Tag Archives: Tennessee Artifact Collectors

The Continuing Search for the Madison Tablet

by Tracy C. Brown

The Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI) is continuing its search for the long lost Madison Tablet and several other long lost Native American artifacts that were discovered in Tennessee.  Please read the following revised and updated story for 2017 about the Madison Tablet and help us find it.  You are our eyes and ears. It has to be out there somewhere in Tennessee, the United States, or some foreign country.  Please be on the lookout for it, and send us an e-mail message at tcbkjbbrown@comcast.net if you know its current whereabouts or have any leads.

1.0     Introduction

Sometimes prehistoric Native American artifacts go missing and are never seen again for several decades or even a century. One good example that has been missing for about 90 years is the famous Castalian Springs Tablet, also known in the Tennessee archaeological literature as the Eagle Warrior stone (Smith and Miller 2009:73). It is a flat limestone slab with a depiction of the famous birdman mythological figure incised into its surface. This stone was found on the ground surface at the Castalian Springs mound site in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, in the late 1800s, and it dates to the Mississippian period (Myer 1894:11). In the late 20th century, a lesser known but perhaps equally important incised limestone slab known as the Madison Tablet was found at an archaeological site on the east side of Nashville, Tennessee.

The Madison Tablet disappeared from the realm of Tennessee archaeology in 1993 and has not been on exhibition or available for scientific examination for the past 24 years. Its current owner, location, curation, and preservation status are unknown. This essay tells the story of the Madison Tablet, and it kindly asks the many readers of the Archaeology in Tennessee blog to assist with finding this long-missing Tennessee artifact.

2.0     Discovery of the Madison Tablet

The Madison Tablet was discovered on a large area of land that was known as the Haysboro site in the 19th century. However, by the late 1960s, it was known by Nashville area artifact collectors as the Maddox site [Parker 1980:5-6; Parker and Parker 1982]. Today its Smithsonian Institution trinomial site designation is 40DV17.

Site 40DV17 was a large Mississippian village site. The Madison Tablet was found in situ within a human burial on this site. This burial was located within a cluster of stone box burials. A Nashville artifact collector by the name of Malcolm P. Parker discovered the Madison Tablet and curated it in his private Native American artifact collection from the moment it was found in autumn 1968 until the date of his death in 1993, a period of 25 years.

3.0    Archaeological Context of the Madison Tablet

The human burial containing the Madison Tablet was a flesh inhumation, and the deceased individual had been buried on their back in a fully extended position. Mr. Parker described the remains as fully articulated, and they rested on a single limestone slab that was long enough to accommodate the entire length of an adult male body. Perhaps most importantly, the cranium of this individual was found resting squarely on top of the Madison Tablet, which had been used as a sort of pillow for the head at the time of inhumation. A quartzite ear plug was found near the cranium. In the midsection of the remains lay a large rim sherd from a shell-tempered pot, and a metal knife with a bone handle was present in approximately the same location (Parker 1980:5-6; Parker and Parker 1982). Mr. Parker earnestly believed that the knife was an intentional item of burial furniture, but most archaeologists in the Nashville area have long suspected that this artifact was an intrusive Historic period artifact.  Suffice it to say that it has been a matter of some controversy.

Mr. John Dowd, a highly respected avocational archaeologist and a member of the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey (SIAS) at that time, was a friend of Mr. Parker. A number of  months after discovery of the Madison Tablet, he interviewed Mr. Parker and filled out a standard field burial form for this flesh inhumation, which he officially designated as Burial 1. A copy of this burial form and other detailed information about Burial 1 are on file in my home office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Mr. Dowd’s original burial form is on file at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.

I was 15 years old when the Madison Tablet was found, and upon first hearing about its discovery, I immediately requested an opportunity to go to 40DV17 and see the in situ burial in which it was found. Mr. Parker took me straight to the site that afternoon to observe the still-open burial in which it was found. This opportunity to see the burial occurred within approximately 3 days after the tablet was discovered and removed from its burial context.

