Very Old Objects

How to

Evaluate very old objects.

Mission

Digging up the historical facts.

Briefing

The ultimate historical investigation, very old objects can take you on a journey that predates history itself. Many different items fall under this heading, and we have arbitrarily limited the subject to objects that are at least 200 years old.

Since North America has a relatively recent history (no Roman cities for us to dig up) we have to content ourselves with:

  • items of natural history, such as fossils and petrified wood
  • archeological artifacts from recent centuries, apart from illegal Native American artifacts
  • and antiquities from imported from other nations

For most of us, classical antiquities are financially out of reach. This may be just as well, since there are mounting questions regarding the ownership of these "cultural resources." Repatriation of art objects is now a common activity for major museums. Even respected auction houses are being pressed for proof of legal provenance.

The second category of very old objects, archeological artifacts, is more likely to occur in the East, where population centers were clustered prior to the 19th century. Strictly speaking, an artifact is "any object that has been made, used, or altered by people and has made its way into the ground through discard, loss, or disaster." Most archeological finds are destined for museum warehousing.

Fossils are the democratic antiquity. They can be found throughout America, by virtually anyone. For instance, a man in St. George, Utah, recently dug up some world-class Jurassic dinosaur tracks while doing a little landscaping.

Speaking of democracy, Thomas Jefferson was among the earliest investigators of the fossil record. He even wrote a scientific paper in 1796, describing what he called a Megalonyx (great claw). His conclusions were wrong but his pioneering work was honored when the giant sloth was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii.

Not that long ago, archeology was practiced as an avocation, often because of a personal interest in the past. Today, archeological activity is strictly monitored by a variety of oversight agencies. This may be a contributing factor in the hot topic of 'authorized' archeologists. Some people feel that only trained professionals should be allowed to deal with historically important artifacts, while others feel that "finders, keepers" should be the rule. Wherever you fall on the debate, there are numerous opportunities for you to be a vocational archeologist, by volunteering to assist with a dig.

History Detectives Tips

  • Don't take what you find. Let others share your sense of discovery. Leave artifacts and other interesting object just as you found them.
  • If you make a serious find, take photos and make a site map. Leave the object buried and take the map and photos to appropriate experts.
  • If you have a unique artifact, consider giving it to a public institution. Note: legitimate archeological museums do not buy artifacts.
  • Put your interest to good use. Volunteer for archeological digs. To learn about opportunities, search online or contact your state archeologist.

Related Content