Mihaela Noroc and the Atlas of Beauty Project

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog appreciates excellence in photography, especially photography focusing on anthropological and archaeological subject matter.  I was surfing around the Internet a few nights ago and came upon a series of outstanding and hauntingly beautiful photographs of young women in various cultural contexts around the world.  The brilliant photographer who took these wonderful photographs is Ms. Mihaela Noroc, and she posts these photographs on her project website Atlas of Beauty (http://theatlasofbeauty.com/).  We who work in anthropology and archaeology around the world know well the importance of funding,  Therefore, we here at the blog are encouraging our readers to donate funds so Ms. Noroc can continue this worldwide photography project.  You may do so at the following link:  http://theatlasofbeauty.com/support-my-project/.

All of Ms. Noroc’s photographs are excellent, but I was particularly struck by her photograph of a Kichwa girl in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.  In this particular Native American culture, girls marry when they are 15 or 16 years old.  The picture of this young lady was taken on her wedding day, and she is dressed in her wedding outfit and wearing the appropriate facial cosmetics and feathering for the occasion.  Here at the blog, we think she is beautiful, and we wish her and her new husband the very best in life.

Kichwa Girl

Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap (Part I)

As the century was drawing to a close, Lame Beaver had lived half of it and seen many things―and now he had been told that he would see a god.

—James A. Michener (1978)

1.0     Background

Although most citizens of Tennessee do not work as professional archaeologists or collect Native American artifacts as a hobby, it would be fair to say that a very large number of Tennesseans own a prehistoric lithic artifact that was found quite by accident, taken home, dropped into a drawer, and soon forgotten. Many of our citizens have an old King Edward, Swisher Sweets, or Roi-Tan cigar box full of assorted lithic artifacts that were found or otherwise accumulated during childhood. Some of these artifacts are referred to as arrowheads by the average citizen, but most of these items were too large to be used on the business ends of arrows. They were used as spear thrower (atlatl) dart points or knives, and professional archaeologists often refer to them as projectile points/knives or use the initialism pp/k when talking or writing about them.

Many of these fine citizens remember where they stashed their cigar box 35 years ago. If you bring up the subject of Native American artifacts in a living room conversation with one of these people, he will quickly run to his attic or garage, grab the box, and show off the artifacts inside it. He will proudly present his whole pp/k’s, broken pp/k’s, drill bits, and other assorted lithic tools―and then―just like with Lame Beaver―say that you will soon be seeing a small god. Then he will reach for the old, yellowed handkerchief in the corner of the cigar box, carefully unfold it, and say, “This’un here’s my pride and joy, the very best one in the whole box. It’s my rare flint fishhook.” If you look really amazed and interested, the owner may tell you who found it, how it was found, when it was found, and where it was found. Flint fishhooks are often accompanied by a background story.

2.0     Morphology of Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks come in various shapes and sizes, and they tend to be less than 7.62 cm in length (Figure 1). The most commonly seen ones are similar in shape and style to the one in the bottom right corner of Figure 1. This is the J-shaped flint fishhook. The J-shaped flint fishhooks usually have an expanded area at the top for securely tying on a fishing line. Their bodies are much wider than the bodies of our modern metal fishhooks, which leave the factory in a J shape. The pointed end of the flint fishhook is designed to sink deeply into the oral flesh of the fish, allowing a fisherman to snag and haul in his catch.

Although not shown in Figure 1, some flint fishhooks have narrow, thin, fragile-looking bodies, and the overall hook is in a roughly circular shape, as opposed to the more typical J shape. These flint fishhooks often exhibit an interior or exterior barb, presumably designed to assist with holding the fish tightly on the hook. Occasionally, a person will encounter a U-shaped flint fishhook, either with or without canine-tooth barbs.

Flint Fish Hooks II

Figure 1.     An Assortment of Flint Fishhooks

3.0     Lithic Raw Materials Used to Make Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks are usually made from high-quality, easily worked flint (hence their name), which is more commonly referred to by petrologists and archaeologists as chert, a cryptocrystalline silicate stone that occurs naturally in Tennessee and many other states. This is the brittle, waxy rock from which most prehistoric lithic artifacts are made. Chert shatters easily during knapping and exhibits conchoidal (bulb-shaped) flaking scars as a result of the knapping process. Flint fishhooks are made from many different types and colors of chert raw materials.