Throughout his life, Malcolm Parker was an honest man and a church-going member of several Methodist congregations. In addition, he was a close relative of mine, and I knew him better than almost anyone because he was like a second father to me throughout his long life. He sometimes got very excited about his archaeological discoveries, and in the midst of his excitement, he could exaggerate when telling stories about them. Given the fact that he had no professional training in American archaeology, geology, or geomorphology, he was sometimes prone to misreading and misinterpreting contextual details in the field. Nonetheless, he was a profoundly honest person who did not intentionally deal in lies, deceit, or trickery—and he hated artifact fakery, artifact replications, and archaeological hoaxes. Indeed, he was one of the earliest people in Tennessee to write a published journal article decrying the faking and replication of prehistoric artifacts. This article was published in an early edition of the Tennessee Archaeologist (Parker 1949: 33-34).

Today a large-box retail store and its parking lot sit on top of the burial zone where the Madison Tablet was found, and the surrounding area has been subject to heavy commercial development over the past 60 years. Consequently, a very large portion of the Maddox site has been destroyed, and the rest of its once intact archaeological deposits have been disturbed to varying degrees.

As may be seen from the foregoing discussion, the Madison Tablet is not an artifact that was intentionally tagged with a false discovery story to dupe a succession of would-be artifact buyers into thinking it is a genuine Native American artifact. Indeed, Mr. Parker never attempted to trade or sell the Madison Tablet during his own lifetime because he had a strict policy of never selling or trading any artifact he had personally found in the fields of Tennessee. Unequivocally, the Madison Tablet is an actual dirt find within an ancient human burial on a well-known Mississippian period archaeological site in the Middle Cumberland region. The circumstances surrounding its discovery and its in situ archaeological context were documented shortly after it was found.

4.0     Description of the Madison Tablet

The Madison Tablet is a slab of native Ordovician limestone, which is a common lithic raw material in the Nashville Basin. It is a hefty stone with an irregular shape. The Madison Tablet measures 35.5 cm (14 in) × 25.4 cm (10 in.) × 7.6 cm (3 in).

At the time of its discovery, the exterior surfaces of the tablet were stained with soil minerals, giving it a somewhat mottled yellowish red color. One broad face of the tablet (obverse side) showed distinct evidence of smoothing and polishing, but this alteration of the surface was localized and executed unevenly because of gentle undulations in the natural surface of the limestone slab.  This smoothing and polishing does not look like the smoothing and polishing one would expect from a modern power tool. Instead, it looks exactly like the patinated, smoothed, and polished areas one normally sees on the bit ends of Dover chert hoe blades and chisels. In two words, this localized, polished appearance  is distinctively prehistoric in nature.

The obverse surface of the Madison Tablet has intricate incised images on it. No incised images are known to be present on the reverse side.

From the date it was found in 1968 until Mr. Parker died in 1993, the Madison Tablet was never photographed. The only known image of the tablet and the iconography incised into its surface is a drawing he made prior to his death. This drawing is shown in Figure 1.

Madison Tablet

Figure 1. Freehand Drawing of the Madison Tablet

The original drawing and the size-reduced version (Figure 1) are a bit misleading and need some clarification. Malcolm Parker was an amateur artist who preferred to draw with wide-tipped writing instruments such as large-lead pencils and grease pencils. This explains why the lines are so wide and distinctive in his original drawing and to a lesser degree in the size-reduced version shown in Figure 1. Consequently, the thicknesses of the lines on the original drawing and the one shown here do not accurately reflect the true widths of the incised lines on the Madison Tablet. The actual incised lines on the Madison Tablet tend to be mostly narrow and shallow like those on the Thruston Tablet, and many of them are quite faint from weathering of the limestone slab. Thus, Figure 1 is an idealized view of the overall lineation wherein all lines are portrayed as strong, wide, and equally distinct.

