A THPO's Perspective on Collecting Artifacts

Post Date: 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

by Lance Foster, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and Elizabeth Reetz, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

Recently, Lance Foster shared his thoughts on social media regarding artifact collecting, and I thought it was a powerful message to share! People who find and collect artifacts do so under different circumstances and for different reasons. There are different rules for collecting on private versus public lands (see below for Do's and Don'ts in Iowa), and people who find artifacts may or may not be aware of these rules. Regardless of your level of knowledge of these rules and your intentions when/if you find an artifact, it is helpful to look at the situation from multiple points-of-view.

From Lance:

There are different ways to think about seeing an arrowhead on the ground.

  • The collector's point of view: cool! a find! pick it up and keep it!
  • Some Indians' point of view: that's sacred, don't pick it up. Leave it alone.
  • Some other Indians' point of view: that is a sign, it is a gift for you, pick it up, keep it in your medicine bag.

And then the archaeologist's point of view, who picks it up and looks at it (usually as part of a survey), but then it gets more complicated:

...Whose land is it on? If it is private land, do you have permission to take it, because it is the property of the private landowners? If it is public or tribal land, you are supposed to leave it there legally unless you have a research permit from the agency that manages it, and if you have a place that such things are supposed to go and be cared for, like a museum.

...Archaeologists aren't supposed to take arrowheads from public lands without permits as they are the property of the public. And even then, recording where you got it, etc. and what you can learn is really more meaningful than having the arrowhead itself. And studying the site where it comes from can often tell you much MUCH more than just an arrowhead… 

...It's not just what studying the artifacts can tell you, but where they are on the landscape, what position they are in, in relation to each other, the different stains and changes in the soil, the changes in the landscape, the analysis of bones and soil for plant remains, that tell whether this place was someone's house, a food preparation or storage pit, a place where a buffalo was killed or a where a person was buried…more than just a pretty arrowhead lying on the ground.


Lance's remarks really hit home for archaeologists. It's not just about the artifact itself. Without context, we lose an incredible amount of knowledge from the artifact, and it becomes just an object. People who collect artifacts have the potential to contribute a wealth of information to the archaeological record. Archaeologists will not reveal your collecting spots and will not take your land. Those are misconceptions that just do not happen. Archaeologists can help you record your find spots as archaeological sites, and keep that archaeological site information private. They can expand on contextual information that contributes to the story of your artifact. What an archaeologist will never do is assign a monetary value to your artifacts, because we don't believe that these objects should be bought and sold.

Thank you to Lance for putting this information out there and letting us share it!

Artifact Collecting in Iowa: Do's and Don'ts


  • get landowner's permission before collecting. 
  • catalog and label all finds. 
  • record site locations with the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA). 
  • report any human remains or burial sites to the OSA. 
  • try to identify artifact types represented in your collection. 
  • join the Iowa Archaeological Society. 
  • give programs to school groups. 
  • allow professional archaeologists to view and study your collection. 
  • read about artifacts and archaeology. 
  • participate in public field schools whenever possible. 
  • enjoy your hobby!


  • trespass.
  • dig in or around archaeological features. 
  • collect human remains. 
  • collect from public land without a permit. 
  • buy or sell artifacts (many items on the market are fakes). 
  • mix artifacts from different sites. 
  • let your collection be dispersed by auction. 
  • let your hard work go to waste by losing data on your collection. 
  • let artifacts become damaged by storing them in piles or letting them rub together. 
  • re-work or re-shape artifacts (gluing broken artifacts back together is okay).

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