Hardly a Day Goes By: The Necessity of Educating Artifact Collectors on Cultural Resource Statutes and Regulations

by Tracy C. Brown

Considering the fact that American archaeology is a pretty esoteric subject, we get a satisfyingly large number of visits and views each day here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. With no doubt, some of our visitors are professional archaeologists; some are college anthropology students; some are artifact collectors; some are public school teachers; some are public school students; and some are just ordinary people in their homes or at work. WordPress provides us with a daily statistical package that summarizes limited data on visitations and views.  It does not tell us who visits the blog, but it sometimes tells us the search term an unnamed person has input to an Internet search engine to arrive at our blog.  Hardly a day goes by without getting one or more searches and visits by people looking for information on the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA).  Almost invariably, these people arrive at the first of our five main posts on this subject at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog.  That post is located at this link:

The Jimmy Carter Clause in ARPA (Part I)

We have no way of knowing, but we suspect most of our visitors who enter an “ARPA” search term are uninformed and confused artifact collectors. Now, why is that?  Well, a number of professional archaeologists visit or become members of artifact collector web forums such as Arrowheadology or Arrowheads.com just to read stories about interesting new artifacts that collectors have found and to keep up with the latest artifact collector news, opinions, and attitudes on varying subjects related to American archaeology.  Four of the major things I have noticed on my past visits to such forums are as follows:

(1)  Many artifact collectors, especially the casual collectors and novice collectors, have very little to zero knowledge of the various federal, state, and local statutes, regulations, and ordinances that apply to artifact collecting on federal, state, and county/city lands.

(2) Many (but by no means all) life-time artifact collectors have learned through some magazine article, news story, or grapevine of friends that collecting artifacts on federal, state, and local government lands and in government waters is illegal, but they do not understand the finer nuts and bolts of the laws and regulations that make it illegal.

(3) Although ARPA has been in effect for 37 years, this federal statute and the regulations promulgated under it have just about all artifact collectors significantly confused in one way or another—so much so that many artifact collectors actually think ARPA gives them special permission to legally collect arrowheads on all federal and American Indian lands.  Yikes!!!

(4)  As a result of Items 1-3 (above), artifact collectors often get together on-line and try to discussively figure out the implications of these statutes and regulations for their collecting activities.  Each person brings the little bit he knows (or thinks he knows) about these laws and regulations to the discussion along with all sorts of misinformation, disinformation, noninformation, and personally held notions about how the American legal system works—usually wrong notions. These discussions sometimes degenerate into bitter arguments about the true nature of the laws they discuss, or they hatch one or more items of homespun legal theory about why it is really all right to collect artifacts on government lands or why a collector will not be arrested or be charged with a crime if they do so. Field implementation of such homespun legal theories can be bad news when artifact collectors get arrested on federal lands and find out that their operationalized legal theory was nothing more than a home-made cow pie.

Considering how long (26 – 110 years) most of the cultural resource protection statutes and regulations have been on the books at the federal, state, and county/city levels, I often wonder if this important legal information pertinent to artifact collecting is really trickling down to the people in the artifact collecting community, especially here in the eastern United States. As a professional archaeologist, it has always been my understanding that the primary purpose of these laws is to protect and preserve the cultural resources on publicly owned lands so they can be studied at some appropriate time in the future. One way you do that is to protect them and their archaeological context from artifact collectors who might dig for artifacts or surface collect for artifacts on government lands or dive for artifacts in government waters.  Personally, I really do suspect that a lot of important federal, state, and local legal information pertinent to illegal artifact collecting never trickles down to a very large number of artifact collectors. Consequently, artifact collectors are always doing Internet searches to find legal information that can potentially clear up all of their confusion about the legality and illegality of artifact collecting on public lands—but if and when they find it on-line—they often do not understand it because it is written in the foreign language known as legalese.

This is the juncture where many of my fellow professional archaeologists would likely step in and say to me:

You know damned well that every last artifact collector in the United States is aware of the fact that it is illegal to collect artifacts on government lands and in government waters. They all know it is illegal; they all know it destroys the archaeological record; and they all just go ahead and do it anyway because not a single one of them has any respect whatsoever for the law or for preserving the in situ material culture remains of our past.