More properly, flint fishhooks should be termed chert fishhooks, but we have retained use of the term flint fishhook throughout this series of five blog posts because it is the term used most in recent American history and the term that is still used in casual conversation among ordinary citizens.

4.0     Distribution of Flint Fishhooks in the United States

Flint fishhooks are commonly found in private Native American artifact collections across Tennessee and the nation, and some museums have them in their collections and on display to the public. One such museum that has them on display is the state-supported Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex, which is located in Norris State Park near Norris, Tennessee. They have the common J-shaped flint fishhook and the circular flint fishhook with barbs. Flint fishhooks are almost never encountered in the Native American artifact collections obtained from professional archaeological excavations and curated by American universities, federal museums, and federal/state archaeological research facilities. Another place where flint fishhooks are almost never seen is in the collection of an avocational archaeologist or a well-educated Native American artifact collector.

5.0     Folklore and Dogma about Flint Fishhooks

Considerable folklore surrounds the flint fishhook, and as is the case with all true folklore, it is usually passed from one person to another orally rather than in writing. It arises in conversations among professional archaeologists and among average citizens who are interested in Native American artifacts. Some of this folklore has become dogmatic in nature. For example, one often hears that no flint fishhook has ever been found by a professional archaeologist on the ground surface or in an excavation square on a Native American archaeological site. Most avocational archaeologists and knowledgeable Native American artifact collectors will tell you the same thing. This is usually followed by the casual statement that “all flint fishhooks are fake artifacts.” If a person states otherwise in a conversation, it immediately raises eyebrows, and another conversant is quick to step in and correct their obvious error. Turner, Hester, and McReynolds (2011;38) have issued the strongest dogmatic statement on this subject in the recent professional archaeological literature:

One of the most common fakes is the chert fishhook…and all experts agree―there is not, and never has been, a single authentic specimen of this form. Bone and shell hooks dominated the fishing technology of American Indians.

Another aspect of this dogma is the strong belief that a flint fishhook is not thin enough and sharp enough to puncture the oral tissue of a freshwater or marine fish. This dogma goes on to say that flint fishhooks are too fragile and brittle to withstand the intense struggle of a frightened fish that has latched onto one. In support of these strong personal convictions, people point out the fact that ancient Native Americans had several more effective and efficient means of catching fish, including flexible fishhooks made from animal bone, shell fishhooks, weighted fish nets, portable fish traps, and weir traps constructed in stream beds.

Parts II through V of this series will address: (1) the history of flint fishhooks in the United States; (2) the issue of whether any credible archaeological evidence for ancient Native American flint fishhooks exists; (3) the practicality of actually catching a fish with a flint fishhook; and (4) some derived conclusions about the folklore and dogma associated with flint fishhooks in the United States.

6.0     References

Michener, James A. 1978. Teleplay for the television miniseries Centennial (Episode 1). Based on the 1976 historical novel Centennial and later syndicated in DVD format by Universal Studios.

Turner, Ellen Sue, Thomas R. Hester, and Richard L. McReynolds 2011. Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Photograph Credit – Mootsman. Arrowheadology.com (Forum: Arrowheads and Indian Artifacts, Thread: For the Non-Believers….Flint Fish Hook), September 9, 2013.

Flint Fishhooks and Roi-Tan Cigars

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to take this opportunity to apologize to our many readers for the time that has elapsed since our last post.  In addition to coping with job hunting, occasional family health issues, and being quite literally iced in at our house in Oak Ridge (mayday—send bread and milk), we have been researching and writing a five-part series of posts on flint fishhooks.  (We just heard a roar of laughter go up across Tennessee and the nation as we were typing the last part of that sentence.)  Yes, going into the matter, we too thought it would be a ridiculous topic that could be dispensed with in an easy, quick-and-dirty post.  However, as we proceeded on with our research, we quickly ran into a couple of totally unexpected things that, quite frankly, floored us with eye-crossing surprise.  Looking more deeply into those issues required additional time and effort—and resulted in even more surprise.  We are still doing some of the research, and we have completed about 70 percent of the writing in first draft form.  The title of this series is Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap.  Part I should be posted early next week.

