On February 28th NatGeo TV premiered “Diggers” (hosted by the principals at Anaconda Treasure) and on March 21st Spike TV premiered “American Digger,” both reality shows which feature self described treasure hunters who travel around the US shovel in hand. It is important to keep in mind while watching this show that there are Federal, State and Local laws that protect ancient sites and artifacts and they’re there for a reason. It just isn’t as innocent and simple as these shows make it out to be.
What’s wrong with these shows?
“American Digger” on Spike TV and “Diggers” on NatGeo TV make looking for historical objects something that can be done casually. We don’t perform surgery as a hobby or ride a bike through an art museum; similarly, the historical and cultural remains of the long history of North America, a non-renewable resource which can never be replaced, deserve the attention of professionals and careful handling.
Why are archaeologists the best people to dig for historical remains?
Because they’re trained professionals and it’s their work. Cultural materials in the ground are not there in a vacuum. They are physically embedded within contexts, camp sites, homes, battle fields or settlements, which, when studied thoroughly, can tell us volumes about the people who lived in the past. An archaeologist must train for many years in order to excavate sites and objects in a manner that extracts the most information possible. When an amateur digs in a field to retrieve one metal object or arrow head, the context of that object is destroyed. History has been lost forever.
These shows claim you can make money from what you find. Really?
It depends where you find it. If you find objects on your own property, they are yours and you can do whatever you want with them. On other people’s property; it’s theirs. On municipal, state or federal property or Native American lands, it belongs to the municipality, state, federal government or native corporation.
Isn’t the stuff just rotting in the ground; isn’t finding it saving it?
Most anything that’s been in the soil for more than a few years has already suffered the effects of being buried, especially metal objects. Stone suffers very little damage despite having been buried for long periods of time. Some objects, especially those made of wood, once excavated, need special care to prevent them from disintegrating. This is the work of professional conservators. But, even if such things are suffering from exposure to the soil and weather, this is not a valid argument to take what is not your property.
What is the law?
Responding to concerns about protecting mostly prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts in the western U.S., Congress enacted the American Antiquities Act of 1906. The law, signed by President Teddy Roosevelt, gives the President authority, by executive order, to set aside certain valuable public natural areas as National Monuments for “… the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest” with the aim of protecting all historic and prehistoric sites on U.S. federal lands and prohibit excavation or destruction of the antiquities these sites contained.
Half a century later, after alarm was raised over the destruction caused by a number of federal highway construction projects in the 1950s, The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was enacted and has been amended since a number of times. Briefly, the act states that before a federally funded project can proceed on or adjacent to areas which are deemed historically or culturally significant, investigations must proceed to ensure that nothing of significance is destroyed before it can be scientifically studied and preserved.
In 1979, the Archaeological Protection Act (ARPA) was enacted. This legislation improved on the Antiquities Act and increasing the penalties associated with the destruction of ancient sites on public and tribal land. ARPA also prohibits the sale, purchase or transportation within the US or internationally of any materials from publically or native owned archaeological sites.
In 1990, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was enacted. In addition to the return of Native American remains from museums and private collections, the act aims to ensure that Native American cultural materials are protected from looting on Federal or tribal lands.
The result of these broad cultural heritage laws is that, in America, on most public land, it is illegal to hunt for treasure. Corresponding legislation exists on the state level as well.
could happen if you’re caught with stuff found on Federal or Tribal land?
Over the last few years, law enforcement has increasingly cracked down on people who steal artifacts from federal land. For instance, in 2009 a group of artifact hunters were arrested in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and their crimes resulted in stiff penalties. In February of 2012, a Philadelphia doctor who stole a mammoth tusk from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska received a $100,000 fine as well as three years probation. Many prosecutions of “treasure hunters” apprehended on protected Civil War Battlefields are on the books. In one notable case, two relic hunters caught at the Gettysburg National Military Park in 2002 were ordered by the judge to pay restitution and place $2,500 worth of advertisements in the local newspaper warning others against the illegal activity.
If you are passionate about history there are archaeological opportunities for you, even if you are not a professional.
Yes! There are more opportunities than you might think; digging at an archaeological site isn’t only for people with PhDs. For opportunities in and around National Parks, the USDA Forrest Service runs a volunteer program called PassPort in Time. Other US and international opportunities can be found with the Archaeological Institute of America. And, many museums and historical societies accept volunteers to work with their collections. Contact the American Association of Museum Volunteers, take a look on line and/or contact your local museum.
Some related links :
Suspected artifact hunters arrested
New Alabama law could mean finders-keepers for historic artifacts found underwater
Lake guards warn against artifact collection
Antiquities Dealer Gets Home Detention, Fines for Illegally Dealing in Indian Artifacts
Artifact recoveries on Civil War shipwreck in time for anniversary
Survey: Addicts looters of U.S. archaeological sites
Digging Deeper: DNR on Artifact hunting laws
Dropping Lake Levels Expose Ancient Artifacts And Looters Have Noticed
Fleetwood man unearths Civil War relics
James River expedition targets Civil War shipwrecks
More are sentenced in Four Corners artifacts case
Archaeological artifacts not to be disturbed, according to law
Treasure hunting on Hilton Head? Town law says to leave those relics alone
Artifact related arrest may7th
Artifacts Sting Stuns Utah Town
Artifact thefts targeted by federal officials
Federal officials aim to halt sale of Native American heritage
Five indicted for theft of Missouri River artifacts
Relic thefts ‘huge crime problem’ in U.S. parks
National parks robbed of heritage
Relic thefts ‘huge crime problem’ in U.S. parks
Thieves steal remains from Civil War-era graves
Treasure hunt: Digging for trouble
Stolen from US history: its artifacts
Stolen artifacts shatter ancient culture
Artifact hunting popular as Missouri River level drops