Fine.  Yes.  I do indeed understand that this has long been your position.  Some artifact collectors are indeed that brazen about their illegal collecting, and their faces often show up on the front pages of newspapers when they get caught. However, outside of those few artifact collectors with brass balls, I am not personally convinced that the above statement in italics is anything more than a long-held blanket intuitive assumption in the professional archaeology community—an assumption that has never been seriously tested in empirical terms.  In doing so, I will say the following until some colleague in the professional archaeology community supplies me with comprehensive, solid, indisputable information or data to the contrary:

Based on what I have seen, heard, and read in all sorts of different artifact collecting-related media over several decades and in talking with various artifact collectors throughout that period of time, it is fairly clear to me that many people in the artifact collecting community are either ignorant of or very confused about most of the cultural resource protection laws and regulations on the books at all levels of government. Lots of people—and I do mean lots of people—are either not getting the word about illegal collecting on government lands, or they do not get enough clear legal information to deter them from collecting on such lands.

Some artifact collectors have even asked me why federal, state, and local government agencies do not come directly to them and teach them the fine nuts and bolts of these laws and regulations so they can finally understand them and know what the law allows them to do and does not allow them to do—so they can obey the law, stay out of trouble, and protect cultural resources. A person has to specifically know what a law says and does before they can obey it—and most people want to know the finer points of those laws so they can understand why it is important to obey them. People need good and sensible reasons to obey laws and regulations—reasons that make sense to them.

One day a couple of years ago, an artifact collector asked me a very serious and quite unexpected question that took me completely aback with surprise because I had never really thought about the issue he brought up—at least in his stated terms:

Why is it you professional archaeologists do not come to us artifact collectors and educate us about all of these laws that forbid us to collect in various places and circumstances?  It sounds to me like all professional archaeologists want to do is intentionally keep us ignorant of the these laws and the finer points of these laws so we will accidentally disobey one of them out of ignorance.  This then gives you guys an opportunity to arrest us; plaster our faces all over the newspapers; put another notch in the wooden stock of your agency enforcement gun; and make a big media deal out of it to scare other artifact collectors into stopping even legal collecting.  Do you people want us to remain ignorant and break the cultural resource laws out of our ignorance just so you can catch us and use it to raise a big ruckus?

Quite frankly, I had never thought of this issue in those terms, so I thought about it some. If I were a federal or state professional archaeologist responsible for a large parcel of public land, might I intentionally fail to educate the local population in my geographic area about the finer details of cultural resource protection laws so unwary citizens living nearby outside of my government lands would be sure to bumble onto these lands out of complete ignorance to do looting of government archaeological sites?  A strategy like this would then give me an opportunity to watch carefully over time and eventually jump out from behind a huge boulder and say:  “Gotcha!!!  You are under arrest!!!  I have to read you your rights now.”  After delivering them to the local jail, I could then put my feet on my desk and say:

“Man!!!  That is the third looting arrest I have made this month.  This “keep the locals ignorant” strategy  of mine is really working.  If I can make another couple of arrests, and get a few convictions, I should be up for promotion in no time.”

Like I said.  I just thought about it for a bit because the guy had brought up this unusual question. Personally speaking, I have no earthly idea whether anyone in the professional archaeology community has ever intentionally done anything along those lines. Such a strategy sounds thoroughly immoral and unethical to me.  In good conscience, I could never intentionally lay an ignorance trap like that for ordinary, unlearned citizens and feel good about it in my church pew on Sunday morning.

In my personal opinion, detailed education of current and potential artifact collectors on the various laws and regulations that affect artifact collecting is the correct answer to stopping most illegal artifact looting on public lands.  It is never enough.  Let me repeat that loud and clear. It is never enough to just simply say that “artifact collecting on  ____X____ parcel of government land is against the law.” Some artifact collectors will take those 12 words seriously, but some will not. Many others will simply say:

Well, in the grand scheme of things, I am a pretty small fish in an awful big sea. I am not familiar with the specific words in that statute, but somehow I doubt it applies in any way to me or any little thing I might ever do.

Many artifact collectors adhere to the notion that all laws and regulations have loopholes that may be to their benefit. Some will say:

Like all laws, those anti-collecting laws have loopholes, and I bet you I could find those loopholes and slip right through one of them to a free and clear artifact to take home with me.

Some collectors just assume the legal penalties must surely be small because when they go collecting:

All I would ever pick up is a just a few little ole arrowheads. TVA would never be concerned about just a few measly arrowheads. The big-time collectors who dig for artifacts with heavy machinery and automated sifters are the ones they are really out to nail.

Some collectors assume the government agency has laws and regulations in place with regard to collecting artifacts, but it is not really serious about enforcing them.  They will say:

Their land is large, their enforcement manpower is small, and they are not really serious about enforcing these laws—and besides—if I do get arrested—the judge will probably go easy on me.