This series of posts is part of our continuing 2015 effort to reach out to the average Tennessee citizen with information about archaeological issues (small and great) that often touch the lives of ordinary people in one way or another.  While writing Part I, we noted the fact that many ordinary Tennesseans have a cigar box full of lithic artifacts that were accumulated by various means during childhood.  We further noted that such boxes are sometimes Roi-Tan cigar boxes.  This brought to mind an old TV commercial for Roi-Tan cigars that dates back to the 1960s.  We were unable to find this particular commercial on You Tube or anywhere else on the Internet, but we do have some memory of it.  It was narrated by a young Hispanic woman with a sultry voice.  (No, it was not Edie Adams with a Spanish accent.  She was the spokesperson for Muriel cigars.)

Well, best as possible, we managed to recall the Roi-Tan slogan the Hispanic lady used, which was an abbreviated variation on a closely related slogan that went “Man to man—smoke a Roi-Tan.”  We also must note that some Roi-Tan cigar boxes during the 20th century were marked with “El Roi-Tan” instead of just “Roi-Tan.”  While writing about flint fishhooks, we were overcome with joy about this old commercial and decided to inject a small intermission item into the Part I post just for fun.  Unfortunately, it stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of coldly serious archaeological writing—totally out of place.  Therefore, we decided to move it into this somewhat lighter post to have some fun.  If you feel inclined to do so, please join us in a little joy as we jointly pay vocal tribute to this old commercial and one type of informal Native American artifact curation box used by the average Tennessee child many years ago:

(Intermission: Just for fun, let us repeat this famous Roi-Tan cigar slogan from the 1960s and do it with our best sultry Spanish accents so the next-to-last, stretched-out syllable sucks hard on your uvula.  The phonetics are already provided.  All together now: “Mahn to mahn. El h’ r-r-r-r-r-oy Tahn!”  Many of you are probably too young to remember this old commercial.)

Yes, we sometimes go totally silly here at the blog,  However, we would hasten to add that the Archaeology in Tennessee blog is a strong supporter of Hispanic civil rights.  Never forget that most Hispanic people in the United States have a strong dose of Native American genes and culture, and Hispanic rights issues are, in a very real sense, Native American rights issues at their very roots.

Please come back and read our 5-part series of posts on flint fishhooks.  You too will be surprised and amazed by the same things we were.  Some of you will leave saying, “Oh my G… I would have never…”

Oukonunaka – Set Your Atlatl Darts on Stun

For the past three years, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog has published numerous posts aimed at audiences that were presumed to already have significant knowledge of Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology. These target audiences were professional archaeologists, museum professionals, avocational archaeologists, and artifact collectors. One of our goals for 2015 is to reach out even further with posts designed to inform the average Tennessee citizen about assorted matters (both small and great) in Tennessee archaeology. This post starts out small by examining a bifacial lithic tool that sometimes arises in casual conversations among citizens in Tennessee.

Some Star Trek fans are familiar with the smallest language details written into the scripts for the early television episodes and later movies. One such detail is when Captain Kirk orders Spock and other members of an Enterprise away team to “set your phasers on stun.” At some unknown point in Tennessee history, someone introduced the average Tennessee citizen to the notion that ancient Native Americans in our state could set their projectile weapons on stun.

It was 1960, and I was just 8 years old. At about that time, a relative of mine who collected Native American artifacts took me with him to a plowed field near Portland, Tennessee. I was told we would be spending our afternoon eyeballing the ground surface for something called Indian rocks. This broad term subsumed the term arrowhead, which I already knew about from watching sagebrush sagas on television.

The average man on a Tennessee street in the 1960s knew about as much about Tennessee archaeology as he does now―almost nothing. Raw material for flaked lithic tools was called flint in those days. If a flint artifact had an acute point on its distal end, two sharp blade edges, and an area on the proximal end for hafting it to a wooden or cane shaft, it was called an arrowhead. In reality, most of the so-called arrowheads that people found in plowed fields dated to the Archaic Period (8,000 – 700 B.C.) and were never used on arrows. Instead, they were used as knives or as dart tips for an ancient American dart-throwing device known as the atlatl. This unusual term was derived from the Nahuatl language, which was spoken by the ancient Aztecs in Mexico. Anthropological linguists later classified it as a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family. In Tennessee, use of the atlatl was common throughout the Archaic Period, but its use declined during the later Woodland Period (700 B.C. – A.D. 900), eventually giving way exclusively to the bow and arrow. However, the Aztecs in Mexico were still using the atlatl when Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes and his men arrived on their lands in A.D. 1519.

