. When someone loots a site, digging into the ground to get the fantastic items, a lot of this information is lost and reconstructing and understanding the past becomes that much more difficult to interpret.

I did find it ironic that some of the individuals Childs interviewed asked his opinion how old an object was. That's funny, because no one would know if archaeologists didn't do their jobs uncovering and deciphering the past. Really, without our work, the those items may never be fully understood and placed back in time, back to a group, back to a location. And, the other "amusing" thing, archaeologists can tell you more about the history of an object then the collector - they see art with some history. We see history and then art.

I totally understand the desire to keep the amazing objects, but my desire to understand the past and the people who made and used the object outweighs the desire to own it. Some of the artifacts - sculptures, pots, jewelry, tools - are just amazing. As for Childs question on "who owns the past," I believe we all do. I may not have any relation to the Native American tribes who live in the United States, but as a human, I want to understand the whole development of the human race and how we evolved, why groups changed in different ways, and how things are connected.
253 reviews16 followers
October 24, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Childs entertaining, informative, provocative tales of archeological sites “plundered,” “looted,” and artifacts removed (or not), preserved, stored, sold, displayed in museums, held for private display. He portrays well the deeply felt emotions and the ethical positions taken by many who seek, find, collect, and even simply learn and enjoy from the work of those others. He “had me” from his introduction and my engagement continued through innumerable tales of artifacts found/lost; ownership claims made and won or lost. We range from stories of “hobby” searches by “amateurs” who simply revel in personal connections with the historical through stories about “treasure seekers” and “diggers (sellers)” who act as if they own what they find and often sell to private collectors/investors, on to stories of the grandest of academic- and government-sponsored “professional” archeological finds and collection building. Who “owns” the stuff of old? Who should have stewardship rights over pieces of human history left behind in material form (artifacts, sites)? What is “right” and “wrong” about various forms of removal, preservation, display? Childs’ ends his introduction with this challenge (or offer) to use the book to consider your own positions: “This is not simply a book of violations. It is a book of choices. It is how we answer the conundrum of archeology, the moral questions it poses. Consciously or not, most of us have already made our choices. This book will help you understand why you made yours.” If you find yourself feeling awe and connection when in the presence of old pieces left by the activities of humans long gone, and/or if you find yourself either confused or certain about who is “right” when one group demands the return of “their” artifacts/materials from another or demands the “right” to “develop/exploit” a geographic area held to be private or sacred by another, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book.

Need more before you pick up (or download) your own copy? I’ll share a few of the lines and stories that cinched my own engagement (there are many more amongst which you might find your own):

p.6 (from Childs’ intro): “In no other field of research have I encountered so many people who have wanted the other party dead.” DEAD! He provides examples.

p.78, within a book section entitled Vandalism and Other Acts of Removal: Embedded in a story of his own find within the Four Corners region of the US, Childs regales us with tales of decades of “pot-hunting” in Four Corners, government investigation and intervention (a massive raid with arrests in 1986; informant purchases of 256 artifacts from local pot-hunters, paying $335,685 over two years), and the tale of Earl Shumway – “credited with running the [pot-hunting] tradition by drawing the eye of the law, turning a pastime into a rebel sport. During the height of his digging career in the 1980’s and ‘90’s he claimed to have dug 10,000 archaeological sites… […] when he last got out of prison, he publicly stated that he would kill any federal officer he encountered in the backcountry.” A ranger working there in the 1990s told Childs that she wore a bulletproof vest, carried powerful sidearms, a shotgun, and sometimes an M16 “because of people like Earl.”

p.120ff: “[In 1906, Aurel] Stein got way with some of the most spectacular literary finds in the world. The Diamond Sutra and thousands more in his crates” – these among the thousands of scrolls found in the Taklamakan Desert at the turn of the 20th century by a Chinese Taoist monk, Yuanlu, looking for a cave from which to live, practice his meditation and carry his begging bowl. Yuanlu discovered a cave system, now known as “The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas,” including hundreds of chambers and carved out halls, murals, carved walls, and scroll after scroll, all sealed away and lost to common awareness for a millennium. Yuanlu settled in to protect and absorb his find. In 1906, along came Aurel Stein, British explorer/archeologist/collector, following the Silk Road route taken in the 6th century by one of his own Chinese heroes, monk/scholar Xuanzang, who was collecting knowledge and manuscripts from all over Asia to better understand the diverse ways in which people all over Asia worshipped. Xuanzang’s lost collection – Yuanlu’s cave-hidden scrolls – re-found, collected, and transported to the British Museum, London, where they continue to reside – a treasure trove of historical material preserved.

