A desert rat’s dilemma
by Joe Foster
Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession by Craig Childs. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 273 pages.
Craig Childs’ latest book, Finders Keepers, is a brilliant, timely and incredibly significant local examination of the age-old question: Who owns the past? I’m willing to bet that most of you possess an arrowhead, or a fossil, or a small piece of pottery, something you came across while wandering the desert. Maybe you don’t and maybe you found something, checked it out and left it where it was, effectively leaving its fate up to the next (possibly less enlightened) wandering desert rat. Maybe you found a pot in a cave and took it home, but you take really good care of it, and it’s now being used once again as it was originally intended. Maybe you’ve seen the full extent of a museum’s collection and have wondered to yourself if that’s right, keeping the past boxed away so very few people will ever see these artifacts. What’s right? Who’s right?
The answer: Who knows? Childs explores the many sides to this issue with a startling number of personal and fascinating interviews. While Childs himself may lean toward a “leave it lie” philosophy, he questions this ethos over and over throughout the book. He speaks with people who share differing philosophies and, with a surprising lack of judgment, discusses the merits and shortcomings of each. This is not an easy task, and Childs does it with an undeniable grace. This book has been out for a short time now, and I’ve heard a few readers say something to the effect that they wanted more. But, sometimes there are no answers, and it takes a mature writer to understand that passing moral judgment on such a nuanced topic isn’t as important as laying groundwork for a larger discussion of such an ethically ambiguous issue. If you read this book waiting for Childs to pass fiery judgment on evil-doers, you may be left wanting more. If you go in curious about this complicated dilemma, you’ll be fascinated from the first page as the archaeological plundering of decades and centuries past is examined with an eye for both pragmatic discipline and a nostalgic view of the collective history of humanity.
The local significance of this book cannot, of course, be overlooked. Durango and Southeast Utah have been in the news lately as some of the players in Finders Keepers have been sentenced in the last few months. I’m not getting into that in this space, but suffice it to say that the book does get into it, and in great detail.
What I found most fascinating, besides the ethical examination, is the enormous scope of the problem. Entire tombs are gutted, with even the walls themselves making it to the antiquities market, sometimes under a legal guise. How do you know, as a curator or collector, that a piece was procured legally? Also, does a piece from the Pacific Northwest belong in a Chinese museum? Do the huge number of artifacts taken from Mesa Verde by Gustaf Nordenskiöld really belong in Finland? Do ancient Greek statues really belong at The Met in New York? Should all artifacts be under the supervision of their relevant cultures? What if that culture no longer exists? What if someone else will take better care of them?
Again and again the question arises: Who owns the past? And in answer to your answer, the question is: Are you sure? •