Our plowed field near Portland exhibited a very high density of prehistoric artifacts dating primarily to the Archaic Period. Even as a child, I knew what prehistoric dart points looked like and found a number of them at various locations as we walked the corn rows. Every once in a while, I was surprised to encounter a dart point that looked as if its tip had been broken off―and the broken area had been finely flaked into an excurvate edge all the way across while also creating a steep, angular profile on the newly flaked edge. Figures 1 and 2 show examples of this commonly found lithic artifact.

Hafted Endscraper I

Figure 1.  Highly Excurvate Putative Stunner

Hafted Endscraper II

Figure 2.  Projectile Point/Knife Flanked by Four Putative Stunners

I asked my uncle why the ancient Native Americans did this reshaping of dart points, and he did not know for sure at that time. Throughout the rest of my childhood, I sometimes wondered why ancient Native Americans did this lithic reworking on the distal ends of broken dart points. There were no Tennessee archaeologists in the Nashville area to consult about the matter, and the poorly stocked Sumner County Memorial Library had no reference books to clear it up.

During my teenage years, a local man and his colloquial wisdom briefly entered my life. To this day, I cannot recall who he was, but he is most likely dead by now. The subject of these rounded-off dart points came up in a conversation with this guy, and the old man’s wisdom flowed forth something like the following:

“Why boy!!! I know what them thangs are. Them’uns is stunners. The Indians used normal arrowheads with sharp points to kill their game, but sometimes they just wanted to stun their prey rather than kill it. They would take a broken arrowhead, round off the end, put it on an arrow, and let the flying force of the arrow stun the game when it hit.”

I did what most teenagers do―look upon such adult wisdom with skepticism. Why would an ancient Native American want to stun an animal when he could just kill it with a single shot? Stun an animal so he could kill it later? Either way, it was going into the boiling bag, so why not just kill the beast outright? Did he want to start a small Native American petting zoo? Considering the frequent and widespread occurrence of this artifact type throughout the Nashville area, that would have been a whole bunch of Archaic Period petting zoos, which seemed a bit left field at best. It also seemed unlikely that the force of a rounded-off point on an atlatl dart or arrow would stun a large animal like a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginanus). In short, the old man’s explanation made no sense to me.

The old man was indeed wrong. This type of lithic artifact is not a stunner. No such thing as a lithic stunner exists anywhere in Tennessee archaeology today, and it never has at anytime in the past. It is pure mythology. However, this piece of archaeological mythology was not just confined to one old man in the 1960s. Today this stunner mythology still circulates across Tennessee and anywhere else in the United States where this type of lithic artifact is found. It even circulates among people who have at least some knowledge about Native American artifacts―but should know better. If you are ever inclined to visit the many websites where ancient artifacts are bought, sold, and traded, it is not at all unusual to see the words “Stunners for Sale.”

The original source of stunner mythology is apparently unknown. An on-line search using several different keyword queries was conducted in hopes of finding some reliable historical information about who originated this “stunning” notion, where it began, and how it spread. One would think that at least some information about it would be floating around in cyberspace, but this inquiry turned out to be fruitless. On a related and amusing note, in an item published in the 20th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1896), Gerard Fowke notes that Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., the famous 19th century Georgia historian and antiquarian, believed Native Americans in the southeast designed this artifact as a special projectile tip for shooting off the heads of birds. Why would ancient Native Americans want to shoot off a bird’s head rather than shoot some other part of its body? You can travel back through time and ask C.C. Jones that one.