p.144 – a nearly throw-away line while introducing another tale – “…some argue that [archeology] goes back to the likes of the caliph al-Mamun, a nine-century Arabian scholar and philosopher who oversaw crews tunneling into the Great Pyramid of Giza and was incidentally frustrated to find he was not the first, that the tomb had already been emptied.” Not exactly a “modern” problem!

p.145ff – the story of Gustaf Nordenskiӧld, Swede, who “went into the Southwest [U.S.] thinking himself a scientific hero and barely made it out with his skin.” Read of his meeting in 1891 with the Wetherill brothers, who led him to a series of mysterious cliff dwellings hidden in a place called Mesa Verde. Nordenskiӧld would go on to “publish the first archaeological treatise in North America, The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, Southwestern Colorado: The Pottery and Implements, but only after a process including his house arrest and diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Sweden. Per Childs, “You can visit the largest Mesa Verde collection outside the United States at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki, where Nordenskiӧld’s artifacts are now held.” (p147) Who knew!

p.163ff – And finally, the story of “The Golden Jar” (Chapter 10) – in which we hear of Childs’ visit to the northern Mexican home of “Mario,” who was kind enough to lead Childs on explorations in his area and who brought Childs into his own home to show/share with his new-found friend his own artifact on display – an “old” jar found by Mario and painted gold because his wife didn’t like the original color. Childs shares with us his own changing emotional reactions – recognition that the jar was likely a 700-year-old, pre-Columbian piece; horror that it had been desecrated by its being painted; a softening appreciation for the emotional attachment that Mario and his family demonstrated with this “found” piece of something made by people long gone; and his recognition that his own emotional attachments to archeological pieces, absent the trappings of “science” and professional archeological theorizing, were quite similar. (This story resonates with my own experience in the highlands of Papua New Guinea with a discussion of what constitutes legitimate use of "modern" or "European" materials in "traditional" ceremony).

These are my personal favorites from among the many engaging and varied stories that Childs uses to inform us, challenge our thinking, and understand his own reactions. You’ll, no doubt, find others that resonate with your own history and interests. Enjoy!
Profile Image for Jo.
601 reviews10 followers
July 12, 2017
This was fascinating and thought provoking, and an enjoyable read. Not too long, not too heavy, with a strong focus on the American Southwest where the author has extensive experience.

I had never really considered the ethics of archaeology and the collection and trading of artifacts and antiquities and how complex these issues really are. I thought I knew what's right and what's wrong, but I really hadn't given it adequate thought. The author has his own opinions, but speaks to people on every side of the issue to challenge his own opinions. The tensions and disagreements in this field are more volatile than I would have imagined, and everyone is certain they are right. There is no simple answer to the question of what to do with old things although some approaches feel gut wrenching.

Ownership of cultural treasures is a touchy subject - whether you're talking about Sitting Bull's pipe or an ancient mural or a set of scientifically important human remains. Who gets to use, control, touch, own, display, or view objects is a deeply difficult topic.

Is it better to risk the gradual destruction of an object in situ, or to rescue it, wrenching it from its irreplaceable context? Is an artifact better off stored safely in a storage unit for decades waiting for someone to have the time to study it? Should anybody be allowed to sell beautiful things taken from ancient graves? Does it make a difference if I am robbing my own ancestor's grave? What if it's not my people but I own the land?

I recommend this book to anyone who thinks they know what should be done with an ancient object found on their land. The answer might not be as simple and obvious as you think.

