Archaeology Explained: Can I Pick Up that Arrowhead?

Archaeology Explained: Can I Pick Up that Arrowhead?

Whether you hunt tilled ag fields or Western sage steppe, chances are you’ve encountered an arrowhead, an old bottle, or another trace of a bygone era of human history afield. “Arrowhead hunting” and collecting other kinds of artifacts is a popular pastime for many. However, there are lots of legal and ethical “dos” and “don’ts” when it comes to archaeology, especially when you’re on public land. Here’s how to be a good steward of cultural resources when you’re out filling tags!

On a crisp fall morning I’m in a work truck, riding shotgun down a dirt road with ruts so deep I’m worried about cracking a molar. We pass jagged, brutally beautiful mountains, deeply incised river canyons, rolling expanses of fragrant sagebrush. I see bighorn sheep, mule deer, and pronghorn as we go—and other animals I missed that have surely seen us.

As we come to a stop at the trailhead, two bowhunters emerge from the timbered drainage. This happens to me a lot at work; humans have a habit of coming back to the same places over and over. The qualities that make a spot likely to have an archaeological site also make it likely to be a good hunting area, campsite, or travel route. I wish the hunters luck, then my fellow archaeologist and I head into the forest.

The trees give way to a former river terrace full of lush, sunlit grass. The unmistakable odor of elk smacks me across the face when I reach the meadow, and I notice their beds as we approach our destination: a rock jutting out from a scree slope, creating an overhang that protects the colorful, centuries-old paintings on its lower section. They’re unlike any I’ve ever seen in this region. I get swept up in a wave of emotion, imagining someone painting this panel generations ago. Perhaps they had elk on the mind, too.

Finding traces of human history is always an exciting experience. There’s something extra special, I think, about discovering a site or artifact when you’re out hunting. Maybe you’ve noticed yourself standing in a scatter of chipped obsidian flakes on a glassing knob or put your blind up next to a trash heap of rusted cans and broken bottles. Maybe you’ve seen pieces of projectile points in a tilled field or a creek bottom.

As hunters, we know the laws and ethics that govern how we pursue and kill game animals. However, many of us know very little about the laws and ethics that govern how to interact with cultural resources on public lands. Archaeologists have nobody but ourselves to blame: like many other “-ologists,” we’re not the best at explaining what we do, and the legal language we work with is as dry as it is opaque.

Often without realizing it, hunters and other outdoor recreationists can—and do—cause irreversible harm to archaeological resources. To help combat that, I’ll explain what archaeology is, how we do archaeology on federal public lands in the United States, and some of the laws that protect cultural resources. Many of those laws don’t govern activities on private lands, but their spirit is still relevant. With this information, we’ll explore how the need to protect cultural resources is similar to game species management and why cultural resources have a place within our public lands conservation ethos.

Laying Down the Foundations I first want to give a general overview of what archaeologists do, particularly archaeologists like me who work for federal land management agencies.

As a subfield of anthropology, archaeology is a social science focused on understanding humanity through the study of people in the past, mostly through the material traces of their lives. Archaeology can be interdisciplinary, meaning archaeologists may integrate knowledge and techniques from other fields such as history, botany, architecture, geology, zoology, geography, and biological or forensic anthropology into our work.

Archaeology done for federal land management agencies is usually cultural resource management. Instead of focusing on answering specific research questions, it’s centered around legal compliance. The term “cultural resources” includes archaeological resources—artifacts, sites, and features over 100 years old—and cultural landscapes, ethnographic resources, curated collections, and built structures. The three laws that shape most federal agencies’ cultural resource management work are NEPA, NHPA, and ARPA.

The National Environmental Policy Act (1970), or NEPA, is a law that, in essence, requires federal agencies to assess and disclose to the public the environmental impacts of their actions. It’s an interdisciplinary process, so archaeologists are just one of the many specialists who provide input.

The National Historic Preservation Act (1966), or NHPA, is a comprehensive law that expanded on the Antiquities Act (1906) and Historic Sites Act (1935). Two parts guide most of our day-to-day work: Section 106 and Section 110. Section 106 requires federal agencies to consider the effects of their work on historic properties, and Section 110 requires federal agencies to preserve historic properties that fall under their jurisdiction.

“Historic properties” are cultural resources that can be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These resources are usually, but not always, at least 50 years old. We go through a specific process to evaluate whether a resource is eligible, then a state historic preservation officer reviews our work. This evaluation process can be complicated and contentious. That’s why it’s best to leave cultural resources as you found them: you never know what might provide a critical piece of information or what might be part of an eligible, protected resource.

Last is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979), or ARPA. This law is the most important for all public land enthusiasts to understand. ARPA aims “to secure, for the present and future benefit of the American people, the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands.” ARPA covers more than just “historic properties,” it protects all archaeological resources that are at least 100 years old. ARPA also requires federal agencies to protect archaeological resources by keeping information about their locations and contents confidential.

There are also laws that make stealing or vandalizing any government property illegal. You may have heard of the “Carter Clause,” which says you can’t be prosecuted under ARPA for picking up arrowheads on the surface of federal land. This clause doesn’t protect you from being prosecuted under other laws, nor does it actually legalize arrowhead collecting.

Generally speaking, if you’re not sure what you’re doing is OK or whether you need a permit to do it, it’s best to leave things as they are and to contact the nearest park, forest, or field office with further questions.

Ethics Beyond the Laws There’s another critical component to cultural resources management on public lands missing from this discussion so far: Native American—including Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian—cultures, histories, and perspectives, as well as discussions about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1991) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978). These are critically important considerations for all archaeologists to be aware of. However, both Native American perspectives—which can vary widely between individuals and tribes—and these laws, and how each relates to cultural resource management on federal lands, are incredibly complex. I’m not an experienced practitioner of these laws, and it would be inappropriate for me to act as a mouthpiece for people whose perspectives are rooted in very different personal and cultural experiences than my own. Thus, these topics are better left to the true experts, and I strongly encourage you to listen to their thoughts and guidance.

