A law on the books since 1979 makes it illegal to dig for or take artifacts found on government owned land. Any items that are over 100 years old are considered artifacts.
The law, called the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, was enacted to protect artifacts from people looking to make a profit off another culture. Congress enacted the law because it felt that the artifacts were an irreplaceable part of history, and were not adequately protected.
The Tennessee Valley Authority recently arrested five people in Alabama for digging for artifacts. The five were charged in federal court for theft of cultural artifacts and were convicted for the offense.
“It’s all related to protecting artifacts on federal land,” said TVA spokesman Scott Brooks. “TVA is federal land, and four of those people were caught digging on the shoreline. One was caught diving for artifacts.”
The penalties for digging on federal land get worse if the person is caught more than once. The first offense is a small fine plus court costs, but if a person is convicted a second time the penalty will be up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The problem is not an overwhelming problem for the TVA, but it is big enough to warrant two full-time investigators on staff. The investigators deal exclusively with the ARPA and people who are breaking that law.
“The investigators are looking for folks who are diving and digging on TVA land,” Brooks said. “Most of the time, those people are looking to sell the items they find. What people are finding belong to another culture, and Native Americans are sensitive to that.”
The investigators are trained in the specifics of the law and how to know what they are looking at and what to look for at the sites. The investigators are also trained in how to be sensitive toward Native American artifacts.
The items covered in the law are pottery, basketry, bottles, weapons, weapon projectiles, tools, structures or portions of structures, pit houses, rock paintings, rock carvings, intaglios, graves and human skeletal materials.
The law technically states that any person who finds an artifact and takes it with them is subject to the law. This includes people who may find an arrowhead while walking along the shore and decide to pick it up and take it with them.
“If you find something, leave it be,” Brooks said. “Even if the water is low and you see something sticking out, leave it alone, because technically, it’s still a violation of the law. A kid finding an arrowhead is obviously different than someone digging for profits. Our investigators are looking to do the most good.”
People can obtain permits to dig on federal land. That is the only acceptable way to hunt for artifacts on government owned land. The person wanting to dig would have to specific about what they were looking for and where they wanted to dig.
TVA is a corporation that is owned by the U.S. government. It provides electricity for business customers and distribution utilities that serve 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states. The TVA is serious about prosecuting anyone who takes artifacts from their land, and that makes one group in particular very happy.
“We are getting a lot of good feedback from the tribes,” Brooks said. “They are happy that TVA is getting the word out on protecting their artifacts.”