NonFiction book group theme: archaeology
552 reviews
January 6, 2012
In southwest archaeology circles, I've heard a range of opinions about this Craig Childs fellow. Most recently I heard from an archaeobotanist, "He's not a professional, but he's very sincere and he has a genuine desire to know about the past. When he talks to you, he has these little strips of paper that he takes notes on." Sounds like someone I'd get along with. I like the way he approaches the issue with care and complexity, taking into account the very real emotional side of archaeology. Trust me, archaeology is not something people do for the money. The people I know do it because they have a passion for it, and they struggle with these questions on a day-to-day basis.

The largest problem with this book began to nettle me from the very beginning. The book jacket asks, "To whom does the past belong?" and Childs considers wealthy collectors, amateur diggers, and professional archaeologists. But he doesn't approach the issue that many archaeologists face every day--these are not your people. So whose past is it? Do ties of blood even matter when the ancestors in question are five hundred years old? A lot of people think they do, and that archaeology doesn't belong to any of the groups he mentions. To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe that's an arena Childs didn't feel he could rightfully enter as a white guy. To not give him the benefit of the doubt means he didn't spend much time thinking about it.
Profile Image for Katherine.
751 reviews5 followers
September 13, 2010
Craig Childs is one of my favorite nature writers who has lately ventured into archaeological writing. This book is an interesting musing on who owns the past and what should be done with artifacts. His bottom line is we have collected enough, enjoy what we've collected and leave the rest where it is. Being part of the ground is part of it's history and part of our sense of place. He does bring up some interesting ideas and its very readable. More a series of essays than a book. Will be interested to hear what archaeologists think. Again he mentions people I know in the book which makes it fun.

Profile Image for Alana.
118 reviews
October 26, 2010
I want to find this idiot, cover him to his neck in a shell midden and leave him exposed to the elements.

If there was a star for "Jesus Christ, I can't believe someone published this," I would have clicked on it.
Profile Image for Bonnie.
863 reviews47 followers
March 3, 2017
Craig Childs is an expert in finding relics like potsherds, shrines, arrowheads, and tapestries. This book is about the underbelly of archaeology, from both a personal and a global perspective. It tries to explain why people loot treasures they find and also explain why that is wrong. Most of the action takes place in south central Arizona where a group of men took high school students from Los Angeles into the desert, The company they worked for paid seventy-five dollars a day. They taught basic outdoors skills and called themselves naturalists. Mostly in their twenties and thirties, they were burgeoning scientists and misanthropes. They each brought some skill to the table: one could heal injuries and cure sickness with local plants she knew by their Latin names; another excelled at finding potable water in the most forbidding terrain, some could start fires with hand drills, some caught small creatures with snares. The author was the one finding rock art and small beads on the ground. He tells the story of a man who found a trove of artifacts including a 2,000 year-old sealed torso-sized basket heavy with objects inside. Inside were a bowl, a knife, and a net used to catch rabbits. Under that was a mummified boy who about four when he died. He was caught and jailed in 1996, Inside his house, two thousand objects were found. His fine was a record- breaking $2.5 million .They find a large cave that seemed to have been used as a shrine. There was a hole that held miniature Indian bows. The man with them wanted to take them, but Craig said no. As they left, he noticed the man had stuffed one under his jacket. He finally put it back when the rest of the group insisted he should. The book is dedicated to the idea of preserving the artifacts in their natural habitat. This is an interesting look at artifacts and how they should be preserved for posterity.
Profile Image for Milo.
219 reviews2 followers
November 14, 2013
Hard to put down. Perhaps because I live in the heart of the west that Childs has written about I am drawn to his work. The book explores with little bias all of the sides of antiquities and what we do with them. His presence on Facebook is, however, quite irritating. He acts like a person seeking daily recognition and yet his books speak for themselves.
Profile Image for Kathy.
1,274 reviews13 followers
June 20, 2017
This is an interesting book on the history and ethics of professional and amateur archaeologist.
Profile Image for Andrew.
6 reviews1 follower
November 11, 2010
As it turns out, the author’s title is unbelievably appropriate as it describes the essence of the entirety of the book – a personal reaction to the discovery of artifacts.