The incised surface of the Madison Tablet bears the images of a serpent, an apparent lizard-like creature, and two possibly still-living herbaceous plants with long stems and narrow leaves. The lizard-like creature appears to have already removed the leaves from 14 plants, leaving only the stems, and it is weaving these stems into a lattice structure. The body of the serpent is partially obscured by the two still-living plants. The head  of the serpent is poised above the tops of these plants, allowing it to observe the lizard-like creature and its lattice-building process. The body of the serpent rests in an extended position at the bottom of the stone, and it is decorated with alternating half-diamond shapes, one set empty and one set shaded with cross-hatch incising. Two long, roughly parallel vertical lines to the left of the lattice work appear (at first glance) to be a possible stream of water.  However, these lines are most likely the rough left edge of the stone slab rather than an intentional element or motif in the overall incised images.

5.0     Temporal Context of the Madison Tablet

The Madison Tablet was found in a human burial located among a number of Mississippian period stone box burials on 40DV17. This suggests that it dates to the Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1475) in the Middle Cumberland region (Smith and Miller 2009:38).

The incised images on the Madison Tablet are atypical of Mississippian iconography, but one must remember that we still do not know all there is to know about regional Mississippian iconography traditions (and certainly not those for flat, stone slab media in the Middle Cumberland region). Another matter to consider is whether the local Mississippian culture required all incised themes on in-burial petroglyph stones to represent Mississippian mythological subject matter that uses only widely known Mississippian iconographic elements and motifs. Would it have been socially and ideologically permissible to abandon standard Mississippian iconography on such stones and present an incised theme reflecting a matter of personal, site-level, or chiefdom-level significance? If so, this might explain the observed deviation from typical Mississippian iconography.

Alternatively, this portable stone tablet might date to some earlier prehistoric time period, meaning it was passed down through many ancient generations as an important heirloom item to one or more Mississippian occupants of the Maddox site. Optionally, it could have been a much earlier artifact that was found by someone during the Mississippian period and curated on 40DV17. Because a bone and metal knife was found in possible association with Burial 1, Mr. Parker always believed the Madison Tablet was a rare Native American artifact dating to the early Historic period in the Nashville area.

At the moment, strictly as a matter of in situ archaeological context, the Mississippian origin and temporal attribution for Burial 1 and the associated Madison Tablet are considered to be the most plausible.  This is based on the Mississippian burial cluster location where the incised stone was found and the fact that it was found on a large Mississippian site. Nonetheless, because of the troubling Mississippian iconography issue and the unusual presence of a Historic period artifact in Burial 1, the door must be left open to the possibility that the Madison Tablet may be a fake artifact that was created in the early or middle 20th century and then planted on the Maddox site for some unwary archaeologist or artifact collector to eventually find.

6.0     Potential for Being a Fake Artifact

This section entertains the question of whether or not the Madison Tablet is a fake artifact.  Right now, the only argument in favor of it being a faked artifact is the fact that the incised images on the stone slab do not look Mississippian. Then again, just because a Caucasian fashion model, such as Behati Prinsloo, does not look African is no sure indication that she was born outside of Africa. As the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Consequently, if some future archaeologist wishes to test whether the Madison Tablet is a fake artifact, he or she will need to go beyond mere appearances; closely examine the actual petroglyph stone (once it is found); develop even more hard evidence; take a look at the hard evidence already presented in Section 2.0 of this paper and in this section (Section 5.0) [including some evidence not presented in this paper], and then take a holistic, objective look at the authenticity of the Madison Tablet.

As previously noted, the incised images on the Madison Tablet do not look Mississippian. Several years ago, Dr. Charles H. Faulkner, Professor Emeritus of anthropology at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, examined the Parker drawing of the Madison Tablet and indicated that the incised images do not look Mississippian.  However, based on his extensive experience with rock art and cave art in eastern North America, he hastened to add that every element and motif shown on the Madison Tablet exists in American Indian rock and cave art at various times in the prehistory of eastern North America. Based on that fact alone, Dr. Faulkner was unwilling to definitively tag the Madison Tablet as a fake artifact, although he did suggest that it could be fake because of the Mississippian iconography issue.

