10. The Mystery of the Missing Artifacts
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10 The Mystery of the Missing Artifacts Truth shall spring out of the earth. —Psalms 85:11 The wakes of watercraft are ephemeral and do not endure to give witness to their makers’ passages. Thus other indications of voyaging and contacts must be sought. In this quest, we turn first to archaeology—keeping in mind, though, that, as the archaeologist Betty Meggers put it, “only a minute fraction of the archaeological residue of any culture has ever been collected, with the result that significant information about an extinct configuration may have survived but not been encountered.”1 One archaeological genre of proof of contact, direct or indirect, is the presence of “trade goods”: diagnostic artifacts—that is, distinctly characteristic ones—of the donor culture, found in the archaeology of the recipient (or reciprocal) culture . A perennial objection to the idea of early transoceanic influences in the New World—especially on the part of artifact-­ focused archaeologists—is the alleged absence of Old World objects in ancient Ameri­ can archaeological sites. If significant pre-­Columbian contacts had really taken place, it is of­ten asserted, at least a few objects of Old World provenience should appear in New World sites. That they do not, the argument continues, shows that such contacts are imaginary or, at very most, were minimal and had no perceptible influence. Where people go, it is contended, they go carrying objects characteristic of their cultures , inevitably trading some of these to the natives, interring certain ones with their dead, and losing others, some of which will later be discovered by archaeologists . “Show us the artifacts, and then we’ll talk,” seems to be the position of many. Let us consider, then, the oft-­ asked question: If there were contacts, then where are the artifacts?2 The first thing to note is, “In archaeology, you find what you seek,”3 that if you don’t look for indications of pre-­ Columbian foreign artifacts, there is a good chance that either you will not find them or will reject their genuineness . Similar lack of looking was long the case with respect to pre-­ Clovis hu- 104 / Chapter 10 man presence in the West­ ern Hemisphere (see below). In addition, as the Canadian archaeologist of the Arctic Robert McGhee underlined, “The problem of archaeology is that the discoveries are of randomly preserved occurrences, and it sheds only narrow and scattered beams of light into a large and murky expanse of time and space.”4 Too, archaeological investigation, although intensive in some regions of both Old and New worlds, has barely scratched the surface, as it were, elsewhere, and some vast regions are essentially unknown from this point of view. Thus our information is incomplete, sometimes woefully so, for that reason alone. But there are other factors that limit the recoverable data and their interpretation even where thorough, high-­ quality excavation has been accomplished. Rotten Luck: Bias in Preservation An artifact in the archaeological sense is a human-­made material object, formed by reduction and/or construction. In order to exist as evidence, it must have in some form survived the centuries or millennia since the moment of its deposition in the site. But every site has a subsequent history, “involving a wide assortment of organismic and physical agents seemingly bent on shuffling, sorting , scattering, or otherwise transmogrifying the past. . . . The archaeological record, of course, consists of what is left.”5 Some materials preserve well under the majority of conditions: most notably , stone objects, fired ceramics (the archaeologists’ beloved potsherds), and gold and platinum objects. Additional metals may survive in varying degree, and sometimes shell, bone, teeth, and ivory do as well. Other materials decay or otherwise break down over time unless extraordinary conditions for preservation exist—as in the desiccating sands of the virtually rainless Atacama Desert of South America or other regions possessing extremely dry climates such as those of the Sahara and Inner Asia; or in certain dry caves or in dry, safe storage rooms as in isolated Tibetan monasteries; in subaqueous anaerobic /reducing environments in marshes, swamps, bogs, and certain deep-­ sea situations; under anaerobic mudslides; or in permafrost or ice. These perishables include items made of most organic materials: wood, bark, leaves, fiber, horn, skin, hair, chitin, and feathers, as well as foodstuffs and so forth, and are subject to fungal and bacterial decay as well as to destruction by insects and rodents—­ not to mention by heat and ultraviolet light; wind abrasion; salts, acids , alkalines, and...