Childs sets out to describe the history behind humanity’s need to understand its past. He artfully crafts a story based in part on his own personal, and very diverse, travels about the globe. He tells of grand discoveries as often as simple broken pots. Childs successfully creates a sense that each item has a tale to tell and is valuable for that alone, if nothing else. He also notes the vast disparity between people of all walks of life in terms of how they interact with, and understand, the past as embodied in ruins and artifacts. Archaeologists, collectors, looters, and families all make their appearances; all lending their views on the issues and all are given due consideration by Childs.

Perhaps comprising the central theme of the book, Childs effectively engenders an appreciation for the natural beauty of not only artifacts, but also of their settings. In this simple observation, he draws attention to perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding many of the artifacts of the world, whether in private collections, museums, or still in the ground: are artifacts art or information? Do they have value on their own or do they require provenance and detailed records of discovery? Who should properly care for them – individuals, museums, or the sands of time?

Childs wavers back and forth throughout the book, between his opinion that humanity’s need to possess items from its past is natural and his personal feeling that artifacts should remain where we find them, left to become one with the earth again in time. For him, the answer is personal and simple, our museums and collections are full to bursting already – we ought to let our discoveries lie in peace to be observed and appreciated in their “natural” state by the next passerby.

However, this is where one comes against at least two main problems with Childs’ conclusions. First, his premise is based on an entirely personal feeling. Such a feeling is obviously difficult to define, as Childs doesn’t fully succeed in convincing the reader that his position is the right one. As such, his position is not particularly helpful in defining how we ought to interact with our past, or how we ought to govern our behavior. Of course, if his goal was to start the discussion surrounding the treatment of cultural sites and artifacts on an entirely new path, Childs could be successful.

Second, the ultimate result of Childs’ “let it lie” mentality is often bound to be precisely the same result as if nothing had been found at all. For all intents and purposes the artifact -- all its uniqueness, history, and information – will be lost to humanity. Perhaps this is preferable to the destruction of innumerable sites from the greed or nonchalance of looters and others, but perhaps not. What value has history if no one knows it? Childs tells of several finds he uncovered in his travels, only to leave them to chance thereafter. He argues that our museums and collections are overflowing with artifacts and that we cannot properly care for the ones we already have. Why continue to dig up new artifacts which might not even be seen in a museum, instead languishing away in a climate-controlled basement? One has to admit, Childs has a valid point.

Even so, is there not a value in facilitating the sharing of knowledge and engendering an appreciation for humanity’s past? Who is to say when a new discovery is more than just another pot, and is, in fact, new evidence never before seen? Provided we continue to legitimize the process surrounding digs and the acquisition of artifacts, it seems almost silly to argue that we’re better off leaving things in the dirt. Childs’s personal, almost spiritual, relationship with his process of hiking and discovery is just that – personal. It is not immediately translatable to anyone else.

While Childs himself does not truly reach a firm conclusion, he certainly generates the impression that if he had his way, all the world’s remaining undiscovered ruins and artifacts would remain as they are – unknown to anyone unwilling to backpack for days in the remaining wilderness areas of our world. At the same time, Childs does agree that the work of archeologists is preferable to that of looters, even though he often equates the two in many ways.

His final three examples demonstrating his ethic when making a new find illustrate all the above criticisms. He tells of returning to the site of a long ago discovered basket, an arrowhead on the side of the road, and a prayer stone in Tibet. He again wavers between his natural desire to possess each of these finds, to take them to show others. In the end, his conscience wins the day and he leaves each where he found them -- in an important way, treating them as the bits of plant matter and rocks they will soon become.

Childs doesn’t seem to see the problem that strikes the reader in these actions. For example, he states that the basket was clearly purposefully placed where he found it. However, his discovery came on the heels of an arduous and dangerous trek to find a tiny crack where if he poked his head in he could just discern the shadowy form of the basket. Everything about his lengthy description speaks to the probability that the basket merely fell into the crack some hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The arrowhead he leaves behind instead of sharing with his son because he knows it will merely become a dusty member of his own cardboard box collection. Because of this, he opts instead to leave the artifact by the road for someone else to discover. Is it really better than teaching his son about the history that fragment represents? With his decision, this piece of history will likely remain nothing more than roadside gravel. Even though the sentiment is a noble one, perhaps it is too simplistic.

In final example of the prayer stone, the reader feels Childs’s ethic is the most appropriate. These stones were placed for a specific and important purpose. It is an inherently different idea to protect the placement of something placed for a firm purpose.