People who produce fake prehistoric incisings on limestone make some rather typical mistakes. For example, all of the engraved lines on their fake images are distinct and equally easy to see.  The incised lines tend to be of uniform thickness and depth. In addition, the interiors of the lines often do not exhibit the same degree of staining and weathering as that on the natural surface of the limestone raw material. In other words, the incised lines look uniformly white and chalky against a naturally weathered gray or gray-blue background.

As already noted, the iconography incised into the obverse surface of the Madison Tablet consists of very narrow and shallow lines quite similar to those on the Thruston Tablet, including the presence of both distinct lines that are easy to see and long-ago faded lines that are difficult to see. Unlike other recently faked limestone incisings, the incised lines on the Madison Tablet exhibit irregular widths and depths. Moreover, the exterior surfaces of this tablet have distinctive soil mineral staining, indicating that the Madison Tablet had been buried in soil for a long time. This staining is evident not just on its exterior surfaces, but also within all of the incised lines.

These observations about the incised lines were made informally in April 1969 when I had an opportunity to briefly view the Madison Tablet under excellent exterior lighting conditions (daylight). Unfortunately, these observations about the incised lines were made 48 years ago, and I was only 16 years old at the time. Memories can fade with time, which is one very good reason why the Madison Tablet merits a closer examination today by a professional archaeologist.

Could the Madison Tablet have been an intentionally planted fake artifact? A highly detail-oriented artifact faker who had seen the line variability on the Thruston Tablet might have gone to extraordinary lengths to forge similar lineation on the Madison Tablet. Subsequently, they could have planted the forged tablet in an already known Mississippian burial on the Maddox site, perhaps many decades prior to 1968. In other words, the Madison Tablet could have been planted like the Piltdown man cranium and mandible or the Bat Creek Stone.

However, even this fake-and-plant scenario presents several problems. For example, replication of the subtle variability in lineation seen on the Thruston Tablet would have been an extremely difficult, meticulous, and time-consuming task that would have probably far exceeded the time and patience of most artifact fakers. Furthermore, the quartzite ear plug found in situ near the cranium of the Burial 1 individual would pose yet another problem. It seems unlikely that a 19th century antiquarian or 20th century artifact collector would have sacrificed such a nice, valuable ornamental artifact in support of a mischievous archaeological hoax.

People who plant fake artifacts in the ground are usually pursuing some sort of scientific, financial, political, social, or religious agenda. As soon as the planted artifact is found and the story is made public, the people who planted it shift into personal agenda overdrive and publicly demonstrate how the new archaeological find supports their agenda. As we all know now, a scientific agenda with 19th century British social connotations was clearly at work in the famous Piltdown affair. During the entire time between discovery of the Madison tablet and Mr. Parker’s death, not a single person in the Nashville area or outside of it spoke up to link the Madison Tablet to any sort of scientific, financial, political, social, or religious agenda. In fact, for a full 25 years, the public silence on this point was deafening, again making it unlikely that the Madison Tablet was a planted fake artifact.

Fourteen years after the death of Mr. Parker, a 2007 article on the Madison Tablet and other similar incised stones from the Nashville area was published in the The Tennessean, which is the major daily newspaper for the Nashville area. After its publication, a few modern occultists and pseudoarchaeology buffs who inhabit the Internet tried to link the Madison Tablet to reptilian aliens piloting UFOs and other such nonsense. However, these were all people living in faraway places that would not have been involved in a decades old archaeological hoax that originated in the Nashville area.

As a professional archaeologist who has actually seen the Madison Tablet close-up, albeit a very long time ago, I would have to say that the Madison Tablet is probably not a fake prehistoric artifact. However, until the Madison Tablet can be closely examined one more time, this should be viewed as a highly tentative conclusion.

