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 Posted: Wed Nov 15th, 2006 02:56 pm
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calcav
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Imagine visiting Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona and being told there is no longer any petrified wood on the park, collectors have carried it all away. Every piece on the surface has been taken and everything subsurface has been excavated. Or driving to Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado/Utah and discovering that aside from the few pieces in the museum all of the fossils have been carted away for private collections. 

It is not that hard to imagine actually. Nearly every Civil War site that does not enjoy Federal or State protection has been looted of its artifacts. Looted may not be the best term to use. How about pillaged. Or desecrated. Yes, desecrated works. Nearly every Civil War site (battlefield, skirmish, hospital and camp) is a graveyard. In order to collect the pieces of our history that will end up on a mantle or on E-bay those graves must be disturbed. Next to bullets the largest quanity of items found are buttons and belt buckles. They are found by the thousands and thousands. Did they get lost during the heat of battle? Some perhaps, but the vast majority were buried with thier owners, or being overlooked, not even buried at all. We have all heard how animals came up and dug up the shallow graves and the bones and uniform bits were scattered in all directions. Which makes the entire field hallowed.

There is a place and procedure for collecting artifacts from a battlefield. Here at Shiloh such activities are conducted by NPS archeologists from the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahasse, Florida. They work under the guidance of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, as well as the Code of Federal Regulations 43 CFR 3. When an area of the park is to be disturbed by construction or road work, the archeologists come in and conduct surveys to remove any of the cultural resources that would be impacted. Every item found is individually tagged, bagged and mapped using GPS. When neccessary Ground Penetrating Radar is used to ensure the site is fully documented. The results of the operation are mapped out on computer programs that often reveal battle lines or camp areas.

I have assisted in numerous surveys of the battlefield and have seen some remarkable artifacts. A button comes to mind that had been on the uniform of a Louisiana infantryman. In excellent condition, you could plainly see the pelican sitting on her nest. It was made of brass and if left undisturbed would look the same a hundred years or more. But a new road would have destroyed it or disturbed it so it and a few dozen bullets had to be collected. But the discovery of the button did not usher in new knowledge of the battle. Before we began we knew that heavy fighting had occured on the site and that Louisiana troops were present. In fact the computer prepared maps only reenforced what we already knew. That the true battle lines had been properly marked by the Battlefield Commission and the Veterans back in the late 1890's.

A very good friend of mine, a Park Service archeologist, once made an intresting observation and shared it with me. We were looking down into a hole where a looter had dug on the park and removed some unkown artifact. He said that each artifact lying buried on the field is a page in history, a page we only get to look at once. When the artifact is removed from the field the page is ripped out of the book. If conducted under contolled conditions we can make a copy of the page, but even then, when the artifact is disturbed the page is gone forever.

A frequent justification used by relic hunters is that the item will be lost forever if they do not collect it. Those items made of iron perhaps or steel, but the bronze, brass and lead will be there forever. But even if it does deteriorate I'd much rather know that it is happening on the scene of a great struggle rather than in some shoebox in the back of the closet.

In closing I'd like to share the Mission Statement of the National Park Service:

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park sysytem for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benifits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

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