The Crossing

Here are my two favorite scenes from the movie “The Crossing,” which is a dramatized account of George Washington and his men crossing the Delaware River to attack the Hessian mercenary soldiers occupying Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26, 1776.  General Washington, in the first scene, deals with General Gage in precisely the same way that I would have done it had I been in Washington’s boots.

You may have done this yourself—maybe—I do not know for sure.  But sometimes in a movie, I will step back from the movie for just a moment and ask the question:  “Is there a character in this movie that is just like me–or almost like me?”  Usually, the answer is “no.”  However, in The Crossing, I met a spirit kindred with my own in Colonel Glover—a person who is almost exactly like me personality wise—often accused of being too negative—but the negativity is most often, in fact, a reality that various people would rather not face.  But if the situation demands it, and it is not totally stupid, I try to get it done to the best of my ability—just like Glover.

Just How High Is High?

A couple of months ago, I listened to a brilliant academic presentation on the ancient Hebrew cultural concept of Heaven.  I heard absolutely amazing and scholarly documented things that I never knew before—one of those things being just how high up in the sky above them the average ancient Jew actually thought Heaven was.  In other words, standing on the ground, just how high up into the sky above their head would they have had to fly to reach the official city limits of Heaven.  The answer was truly shocking, and it made me realize just how much our own 20th and 21st century American cultural concepts of sky, outer space, and astronomy have potentially warped our own anthropological understanding of ancient American Indian cosmology—and other such things.  With that thought in mind, I would like you to honestly and sincerely ponder an important archaeological question:

In American Indian cosmology during the Mississippian period, just how far into the sky above his head (in feet or meters) did an ancient American Indian feel like he would need to go in order to reach the city limits of the Upper World?

If you feel like it, let us know what you think and why?

Fighting Archaeological Theft and Vandalism

While surfing the Internet this evening, I ran into a really interesting article on fighting archaeological crime.  it was published in American Archaeology, which is the chief public relations publication of The Archaeological Conservancy. Some of the American archaeologists and Tennessee archaeologists who visit the Archaeology in Tennessee blog may have already read this article when it was first published in fall 2012.  For those assorted readers who have not read it, you may do so at the following link:

You will be really interested in the photograph on page 20.  What kind of bozo would do something like that?  If i were standing there in front of that panel, my first inclination would be to check whether I had fallen down a rabbit hole into some strange alter reality, and the following song would be playing in the background:

White Rabbit

Is It Against the Law to Hunt for Indian Artifacts in Tennessee?

About four years ago, a nonarchaeologist manager in my company asked me if it is against the law to collect American Indian artifacts while strolling along the edge of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lake with his little boy. This manager was not an artifact collector, and his sole thought was to find and keep an arrowhead or some other ancient artifact that could be the focus of a new learning experience for both him and his child.  Yesterday, some unknown person did a search of the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, and their search question (slightly edited) was:  “Is it against the law to hunt for Indian artifacts in Tennessee?”  This question comes up relatively often here in Tennessee, so I thought this would be as good a time as any to offer some quick answers to this question for those who are interested.

The four verbs and verb terms one hears most often in such questions from ordinary Tennessee citizens are collect, hunt for, look for, or pick up an artifact.  All four do not precisely state their real question. This question, perhaps better stated, is as follows:

Within the state boundaries of Tennessee, is it legal for me to see an artifact lying on the surface of the ground or in a hole I just dug, reach down and grab it with my hand, stuff it in my pocket or sack, and take it home with me to be my private property for the rest of my life?

Herein I shall use the single verb collect to capture all that is in the above question. Because it is so late this night, I feel like offering my answers in a listing format, so please pay close attention to the following list:

(1) It is against federal law to collect any ancient American Indian artifact, historic-era American Indian artifact, or any other historic-era artifact on the federal lands and in the federal waters of Tennessee.  This also applies to any artifact found while digging a hole, scratching around on a river bank, scratching around on the shore of a lake, diving in water, or metal detecting on federal lands or in federal waters.

At this juncture, ordinary folks usually ask the following question:

Do you mean to tell me that if my 3-year-old son picks up just one arrowhead at a TVA lake access, stuffs it in the pocket of his Osh-Kosh-B-Gosh overalls, and takes it home, he has committed a federal crime?