7.0     Legal Status of the Madison Tablet

It is important to note that the Madison Tablet has not been stolen from a private artifact collection or any museum collection. It was found on private property in 1968. Mr. Maddox was a local real estate broker who owned the 40DV17 property and was known to allow multiple artifact collectors to dig at will on his property. The Madison Tablet was found immediately after earth moving had begun for a large-box retail store. The prevailing historical assumption has always been that Mr. Maddox still owned the 40DV17 property when the Madison Tablet was found. However, it is potentially possible that land ownership could have been transferred to the retailer or their holding company immediately prior to the beginning of earth moving operations, meaning the Madison Tablet might have been found and unknowingly removed without retailer or holding company permission. A determination of who owned the property when earth moving began would require in-depth research. The exact date when the Madison Tablet was found is unknown, except that it was discovered in Autumn 1968. Considering this variable, the passage of 49 years, and the uncertain disposition of old corporate construction records, such research might yield no clear answers as to who owned the property when the Madison Tablet was found―and most likely no one would even care about it today.

Excavation of the Madison Tablet occurred on private property and long before 1979, which means the current federal cultural resource management (CRM) statutes and regulations, such as the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, do not apply to this artifact. No federal or state laws pertinent to human burials or artifacts found in human burials apply to the Madison Tablet.  The Tennessee CRM statutes and regulations did not even exist when the Madison Tablet was found, which means none of them were violated by excavation and removal of the Madison Tablet. As a result, this is not an artifact that a federal or state agency could legally confiscate from its owner. In other words, the current owner of the Madison Tablet is not subject to arrest, prosecution, fines, or imprisonment by federal or state authorities. It is also highly unlikely that any private or public entity would ever want to confiscate the Madison Tablet—even if they could.  It has been privately owned for the past 49 years, and that is not likely to ever change.

8.0     Current Location of the Madison Tablet

By late 1993 or early 1994, the Madison Tablet had dropped off the archaeological radar screen in the Nashville area and out of public awareness. It has not been seen by anyone in the local avocational or professional archaeological communities in the past 24 years, meaning no professional archaeologist has ever examined it and it has never shown up on display at any Nashville or Tennessee area artifact collector show.

It is presumed that this artifact was sold to someone in 1993 or shortly thereafter, and it may have already changed hands a couple of times as a result of artifact collector trades or sales. If it was sold, the purchaser may have been an artifact dealer, artifact collector, or just an ordinary citizen who bought it as a piece of decorative art for their home or garden.

The best-case location scenario is one in which the Madison Tablet is owned by some artifact collector who knows the story of this artifact; appreciates its potential archaeological importance; takes good care of it; plans to keep it on Tennessee or United States soil; wants to know more about it; is not afraid of owning it; and is willing to let others know that he owns it—thereby sharing it with the general public.  Today almost all artifact collectors are adamant in their belief that every ancient American Indian artifact should be made available for public viewing and study.

Sad to say, potential worst-case location scenarios abound. The following are just four of them:

(A) The Madison Tablet is owned by a private citizen who has no earthly idea what it is. She bought it at a flea market, believing it was a cute piece of art done by some elementary school kids. It was taken home and now has a lovely place of its own in the Japanese rock garden behind the house.

(B) A few years ago, the Figure 1 drawing of the Madison Tablet was shown to several artifact dealers who were asked to state whether they thought it was an authentic American Indian artifact. Most were unwilling to express an opinion without seeing the actual limestone slab. However, a couple of the dealers immediately expressed the opinion that it is obviously a fake artifact. They could tell because the incisings did not “look American Indian.” If the Madison Tablet has come into contact with the wrong artifact dealer or appraiser, its last owner may have tossed it into the garbage can or dumpster―and if not―this fate may still be waiting for this tablet in the future.

(C) The Madison Tablet may have been sold to an obscure artifact collector in Europe, the Middle East, or Japan, which quite likely means it has no chance of ever being studied in the United States. It is gone from Tennessee forever, and the owner may know nothing about it except that he was told American Indians made it.

