Artifact looter, or artifact collector?

Posted by | June 27, 2012

Edna Lynn Simms’ original photo caption accompanying her portrait of him reads simply: “George D. Barnes, collector of Indian relics, Dayton, Tenn.” Sounds straightforward enough. But it leaves out the shadings about what KIND of collector — how the man was viewed ethically in the world of archaeologists, collectors, museums, and relic hunters. Collectors of all eras often skirt the edges of the legitimate in their single-minded pursuit of building their collections. Barnes had his admirers, and he had his detractors on that topic.

The University of Tennessee Special Collections Library in Knoxville, TN houses one of Barnes’ collections: the Barnes Collection of Rhea County, which contains marriage bonds, legal documents, and signatures of prominent Tennesseans and North Carolinians documenting the history of Rhea County from 1785 to 1891.

George D. Barnes, Dayton TNTheir website tells us: “George D. Barnes was born in about 1879 in Pennsylvania. His father collected Native American artifacts, and Barnes began accompanying him on his expeditions at a young age. Through these adventures, Barnes discovered his own love of collecting.

“He quickly became a notable collector in his own right, and sold a number of highly regarded collections to private collectors and to such prestigious institutions as the Smithsonian. He also maintained a private collection in Dayton, Tennessee, where he lived for many years.”

And Wesleyan University’s Arachaelogy Laboratory holds in its collection several items thought to be Cherokee, collected by Barnes “with the permission of landowner” in the late 1800’s and sold to A.R. Crittenden in 1899, who in turn donated them to Wesleyan, say the accession papers.

Nor was Barnes a stranger to the professional archaeology world. The TVA began an archaeological survey of Tennessee’s Norris Basin on January 8, 1934. William S. Webb, director of archaeology for TVA, selected Thomas M. N. Lewis as supervisor for the Norris project with George D. Barnes and A. E. Wilkie as field supervisors. The 1934–1936 projects in the Norris Basin identified and excavated twenty-three archaeological sites. The resulting archaeological report (Webb 1938) involved several individuals that would go on to make their mark on archaeology.

Archaeologist Mark Williams of the LAMAR Institute/Univ of GA views Barnes quite differently: “George D. Barnes was a professional artifact looter and dealer from Dayton, Tennessee, who was in business in the 1920s and later. He made a trip to the Shinholser site sometime in 1932 and apparently excavated a huge trench about 200 feet south of Mound A (Patterson n.d.:156).

“This trench was supposedly 150 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 2.5 feet deep. Patterson adds that the work “revealed fourteen human skeletons in fairly good shape; some large pottery urns were also found and the bones and teeth of animals” (ibid). I do not know what else he recovered from this trench.

“There apparently is still a small collection of items at the McClung Museum in Knoxville, Tennessee (Richard Polhemus, Personal Communication) from his work, but I have not examined this collection [ed: The George D. Barnes, Jr. collection].

“This area of the site is now in young pine trees. Although we placed three of our small excavation units in this area in 1987, no visible remains of Barnes’ trench were noted then nor was any visible in old aerial photos from the late 1930s. It presumably was backfilled. It is possible that Barnes was responsible for the open trench on top of Mound A.”


“Archaeological Excavations at Shinholser
(9BL1): 1985 & 1987″

by Mark Williams
LAMAR Institute/Univ of GA

A History of Archaeology in Tennessee
by Bobby R. Braly and Shannon Koerner
Paper published as part of a synthesis of Tennessee Archaeology, in a graduate seminar at Univ of TN (2008) sponsored by members of the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

appalachian+mountains+history appalachian+history appalachia Norris+Basin+archaeology appalachian+archaeology Shinholser+archaeolgoy+dig George+D.+Barnes McClung+Museum Wesleyan+University

2 Responses

  • Brian Blake says:

    Don’t see how digging a trench on his own time, that is, unsponsored by an institution, to uncover Indian artifacts makes Barnes a “looter.” What law did he break? All archeological finds are discovered this way. Knowledge is advanced, which is the point. The artifacts that end up in nonprofit display cases are also removed from their sites without the original owners’ permission, which would be hard to come by since they’ve been dead for thousands of years.

  • Tracy Brown says:

    Well, if you are going to hang this guy, you might as well hang W.E. Myer and G.P. Thruston right beside him. All of them had their roots in 19th century antiquarianism and the Chicago Field School did not happen until much later. All sorts of arguments could probably be lodged on this issue. I tend to view the Chicago Field School as the true beginning of professional archaeology in the eastern United States. Everything before that I tend to view as some form of 19th century antiquarianism (some more evolved than others), even if it happened in the early 20th century. If one insists on drawing a line in the sand, that is where I would draw mine. If Barnes was acting as a Field Assistant for T.M.N. Lewis, he may have stepped over the line into being a professional archaeologist during the Norris Basin Project. I guess the question I would ask Mark Williams is:

    “Do you really think it is fair to rag that hard on a man just for being a product of his own time, and how log after his death does he have to pay for that crime?”

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