By Gayle Keck
This is an article excerpt from the Spring 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
Warner Williams stood before a fresh grave in the United Methodist churchyard. The seventeen-year old wasn’t a mourner; he was out behind the small, white, clapboard building in Asheboro, North Carolina, for a different reason: his passion for discovering Native American artifacts.
Williams, now eighty-six years old, remembers the moment well. “Every time they dug a grave, they’d turn up chips,” he said, referring to the flakes left behind from stone-knapping. “That day, they had buried someone and there were little chips all over the ground. Dirt had been rounded up over the deceased person, and on top of that red dirt, there was a chipped-stone axe head. They’d thought it was just a rock, but I knew.”
Collector Richard E. Martens recovered these Clovis points from the Martens Clovis site in east-central Missouri. The site was subsequently destroyed by development. These and other Clovis items Martens recovered will be curated at the Illinois State Museum. | Credit: Richard E. Martens
The late archaeologist George Frison (seated) addresses a number of collectors in his lab at the University of Wyoming in this 2019 photo. Frisson, who was a noted Paleo-Indian expert, worked with collectors throughout his long career. | Credit: Tom Westfall
Archaeologist Teresita Majewski records a nineteenth-century stone wall that she found while conducting a survey on private land in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri. Because of the relationships she established with the landowners there, some of them donated artifacts they had found on their properties to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. | Credit: Gregory L. Fox
Williams had been collecting since age twelve, scouring for arrowheads that were turned up in fresh-plowed fields. But unlike many collectors, he kept a notebook listing the artifacts he found and where they were located. “Every point is numbered,” he said, “I painted a little strip of clear fingernail polish on it, then wrote a number on top of that” matched to a notation. He now has 2,400 projectile points that he considers to be “tens, on a scale of one to ten,” and he has given away thousands of less-perfect ones to children who came to see his collection during its annual display at the local library.
This avid collector’s story might make some archaeologists cringe, but others view him as a potential partner, with valuable data to share. The cringers claim that collectors are diminishing the archaeological record—and in some cases selling artifacts for profit—while professionals who work with collectors see them as allies, essential to their work.