(D) The Madison Tablet might be owned by a timid and very secretive artifact collector who sits in his house with wild imaginings and fear about federal or state authorities beating a path to his door to confiscate the Madison Tablet and his Chevy Tahoe under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979―or he is afraid to let anyone know he has an artifact collection for fear that someone will break into his house and steal it. Therefore, he will just let time drift by quietly, he will die someday, his surviving wife or children will sell the collection, and the Madison Tablet will end up in the hands of another secretive collector, an artifact dealer who will immediately declare it to be fake, or someone who will send it to a new owner in a foreign country such as Japan. Consequently, no one here in the United States will ever be able to examine the Madison Tablet, and the full story it still has to tell will be lost forever, unless the current owner bravely steps forward and allows this artifact to be examined so its full story can finally be elucidated and told.

9.0     An Appeal for Your Help

The Madison Tablet is an important element in some long-term archaeological research I am doing, and I would very much like to find out who owns this incised limestone slab so I can get in touch with them and obtain permission to photograph it, take some measurements, examine it more closely, and make some notes on it. This is my sole purpose in attempting to find the stone. When I am finished, the owner may take it back home and do with it whatever he wishes.

The last possible known owner of the Madison Tablet, immediately after Malcolm Parker died, was a Nashville area artifact collector who was a friend of Mr. Parker in 1993. Shortly after Mr. Parker’s death in that year, it is believed that the Madison Tablet and the other items in the Parker Collection of Tennessee artifacts were gifted to this man by Mrs. Parker.  This man was Mr. Danny Lea, a congenial welder and family man about 45 years of age who lived near Mr. and Mrs. Parker in the Stratford High School neighborhood. This neighborhood is in the Inglewood suburb of East Nashville.

Numerous attempts to find and contact Mr. Lea have been made over the past 10 years—all without any success. The present whereabouts of Mr. Lea and the members of his immediate family are unknown to me at this time. It is possible that Mr. Lea has an unlisted telephone number, or perhaps he and his family have moved out of Nashville to another town in Tennessee or even to another state. If anyone who reads this paper knows Mr. Danny Lea (or members of his family), knows where they live, or knows how I may get in touch with any of them, please contact me by e-mail at tcbkjbbrown@comcast.net. (Just click on the blue link at the top of this paper.)  If you so desire, your personal identity will be kept in the strictest of secrecy.

If you happen to own the Madison Tablet, please send me an e-mail message at tcbkjbbrown@comcast.net. (Just click on the blue link at the top of this paper.) If you are an artifact collector, avocational archaeologist, museum employee, or professional archaeologist in Tennessee, another state, or elsewhere on planet Earth, and you know who owns the Madison Tablet, please send me an e-mail message. If you are just an ordinary citizen out there on the American landscape and you have seen this artifact somewhere, like maybe as a decorative item on the mantle above some average citizen’s fireplace, please send me an e-mail message. If you so desire, your identity will be kept in the strictest of secrecy.

Finally, just to cover all the bases, I know a little bit about how human beings think—well—some human beings. Someone out there will look at the Figure 1 drawing of the Madison Tablet and say, “Oh! I’ve seen that! My best friend Fran has one just like that!” No. Only one of these exists on planet Earth. If your best friend Fran has one, it is the one and the only one.  Please trust me and send me that e-mail message.

What is that you just said?  “I know who owns it, but I just don’t want to get involved.” Two things:

(A)   If I keep your name secret, as promised, you are not going to be involved. No adverse consequences should come your way.

(B)   Every moment you refuse to help hurts the prehistory, archaeology, and history of Tennessee. It really does. If you are an artifact collector and you really respect the prehistoric heritage of Tennessee, as so many of you claim to do, do you really want to be personally responsible for such harm?

Give that some thought, and please help me with this.  All you have to do is get in contact with me at the above email address.

