While you may not think that picking up and pocketing items such as a rock or piece of pottery while walking the shoreline at one of the local lakes is a big deal, think again.
According to Saturday afternoon’s two-part lecture at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site, ancient artifacts are still being discovered in archaeological sites in and around the lakes, and if it’s on Tennessee Valley Authority property, people caught looting from the sites could face felony charges.
Dr. Jay Franklin, associate professor of anthropology at ETSU, was told by a colleague about pre-historic sites in and around river banks, as well as Boone Lake, and said the pair started walking the shoreline one winter, where they discovered people were digging up artifacts — for sport and for profit — on private property and on TVA land in the area.
“I called my friends and colleagues at TVA and I said ‘Hey, we’ve got this looting and vandalism problem out here,’ ” Franklin said. “The vast majority of the cases they told me, unfortunately, (there) was nothing they could do because the areas that we were talking about were not on TVA property.”
Investigating the looting further, he said some landowners didn’t know looting was going on, some didn’t care that it was going on, and others did care and weren’t sure on just how to stop it.
Franklin said he and a few others decided to start a record of some of the sites, as well as monitor the extent of the looting in the area, and made a discovery.
“At a certain point ... I realized some of the material we were getting off (of) these deflated sites was Cherokee pottery or pottery we associate with the Cherokee’s archaeologically,” he said. “I ... kind of thought that the pottery would probably post date 1600s, 1650s, but we’ve got some luminescence dates directly on several of the pottery fragments and they came back very early late 1400s, mid-1400s, early 1500s.”
Some of the artifacts Franklin brought to Saturday’s 1 p.m. lecture on “Cherokee Towns of Boone Lake” in the Natural History Museum, he said were pottery fragments, more specifically pieces of rims or edges of its original vessel. He said while many of the styles of the found pottery pieces resembled Cherokee pottery from western North Carolina, some of the pieces were very different.
“There’s always a problem, even in late pre-history, of associating a kind of pottery or styles of pottery with a particular ethnic group, but we do have quite a bit of it that’s really distinctive,” Franklin said. “Then, as it turns out, there’s some historical documentation from the Cherokees themselves that are in agreement with a long history here. When we kind of started connecting the dots, we got very excited and, of course ... we knew we had Cherokee sites here, but now very early Cherokee sites. It looks like we’ve got 250-300 years of Cherokee towns and communities here ... and ... we’re just beginning to investigate.”
Following a conference with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C., a week ago, Franklin said one of the tribal historic preservation officers said Cherokee elders still speak of what a special place the East Tennessee area was in their history from oral traditions.
“There is a group of us who I think are going to, as a team, begin to really investigate this in very close conjunction with (the) Eastern Band. The Cherokee Indians are going to be very involved in everything we do and TVA in a lot of cases as well. It’s just such a gargantuan task. We’re going to be at this for 10-15-20 years,” he said. “I think what we’re coming to understand ... there are a number of these sites — towns, communities, hamlets — on these river systems of Upper East Tennessee that I don’t think it was ... its own chiefdom, but a thriving culture. Their social and political organization may have been different than some of these other “big chiefdoms.”
Franklin said one of the reasons he wanted to work with TVA on this project is because “it’s not just ... history, but it’s managing and protecting this history so that it’s available to all of us — the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, to the interested public, to the scientific community.”
According to TVA’s website, TVA Cultural Resources manages approximately 9,000 archaeological sites on more than 270,000 acres of TVA land and TVA Archeologist Michaelyn Harle said Saturday during her discussion on “Protecting Our Heritage on TVA Land,” that TVA-sanctioned land and archaeological sites have serious issues with looting and the overall destruction of significant resources.
“In 2003, we developed what’s called “A Thousand Eyes” program, which is a public outreach program to kind of get the word out about the importance of archeological sites, the importance of protecting them and then also the law that we are responsible for, enforcing namely the Archeological Resource Protection Act that makes it a felony to excavate or deface an archeological site on federal land,” Harle said. “Some of what we’re trying to do is develop public outreach where we go into schools and talk to the schoolchildren, because in a lot of places, especially areas ... that are around TVA lakes, it’s a way of life. You see ... families taking their children out to loot sites or to even surface collect, which in and of itself can be an issue.”
She said the sites around the lakes are already heavily exposed to erosion, which can present a problem of lost artifacts, but said a bigger problem are the looters coming into the sites looking for items to sell on the black market or for a major profit.
“That’s where we get major destruction and (those) are the people that we’re truly going after for felonies,” Harle said.
TVA employees — ARPA investigators and five TVA archaeologists — are constantly monitoring the exposed sites and have successfully caught looters.
“When somebody’s caught looting a site, they treat it as a crime scene, because that’s what it is,” she said. “The investigators are on-hand until the archaeologists can get there and then we record the amount of damage that was done. We had one (experience) where we caught somebody surface collecting and he had over 300 artifacts on him. Even stuff on the surface can convey a lot of information, but that stuff is gone when somebody goes through and picks it up.”
Harle said adding up the total damage done to some of the sites in the end have been thousands of dollars worth of damage.
To help stop looters of archaeological sites on TVA land, the public can call 1-855-476-2489 or report the activity to Knoxville TVA security at 1-800-824-3861, 865-632-3631 or 865-632-4318. For more information on TVA, visit www.tva.gov.