That means Google Earth and similar sites are used mostly by non-professionals. When asked if he looks askance at these amateur archaeologists, McManamon doesn’t mince words.
“Askance is a generous term. Horrified is more to the point,” he says.
In some fields other than archaeology, McManamon explains, amateur discoveries can be a boon to researchers short on time and funding for fieldwork. “With meteorites, the meteorite is the object,” McManamon says. “Archaeology isn’t like that. Most archaeological data is contextual. It’s important to know what was found next to what, in which layer [of soil]. It’s what happens at a site after the discovery of an artifact that’s crucial.”
English Heritage’s Robinson agrees, noting context can be lost due to ignorance of, or indifference to, proper excavation methods. “Sadly, there is a persistent menace from those who deliberately set out to loot protected archaeological sites, or who couldn’t care less about wrecking them,” he says.
Although professional archaeologists lament the carelessness — and cluelessness — of many amateurs, they admit that Google Earth has boosted interest in their work. As more would-be Indiana Joneses take to the field with their smartphones and metal detectors, professionals are amping up public outreach programs to promote responsible exploration.
The U.S. doesn’t have an online hub quite as comprehensive as the U.K.’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, but there are programs throughout the country, usually at the state level, that can help enthusiasts understand local and federal laws regarding trespassing and site protection — and what to do if a chance shadow you spot on Google Earth leads to an actual find.
“Take a photo, get precise GPS coordinates, but then take that information to the state archaeologist’s office,” advises McManamon. “You can still have the excitement of exploration and discovery, of getting out there, but ensure what you find gets properly preserved and interpreted.”
McManamon and colleagues are also expanding the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), an online archive geared toward researchers but open to everyone.
“We get a lot of non-professionals using it, which we’re thrilled about. I think access to archaeological records makes people better informed and, ultimately, better stewards of these sites, which are precious and non-renewable resources,” says McManamon.
“Just don’t pick anything up,” he adds with a chuckle.
While armchair archaeologists rely increasingly on digital technology — be it Google Earth or other data sets — it’s likely that a very human element will remain a key part of the discovery process.
Says Weekend Wanderer Welch: “For me, the biggest thrill is finding something with a tangible link to a person’s life, like a lead seal matrix that’s not worth much but might have his name and even his profession on it. To hold something that no one else has held since that person, to have that link to the past, makes it all worth it.”
[This article originally appeared in print as "Playing the Field."]