Development, Looting, and Collecting: Destructive Acts that Harm Archaeological Sites

In addition to providing access to the archaeology we conduct through public participation, our PAST Program aims to encourage community members to be stewards of their local archaeological resources. There are many factors that put archaeological sites at risk, some obvious and some not. This post addresses a few of the destructive acts that harm archaeological sites, provides information about archaeology laws, and suggests ways we all can help to protect and preserve our irreplaceable archaeological resources.

looters' pit with scattered artifacts
Looters’ pit with scattered artifacts

Have you ever heard someone say, or said yourself, “I’m a collector”? Are you familiar with the phrase “arrowhead hunting”? How about “rock hound”? These may seem like innocent words used to describe someone who enjoys finding and collecting artifacts, but in reality, these actions are not at all harmless.

Archaeological resources, both the artifacts and the sites they came from, are protected by law on all federal lands and lands owned by the state of Texas and any of its political subdivisions. This means that collecting artifacts on land that is owned by the federal government or the State of Texas is illegal. “Arrowhead hunting,” “Pot hunting,” or any other unauthorized digging or casual artifact collecting on public land is looting, and looting is illegal. It is also illegal to trespass onto private property and collect or dig for artifacts. These laws do not exist solely for delegating ownership and pursuing criminal justice. The most important reason for archaeology law is to protect and preserve our irreplaceable archaeological resources and the information that can be gained from them.

In Texas, the Antiquities Code of Texas (Natural Resources Code, Title 9, Chapter 191, as amended), passed in 1969, forbids the collection or excavation of artifacts on state and political subdivision lands without a permit that can only be issued to qualified professional archaeologists. This law also contains provisions for the protection of designated State Antiquities Landmarks on private property (Texas Historical Commission). However, the vast majority of land in Texas consists of privately owned rural farms and ranches. This means that more than 90 percent of archaeological sites are located on private property. Currently, there are no laws protecting archaeological resources on privately owned property in Texas*. These sites and their contents belong to property owners, who can ultimately manage however they chose. In other words, Texas landowners can legally collect and even dig for artifacts in their own backyards. But is this ethical?

What about development on private property? We all know that archaeological sites are damaged, and often destroyed, by development. As archaeologists, we hate to see that happen; however, we are often sidelined in our efforts to preserve the past since developers in Texas are not required to conduct archaeological surveys if their proposed projects are located on privately owned land and are funded entirely by private investors. Even if there is a known site on the property and archaeological testing has been recommended to evaluate its significance, there are no laws that mandate this work. Is it right to proceed with construction that could destroy the site? As archaeologists, we in the PAST Program say no, and hope that many Texans agree with our position. We hope that through our efforts we can educate developers and concerned citizens about the importance of site protection and preservation.

CAS archaeologists assessing looting damage to a site
CAS archaeologists assessing looting damage to a site

Legalities aside, uncontrolled digging and collecting, wherever it occurs, destroys information about archaeological sites that could help reconstruct the lifeways of past peoples. Similar to reading only one chapter of a novel, an artifact that has been taken out of its context only represents a small part of the story. Without details about the location and circumstances of discovery, an artifact’s research potential is lessened. So although it is not illegal or referred to as “looting”, a landowner who decides to dig up or collect artifacts on their own property without the proper training or credentials is causing the exact same destruction as a looter. In reality, looting and collecting are really no different than a developer damaging a site since both acts result in lost information.
This ethic may not mean much to someone who is either uninformed or misinformed about archaeology. In addition, preservation requires time and money, and although some thoughtful Archaeologists do their best to work with developers to reach a preservation oriented compromise, it’s not always possible. This is why it is so important that private landowners preserve and protect sites on their own property.

CAS’s PAST Program is committed to raising awareness regarding the importance of archaeology and its role in protecting and preserving our past, and we encourage you to do the same! Help us protect what the laws cannot. Whether it is becoming more informed about the importance of archaeology yourself, or finding ways to promote archaeological stewardship in your own community, you play a crucial role in ensuring the ethical treatment and protection of our irreplaceable archaeological resources. Here are just some of the ways you can help protect our past:

• Know the Federal and State Laws.
• Refrain from and discourage others from artifact collecting on public or private property, even if it is your land.
• Notify the proper authorities about any archeological finds or evidence of looting on public property.
• Contact the Texas Historical Commission, the state agency for historic preservation, and take advantage of the useful resources provided on their website:
• Contact the Texas Archaeological Stewardship Network (TASN). The TASN is a group of highly trained volunteer archaeologists who can assist developers and landowners, record archaeological sites, record private collections, conduct emergency or “salvage” archaeology as well as many other activities.
• Reach out to local Historic and Archaeological Societies. The Council of Texas Archaeologists (CTA), for example, has an anti-looting committee.
• Contact the Archaeological Conservancy.
• Visit a local archaeological site or archaeology exhibit at a local museum.
• Volunteer on a professionally supervised dig.
• Participate in public archaeology programs, like PAST.
• For our fellow Archaeologists and CRM firms: If you hear about a privately funded development project located on private property, submit a proposal anyways! You never know, with the right information, a developer could surprise you and do the right thing.

* An exception to this statement is the presence or discovery of a cemetery or human grave is subject to the provisions of Chapter 711 of the Health and Safety Code.