9.0     References

Myer, William E. 1894. “An Old Shawnee Town in Tennessee.” The Archaeologist. 2(1) 6-13, 1894.

Parker, Malcolm 1949. “Counterfeiting of Indian Artifacts,” Tennessee Archaeologist. 5(2), 33-34.

Parker, Malcolm 1980. The Shawnees in Tennessee. Nashville: Central Printing.

Parker, Malcolm and LaUna Parker 1982, Letter to Tracy Brown (Subject: Excavation of a Human Burial at 40DV17), July 2.

Smith, Kevin E. and James V. Miller 2009. Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2009.


State Archaeological Permits: They Are Not Like Fishing and Hunting Licenses

Looter Holes

Thousands of Random Digging Holes in a Middle Eastern Archaeological Site

Most professional archaeologists do not keep track of the various “goings on” in the avocational archaeology and artifact collector communities. I do to a certain extent and so does my friend Doug Rocks MacQueen in the United Kingdom, as well as a few other professional archaeologists I know. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in the Nashville area, there were no professional archaeologists. If a kid wanted to learn something about American archaeology or Tennessee archaeology, local libraries were of little help. The only way to learn anything at all about prehistoric Native Americans was to get in touch with a local avocational archaeologist, such as Buddy Brehm or John Dowd, or call on various local artifact collectors. That being the case, I became familiar with those folks, felt at home with them, and enjoyed interacting with them—and still do with the ones who are friendly and receptive. I suppose this is why, every once in a while, I take a break from whatever else I am doing with American archaeology and tune in to what is happening in those communities. I am writing this blog post because of one particular issue that I have encountered several times on visits to various on-line artifact collector venues over the past few years, so this post is kindly directed to the many folks in the American and Tennessee artifact collector communities.

I cannot recall what the specific on-line venue was because it was about three years ago, but an artifact collector in one of the 50 states had written in to ask if it was legal for a person to dig for artifacts on private property in that state. He was told that it was legal to dig for artifacts on private property as long as he got written permission from the property owner and a written state permit from the official state archaeological authorities. His response was something along the lines of the following:

Well, that is good news!!!  I know a farmer in my state that has an archaeological site on his land, and I feel certain he will give me permission to dig in it.  So, I will just apply for a state permit, pay them a few bucks for the permit, and start digging.

Some states actually require a written state permit to perform any kind of excavations for artifacts and/or archaeological information on privately owned land. One good example of this is the State of Oregon. Here in Tennessee (and in most other states), it is legal to perform archaeological excavations on state-owned or state-managed property if a person gets a written permit to do so from the appropriate state agency. Here in Tennessee that agency is the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.

So, if you are an artifact collector, it is easy as pie—right?  You just ask a private landowner or state official for permission to dig, pay a few quick bucks to the state like you do for your fishing or hunting license, grab the nearest shovel, and you are on your way. Correct?

Face palm. No. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it does not work that way here in Tennessee or in any other state that I know about—including Oregon. These state permits are not anything like fishing licenses or hunting licenses. They are far more serious business and far more difficult to obtain. Here is a list of typical specifics that will explain what you would have to do to get one of these state permits to excavate on an archaeological site:

(1)  You would have to be a professional archaeologist with a Ph.D. or M.A. degree in archaeology (or a related field) and meet the minimum professional standards and years of supervisory and excavation experience specified by your state. Truthfully, in most states, they will prefer far more than just the minimum qualifications.

(2) You would have to fill out a standard state application for a permit. This application usually asks for a lot of detail and attachments (e.g., a map of the proposed excavation area).

(3) You would have to write and submit to the state a formal proposal to do archaeological research. In this proposal, you would need to set forth the specific archaeological problems to be addressed by your excavations; show how you are going to address them (formal research design); justify the proposed work; and demonstrate that you have sufficient qualified personnel, funding, equipment, laboratory space, artifact curation plans, and levels of funding. You would also have to present a formal schedule for successfully completing your proposed work. This research proposal is not a quick-and-dirty, one-page deal in most cases. It takes multiple pages, and you have to do serious, high-quality scientific writing; know how to use professional archaeological terminology; and exhibit a deep understanding of archaeological science, archaeological field methods, laboratory procedures, and archaeological logistics.