In archaeological reality, what is this odd lithic artifact? Archaeologists who specialize in prehistoric lithic analysis refer to it as a hafted endscraper or endscraper reworked on a projectile point/knife. The latter is most accurate because other kinds of unifacial and bifacial endscrapers could also be hafted. Most of these endscrapers are made from the proximal ends of accidentally or intentionally broken atlatl dart points or knives―or versions of these artifacts that got resharpened nearly to nubs and cried out for one last alternative use. Archaeologists believe they were hafted to short handles (about 20 cm long). They were used for scraping animal hides and other soft materials such as wood. The steep, angular bit end of this tool is generally considered to have been the ideal geometry for scraping tasks, although some of these ancient endscrapers exhibit sharp, straight edges rather than excurvate, steeply beveled ones. As previously noted, these artifacts are most often found on archaeological sites that date to the Archaic Period in Tennessee, particularly the Middle Archaic Period (6,000 – 2,500 B.C.) and the Late Archaic Period (2,500 – 1,200 B.C.). However, they are not exclusive to such sites, meaning they can also show up in archaeological sites and components dating to later time periods, perhaps sometimes as redeposited artifacts, as curated artifacts that were found and used, or as old projectile points/knives that were found and reshaped for scraping.

Photographs – Mr. Peter A. Bostrom at the Lithic Casting Lab in Troy, Illinois, kindly gave us permission to use his two photographs of endscrapers reworked on projectile points/knives.

Historic Preservation and Auschwitz

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog notes, along with many others of late, that we are approaching the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II.  Why do we fight for historic preservation at places a normal human mind would want to forget?  I could write my usual long post here, but Rod Serling said it briefly and best at the end of this old episode from The Twilight Zone.  Please watch this free 20-minute episode at the following link, hear what Rod Serling has to say at the end of it, and never forget it:


Never forget it.

Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology (CRITA) Meetings

For anyone who may have missed it, the Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology (CRITA) meetings will begin in Nashville on Saturday, January 24, 2015.  That is Saturday of this week. This is just a last minute notice for anyone who may have missed the announcements of the meetings in other media venues.

You can read all about it at the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology (TCPA) website and at their attractive and always informative Facebook page. The links to the formal TCPA announcement, the Facebook page, and a meeting schedule that lists the various talks to be given and the poster sessions are provided below.  Each listed talk and poster session is accompanied by an abstract. Here are the links:




I have closely reviewed all of the abstracts, and this promises to be a really interesting and informative meeting. Please try to attend if you can—and by all means—have a really good time meeting with old friends, meeting new friends, and absorbing archaeological information.

You Found Human Bones!!!

I am a professional scientist and not an attorney. Please be advised that my analysis in this post is not intended to be, and should not be construed as being, legal advice or counsel to anyone. If you need legal advice or counsel with regard to the content of TCA 11-6-107 (d)(1-7), the Tennessee Cemetery and Burial Site Laws, and how they might affect you or someone you know, please contact an attorney who is licensed to practice law in Tennessee.

Mr. Aaron Deter-Wolf at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology is hereby credited with clarifying some of the subtleties and nuances in the Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 46.

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog begins this new year by discussing an important subject that may intrude on a nice Tennessee afternoon when all else seems right with the world. You are performing some kind of soil-disturbing activity, and you run into buried bones that look as if they might be human. As actor Karl Malden used to say in the old American Express credit card commercials: “What will you do? What will you do?”

Tennessee laws prescribe your course of action. These laws are in the Tennessee Archaeology Statutes [Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA), Title 11 (Natural Areas and Recreation), Chapter 6 (Archaeology)]. Within this body of law, the specifically applicable statutes are in TCA 11-6-107 (d)(1-7). They are applicable to any person in Tennessee who disturbs soil and encounters human remains (a body, body parts, human bones, or a complete skeleton). The person performing these soil-disturbing activities might be a construction worker operating heavy equipment, a grounds worker using only a shovel, a homeowner digging a flower bed in her front yard, or an artifact collector digging for artifacts (with or without landowner permission)―basically just about any person who is disturbing soil for any reason in Tennessee. However, there are two important exemptions. These statutes do not apply to persons doing normal farming activities (including, but not limited to, plowing, disking, harvesting, and grazing) or to persons who are surface collecting artifacts. The term surface collecting is presumed to involve no soil-intrusive activities.

The provisions of TCA 11-6-107 (d)(1-7) that apply to encountering or disturbing human remains are as follows:

1. Any person who encounters or accidentally disturbs or disinters human remains on either publicly or privately owned land except during excavations authorized under this chapter, shall:

• (A) Immediately cease disturbing the ground in the area of the human remains; and
• (B) Notify either the coroner or the medical examiner, and a local law enforcement agency.

