TVA asks for help to fight against the looters of cultural resources

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Archaeological looting is a serious problem on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s vast landholdings in a seven-state region where about 12,500 archaeological sites have been identified.

There may be three times as many sites, according to TVA archaeologists who were on site recently at the Chickamauga Dam for an educational event for the public.

TVA’s Cultural Team and TVA Police hosted the event at the Taylor Boat Launch at the Chickamauga Dam Day-Use Area in Chattanooga to raise awareness of the area’s rich history and help people to understand what to do if they see someone taking or damaging cultural heritage. site, according to TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler.

“The looting of cultural resources is a problem in our region,” Fiedler said. “So we want to get the audience involved to say something if they see something.”

Most of the sites are Native American, some belong to early European settlers, and others are tied to more recent human development from 100 or more years ago, according to Mike Angst, an archaeologist in TVA’s Department of Cultural Resources.

“We’re here to talk about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act,” Angst said standing near a table filled with information for members of the public.

TVA officials were telling passersby about the types of archaeological sites that exist, why they are protected under the law, and what the penalties are if someone is caught taking anything on federal land.

Angst said the more than 12,500 sites currently registered represent only a fraction of those that would be on TVA lands in Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi. .

“There are 12,000 plus years of history and prehistory,” he said. “Most of the sites are Native American, but we also have pioneer sites, Civil War sites through the early and mid-20th century. Technically, any site over 50 years old can be an archaeological site.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Law states that a site must be over 100 years old to fall under the protection of the law, he said.

“Our goal with cultural compliance at TVA is to make sure we can keep as many of these resources where they are for as long as possible,” Angst said. “We don’t want to see them disappear or go into someone’s pocket. We don’t want them stolen. These are everyone’s sites. It’s public property, and it’s everyone’s.

For archaeologists, when someone damages a site, there is no way to restore it, and anything taken is lost along with its historical context, he said.

“Looting is a problem, and it happens everywhere,” Angst said. “Archaeological resources, archaeological sites are a finite resource. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. When we do professional excavations, we try to do them with great care because we know that when we dig a site, we destroy it.

He said professional archaeologists try to dig as little as possible so that more material remains in place.

But when someone digs up relics and artifacts from cultural sites and brings them home, the theft is from the general public, Angst said.

TVA Police Inspector Tim Dilbeck said the Archaeological Resources Protection Act is law enforcement’s best tool for protecting sites and prosecuting looters.

“We work hand in hand with cultural conformity. Whenever we have a case, we ask them to perform an archaeological assessment, which is critical to prosecution efforts,” said Dilbeck, alongside Angst, who noted that archaeologists and ISIS forces order form a team.

“The problem is that we have people here – especially when the water is pulled – in the exposed lake beds, they are mostly looking for Native Americans and Civil War (relics), but you also have properties, and if they are over 100 years old, they’re also protected,” Dilbeck said. “They’re digging these sites, they’re digging into the graves. Even here, when they’re not digging, when they’re picking up artifacts on the surface, they’re breaking the law. .

Anyone caught damaging or taking anything from an archaeological site can face a misdemeanor or felony charge, depending on the amount of damage.

A misdemeanor conviction can result in a two-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine. A crime can result in a five-year prison sentence and up to $250,000 in fines, Dilbeck said. Tougher penalties can be meted out to offenders when burial sites are damaged, he said.

Dilbeck added that anyone who helps cultural resource thieves buy, sell or trade stolen artifacts can also face charges.

Dilbeck said TVA’s most recent cultural resource theft investigation took place in June and came from artifact hunters who dug into Native American burial sites in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Two men face felony charges in the case, he said.

Steven Ward, TVA police inspector and drone pilot, said his role in investigating and locating the site is a recent development in TVA’s investigative arm. Ward was already an airline pilot, so it was only a short step to becoming familiar with flying drones, he said.

The drone used by TVA has high-resolution cameras, can operate up to 5 miles and has a controller that the pilot uses that has a screen providing a first-person view from the drone, Ward said, holding the drone and the rotating to show its characteristics.

The drone can provide thermal imaging, can be hooked up to a big-screen TV and has around 25 minutes of flight time on each of its six batteries, allowing for near-constant use, he said.

Ward can use the drone to search for people who have gotten lost, assist with investigations at cultural sites and search for looters almost silently from the sky, he said.

From a TVA police boat with Inspectors Jimmy Nelson and Roy Rogers at the helm, TVA archaeologist Paul Avery said the way water in TVA reservoirs is eroding the shoreline – at a much higher level than the original channel – may reveal artifacts and relics.

“You have to think about how the river system has changed with the floods. The river channel was here,” he said, sweeping his hand over the middle of Lake Chickamauga. “What we’re sitting on right now was a floodplain, so it’s great land to live in when you think about the past.”

The lakeshores of TVA Reservoir are where looters are most likely to be due to further erosion along the new shoreline created by the damming of the river more than 80 years ago, Avery said. Chickamauga Dam was completed in 1940.

“When these guys are patrolling the water, they’re looking for these guys along the shoreline,” he said of the TVA police patrols.

Avery said many cultural resource thieves convert their finds into cash for drugs.

“I saw these guys arrest very few people on the shore who had nothing in their pocket,” he said. “A lot of them have a source that they know where they can sell the products. That’s where you really run into the almost industrial scale looting.

Looters will happily loot burial sites, a particularly worrying violation, he said.

“My analogy for this is, how would you like me to go dig up your grandma for her wedding ring? That’s what you just did,” Avery said of his words for the looters. “And Native Americans view kinship differently than we do. “Grandma” has a much broader interpretation for them. »

Avery said it’s important for people to understand that once they’ve damaged a site, nothing can restore it. Once they’ve taken something, they can’t put it into context. This is why cultural resources are protected by law on federal lands, he said.

“It’s part of our mission to try to protect it,” he said.

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