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: