Thoughts on Relic-Hunting
(text originally marked for deletion in T.W. Edwin Sowter's manuscript "Algonkin and Huron Occupation of the Ottawa Valley" 
and excluded from the published version found in the Ottawa Field Naturalist, 1909)

(published in A Passion for the Past, Papers in Honour of James F. Pendergast, pp.59-62,
edited by James V. Wright and Jean-Luc Pilon. Mercury Series Archaeology Paper No.164,
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, 2004.)

 By T.W. Edwin Sowter

T.W. Edwin Sowter examining limestone formation bedrock at Queen's Park, Aylmer, QuébecThe great bugbear of the legitimate collector is the mere relic-hunter.  Type specimens of the creature are easily identified either at home or abroad.  He regards not the acquisition of a natural or artificial rarety as so much additional evidence for the solution of some scientific problem; but is satisfied with having become the owner of something odd.  Let loose in a stone quarry he is comparatively harmless for, while the rarest forms usually escape his notice, he does not destroy them, but contents himself with picking up a few odds and ends to gratify his appetite for something odd.  To him crinoid columns are snakes; pygidumus of trilobites, butterflies and the writer was once shown a lump of columnaria, by one of these wretches and told that it was a petrified wasp's nest.  Let the relic-hunter, however, have carte blanche to examine an Indian burying ground and his vandalism passes all bounds.  He will dig up a grave without any reverence for the dead or respect for the living and scatter broadcast the remains.  He will despoil a camp-site or palaeolithic workshop in happy ignorance of the fact that he is perhaps destroying irreparably whole pages of aboriginal history through his disregard of careful and methodological observation.  Then, when he has glutted his omnivorous appetite for something odd, he retires to his den--for the creature has a room set apart in his house which he calls his den--where he gloats over his ill-gotten spoils with a deep sense of gratification in his proprietorship of something odd.  He exhibits a pipe tomahawk and points out how it was used by the aboriginal smoker in the consumption of tobacco, thus leaving a too frequent impression that it was the correct thing for the Indian to fill the iron bowl with the weed, put a coal on top of it and then suck the smoke through the axe-handle, notwithstanding David Boyles dictum that: "no Indian would degrade himself by smoking anything but a good-old-fashioned stone pipe, as all his people had done before him."  A flint or slate implement shaped like a large arrowhead, called a "woman's knife" by experts, he calls a spear point, without adducing, or even bothering his head about, any evidence to show that the spear was ever used as a weapon by the Indians of this country. 

The writer has in his collection the skull of an Algonkin, whose skeleton was found under conditions which seemed to render it an object of extreme interest in illustrating the perfection the Algonkin mode of sepulture.  A bone arrowhead driven through a segment of the lumbar vertebrae indicated the nature of the passport that had carried this ancient warrior to his happy hunting grounds.  Swathed in birch bark and interred in what seemed to be a permanent single grave, with his weapons and household implements stowed about him within convenient reach he had been well equipped for his journey to the land of souls and his body had evidently been committed to its last resting place according to the mortuary rites of the Algonkins.  Five "crooked knives" as they are called -- iron implements of very rare occurrence in Canada -- together with three steel knives with bone handles inlaid with brass, a small brass kettle and a French tomahawk bearing the fleur-de-lis stamp, pointed to the traffic of their owner with Europeans, while a unilaterally barbed bone harpoon, a bone needle of the shuttle-shaped variety, proved that he had not discarded all of his aboriginal implements.  A gouge, fashioned from a human thigh-bone, a scraper formed from a child's jaw-bone and some fringe made out of a white woman's hair, were gruesome evidences that their possessor had been, in his day, a great warrior. 

The eroding slope at Lighthouse Island where human remains have been found.This Indian grave was opened while the excavations were being made for the foundation of the new lighthouse on Aylmer Island in Lake Deschênes opposite the Queen's Park above Aylmer, Que. And the contents presented to the writer by the light-keeper, Mr. Frank Boucher.  While in Mr. Boucher's possession attempts were made by different parties to purchase and even to purloin specimens of the above collection.  One relic-hunter, from across our southern border was particularly desirous of purchasing the skull.  He did not covet its possession on account of the educative features observed in its exhumation; neither was he anxious to study its cranial characteristics from an ethnic standpoint. He said that if he got it, he would have it made into a tobacco-box, which he could show to his friends as something out of the common, something unique, something odd. 

To show that this portrait of the relic-hunter is not overdrawn, reference may be made to the Ontario Archaeological Reports, which go to show that skull-diggers, as they are called are as bad in other parts of Canada as they are here and everywhere as thick as grasshoppers. 

Ottawa Field Naturalists' Club excursion to sand Banks, Prince Edward Co. Photo H.M. Ami.Mr. David Boyle, curator of the provincial museum at Toronto, in his report on the Otonabee Serpent Mound (Rep. 1896-97) refers to them thus: "Reference has already been made to the morbid depredations of diggers anxious merely to lay bare human remains or to possess a skull.  At numerous points along the top of the serpent mound excavations for this purpose have been made" and further he adds in consternation relative to the same mound: "the surface of which was here somewhat stony, a fact that no doubt accounts for its hitherto non-disturbance by white savages some of whom are said to have searched (very stupidly) for hidden treasure and not for bones".  Again, in his report on an ossuary at Bradford (Rep. 1902) Mr. Boyle gives us the following: "Here last April, in the course of digging a foundation for a house, the workmen came upon a small ossuary.  The news soon spread that human bones had been exposed, and next day, Sunday, there were nearly two hundred people, jostling one another with spades and shovels, eager to root up the grave.  No doubt the people entertained the common belief that every such place is a depository of what so many call "curios" but failing to secure a harvest of such material, they appropriated all the skulls and many of the other large bones."  Further on Mr. Boyle continues:  "Mr. Stibbs, the owner of the property expressed his desire that all the skulls should be placed in the provincial museum, and he kindly had an advertisement inserted in the local paper, asking for the return of the crania to him for this purpose, but up to the present moment not one of these has reached us, and the probability is that they still form ghastly decorations on the shelves of workshops, there to remain as "curios" or, until they can be disposed of for a "consideration".  A bank clerk, who owned one, lightly informed me that it was his intention to have the top of his sawn off and thus have the skull made into an inkstand." 

Mr. F.W. Waugh in the same report concludes a description of the despoiling of an ossuary and village site of the Attiwandarons or Neutrals, with the following well-timed comment on the depredations of these wretched relic-hunters: "Of what interest was it to the ignoramus, who revelled in material of almost priceless value to the scholar, to gather data to enable us to determine who constructed these works?" 

So much for the relic-hunter, the bête noire of the archaeologist.  Let him pass for the present but keep your eye on him, in future.