However, I will say this: if you ever feel compelled to tip over a rock cairn, touch a rock art panel, or pocket an arrowhead or pottery sherd, you’re not just harming a cultural resource in a way that reduces its potential research value. You’re not only robbing any future hunters, hikers, and nature lovers of the same rush of excitement you felt finding it, either. On top of all that, you’re also removing one of the limited remaining physical traces of the histories of Native peoples who have been here for thousands of years, whose very existence has been systematically attacked for centuries. Uncomfortable as this truth may be, much of that erasure has been tied to the creation of what we now think of as “public lands,” a moniker which came at a terrible cost to those with the longest-lived relationships with those places. Please be respectful of Native American rights, histories, and living cultures and people by treating archaeological resources with respect.

Stewardship Afield: Keep it Public, Keep it Protected As both a hunter and an archaeologist, I can’t help but see similarities between the value of the wildlife and the cultural resources I love so dearly and the public lands they both occupy. Cultural resources are natural resources too. As most conservationists know, humans are part of the natural world, not separate from it. The core principles of public lands conservation tell us that as hunters and anglers especially, we can’t just take from the land, we must also give back.

In writing “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold included not just the land itself, but also soils, waters, plants, and animals in his “land ethic”— and he included humans. Cultural resources are, at least in part, representations of how humans interacted with the land in the past. Leopold knew that interacting with the land directly is critical for learning to value it and for building our ethics beyond self-interest. When you understand how rare and special something like a site or an artifact is, and you interact with it firsthand, you begin to form a deeper emotional connection, which can inspire you to protect those resources for others to enjoy. That’s why I avoid collecting artifacts for analysis on the job; in so many ways, they’re not ours to take. Hunters may recognize similarities between this mindset and why we fight to conserve public land, water, and wildlife: we know them intimately, we value them deeply, and we want future generations to be able to enjoy them, too.

I also see similarities between protecting cultural resources and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The model’s seven tenets were created in response to unsustainable hunting practices for financial gain that persisted throughout the 1800s, to ensure all citizens of the United States (and Canada) could hunt, fish, and enjoy healthy wildlife populations for years to come.

The Conservation Model’s goals are very similar to ARPA’s, the law that protects archaeological resources on federal land. Like game species, cultural resources on federal lands are also managed and preserved in public trust, and they’re meant to be enjoyed by all. Cultural resources should not be domestically or internationally commodified, and they shouldn’t be needlessly destroyed either. Lastly, laws exist to protect cultural resources, and science informs those laws.

Perhaps the greatest difference between wildlife and archaeology is that while the former has the chance to “renew” itself when it’s managed wisely, the latter is non-renewable. When an artifact is picked up and carried away or a rock art panel is graffitied or shot at, it limits what archaeologists can learn about it, and it limits the ability of others to enjoy it. If careless behavior removes the traces of human history on public lands, one by one, there’s no recreating it. We’ve lost its context, which is the source of its research potential and how it ties humans from the past, present, and future together. If we’ve taken or harmed cultural resources, that runs counter to the conservation mindset because there’s so much we can’t give or get back.

This is reminiscent of what researchers have discovered about bighorn sheep migrations: it’s a socially learned, even “culturally” transmitted, behavior. When bighorn sheep are translocated—if they manage to survive other threats like predation, habitat loss, and M. ovi—it can take them 50 years to figure out how best to navigate their new landscape. Bighorn sheep numbers are on the decline, which makes their preventable deaths by vehicle strikes, disease, and poaching that much more tragic. Their deaths aren’t just a physical loss, but a cultural loss of knowledge, built up through many generations, too. Similarly, a destroyed or stolen cultural resource isn’t just a physical loss, but a cultural loss of knowledge, built up over time, tying many generations of people together through our shared landscape.

So…Can I Pick up the Arrowhead? The short answer: you can pick it up, take pictures of it, and take a waypoint to share with an archaeologist, but you can’t take it home with you, especially if you’re like me and mostly hunt on state- or federally-owned lands. Rock art, whether painted or incised, should never be touched; the oils from our hands can damage the panel both instantly and over time.

The same rules apply to other, more relatively recent artifacts like old glass bottles and old tin cans, too: you shouldn’t bring them home, nor should you remove them from the land if you’re out being a good steward and picking up modern trash. If you’re not sure whether something is old enough to be considered an artifact, it’s better to leave it in place and, you guessed it, just take a picture and a waypoint to share with an archaeologist from the agency that manages the land you’re on.

If you’re hunting on private land, ultimately, what becomes of cultural resources you find is up to the landowner. However, private landowners can play a critical role in helping us understand the peopling and human history of North America at a landscape scale, if they’re willing to provide researchers with information or land access. For example, our understanding of Clovis points would be radically different if we only looked at data from “official” research sites. The Anzick Site and the Bear Gulch Site, both in Montana, are two examples of places where landowners recognized the need to preserve the unique cultural resources on their land. It’s no exaggeration to say those families’ decisions to work alongside archaeologists has forever changed our understanding of human history in the Rockies.

The next time you’re out hunting, camping, hiking, riding, or fishing on public lands, I hope you get to feel the rush of finding an artifact, or even a whole site. Now that you know how special these resources are and what to do when you find them, I hope they inspire you to be a better, more well-rounded steward of the land and conservationist so you can help guarantee that generations to come get to enjoy them in situ, its original place, right alongside elk, bighorn sheep, and other hunters too.

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