Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mark Trail (Not Territory)

I can't help myself.  I'm a dedicated daily reader, over my morning coffee, of the Washington Post comic pages.  And not just the hip strips like "Doonsbury,"  or the ones like "Pickles" that speak to me personally, but even the likes of -- well, "Mark Trail."
"Mark Trail" is a -- umm -- well, it's pretty much straight out of the fifties.  Its eponymous protagonist, Trail (not Territory) is supposedly a nature journalist; he lives on some sort of private wildlife refuge with his wife -- Cherry! -- and.... well, never mind.  He has adventures contending with poachers and other such environmental evil-doers, though only rarely with, say, land developers and big government agencies.
Anyhow, right now he's fallen in with a really nice old man who lives in a cabin in the woods and has a fabulous collection of -- you guessed it, folks, Indian artifacts.  Which some bad guys are trying to steal.  Actually, they've stolen them and are trying to pin the theft on Trail (not Territory), but we can be sure that Mark will foil them in the end and all will be made right. 
"Right," of course, being that the nice old collector will get his collection back.  Which is what makes the strip worth more than a yawn over coffee.  There's not a hint, not a glimmer of a notion anywhere in this stretch of Trail (not Territory) that there could be anything wrong with the old man's collecting artifacts.
Now, nothing's been said or shown about how he collects them -- whether he digs or is just a surface collector -- and there've been no close-ups of the collection; my impression is that it's mostly projectile points (spear and arrowheads to you non-specialists), but I can't really say.  No obvious human bones.  But be this as it may, the point (sic) is that all the sound and fury that echoes around the hallowed halls of archaeology and in parts of Indian Country over the legality and propriety of private artifact ownership seems to have gone right past the composers of Mark Trail (not Territory).  It simply hasn't registered, isn't on their radar screens.
I am not posting this to encourage people to go beat up on the cartoonists, like folks are berating National Geographic for its "Diggers" show.  Quite the contrary; I post it to suggest that we archaeologists are way, way, way out of touch with the American (and worldwide) mainstream when we indiscriminately slap labels like "looter" on everybody who ever picks up an artifact and doesn't turn it in to a museum.  The public is never going to buy the notion that a nice old guy in the woods who collects artifacts is in the same league with, say, somebody who digs up graves or pecks rock art off the walls of caves.  And I daresay a thoughtful public might even hesitate to castigate someone who does those latter things if, say, the graves are about to be bulldozed for a wind-generator array or the cave's about to be blown up for a mine.  I've said it before and always been ignored, but I'll say it again; we ought to take a more nuanced view of artifact collection and ownership, so as to build alliances with, rather than alienating, nice old men in the woods and their nature-writer chums.  When we insist that nobody should own artifacts except the fine academic institutions for which we happen to work, then rightly or wrongly we look a lot like we're just marking territory (not trail).


Anonymous said...

The cartoonist did not specifically mention that the artifacts came from private land - he just assumed that the readers would assume that. So, there's no problem.

This would also be a good time to tell the story of the Jimmy Carter letter (the Ford/Carter debate, and arrowhead hunting). I know how it goes, but I like hearing it.

Thomas F King said...

I guess you mean the story of my encounter with -- well, let me just tell the tale. During Jimmy Carter's administration I was working for NPS (yes, really!) in DC, writing regulations 'n stuff, and there was an article in the Wash. Post about how Jimmy liked to collect arrowheads out in the peanut fields. So, being a good little archaeo, I wrote him a letter telling him that while I sympathized with and respected his interest, I thought that as president he ought to be a little careful about letting it be represented as a fun thing to do, since there are these laws, etc. etc.

Well, this is really a story about how the bureaucracy works, or worked back when it did work, in the 1970s, because my letter was duly logged in at the White House and routed to both the Secretary of the Interior and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for preparation of a response. Both of whom routed it to me to do the actual drafting. Being purer of heart then than I am now, I declined, and alas, the letter never got answered. Jimmy, of course, never saw it. I don't recall a Ford/Carter debate connection.