(4) You would submit to the official supervision of state archaeological personnel through occasional or regular announced and unannounced visits to your archaeological field operations and/or laboratory operations. You would also be required to submit weekly or monthly progress reports to the state and the sources of your funding. In other words, a professional state archaeologist would be breathing down your neck a big part of the time to make sure you were doing the work responsibly.

(5)  When your fieldwork and laboratory work are completed, you would be required to write and submit a formal, highly detailed, written archaeological report on your work, including reports on site background, historical context of the site, lithic analyses; ceramic analyses; zooarchaeological analyses; analyses of paleoethnobotanical remains; palynological analyses; human osteological analyses, if human burials were excavated; and radiocarbon dating and other dating methods that were used, etc. A typical report with interpretations of the site remains could run several hundred typed, single-spaced pages, including numerous figures, tables, and appendices.

(6) Arrange for boxing, accurate provenience labeling, and permanent curation of human remains and artifacts in a safe facility approved by the state and in compliance with any state statutes or regulations applicable to curation.

(7)  Unlike fishing and hunting licenses, these are not general permits that are issued only one time—and afterwards a person can excavate anywhere in the state on any private property, state property, or state-managed property they like. Normally, each new site-level excavation project requires a new permit specific to the work proposed for a particular archaeological site. However, exceptions that include multiple site research can be made, depending on the nature of the proposed project.

(8) Now. Pay close attention here. If you do not personally dig random holes into archaeological sites and never plan to do so, I am not talking to you here. So relax. However, if you do put random digging holes into archaeological sites, you may not like this, but I have to be honest with you here.

There is a very long American history of some artifact collectors (not all) [without formal archaeological training] putting random, spatially uncontrolled digging holes into archaeological sites. Digging without grid squares in this random, three-dimensionally uncontrolled manner destroys the ancient archaeological story written in the soil on archaeological sites. You can see what this random, massive destruction looks like in the sad photograph at the beginning of this blog post (above).

Many thousands of American archaeological sites (and many sites right here in Tennessee) have been destroyed in this same manner by such random, spatially uncontrolled, and unrecorded digging. Archaeological information that would fill whole libraries has been lost forever as a direct result of such digging. Consequently, I and most other professional archaeologists get really nervous at the idea of letting an artifact collector loose with a shovel and grapefruit knife on any archaeological site with intact cultural deposits. As a direct result of this long history of artifact collectors and artifact dealer minions destroying sites, most state archaeological authorities will never issue one of these state permits to an artifact collector. As an artifact collector, your chances of obtaining one of these state permits—in any of the 50 states and U.S. territories—are about the same as your chances for personally resurrecting George Washington from the dead. I know that sounds provocative and harsh.  It was not meant to hurt your feelings. It was said that way to emphasize the baseline truth of the matter so you will not forget it.

I hope this article has cleared up most of the confusion that exists among some folks in the American and Tennessee artifact collector community, particularly for novice artifact collectors, about state permits to excavate archaeological sites on private property, state property, or state-managed property. Obtaining one of these permits to excavate is not anything like paying a few quick bucks to the state for a fishing or hunting license. Getting one of these written permits to excavate requires a lot of professional archaeological expertise, a lot of professional experience, and a damned lot of deep thought and hard work.

Artifact collectors and professional archaeologists in many different states, and a lot of foreign countries, read the various articles on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. If you have specific questions about obtaining one of these state permits, please consult with the office of the State Archaeologist in the particular state you have in mind to do archaeological excavation work. The many specific requirements for obtaining a written state permit can vary some from one state to another.  Please click on the following safe link to get the contact information for the Office of the State Archaeologist in all 50 states and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico:

Contact Information for State Archaeologists