What to do if you discover ancient artifacts
People come from all over the world to view the scenery at the Arizona Strip, but one visitor was surprised by more than the beauty of the area when he stumbled upon a prehistoric artifact partially buried in the sand.
After discovering potsherds or arrowheads on their private property, people may want to rethink digging them up and throwing them in a shoebox, even though it is legal.
Federal and state law says you can’t remove archaeological items from federal and state land. Private landowners can keep what they find, however, unless the artifacts are human burial bones.
“The ethical thing to do is leave it in its place and contact someone,” said Jeff Martin, Arizona State University student who will graduate in the fall with an anthropology degree.
Ethical because archaeological artifacts tell a story that, once the items are moved, is destroyed, states the Arizona State Parks and Trails website. “Digging, removing artifacts, or piling them up changes what can be learned from these pieces of the past,” it states.
All objects are protected within national parks. The National Park Service gives information on its website about why one shouldn’t take items discovered while camping or visiting the parks. “To carelessly remove or disturb archeological sites is like tearing out chapters from an ancient book or throwing away pieces to a puzzle – the story of our past will never be complete.”
Martin said he recommends looking at and admiring artifacts, photographing them, and then either taking a GPS coordination or noting the location and route, and finally contacting National Forest Service personnel.
“But don’t take it. It’s important to leave it there,” he said.
The location of potsherds, for instance, can supply information about the makers of the item, with whom they may have traded, and migration patterns. Picking up an article can be risky, Martin added, because the item could be cracked or the bottom could “blow out.”
Andy Christenson, archaeology curator with Smoki Museum, said he rarely gives out archaeological site locations.
“Whenever Arizona Highways runs an article, the site is damaged. It just causes destruction,” Christenson said. “People, even if they’re not intending to, they do things.”
Sometimes people will bring things in to the museum to donate and have no clue where they came from. Recently, someone donated a bucket of artifacts given to him by a woman at a garage sale who had no information about where the artifacts had been found.
Amongst the items, Christenson found the base of a fluted dart point he identified as coming from the Paleoindian period beginning about 13,000 years ago. He also found the base of a chalcedony Folsom point which was fluted, or channeled, on one face.
Tests through the Geoarchaeological X-Ray Flourescence Spectometry Laboratory in Albuquerque could not identify the non-obsidian pieces, and the obsidian pieces were identified as coming from northeastern Nevada.
“These points are one of innumerable examples of important artifacts that are useless in understanding the past because no record was made of where they were found,” he said.
The National Park Service reminds people that under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979, “it is illegal to dig in, or to take, purchase, sell, receive, or transport materials from a site on federal land without a permit. Similar laws protect state and private lands, and Native American burials.
“Damage to a site on federal lands that exceeds $500 is considered a felony and can result in the seizure of any vehicle (car, truck, fishing vessel, plane, RV) used in the crime, fines of up to $250,000, and up to five years in prison.”
Rockhounding is allowed on public land in most cases, although prohibited in National Monuments, the Bureau of Land Management website states. The collected rocks cannot be sold or bartered.
At petroglyph sites, visitors should know that oils from even the cleanest hands can cause deterioration of prehistoric drawings and ruin the dating potential for future scientists. Please avoid touching rock art.
Christenson also asks that people not disclose information about where sites are located, as it could potentially lead to those sites being vandalized or looted.