Tag Archives: Tennessee Division of Archaeology

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 for permission to dig, pay a few quick bucks 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 processes, 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 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. A typical report could run several hundred typed, single-spaced pages with appendices.

(6)  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.

(7) 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, most 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, but 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 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


Practice Proper Attribution: Tennessee Archaeological Site Survey Record

The main office of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (in Nashville, Tennessee) is charged with overseeing and maintaining what TCA 11-6-110 refers to as the Tennessee Register of Archaeological Sites, otherwise known informally as the “state archaeological site survey files.”  Newly identified archaeological sites in Tennessee are documented on a long electronic form referred to formally as the Archaeological Site Survey Record.  Many of these completed forms for archaeological sites are associated with written Phase I survey reports, Phase II testing reports, and/or Phase III data recovery reports, as well as maps, sets of photographs, and packages of GIS data.  Any person who identifies a new archaeological site in Tennessee may complete and submit one of these survey forms to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.  Professional archaeologists submit most of these forms, but some are submitted by private citizens (e.g., farmers who have found sites on their land), avocational archaeologists, independent researchers, Native American artifact collectors, and even a few site looters.   The Example of Additional Information page in the Archaeological Site Survey Record asks for the following key information:

“Reporter:  Jane Doe, Your Company, Any Road, Suite 000, Anytown, Tennessee 00000, phone (000) 000-1002, email________________, October, 2001.”

This post to the Archaeology in Tennessee blog is primarily concerned with these two above lines in the survey form and what archaeologists (and others) choose to do with them when writing assorted types of archaeological reports.

A couple of years ago, I was reading through a Phase I archaeological survey report that was prepared by one of the cultural resource management consulting firms here in the Southeast.  Deep into the report, I ran into some text the author had written about an archaeological site that I had first identified and recorded on a state Archaeological Site Survey Record form a few years previous to their survey.  The rest of the general discussion on that same page mentioned several other nearby archaeological sites that had been identified by other archaeologists in past surveys.  Three things stood out to me in that written discussion: (1) the archaeologists who identified the nearby sites were credited by name, (2) the crediting was written with what appeared to be a “my old archaeology buddy” tone, and (3) my name was totally missing from the discussion, even though it had been clearly present and in the proper location on the Archaeological Site Survey Record that had been prepared for that site.

My work at the site in question was not related to Section 106 or 110 compliance.  It was an archaeological site that I had known about since childhood, but it had never been formally recorded and reported.  Knowing this needed to be done, I voluntarily invested a large amount of personal time and energy in examining the history of this site, investigating it in the field, and preparing a highly detailed Archaeological Site Survey Record for it.  At that time, the site was located about 170 miles from my home, and a substantial amount of my personal, out-of-pocket funds ($1,500+) were spent on hotel rooms, gasoline, meals, and other expenses specifically related to work at this site.  Furthermore, my site was much larger than the other sites, far more complex, and definitively eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  You can probably see by now why the lack of cited credit for my work was more than just a little bit of concern.       

I am somewhat hesitant to speculate on the motives of the author(s) and will admit that their failure to cite me by name for past efforts at that archaeological site may have entailed no motives at all—meaning that it was a simple mistake and someone just forgot to include the attribution.  People do forget on occasion, and yours truly feels willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt.  However, at least one other possibility comes to mind—and the prospect of it it troubles me some.

During the 1960s and 1970s, some artifact collectors and site looters in Tennessee would identify a new archaeological site, dig the living daylights out of it helter-skelter (particularly human burials), take home nearly every artifact of monetary value, and then (sometimes sooner but often years after the fact) report what they could “remember” about the site to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology on an earlier paper and pen version of the Archaeological Site Survey Record form.  In one of her few highly emotional and unthinking moments, my old, dear, and now deceased friend Dr. Patricia Cridlebaugh once remarked to me that she would “…rather see an archaeological site completely destroyed by a bulldozer than see a pothunter remove even one artifact from the site.”  Professional archaeologists do tend to react emotionally and very negatively to site looting of any kind.  However, at least some reliable information on a destroyed archaeological site is still better than absolutely none at all, and it is good that some of this after-the-fact information made it into the Tennessee Register of Archaeological Sites.

My primary concern is that some current southeastern archaeologists on Phase I survey missions may sift through the site survey files at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, see the names of site reporters at the bottoms of completed Archaeological Site Survey Record forms, and just assume that any unfamiliar name (or any name that is not that of a long-time archaeological buddy) must be one of those old artifact collectors or site looters that filled out site survey forms—and then intentionally fail to credit that person’s work in writing because they believe doing so would give credence to looting.

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog wants to be crystal clear on this.  If such “failure to credit” is intentional, and this behavior does occur for the reason stated above, we consider it to be fundamentally unprofessional.  For one thing, an archaeologist cannot just assume that any unfamiliar name at the bottom of a state site survey form must certainly be that of an artifact collector or looter.  No archaeologist knows every other practicing archaeologist or archaeology graduate student in the United States.  It is equally certain that he or she does not know every site looter or artifact collector that might have visited the site in years past.  Standard organizational lists of names are not reliable clues as to whether the signatory was a professional archaeologist because every competent archaeologist is not a Registered Professional Archaeologist; every archaeologist does not reside on the membership list of the Society for American Archaeology, largely because of the high annual cost; and all archaeologists are not necessarily members of a state-level archaeological organization.  Moreover, as mentioned earlier, people other than professional archaeologists, artifact collectors, and looters complete and submit Archaeological Site Survey Record forms.  If farmer Jones has reported a site on his property, you may rest assured that he would not enjoy being thought of as “unethical” by some archaeologist that he has never even met.  Finally, and most importantly, archaeologists and other researchers always have a fundamental and abiding responsibility (and obligation) to give credit to the work of others (any others) by citation when preparing the results of their research for publication. 

Therefore, when using the Archaeological Site Survey Record forms at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and writing archaeological reports, we would kindly—but also very strongly—urge everyone to cite in writing ALL the names of the people who previously filled out Archaeological Site Survey Record forms for your sites of concern, rather than just gently elbow-nudging into print the names of your old and familiar archaeological buddies.  Proper citation is always the right thing to do, regardless of who provided the information.