Stealing or Preserving History? What to Do if You Find an Artifact

What if one morning you woke up to find that your great grandmother’s sentimentally priceless china or wedding ring were missing — and were posted for sale on eBay just a few days later?

For Karen Brunso, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and citizen of the Native American tribe known as Chickasaw Nation, this is the equivalent of finding, taking and selling a tribal artifact.

“Pottery shards are our grandmother’s dishes; stone tools are our grandfathers’ tools,” Brunso says. “And if someone takes a sacred item, it’s the same as looting a church. Tribal artifacts are not a cool way to own a piece of history. They’re pieces of history that tell a story — our story.”

Linda Langley, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and citizen of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana by marriage, agrees, saying that the artifacts are not just items to be collected.

“We have to reframe our mindset when it comes to these artifacts — they’re not just stuff,” she says. “We have to shift to a mindset of reverence and respect, because these items are very precious to the tribes and their people — they’re the pieces that link them to their families’ heritage and methods of survival.”

Watch more here from Brunso, other tribal representatives and TVA and state archeologists.

The Impact

The Tennessee Valley is rich in Native American history. With more than 20 federally recognized tribes that call the Valley their homeland and more than 12,500 reported Native American archeological sites on TVA property, it’s not uncommon for hikers and even property owners to stumble across an artifact — and be tempted to keep it.

However, in addition to eliminating a piece of history, Stacye Hathorn, partner to TVA’s Cultural Compliance team and state archeologist for Alabama, says that removing an artifact from an archeological site in particular can impact the integrity of the entire site; meaning that they can no longer identify what the location was used for historically.    

“Not everyone gets to write their history in books, but everyone gets to write their history in the soil,” Hathorn says. “Even the flakes left over from someone carving an arrowhead can help us determine if the site was a simple campground or a war site. But if the arrowhead is missing, we’re missing a very crucial piece of the puzzle. Unless we find other artifacts deeper in the soil of the site, we won’t be able to tell that story correctly.”

Since archeological sites are non-renewable resources, even professional excavation projects like the ones Brunso, Langley and Hathorn partner with TVA on require calculated measures and thought. According to Hathorn, most often, the right thing for the teams to do is let the site(s) rest.   

“Excavation is a very destructive process,” Hathorn says. “It’s one-and-done — these sites are non-renewable — so we’re very careful about excavating and when, where and why. Oddly enough, even choosing not to excavate is part of the preservation process. We want to ensure that we leave some of them for future archeologists and generations to uncover at a later time.” 

What’s the Legislation?

So, what is the appropriate action to take if you find an artifact on TVA property, or in your own back yard? According to TVA senior specialist archeologist Erin Dunsmore, the answer is simple.

“It’s illegal to dig in these sites, especially if you find a burial site,” she says. “If you find an artifact on TVA property, do the right thing and don’t touch it — leave it where it is.” Then, she recommends that you follow these steps:

  • Take a picture of the item just as you found it.
  • Remember the precise location, so you can report it with the photo to Dunsmore and the team via email at culturalresources@tva.gov.
  • If you see someone illegally digging for artifacts on TVA property, contact the TVA police at 855-476-2489.
  • If you find an artifact on your own property, it’s best to stop what you’re doing and contact your state archeologist or email the address above. TVA’s team can help you contact the correct authority.  
  • NEVER post about your findings on social media because it gives dishonest people the opportunity to steal and loot. 

“It’s TVA’s honor and privilege to work closely with Brunso, Langley and all the other tribal representatives we partner with to protect their history,” Dunsmore says. “We’re devoted to protecting these artifacts, and we want nothing more than to see their history documented and saved for the future generations.”