The short answer: Yes.  The existing federal laws and regulations do not contain any special exemptions or accommodations for a toddler who pockets just one artifact, for a tourist who does the same, or for the little old lady from Pasadena.  The only people allowed to collect artifacts on the federal lands and in the federal waters of Tennessee are persons who have received a written federal permit to do professional archaeological research. If you are not a professional archaeologist, your chances of getting such a permit are about the same as getting your crotch hit by a lightning bolt originating on the planet Venus.

Lightning on Venus

Some federal agencies even turn down research permit requests made by professional archaeologists. Other federal agencies refuse to answer even the simplest professional archaeologist requests for archaeological information and data. It kind of makes one wonder for what purpose their cultural resources are being preserved—and in which future century or millennium their squirreled away information and data might actually be used for something worthwhile. Why even call such information and data a cultural resource if no American archaeologist is ever going to be allowed to see it or use it?  Yes, I know all of the standard arguments about site preservation, future archaeological technologies, and so forth. I agree with all of that like you do, but I am not talking about archaeological research that involves destructive new excavation of archaeological sites on federal lands—far from it.

I am talking about federal agencies who prevent professional archaeologists access to existing archaeological information and data already on-hand in paper and electronic files, information that could be highly useful in archaeological research right now without physically destroying anything. Some of these federal agencies will not even share this information and data with professional archaeologists in other federal agencies. If professional archaeologists cannot be trusted to appropriately and protectively handle/use this information and data, who in the hell ever can be?  Are these two-bit federal bureaucrats preserving information and data so they can watch it decay in situ within a file cabinet or on a hard drive for hundreds or even thousands of years? Does that sound sane to you?  If you are a Tennessee citizen or a citizen of another state and this outlandish federal agency dysfunction makes you as angry as it does me, please write a letter to President Obama, your two U.S. Senators, and your U.S. Congressman. Ask them to pass federal legislation that will put an end to this nonsensical withholding of already existing archaeological information and data from professional archaeologists. Withholding valuable archaeological information and data “just because I can” is not a viable or defensible use of federal tax dollars.

(2) It is against Tennessee state law to collect any ancient American Indian artifact, historic-era American Indian artifact, or any other historic-era artifact on state-owned land, state-controlled land, or in state waters. This includes any artifact found by surface collecting or digging. The only people allowed to collect artifacts on Tennessee lands and in Tennessee waters are professional archaeologists who have received a written state permit to do archaeological research on state property.  If you are not a professional archaeologist, your chances of receiving such a permit are about the same as incurring a Martian nerve gas attack while on tour in the Republica Inhambane, an extinct Portuguese colonial city-state in Africa that once issued its own postage stamps.

Stamp from Inhambane

(3)  It is against Tennessee state law to collect any ancient American Indian artifact, historic-era American Indian artifact, or any other historic-era artifact on county, city, or municipal lands (or in any waters they own or control) without permission from the appropriate county, city, or municipal agency. This includes any artifact found by surface collecting or digging.  Some Tennessee local governments may have ordinances or formal procedures that must be followed to obtain such permission.  If you are not a professional archaeologist, your chances of getting permission to collect artifacts on their lands and in their waters are about the same as those for winning the BIG JACKPOT in the Planetoid Pluto Powerball Lottery.

Pluto on Pluto

(4)  It is against Tennessee state law to collect any ancient American Indian artifact, historic-era American Indian artifact, or any other historic-era artifact on privately owned land in Tennessee without permission from the owner of the property.  This includes surface collecting for artifacts, digging for artifacts, and metal detecting for artifacts. If such permission is ever sought, it is best to get that permission in writing with the property owner’s signature.

Some professional archaeologists in Tennessee have  told me that private property owners refuse them permission to do archaeological research on their lands more often than they grant them permission to do so. I have never really had that problem because the best way for a professional archaeologist to get owner permission is to approach people in the same manner as that well known master of social interaction and chivalry: Sir Buddy Brown.  This is our Pembroke Welsh Corgi (a.k.a Buddy Brown) striking the correct pose for requesting permission to perform professional archaeological research on privately owned land in Tennessee.  Who could turn down that face?  The owner of the land may ask for your dog’s autograph in exchange for his permission.  Be sure to carry an ink pad and paper with you for this purpose.

Corgi Ambassador II

How ’bout it?

Vandalism of Prehistoric Artifacts on State Lands in Tennessee

We here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog do not claim to be licensed attorneys, and the text of this blog post should not be taken or construed as legal counsel. If you need such counsel, please contact a licensed attorney in your state or U.S. territory.

My dad was a carpenter and a cabinetmaker. When I was growing up, he would occasionally recall a bit of hard-earned wisdom and place it in my ears:

Boy, some people will steal anything that ain’t nailed down.

