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 being struck by a lightning bolt originating on the planet 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 can be? Are these 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 upset 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.
(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 jackpot in the Planetoid Pluto Lottery.
(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 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 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 Budlowe Brown. Here is our Pembroke Welsh Corgi (Sir Budlowe 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.
How ’bout it?