Return to Archaeological Method & Theory Home Page

EBay exercise banner

Ebay may well be the world's biggest garage sale, an online auction that at any given moment offers up over 16 million items for sale to the highest bidder:  In 2002, Ebay's millions of members worldwide did $14.87 billion in gross merchandise sales.  Amongst the tidal wave of computer games, pet rocks, and vintage clothes are many objects that have been excavated, and the ethical dimensions of this trade are, at best, ambiguous.  Some of the freshly excavated material culture traded on Ebay is sold by people who recovered those things illegally; however, other archaeological artifacts reach the internet with their actual acquisition completely unknown to their sellers, and some are excavated legally, depending on the international, country, and local preservation ordinances that attempt to protect particular goods and archaeological contexts.

Some Ebay artifacts are certainly looted from sites that are legally protected by preservation legislation or private property law.  Looting is one of the discipline's most problematic challenges:  looters will pillage pristine sites to find a few showpiece objects they can sell somewhere like Ebay, and for the rarest items looters find middlemen to sell goods at international auction houses.  Nevertheless, the question of ethics goes beyond legality; indeed, Ebay auctions raise the question of what constitutes "value" for an archaeological object, whether value can be divorced from context--something archaeologists are very much against--, and how archaeological values fit in a society that embraces "free trade."

In this project you will choose three artifacts being sold on EBay during the course of the semester and analyze the ethical dimensions of these objects' sale.  Some of this analysis should revolve around the legality of the object's recovery, and in some cases the sale of a good may clearly be illegal (e.g., human remains, though even human bone appears on Ebay, as do some objects such as Indian hair that are protected by federal repatriation law; see Ebay's Artifact Sale Policy).  In most cases, the recovery context is not made clear by an auction listing, which is more likely to only offer up that, for instance, a Civil War button was "dug from a Battlefield in Amelia County Virginia," or something equally ambiguous.  Are the sellers of these objects you're analyzing potentially breaking laws?  More thorny, even if it is legal, is the sale of such items "right"?  What are the implications of having objects such as these for sale in an open market?

Describe each item in as much detail as possible, based on the auction listing, the photograph that accompanies it, and your own research on the item conducted in archaeological literature and online.  As Ebay intones, buyer beware:  You should not trust an item description to be accurate, especially if it is for an excavated item about which a seller may know very little, and sometimes the photograph in the auction listing will not even be genuine.  You may need to compare the auction photography with other illustrations to determine whether the object is accurately described, and you should at least consider whether the item is simply a fraud; for instance, some prehistoric lithics on Ebay are almost certainly fakes (search under arrowhead, for instance).

To find an item, search under dug or excavated, and you will get a lot of hits for artifact (over 93,000 at the moment), though many will not be for excavated objects; likewise, ancient will return a lot of things with ambiguous proveniences, some of which are not really archaeological materials.  Choose three items with reasonably good descriptions and clear graphics.  The most interesting items will offer up a little about their excavation or recovery context (e.g., "dug Indiana," or "dug in Indiana burial mound" if they're really brazen). 

At least two of your objects must appear based on the item listing to have been excavated, even if the listing gives little detail on the context.  Any ethical collector or dealer truly wants to know as much as possible about their object's provenience, because--like archaeologists--collectors and dealers are not especially interested in things for which they have little contextual information.  Can you tell much from the item listing about the object's provenience?  If not, how is its antiquity described in a way that might be attractive to a collector?  If you would like, you can also include an antique object among your three Ebay objects, even though it may have a questionable provenience (i.e., it is not clear how it made its way to the seller, such as an ancient jade mask or many decorative art items and paintings).  Dealers and other Ebay sellers will sometimes know little about the provenience of an object they are now selling, so they often fall back on phrases like "from an old Arkansas/European/Apache collector."  In some cases this may be the truth, but in others it is an inelegant smokescreen concealing a problematic chain of ownership rooted in smuggling, looting, or theft.  Some goods will simply be sold with a falsified provenience.

Ebay provides a sober sense of what an object is "worth" in pure economic value at any given moment, because it involves numerous traders, many of the consumers are well-versed in rarity and artifact identifications, and the online auction is vulnerable to even modest shifts in dominant economic circumstance.  Assess how much your artifact was worth in the final bidding:  exactly why did the item appear to sell for this amount?  You can search under completed items to find similar items that have sold in the past  few weeks:  how much have similar items sold for recently?  How do you suppose a community of collectors in a single socioeconomic system have defined the value of these sorts of objects?  Some of this is simple supply and demand, but some items assume additional significance for a variety of complex cultural factors.  What sort of social influences might make particular artifacts desirable and more economically valuable?  How does the price of this item differ from prices realized at major auction houses? (e.g., Christie's American Indian Art, or Sotheby's American Indian Art).

Our most important community and nationalist artifacts convey "heritage" in some way.  Most countries define what constitutes their protected heritage and the spaces, events, and objects from their shared past that have significance (compare UNESCO's World Heritage Sites).  In the US, this is done at federal and state levels.  What sort of cultural and social heritage do your objects have?  What groups might see such things as part of their cultural heritage?

You must print out the full EBay listing for your items during the course of the auctions so that I can review it if the item listing is removed after the auction's close.  You must record the item's final sale price.  You may feel free to ask sellers questions about their items, but this is not required, and in some cases you may find sellers are not happy to discuss how they secured an object; you definitely should NOT contact a buyer or bidder. 

All analyses must be in 11- or 12-point font with 1" margins on all sides and submitted to me electronically at my IUPUI email address.  

The paper is worth 25% of the course grade.  It is due SEPTEMBER 28th

Return to Archaeological Method & Theory Home Page Email Dr. Mullins at

Last updated June 19, 2015