Of course, it is never that simple. Who is to say what a culture from the past (or even the present) holds sacred? Who gets to decide, particularly if the item is old enough that we don’t rightly know to whom it can be said to “belong?” Even though the questions are difficult, the reader almost feels as though Childs’s approach ignores them rather than answers them.

Even though he acknowledges that there are places where one can hardly walk without crunching artifacts underfoot, Childs also seems to ignore the reality that over time, we can expect humans to continue to grow across much of the land that is currently “undeveloped.” If the best policy were truly to simply leave things as they are, anything we might gain from undiscovered sites or artifacts will be lost to us as we cover the earth with our buildings. Childs seems to believe that this is simply the way it ought to be, that artifacts and ruins should just be reclaimed by the earth. The reader feels this attitude is too simplistic or perhaps simply oblivious.

All in all, Childs’s heart is in the right place and he tells an interesting story of a personal journey across the face of archaeology and collecting. However, in terms of the world at large, the reader feels we should focus on creating better incentives to properly study the artifacts we have, allowing for as much preservation of their context as possible. In many cases, this may mean leaving the items where they were found. But is it really wrong to say that if someone thinks the find is of interest, for knowledge and understanding or simply for aesthetics, that they should be barred from a thoughtful study of them?

Humanity as a whole should be allowed to care about its past, to want to touch it, to understand it – in fact, it should be encouraged to do so. Not all of us can make treks through the wilderness to find these relics from the past – but many of us can make a trip to a museum or follow a designated path to a protected site.

Artifacts are both a part of us and the earth’s history. The fact that each person has different ideas about how we ought to deal with them is what makes the topic so difficult and yet so compelling. Hopefully, opinions like those of Childs will continue to move that discussion along to fruitful outcomes.
Profile Image for Bea.
803 reviews31 followers
April 20, 2022
I had mixed feelings during the reading of this book. On the one hand, the author argues for leaving antiquities in situ and on the other he is stealing or accepting those same type of antiquities from those he would disdain the practices of. I guess that makes him human...and the struggle to remain true to his own ethical standards are just that...a struggle. Still it is hard to hear him speak against an act and then have him vacillate because he likes the person doing just that that he speaks against.

Still very human. Oh, dear. I did say that I have mixed feelings, didn't I?

He does make several good points and thoroughly discusses the many ethical questions in the field of archeology. I tend to agree that things left in situ is best, yet I love history and looking at the finds in a museum is very interesting. Still it does feel a bit sterile and not connected with the land. Oh, well...even I struggle.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
439 reviews41 followers
March 28, 2022
With beautiful synchronicity, this caught my eye at a National Parks store in Arizona moments after I'd visited some ruins and discussed my qualms about archeology with a family member. VERDICT: this book and I were meant to find each other, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up my best read of the year. I have a new favorite author of non-fiction.
Profile Image for Caroline.
718 reviews124 followers
March 18, 2015
This book is essentially one long personal rumination on the ethics of archaeology, of artefact preservation and collection, the role of museum curators, archaeologists, dealers and collectors in both preserving and destroying the archaeological record, depending on which side of the ethical fence you fall on. It's an interesting moral dilemma, one I'm not sure I've fully come to a conclusion on, even at the end of this book.

Childs argues that in removing artefacts from their locations we are losing something, that despite the preservation of the object itself, we lose the context, the geographical link between object and land, that in making the decision to remove it, to study it and save it for posterity, we are stamping our own brand of ownership on it, indulging in the human need to collect. He effectively argues that we should leave things where we find them, that not everything needs to be studied and logged and stored.

It's not an argument I'm entirely sure I agree with. If taken to its logical conclusion, we would know nothing of our history, and progress would either be paralysed by the necessity of preserving relics intact so as not to disturb them at all or the artefacts would be utterly destroyed with no attempt to understand them or their history. To a certain extent it's a very sentimental view of history, that somehow simply being old lends these objects a certain sacredness, an inviolability. Their original viewers would almost certainly not have held such a view, although they also probably wouldn't have understood our interest to begin with.