The human mind is a strange biological landscape acted upon by individual human experiences, thoughts, pressures, and desires. Bearing that in mind, my main point here is that numerous artifact collectors and ordinary citizens often think diverse sorts of other things you might not expect when you say nothing else to them but:

It is against the law to collect artifacts on government lands and in government waters.

Current and future artifact collectors want and need to know the detailed, in-depth legal specifics (and all the legal thinking) behind this simple “against the law” statement, or they are not going to take it all that seriously. That is why I went to great lengths to explain  (above in the blue hyperlink) about the so-called Jimmy Carter clause in ARPA. When you go into that kind of depth, spell it all out in clearly understandable spades, and slam shut every single door of hope, artifact collectors understand that government agencies are dead serious——and artifact collectors need to avoid collecting artifacts on government lands and in government waters. It is never enough to simply say it is illegal to do so.  If you want to stop most of the collecting on federal and state lands, you have to go far deeper than that to get the job done.

You have to show artifact collectors the finer points of the law and explain why it is illegal in detail. If you do this and do it several times per year in your geographic area, I think you will see a significant reduction in looting on government lands. This will happen mostly because people who collect artifacts and people who might be wanting to start collecting artifacts are often simply ignorant of the laws that forbid collecting on public lands. More than one time in my life, I have had to explain such laws to people I thought would have surely known better. They…did…not.

How would you go about doing this?  If it were up to me alone, I would identify every last person in my geographic area of responsibility who is either a known artifact collector or a person who is interested in local archaeology. I can already hear my professional archaeology colleagues whispering:

How in the hell are you going to do that?

Life-time and long-term artifact collectors are not all that hard to identify. It just requires  a little leg work. Potential new artifact collectors are people who already have an interest in archaeology and make that interest publicly known to their K-12 school teachers, relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Finding all of these people is not as hard as you might think——if you grew up with artifact collectors all around you as I did—and learned a few things in the process.  You just need to know the right questions to ask and who to ask.  It might take some time and effort, but it can be done effectively. And above all else, you have to inquire discreetly with the honest understanding that you are not asking in order to get people into trouble with the law—and you had better be totally, 150 percent honest about that fact.

When everyone is identified, you buy some doughnuts and coffee (even a catered buffet dinner), invite all the folks you have identified to a public meeting, and offer everyone a free PowerPoint presentation on the finer points of cultural resource  laws and how they affect the collecting of artifacts. Tell people your purpose is not to get anyone into trouble with the law. Your sole purpose is to admit to the people who show up that archaeologists have done a really bad job (and I think we have) of explaining these laws to the public.

Tell them your sole purpose is to rectify that situation by thoroughly explaining these laws in detail; how they can affect artifact collecting; and how the invited people can avoid getting into trouble with the law—and thereby—actually enlist their help in the preservation and protection of archaeological sites on government lands. To do this properly, you will first have to know the laws and regulations inside out (including the finer points of the law and how they apply to hypothetical situations), and you will have to have a really good and fully developed program to present. For those people who do not show up, you can put your presentation into a loose-leaf booklet format and mail them a detailed copy, always written and illustrated in such straightforward, simple, and understandable terms that even a grandpappy groundhog could understand it.

One other thing should be done, and this is really important. You do not give this presentation just one time; write a look at me article about public archaeology in the agency public relations magazine, and then just walk away feeling as if you have done your duty and it is all over. It is not all over by a long shot. There are dynamics here. New artifact collectors and potential collectors move into your geographic area, and old collectors move out of it.  People forget what your presentation said with the passage of time. Small kids grow up, get interested in archaeology, and start collecting artifacts. Laws are revised and amended. New regulations are promulgated. All sorts of crucial things change with time.  You need to learn how to surf that change and keep the information in your program up-to-date and always in front of the local public as time passes. You cannot and must not just present one time—and then walk away.  I would aim at the very least at four public laws/regulations presentations per year in your geographic area, depending on its size.

Sure. I agree with you. Such detailed public education about cultural resource laws and regulations will not end looting by a small handful of the most brazen looters who live near any given parcel of federal or state land. Nothing deters the collectors with brass balls—a few of which may be dangerous people with criminal records gained in other corners of American society. However, I do think this approach to artifact collector and citizen education would end a lot of the looting on government sites that is done every year out of sheer ignorance—and I personally believe that is an awful lot of the looting that actually happens on government lands in any given year.

If you think I am wrong or naive about all of this, please let me know. You may leave a response to this post here, or you may send me an e-mail message by clicking on the above Contact tab.  All responses, positive or negative, are welcome.

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