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Davis Journal

Responsibly preserving the past

Jun 06, 2024 10:02AM ● By Braden Nelsen
A member of Dr. Yoder’s team carefully works to uncover a ceramic pot with a paintbrush. Photo courtesy of Dr. David Yoder

A member of Dr. Yoder’s team carefully works to uncover a ceramic pot with a paintbrush. Photo courtesy of Dr. David Yoder

UTAH—The tragedy involving the private submarine that met with disaster while visiting the wreck of the Titanic brought to the minds of many the question of whether or not the site should be left alone. Furthermore, it raised the question: for sites like the Titanic, and many others, what constitutes archaeology? And what constitutes desecration?

Dr. David Yoder, archaeologist and professor at Weber State University shed some light on this tricky subject, and for the most part, it comes down to training and intent. Archaeologists are trained professionals who know what they are doing, know what they’re looking for, and looking at, and are searching for artifacts in order to preserve them for future generations and to learn more about the human story.

There are those, however, who seek artifacts for selfish reasons. Dubbed looters or “pot hunters,” these are people who, according to oder, just “want the stuff.” These people don’t disclose the area of the site, they don’t document, they aren’t trained, they aren’t interested in the people who made the artifact, and they just take things from the site, often never to be seen again. 

Artifacts are cool,” said Yoder, “but they’re not the point of archaeology. It’s the people: that’s why we excavate those sites.” Therein, perhaps, lies the biggest difference between archaeology and desecration. Archaeology and archaeologists are concerned with preservation, and in the case of Yoder, who works primarily with ancient and unrecorded historical peoples and sites, it’s about piecing together puzzle pieces of the past.

In Utah, there’s plenty of that unwritten history to rediscover. From the Fremont of thousands of years ago to the much more recent pioneers of only 177 years ago, Utah has no shortage of archaeology, and the human story to tell. However, that story can be lost if those without training interfere. “We’re all fascinated with this stuff,” said Yoder, “Enjoy it, look at it, take a picture, don’t pick it up.” 

In addition to laws prohibiting the unauthorized collection of artifacts both on private and public lands, disturbing an artifact, even removing it from where it was located can make the job of an archaeologist in reconstructing the site all the more difficult. Best practice, according to Yoder, is to report the find and its location to either the Bureau of Land Management or the State Historic Preservation Officer.

In that way, amazing finds can be preserved, not just for one person, or group of people, but for generations to come. Finds such as the one Yoder was recently working at in Escalante, Utah, which dated back 10-11,000 years. During the excavation, Yoder found an ornamental bird bone, with markings thereon. “It’s a hard thing for my brain to wrap around,” he said, “you’re the first person to have touched this in 9,000 years.” But because of his work, that small bone, which was so important to the person who made it thousands of years ago, will be preserved.