The term immediately cease means exactly what it says. A person must immediately stop their soil-disturbing activity in the area of the remains―literally freeze it in place. Why stop in the area of the remains rather than at just the specific remains that have been encountered? If a person has encountered one prehistoric human burial, other human burials may be located nearby in the same area. Prehistoric human burials often occur in spatial clusters. Immediately freezing the soil-disturbing activity in place avoids disturbance of these additional human burials. If a person has encountered the buried remains of a possible murder victim, freezing in place minimizes or prevents the dislocation and destruction of important evidence (both tangible and contextual) that may be necessary to identify the victim and prosecute the perpetrator.

After a person has frozen their soil-disturbing activity in place, he should avoid any temptation to reach out a hand, grab a bone or artifact, dislodge it from its in-situ resting place, and pick it up to examine it. Leave the bones, artifacts, and current day cultural objects (e.g., a cigarette butt) alone and let the proper authorities deal with them according to appropriate protocols and procedures.

The foregoing phrase “except during excavations authorized under this chapter” refers to legally authorized excavation work conducted by appropriate law enforcement personnel and technical personnel such as forensic anthropologists and field archaeologists.

When soil-intrusive activities have ceased, it is best to immediately call the local coroner or medical examiner and a local law enforcement agency.  Waiting for hours or days can result in damage to the encountered human remains, accompanying artifacts, and legal evidence.

As previously noted, farmers are technically exempt from these notification requirements, but TCA 11-6-107 (d)(6)(A) states that any farmer who discovers or disturbs human remains should go ahead and notify the local coroner or medical examiner and a local law enforcement agency.  In other words, they are not required to do it, but they are encouraged to go ahead and do it anyway.

2. Either the coroner or the medical examiner shall, within five (5) working days, determine whether the site merits further investigation within the scope of such official’s duties;

This further investigation would occur only if law enforcement authorities have reason to believe that the encountered human remains are recent and involve some sort of foul play that would be of primary concern to the Tennessee legal system.

3. If the coroner or the medical examiner, and law enforcement personnel, have no forensic or criminal concerns with regard to the site, then the coroner or the medical examiner shall notify the department.

The department refers to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) in Nashville, Tennessee, which is home base for the Tennessee State Archaeologist (Mr. Michael C. Moore). At this major transitioning point, further investigation of the remains becomes archaeological in nature, and decisions on the appropriate courses of action to take are made by TDOA in consultation with Native American groups and other interested parties.

4. Human remains and burial objects reported to the division of archaeology shall be treated as provided in §§ 11-6-104 and 11-6-119, and/or Title 46, Chapter 4, if applicable.

These statutory requirements apply to the TDOA and the process for legally terminating the use of a tract of land as a cemetery.  The term burial objects refers to any prehistoric artifacts, historical-era artifacts, or other items of material culture intentionally buried with the encountered human remains.

5. A person who violates subdivision (d)(1)(A) or (B) [of TCA 11-6-107 (d)(1-7)] commits a Class A misdemeanor.

Provision 5 states the criminal penalties the State of Tennessee can impose on a person who fails to cease disturbing soil in the area of the human remains and/or fails to notify either the coroner or medical examiner―and a local law enforcement agency. In Tennessee, a Class A Misdemeanor is punishable by not greater than 11 months and 29 days in jail or a fine not to exceed $2,500, or both, unless otherwise provided by statute.

The history of Tennessee archaeology includes the activities of 19th century antiquarians and archaeologists who performed excavations in Tennessee. It would be fair to say that these individuals had a fetish-like attraction to prehistoric mounds and human burials, particularly the many stone box graves found on Mississippian archaeological sites in the Middle Cumberland region of Tennessee. They had a good reason for their fixation on human burials. In addition to the personal thrill that came from acquiring a so-called piece of the past and holding it in their hands, there was a prevailing belief that really nice, museum-grade artifacts would somehow “speak to them” (figuratively) about the nature of the ancient Native American peoples and cultures that made them. (Put another way, in old saw terms, they thought the way a thing was made would tell them something important about its maker and his cultural milieu.)  As these folks quickly discovered in Middle Tennessee, museum-grade artifacts were most likely to be found as burial furniture in stone box graves dating to the Mississippian Period.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, this basic bit of information trickled down to a number of Tennessee artifact collectors, looters, and artifact dealers who had no personal qualms about disturbing the ancient resting places of Native American human beings to retrieve the artifacts buried with them. The State of Tennessee and Native American groups had hoped that the foregoing statutory penalties would severely curtail or end illicit burial excavations in Tennessee. A satisfying measure of success in this regard has been achieved by the State of Tennessee, but illicit disturbances of Native American burials still occur in Tennessee.