During the course of my own life, I have learned an important corollary to my dad’s foregoing wisdom:

Some people will tamper with or vandalize anything that is nailed down.

We have two broad categories of prehistoric American Indian artifacts in Tennessee. Some are portable artifacts―the ones that are not “nailed down.” The others are stationary artifacts that are too large or complicated to be moved―the ones that are “nailed down.” On Tuesday of this week, one of our readers here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog was nice enough to write in and advise me that one of the most famous and beloved stationary prehistoric artifacts in Tennessee had been vandalized in the past few weeks―although the term tampered with might be a more apt and precise description of what actually happened. (It really matters not because tampering is an officially recognized form of vandalism under Tennessee law.)

Frankly, I was shocked—and angry. Within hours of receiving the message from our reader, I relayed the key information that I had in hand to the appropriate Tennessee state authorities. Because their investigation is active and ongoing, I am not going to disclose any further information about the matter at this time. I will leave that to the proper authorities to do in their own time.

Instead, I am going to show you something that one rarely ever sees in Tennessee. We (you and I) are going to review the Tennessee state statutes applicable to vandalizing state-owned property, privately owned property, and cultural properties on state lands and in state waters in Tennessee. This review will be followed by a small table that summarizes the criminal penalties for doing such vandalism.

First of all, I want to make one thing crystal clear. Portable and stationary artifacts on state-owned lands and in state-owned waters are indeed the property of the State of Tennessee, which holds them under protection and in trust for the benefit of all the citizens of Tennessee. I am making that clear because in the past a few people with an interest in Tennessee prehistory and prehistoric artifacts have said to me―quite seriously―things along the lines of the following:

Those artifacts on federal and state property do not belong to the federal government or the government of Tennessee. They belong to all the people, and I am one of them. The way I figure it, if I go in and get some artifacts, then all I am doing is taking my fair share of the past that belongs to me.

By the same token, I can see a not-so-bright vandal thinking something along the lines of the following:

Those stationary artifacts on federal and state property do not belong to the federal government or the government of Tennessee. They belong to all the people, and I am one of them. The way I figure it, if I want to spray paint over a prehistoric cave painting, then all I am doing is messing up my fair share of the past that belongs to me. And besides, it was fun!!!

As a professional archaeologist in Tennessee, I can assure you that no other professional archaeologist, district attorney, or sitting judge is ever going to buy into either of those notions. Instead, you are quite likely headed for a fine and/or the slammer.  Now, let us take a look at what Tennessee law says about vandalism.

Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 39 – Criminal Offenses, Chapter 14 – Offenses Against Property, Part 4 – Burglary and Related Offenses, TCA 39-14-408 – Vandalism

(a) Any person who knowingly causes damage to or the destruction of any real or personal property of another or of the state, the United States, any county, city, or town knowing that the person does not have the owner’s effective consent is guilty of an offense under this section.

(b) For the purposes of this section:

(1) Damage includes, but is not limited to:

(A) Destroying, polluting or contaminating property; or

(B) Tampering with property and causing pecuniary loss or substantial inconvenience to the owner or a third person; and

(2) Polluting is the contamination by manmade or man-induced alteration of the chemical, physical, biological or radiological integrity of the atmosphere, water, or soil to the material injury of the right of another. Pollutants include dredged soil, solid waste incinerator residue, sewage, garbage, sewage sludge, munitions, chemical wastes, biological materials, radioactive materials, heat, wrecked or discarded equipment, rock, sand, cellar dirt, and industrial, municipal and agricultural waste.

(c) Acts of vandalism are to be valued according to the provisions of § 39-11-106(a)(36) and punished as theft under § 39-14-105.

[Acts 1989, Chapter 591, § 1; 1997, Chapter 284, § 3; 2005, Chapter 353, § 16

Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 11 – Natural Areas and Recreation, Chapter 6 – Archaeology, TCA 11-6-106 – Defacement of Sites or Artifacts Misdemeanor

In order that sites and artifacts on state-owned or controlled land shall be protected for the benefit of the public, it is a misdemeanor for any person, natural or corporate, to write upon, carve upon, paint, deface, mutilate, destroy, or otherwise injure any object of antiquity, artifact, Indian painting, Indian carving, or sites and all such acts of vandalism shall be punished as Class A misdemeanors according to the provisions of this chapter.

