Cooperation and Conflict: Examining Alternative Views of Archaeology on the Great Plains

By Kinnear, Patti | Plains Anthropologist, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Cooperation and Conflict: Examining Alternative Views of Archaeology on the Great Plains


Kinnear, Patti, Plains Anthropologist


Within the North American Great Plains four primary groups of people are actively interested in Plains archaeology: professional archaeologists, amateur archaeologists, artifact collectors and Native Americans. This paper presents survey and interview data comparing the interests and motivations of the first three of these towards Plains archaeology. The results clearly differentiate these three groups but also document surprising overlaps in their motivations and attitudes, particularly that all three are interested in Plains archaeology for largely the same reasons. The differences among them seem to reside in perceptions and attitudes toward each other. These perceptions and attitudes are largely the result of misperceptions, lack of education, and a general breakdown in communication, contributing to strained relationships between groups. These strained relationships result in ongoing impacts to the archaeological record of the Great Plains that could be mitigated by recognizing the commonalities among these groups.

Keywords: professional archaeologist, amateur archaeologist, artifact collector

Much of what I shall say has been said before. But I repeat deliberately, and chiefly because the current trend in archaeological methods again urges introspection. I believe we might profitably pause periodically to take stock; to seek out the weak links of the chain we are forging; to ask which of our inherited tasks is most slighted at the moment. It is just such a stock-taking that I propose for this occasion (Judd 1929:401).

A few years ago I had the opportunity to conduct lithic analysis on a collection of small projectile points from a Woodland site in south-central Nebraska. In an attempt to do comparative analysis with points from other Plains sites, I discovered the professional literature to be lacking in resources. Professional archaeologists I consulted assured me I had not encountered a new class of projectile points; however, finding similar points systematically described in the body of professional literature readily accessible to me was virtually impossible. I concluded that although the points were not completely unknown, they must certainly be uncommon. I was wrong.

During this time I attended a meeting of a local archaeological society and met an avid artifact collector. I asked about the small points and he assured me the small Woodland projectile points were, indeed, quite common on the Plains. He invited me to see his collection.

As I entered this collector's home, I encountered literally thousands of artifacts from the Great Plains. Neatly displayed in glass cases, the artifacts adorned walls, tabletops, and shelves. One case in particular caught my eye-it was full of projectile points nearly identical to those in the collection I was working on. I was dumbfounded. How could something seemingly so common be so underrepresented in the available literature on Plains archaeology? The answer to this question is, in part, the motivation for this paper. Far from unique, this story illustrates an aspect of Plains archaeology seldom addressed in the professional literature-the apparent fragmentation of information concerning prehistoric artifacts on the Great Plains. Professionals and non-professionals (amateur archaeologists and artifact collectors) interested in the archaeology of the Plains each hold pieces of the proverbial puzzle. However, evidence suggests these pieces are rarely shared with each other.

This paper addresses the issue of fragmentation in the information available regarding the Great Plains' prehistoric past and examines the role of the relationship between professionals and non-professionals as a significant contributing factor to this. It also examines how this relationship results in an ongoing impact to the archaeological record of the Great Plains. This paper will briefly look at the history of Plains archaeology and the early relationship between avocational and professional archaeologists. …

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