Is It Legal to Hunt for Arrowheads and Other Artifacts in Tennessee Bodies of Water?

by Tracy C. Brown

Some people in the American artifact-collecting community seem to think the average person, corporations, or government agencies own deeds to land. They are correct. They do. Tennessee state law requires a person to obtain permission from a private landowner to surface hunt or dig for artifacts on their land. Although the law does not say so, it is legally wise to get such permission in writing with the landowner’s signature on it. Now, what about creeks and other bodies of water?

Numerous artifact collectors seem to think that a body of water is always some kind of “no man’s land” that is not owned or controlled by anyone—-kind of like international waters on the high seas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, it must be free and open season for everyone who wants to dig for artifacts under the bottom of a body of water or everyone who wants to bottom collect or grope for visible or not-so-visible artifacts lying on the bottom of a body of water such as a creek, river, pond, or lake. This includes scuba diving for artifacts.


People, corporations, and government agencies often own or control all or portions of bodies of water in the United States——just like they do acreages of land.  Therefore, you have to figure out who owns or controls a body of water or a particular portion of a body of water in Tennessee——-and you have to ask the owner or controller’s permission to bottom collect, scuba dive, or dig for artifacts in that body of water. If you are not a professional archaeologist, your chances of getting such permission from any government agency are about the same as your chances of traveling from Earth to the moon via the thrust from one of your best farts. No joke.

However, I should note that this is often not clearly stated in some federal, state, and local cultural resource management statutes, regulations, and ordinances around our nation——but it seems to exist somewhat implicitly. For example, in some of the 50 states, the actual water that sits in a body of water is not controlled by statutes and regulations enacted or promulgated specifically for cultural resource management purposes——and that makes sense. People do not find Lost Lake points floating in the water. They find them on top of or under the sediment/sand/soil/gravel that forms the bottom or benthos of a body of water. Now here is the sticky thing. In some states, the sediment/sand/soil/gravel that forms the bottom of a body of water is considered to be “land,” just like a farmer’s field. It is just land that happens to have water lying on top of it. Therefore, in those states, the cultural resource protection statutes and regulations that apply to surface collecting or digging for artifacts on land also apply to the bottoms of water bodies—-and they are enforced that way.

Another legal issue is trespassing. In most instances, gaining access to a particular cultural resources location in a body of water involves crossing the land owned or controlled by one or more private persons or government agencies. In rural areas, such tracts of land are often posted with “No Trespassing” signs, “No Hunting” signs, or what I like to call “No Nothin’ No Time” signs. Trespassing is against the law in Tennessee. Therefore, any person who wants to cross one or more tracts of land to get to a particular spot in a body of water must identify the owners of those tracts and ask for permission to cross their land. It is best to get such permission in writing with all of the landowners’ signatures. Otherwise, you could be arrested and prosecuted for trespassing

My personal advice, as a professional archaeologist in Tennessee, is to just avoid hunting for artifacts or digging for artifacts on top of the bottoms of bodies of water or under the bottoms of bodies of water. Depending on what specific body of water one has in mind and where one is located on a particular waterscape, the cultural resource management statutes and regulations that apply to collecting artifacts and how they are interpreted and enforced can be complex, tricky, and a bit “iffy” to various degrees, depending on which federal, state or local government agency has the ability to exert legal control over bodies of water and have the will to exert it. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) look very dimly on private individuals and groups who hunt, scuba dive, or grope around for artifacts on the bottoms of the waters they own and control. They will arrest you and successfully prosecute you for doing it. Consequently, the only truly safe thing to do in any U.S. state or U.S. territory is to just stay away from collecting artifacts in bodies of water. Just steer clear of it entirely and do not do it.

Yes—I know what you are thinking:

Don’t us artifact collectors get a break on anything?”

No. Not really. The federal and state legal systems are intentionally devised such that an artifact collector gets almost no breaks on anything, anytime, anywhere. If the right to surface collect or dig for artifacts with landowner permission could be legally taken away, most professional archaeologists I know would wholeheartedly support it. I know that makes some artifact collectors feel incredibly angry——and I understand that.  It is not my intent to make you angry or hurt your feelings.  That is just the way things are these days. I know such matters were a lot better for you before 1960——but today is not “before 1960.”

Try hard to obey the laws and regulations——avoid taking risks with artifact collecting——and by doing so——keep yourself out of trouble. I will thank you. Other professional archaeologists will thank you. The Native Americans will thank you. TVA and USACE will thank you. Your lineal descendants will thank you because all of our American archaeological sites will not have been damaged or destroyed when your lineal descendants draw their first breaths. It is not all about you and an artifact you desperately want out of the ground or water right now. There is a much larger conservation picture to consider, and your kids, grandkids, and great grandkids will be part of that larger picture——and reap future benefits from it.

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