[Acts 1970, Chapter 468, § 6; T.C.A., § 11-1506; Acts 1989, Chapter 591]

Note: All of the foregoing statutes are from the 2010 Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA). During the past five years, these statutes and the penalties in Table 1 below may have been revised to some extent. If you need the most up-to-date statutory reading of the law, please consult the most recent edition of the TCA or contact your attorney.

Table 1 shows the criminal penalties for vandalism in Tennessee.  Please click on the following file:

Criminal Penalties for Vandalism in Tennessee

I would classify many of the stationary prehistoric artifacts in Tennessee, especially the famous ones, as priceless. To my personal way of thinking, if you mess with one of those, you are already in Class B Felony range.

The best policy for ordinary citizens to follow with these stationary artifacts is a very old one summarized in a familiar adage:

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.

However, in the case of prehistoric paintings on cave walls, cave ceilings, in rockshelters, or on stone bluffs, I would recommend not even taking photographs because the intense light from many people with cameras set on flash (over time) could damage the paintings. If you have artistic talent, just eyeball the painting and sketch your memory on paper with a pencil or pen.

Merry Christmas: Our Christmas Card for You

Madonna and Child


Christmas is almost here, and the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Roman Judea nearly 2000 years ago is the foundational reason for celebrating Christmas.  Most American archaeologists I have ever known are agnostics or atheists who have no use for Jesus of Nazareth.  They would no doubt cite several different reasons for this.  However, I think it is more than a little interesting to note that most of the archaeologists who study the prehistory and archaeology of the southeastern United States grew up in the Great Lakes region and the American South.  Historically, the Great Lakes region was the birthplace and cradle for Christian fundamentalism in the United States.  (I bet you thought that was all born and raised down south in the Bible Belt. Wrong!!!)   Along another and earlier pathway, the American South gave rise to assorted versions of conservative evangelicalism that were later influenced in the early 20th century by the elements of  Christian fundamentalism flowing from the Great Lakes region. Today both Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals swear that Charles Darwin and the settled science of evolutionary biology are the primary generators of agnosticism and atheism.  Personally, I think they are wrong.  Instead, I think Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism are the primary generators of agnosticism and atheism.  I would hazard a guess that most southeastern archaeologists were raised in strict Catholic, Christian fundamentalist, or conservative evangelical homes.  If you were Catholic, the mean old nuns and their ruler “smacks” on your hands helped drive you toward agnosticism or atheism.   If you had Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical parents, living in a legalistic straight jacket for 18 years helped drive you towards agnosticism or atheism.  it seems to do that to a lot of people.

For those of you who like to ponder religious things deeply, I was thinking that this particular Christmas might be a good time for us to seriously rethink those very old, bad, and hurtful religious experiences from our childhoods by listening to a rather fun two-part lecture on the subject of Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism as delivered by Reverend Keith Ward at the invitation of an Australian group called Heretics Anonymous.  The lecture was delivered at St. George’s Cathedral in Perth, Australia.  Keith is a really fun, engaging, and easy-to-follow lecturer.  The two links are shown below.  After clicking to go there, you may need to drag the little red time ball all the way to the left to start at the beginning of Keith’s presentation.

Reverend Keith Ward (born August 22, 1938) is a British philosopher, theologian, priest, and scholar. He is a fellow of the British Academy and a priest of the Church of England. He was a canon of Christ Church, Oxford until 2003. Comparative theology and the relationship between science and religion are two of his main topics of interest. He was Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford from 1991 to 2004. Ward graduated in 1962 with a B.A. from the University of Wales and from 1964 to 1969 was a lecturer in logic at the University of Glasgow. He earned a B. Litt. from Linacre College, Oxford in 1968. From 1969 to 1971 he was Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. In 1972, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. From 1971 to 1975 he was Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at the University of London. From 1975 to 1983, he was Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He was appointed the F. D. Maurice Professor of Moral and Social Theology at the University of London in 1982, Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London in 1985 and Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford in 1991, a post from which he retired in 2004. In 1992, Ward was a visiting professor at the Claremont Graduate University in California. In 1993–94, he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow. He was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008 at Gresham College, London. Ward is on the council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and is a member of the editorial boards of Religious Studies, the Journal of Contemporary Religion, Studies in Inter-Religious Dialogue and World Faiths Encounter. He is a member of the board of governors of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He has also been a visiting professor at Drake University, Iowa, and at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ward has M.A. and D.D. degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, and an honorary D.D. from the University of Glasgow [Verbatim Text from Wikipedia 2015 (Slightly Edited)].