On the flip side, this urge to collect has led to a massive black market trade in illicit artefacts and valuable historical sites being utterly destroyed by looters and diggers intent only on finding things of value to sell. Childs definitely feels that in such a circumstance, archaeological digs are the lesser of two evils and that if anyone must remove relics and artefacts he would rather it was archaeologists with the intent to study and understand and preserve, than looters intend only on a quick buck and collectors motivated by the urge to possess. The author's ambivalent position comes across very strongly in this book, and one feels that his heart is urging him to leave things alone, to see, appreciate and move on, whilst his head understands the need to study and preserve.

Personally, I think the advancement of human knowledge is more important than leaving items as they are. Yes, it might be wonderful to think of historical sites preserved in situ, as they were intended to be seen, that we 'look but don't touch', that we let nature take its course. But I feel that's a fanciful view of the world that has no grounding in reality. It seems humans either value these items too much and covet them or we value them not at all and destroy them. Either way, leaving them alone seems to me simply a recipe for the worst of both worlds - no advancement of knowledge and understanding and no preservation either.
Profile Image for Angelina Justice.
602 reviews62 followers
January 3, 2011
This book was engaging and hard to put down at times. That is a major accomplishment for non-fiction that wades into intellectual and philosophical waters.

I was engaged in the book from the beginning, but I connected with Childs on page 151 when I read the words "They're in love, the root and the jar, can't you see?" He was conveying his horrified reaction to the lack of connection that an archeologist showed for the artifact and it's relationship to it's setting. He could have done this in many ways, but the immediate thought that he shared was both poetic and deeply visceral.

He taps that same human connection again on page 159 as he talks about a salvage archeologist and finding out why she is chosen to do most of the grave removals. "She was the chosen gravedigger because she grieved. I was speechless, watching her snap up a dustpan and a broom - the tools of the trade to get the dead out of our way."

Despite his own strong feelings about wanting to leave artifacts in their place, he seems captivated by the obvious dedication and deep emotion of personal collector Forrest Fenn. My own views waver somewhere between those of Childs and Fenn, who said, "Why shouldn't we be able to touch this? What is wrong with giving you this feeling? It is a privilege." and "It's not the object, it's the story behind the object."

This book is not only a good read for history and archeology buffs, but for all people who feel the need to collect or gather things. It asks honest questions, explores many perspectives and leaves the answers up to the reader.

Profile Image for Sue.
1,698 reviews1 follower
July 29, 2013
To take? Or not to take. Like the dilemma that surrounds the Titanic. Was Indiana Jones justified to pilfer his objects only because his life was in jeopardy? It made great movies but in real life there are all kinds of laws that govern these things.

This was a lovely picture of a kiva on the cover, and we really enjoyed descending into the one (Coronado State Monument) near Albuquerque where they also proudly presented artifacts such as an authentic soldier helmet (and other paraphernalia) from the Cortés era, appropriated when soldiers approached the locals around 1540. Nice museums in ABQ, I vote for extracting and preserving.

Sadly, as described throughout this book, there are a lot of private collections; in many other cases, people have used artifacts for their daily pleasure or broken them down to destruction.

