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.

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