More Than Just an Arrowhead

As a kid, I was fascinated with my father's arrowhead collection. He was not a "collector" of arrowheads, per se; he simply picked them up while working on construction and land survey projects and kept them in a box in the attic. I thought it was cool that he could find these artifacts lying on the ground and popping out of the earth in the wake of bulldozers, track hoes, and motor graders. I learned later in college that my father's arrowheads were actually a variety of projectile points, knives, and other prehistoric stone tools, and that one could actually make a living working in the field of archaeology. What's more, there are state and federal environmental and cultural resources laws and regulations designed to protect archaeological sites and other antiquities on the lands we survey.

Logically, many surveyors have an interest in Native American and historical artifacts, and some are collectors and avocational archaeologists themselves. Surveyors venture into thickets, swamps, and forests, where most people wouldn't dare step foot. More often than not, landforms in the middle of these difficult terrains are home to previously unrecorded prehistoric archaeology sites.

Prehistoric artifacts are not the only antiquities that surveyors encounter on a regular basis. In the quest for proving original corners and tracing the footprints of our surveying forefathers, we are actually doing historical archaeology ourselves. A historic archaeological artifact can be defined as culturally significant materials 50 years or older and occurring after the written record began in North America. Survey monuments such as pine knots and rock mounds 50 years old or older are, in a sense, historic archaeological artifacts. It is our responsibility to preserve these monuments and their locations to the best of our ability, and as we know, their disturbance is against the law. It is also usually against the law for us to disturb prehistoric archaeology sites. When surveying on public, private, or federal lands, it is important for us to realize that Indian artifacts belong to the private landowners, state and federal agencies, or Indian tribal lands on which the materials were left many years ago. Environmental laws have been established that protect and govern antiquities buried or standing on public and sometimes private lands, to better preserve the material history and prehistory of America.

Laws Go Way Back

Laws were first developed to protect archaeology sites in the United States over a century ago. The American Antiquities Act of 1906 (AAA) was established to discourage the destruction of archaeological sites on federal properties and was prompted by the widespread destruction of earthen mounds and burial sites during construction projects in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This program included a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of up to 90 days for the desecration of archaeological sites, but these penalties were rarely enforced. The AAA also gave the President of the United States the authority to designate significant historic and prehistoric structures as national landmarks and called for the protection of these landmarks.

Founded in the 1930s, the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) followed the Antiquities Act of 1906 as a response to the increase in archaeological work of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s. SEAC helped organize the rapid increase in data that resulted from WPA excavations throughout the Southeast and standardized some ceramic and projectile point types. Although SEAC was founded over 70 years ago, it remains a key contributor to Southeastern archaeology and assists cultural resources activities on our military bases and other federal lands.

Decades passed before several more important legislative acts were designed in the 1960s and 70s in response to the need for more effective antiquities protection. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) was key legislation developed for this need. Central to the framework of the NHPA was the creation of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The NRHP is the official listing and protection record for sites, buildings, structures, and objects that have great significance in American culture, history, architecture, engineering, and archaeology. The NRHP is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) and is assisted by local and state historical societies and the staff of state historic preservation officers. Another important service of the NPS is the monitoring and protection of antiquities situated in our National Parks and assistance with Native American tribes and their tribal historic preservation.

Following the NHPA, Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) and acknowledged in Section 2 that:

"(1) Archaeological resources on public lands and Indian lands are an accessible and irreplaceable part of the Nation's heritage; (2) these resources are increasingly endangered because of their commercial attractiveness; (3) existing Federal laws do not provide adequate protection to prevent the loss and destruction of…archaeological resources sites resulting from uncontrolled excavations and pillage"

Like most environmental and archaeological protection acts, ARPA lists civil penalties for the destruction of significant archaeological sites, especially those situated on public or federal land. ARPA was cited several years ago in the prosecution of individuals who used metal detectors to unearth Civil War artifacts at the Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi. They were apprehended and fined, and the vehicles and equipment used in their crimes were confiscated.

In more recent years, legislation has continued to be updated, and new regulations have been established to better protect prehistoric and historic unmarked cemeteries. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was designed to protect prehistoric burial sites and repatriate human remains to active tribes, whenever possible. Many states also have legislation and code regarding the disturbance of unmarked burials, including those on private property. According to the Antiquities Law of Mississippi (1972, amended 1983) and the Mississippi Code Book, individuals will be fined and jailed for disturbing prehistoric and historic burial sites.

Cultural Resources Management

Professional or "contract" archaeology is commonly known as Cultural Resources Management (CRM). CRM was developed after the NHPA and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). Although this legislation began in the 1960s and CRM was established thereafter, the industry of CRM did not see significant growth until the 1990s. Sections 106 and 110 of the NHPA require federal land management agencies and others receiving federal funds or permits for land works projects to first complete CRM studies on the land that will be affected by the earthworks. NEPA states in Title I, Section 101 that appropriate federal, state, and local agencies should "preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity, and variety of individual choice."

In most states, there are three components of environmental and archaeological survey required for earthworks permitting: wetlands delineation, threatened and endangered species surveys, and cultural resources surveys. Permitting is usually reviewed and granted by agencies such as departments of environmental quality at the state level and the United States Army Corps of Engineers at the federal level. Some permitting required for power line right-of-way clearance and other construction projects that may require earthworks and the use of some federal assistance may be administered under NEPA and is designed to "enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation."

There are a number of state and federal laws and regulations designed to protect the fascinating history and prehistory that we enjoy in America. As surveyors, we are taught to respect and walk in the footprints laid down before us. When we encounter prehistoric or historic archaeology sites or artifacts while out on surveys, it is important for us to appreciate and respect the land, land owners, and materials that we encounter, including archaeological artifacts. When we do encounter unique historic sites, we can bring them to the attention of the landowners and/or state and local agencies that would appreciate the courtesy.

Archaeological artifacts make great conversation pieces, and many times, landowners will allow collectors to walk their fields in search of artifacts. If we do choose to collect from private properties with permission, it is important to keep detailed records of the sites we collect and as much information about these artifacts as possible. State agencies will gladly work with collectors on documenting sites, photographing artifacts, and recording GPS information about collected sites. They will probably even assign site numbers and make these sites part of the archaeological record so others can share and access the information.

There are also grassroots organizations such as local archaeological societies and volunteer groups that meet, share information, and host local digs. These excavations are a great way to participate in archaeological research that maintains the provenience of artifacts and as much scientific information as possible.

It is important for us to respect archaeology sites while we are out on surveys and remember that it is not only the ethical thing to do, it is also the law. These sites and artifacts are sometimes all we have left to tell the story of American history and prehistory. The more information we have on record, the more interesting story that box of arrowheads will tell.

About the Author

Kevin McMahon is a project manager in the Cultural Resources Department and a surveying party chief for Environmental Management Services (EMS) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He has worked on archaeology projects in 10 states and Mexico.

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