I have to add that we were expressly forbidden to photograph the kiva in ABQ, so I have to wonder if this picture ALONE doesn't confirm or deny the whole premise of this book . . . They had prehistoric drawings still on the walls; maybe this one didn't.
Profile Image for Nancy.
476 reviews3 followers
September 22, 2010
In this book, Craig Childs puts on his amateur archaeologist hat and takes the reader along as he explores the different sides of the archaeological ethics debate, "What should happen to artifacts from the past?" The oldest rule is "finders, keepers" which simply means that whoever finds the artifact can decide what to do with it. Childs has done a lot of research and personally visited with professional and amateur archaeologists, museum curators, officials responsible for enforcing various laws regarding protection and repatriation of artifacts, treasure hunters, antiquities dealers, and collectors. He tells the stories of the people involved and the artifacts themselves. Although Childs focuses on archaeology in the American West, he also relates tales of finds and plunders/preservations from around the world. I found it well written and extemely interesting. I will never visit a history museum again without wondering about how everything got there.
Profile Image for Paul Kinzer.
129 reviews
February 5, 2017
This was a very well written story of one mans journey to find the answer to what should be done with archaeological artifacts. Through personal experience while hiking through the U.S. Southwest (and other places around the world) seeking ruins, and discussions with archaeologists, collectors, and looters, he finds a multi-faceted answer, quite at odds with itself. If you have an even passing interest in archaeology, you'll find this a fascinating read. Even though I was on a plane with little else to do, I found this difficult to put down, wishing for just a slightly longer flight so I could finish it.
Profile Image for Erica.
19 reviews18 followers
February 22, 2022
The topic of human possession is something I have often pondered, and as anyone that explores canyon country and the American southwest will tell you - its something we face often as we explore the places we love. Having hiked for days (many times) to admire rock art left behind thousands of years ago in the place and context to which it was was created (because fortunately, humans have not yet found a way to remove and possess it), held beautiful pot sherds and fibers of baskets, found perfectly intricate beads in the dust beneath my feet - I know from experience that no museum, or text book, or shelf in someones home can ever do any slight justice to the awe and understanding experienced in meeting ancient objects in the place in which the human hands that crafted them lived. Its a question of ethics and preservation - and unfortunately complicated. I found this book engaging and hard to put down.
Profile Image for Connie.
228 reviews
March 5, 2022
I’ll read anything Craig Childs writes. Excellent storytelling.
Profile Image for Tracy.
925 reviews7 followers
June 22, 2022
This is a very interesting, if slightly outdated (2010) book about archaeological artifacts. I learned that if we come across any artifacts in the wild, which is unlikely, given all the looting of archaeological sites, we should leave them. Lots of interesting anecdotes told by the author about his travels.
Profile Image for Michelle.
Author 24 books441 followers
August 15, 2013
I was eager to snatch up Child’s latest book, because he’s spent even more time wandering around to backcountry ruins than I have, and I was ecstatic to see that this book dealt with the questions that have always circled in my head when I visited these lonely sites.

It seems to me that pothunters and archaeologists are just two spots on a long spectrum the inevitably destroys the evidence of history. Childs deals with this issue beautifully, showing the pros and cons of both ways. He talks about meticulously detailed provenances (though we all know how paperwork can get lost and software can crash), about good pothunters and bad, about the gut-wrenching idea of sacred artifacts soaked in poisons to preserve them and then repatriated to their home Indian tribes to be dealt with, about museum storerooms stuffed full with artifacts that the public will never get to see, that have been taken from their places in fields or wilderness or under the ground that anyone with a pair of hiking boots and half a day could have visited.

With his gift for writing, you can see the allure of untouched history, unstudied and undisturbed, the excitement of preserved and well-displayed artistry in gardens and museums, and the casual humanity of history as a continuum, a seven-hundred year old jar re-painted and used as a vase on the kitchen table. The last should appear as blasphemy, but in some ways, it also feels the most right.

On the desert study plots where I work, a can two days old is trash and a can sixty years old is an arch site and they don’t look a whole lot different. And while I despise the careless grave robbing of pothunters, I remember fondly visiting Rome and walking up marble stairs worn uneven by feet, through streets lined with buildings of every age. The windows in their museums were open to the air, not hermetically sealed. I stood in front of a six hundred year old church that had been torn down to reveal the twelve hundred year old building beneath, both outdating any European structures in my own country. They stood next to a shop that sold printer paper and ink cartridges.

When in Rome, I remember thinking that the blending of past and present was the most natural, the least contrived and the most beautiful way to handle antiquities. But there are too many of us now, so that unprotected history gets broken and thrown on trash heaps and taken far from where it was made. I don’t want to see pre-Columbian vessels treated the same as McDonald’s cups, but like Childs, I don’t see any perfect places to draw hard and fast lines that find some behavior acceptable and some illegal.

In the book, Childs describes a tree root that had grown into an archeology site and had twined its fingers around a jar. It was a very vivid image and I thought: there. That is beautiful, that is what I want for the past. The world goes on, the present touches the past and they both are already shaping the future. But still, when they dug it up, the root had crushed the jar to pieces.