Digging for artifacts that occur outside of human burials in Tennessee is legal on privately owned lands―but only with landowner-granted permission to dig. However, the State of Tennessee had hoped that the criminal penalties for disturbing prehistoric human burials would also curtail ALL digging for artifacts on private lands. Conceptually, how was that supposed to work?

In most instances, a citizen standing on the ground surface of an archaeological site cannot see the features or artifacts buried underground. This includes human burials. Human burials may be present anywhere on an archaeological site, and a person standing on the ground surface never really knows where they are located. Consequently, a person can be sitting in their open hole and be randomly trenching along by digging into the wall of soil in front of his eyes. Then boom! It happens! A grapefruit knife or some other digging tool accidentally scrapes against a human skull or femur. Legally, at the precise moment when that happens, a human burial has been disturbed. Notice that TCA 11-6-107 (d)(1) specifically applies even if the person accidentally encounters a human burial. That is the critical moment of decision. If this person does not cease digging immediately where this human burial is located (and in the area of the human burial) and he fails to make the legally required notifications to his local coroner or medical examiner―and a local law enforcement agency―he is in violation of the law and subject to the above misdemeanor criminal penalties.

Sure enough, this hypothetical person only digs for the occasional loose artifact and always with a landowner’s permission, as Tennessee law states that he can do legally. He never goes to an archaeological site for the specific purpose of digging into a human burial and toting off its burial furniture. However, if he does not cease digging immediately when he accidentally encounters a human burial and if he does not make the required agency notifications―and he gets caught―the key problem for him is that the law enforcement officers do not know the digger’s motives with any certainty. They cannot read minds. All they see is a 175-year historical pattern of people digging into human burials to grab artifacts, a well-known artifact hound standing before them, helter-skelter holes in the ground, required notifications to agencies that were never made, and a disturbed human burial―and the overall situation looks very bad―meaning the circumstances look like probable cause to arrest our hypothetical person for misdemeanor violation of TCA 11-6-107. Chances are very high that this person will be arrested and prosecuted—and the situation can go to something far worse in terms of state penalties. Here is how that can happen.

The Tennessee Cemetery and Burial Site Laws [TCA, Title 46 (Cemeteries)] give ancient Native American cemeteries and burials the exact same legal protections as the Euroamerican and African-American cemeteries and burials located in Tennessee urban areas and next to hundreds of white churches in rural areas. In other words, digging into an ancient Native American burial is the same as digging into the burial of your Uncle Fred. It is illegal to intentionally disturb any human burial in Tennessee without a written court order.

If our hypothetical person fails to immediately cease digging when the human bones in the burial are first encountered (without making the required notifications) and he continues digging into the burial, collects the bones or any accompanying artifacts, or attempts to hide the remains (e.g., by tossing the bones into the nearby woods or over a creek bank), he is committing at least one Class E Felony under TCA 39-17-312, which contains provisions relevant to abuse of a human corpse. If the human remains are in a stone box grave, mound, or shell midden, this person may also be committing a Class E Felony under TCA 46-2-105, which addresses willful destruction, defacement, or injury to any monument, tomb, gravestone, or other structures placed in a cemetery. Class E felonies in Tennessee come with a prison sentence of up to 6 years and no less than 1 year in a state facility. The jury may also assess a fine of no more than $3000.

This is why digging for artifacts on privately owned land in Tennessee, even with the written permission of the landowner, is a downright dangerous activity. You never know when you are going to encounter a human burial beneath the ground surface. As shown above, failure to obey the law upon encountering a human burial can get the digger into enormous trouble.