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Protecting the Past from Present-Day Looters

Protecting the Past from Present-Day Looters

Posted: November 29, 2011

Finders aren’t always keepers—especially when the finders are trespassers, and when what they find belongs to both the past and to posterity.

Lisa Marie Anselmi, associate professor and chair of anthropology, is an archaeologist. Her expertise includes Native American artifacts as well as the technological practices used by North America’s indigenous peoples to incorporate European-introduced metals into the Native American’s material culture after widespread contact with Europeans in the fifteenth century.

Both her specialties enabled Anselmi to help the Ontario Heritage Trust recover artifacts apparently looted from the Thomson-Walker site, where a Wendat village stood from about 1635 to 1649. This area near Midland, Ontario, was part of the traditional homeland of the Wendat, known as Wendake. The village, which was surrounded by a wooden palisade, contained several longhouses and midden areas.

Researchers learned that people using metal detectors located and removed some artifacts from the site, much of which is now protected as an Ontario Heritage Trust (OHT) property. “At a party,” said Anselmi, “someone was talking about the find, and this information was reported to the Ontario Heritage Trust.”

In Ontario, as well as throughout the United States, ownership and removal of such artifacts from public lands are regulated. The Ontario Provincial Police recovered a collection of more than 150 items, most of which were metallic. Anselmi’s role was to examine the metal (copper-based and ferrous) artifacts and to advise the OHT as to a possible site source. She found they were “similar to” items from the Thomson-Walker site. (As it turned out, a publication of the Huronia Chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society reported that the suspects cooperated with the police and returned the items, so no charges were filed.)

Among the copper-based metal artifacts that Anselmi examined were a number of objects called Jesuit rings (pictured). Anselmi explained that the rings, which usually have a religious design, were once believed to be used solely by Jesuit priests as items to trade with or to give away as prizes to Christian converts or children. However, they were also found on the Belle, a shipwreck off the Texas coast that ended explorer La Salle’s last voyage. This voyage was known as a dedicated trading expedition without any associated religious mission.

“They found casks full of Jesuit rings on the wreck,” said Anselmi, “so now we wonder if the rings’ purpose wasn’t at least as much secular as it was religious.”

One of the rings Anselmi examined is of a type that has not been reported previously from the South Central Ontario region. “The motif on the plaque is perpendicular to the band, which is very unusual,” she said. The design of the band itself is also different. Such subtleties help archaeologists trace early trade routes and identify the traders, bringing a slow but steady stream of new information into our understanding of the past. Though the artifacts have been recovered, some of the most important information about them such as their archaeological context and association—where the items were found and what the items were found with, for example—is now lost forever.

Once information about the past is gone, there’s no going back to retrieve it. “Treasure hunters are still with us,” said Anselmi. “The good news is that we have some tools to make sure that our shared heritage is protected.”

Photo by Lisa Marie Anselmi, courtesy of the Ontario Heritage Trust, 2010.

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