In this book, Childs peeks respectfully in on every argument, visits all the deserts and board rooms and kitchens where decisions about the past are made. He doesn’t place his own opinion in bold type, but sketches it in the dagger point of an arrowhead, untaken, and whispers that to study the past is to change the past. And then it isn’t the past at all.

But we love it just the same.
Profile Image for Shellie.
972 reviews
June 10, 2012
I really enjoyed this book; there were a few essays he included that might have been over-the-top, but short enough that it didn't do damage to the over-all effect of the book. Exactly what was the over-all effect of this book? He states is opinion fairly clearly, though even he has some moments when he seems uncertain that what he believes is always the best way. And I did like that; that he could see when that sometimes a different way of doing something might be better. And yes is seemed it was difficult for him to come that conclusion. Personally I am still at odds, I wasn't even aware that I had an opinion on removing artifacts from archaeological digs; but I have to admit I really like museums. A lot.
Read this book if only to let your mind wander though the dirt of salvaging history. There's a lot of it out there. The question is what is the best way to learn from it, without destroying it? And just to throw a wrinkle in, how do get this information to as many people as possible? Like I said before I really like museums, and in recent years I have really enjoyed traveling museums. And that is one answer.
The title "Finders Keepers" refers to that old marble-keeping saying we used in kindergarten, he used on some and he had it used against him. When a valuable artifact is found it generally is a given that whoever was the finder gets to determine the outcome. The author is a returner. He leaves wheat he finds where he finds it and on occasion returns items for others to see as he did. He knows he may be the last person to find it that way. He knows more often than not people will take what they find. But not always - as you will learn as you read this book.
He did say something I do agree with and I didn't mark it when I read it so I can't quote it properly and probably shouldn't at all. I just tried to find it, perhaps when you read it you'll recognize it and then this will make more sense; but he said something about artifacts not being decorations leaning against a wall in a New York condo. That part I agree with.
I am currently using my Great-grandmother,s bedroom set, to me that is the best use of this piece of personal history. And it is more than 60 years old.
Profile Image for Sandy D..
1,014 reviews31 followers
October 28, 2010
This is a very interesting and well-written book on archaeology and the ethics of collecting prehistoric artifacts. Childs is pretty even-handed, and delves into the history a bit (especially when it comes to his stomping grounds in the SW US), taking a sympathetic look at the motivations of all concerned: amateurs, professionals, shovel bums and museum curators alike.

Most archaeologists are terrible, awful, very bad writers, and Childs is not. So it is good that he wrote this, even (especially?) if I don't always agree with him. He brings some important issues to a wider audience, without making them want to poke their eyes out after reading a page or two. He makes it all entertaining and suspenseful and sometimes funny. That said, a few things irritated me in the book. Maybe I'll blog about them. They are pretty minor when you consider what he did right.

Anyway, if you're interested in science vs. art, preservation vs. exposure, conservation vs. economics, international intrigue and government sting operations, suicide, theft, eBay, and above all, old stuff - things that people made long ago - then you need to read this. Read it before you pick up an arrowhead and put it in your pocket, or before you go to a museum and see some ancient Mayan carvings, Buddhist scrolls, or Pueblo pottery.
421 reviews7 followers
September 1, 2018
Craig Child's books are always a great read- insightful, thought-provoking and poetic in his bond with nature. In this particular book, he asks the question: who do archeological finds belong to? A political, a scientific and a moral question. Many degreed archeologists have uncovered the remnants of a prior civilization - and given/sold them to universities and museums. However, these museums are seldom in the country of their finding. Should these countries be given back their ancestory - the pots, the carvings, the bones, etc. of their ancestors? The Black Market for antiquities is enormous. Amateur "grave-diggers" in seeking the valuable commodities often destroy entire sites uncovered. At least the archeologists approach the sites scientifically - recording every find, everything around an item - and can then recreate a written history (or assumption) of early human's daily life. Or, as Childs does during his own "digs" - return the item to its site, leave no evidence of the site ever being uncovered - and leave the prior generation's as he found it, as they left it.

Another question Childs addresses is that already the museums, universities, warehouses are filling up with more antiquities than they can display or interpret. Each generation builds on the sites of prior generations. How far back should we go to uncover the past?
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