Why do We Dig?

by Jean CascardiCART Crew Chief

“Why do we dig?” Fairfax County Park Authority Archaeologist, Aimee Wells, asked this question to a room full of folks when presenting at the Archaeological Society of Virginia (ASV) Annual Conference on October 16, 2015. What do you think the most common answer was: “because it’s fun!” Anyone who has been out in the field and has had the experience of holding the past in their hands knows that, but there is a different reason that we dig too. There is a lot of legislation on the books at the federal, state and local level that requires archaeological (and other environmental assessment) investigations prior to ground disturbing activities. The most known of these is probably the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) enacted in 1966. However, my favorite cultural/heritage resource law is the 1906 Antiquities Act.

President Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most memorable presidents in United States history. One of his legacies is the Antiquities Act of 1906 (the Act). The Act is the first legislation establishing regulations protecting our cultural and heritage resources. Another thing Teddy did with the Act is provide himself and future Presidents the authorization to “declare by public proclamation” national monuments. The Act made way not only for the creation of the National Park Service, but additional legislation in regards to protecting and documenting our nation’s cultural resources. Another very important part of the four section document is in Section3 requiring permits for excavation on government controlled land. Section 3 was written in response to one of the biggest threats existing to archaeological sites- looting.

Looting, also referred to as pot hunting or relic hunting, is still a very real threat to our heritage sites today. Did you know that relic hunting is illegal on publicly owned land in Virginia? There are state and local regulations that make this activity criminal. Slide1Our state regulation is called the Virginia Antiquities Act and while there is no name for the local regulation it is stated in the Fairfax County Park Regulations Section 1.08 that, “No person shall damage, disturb, or remove any historic artifacts, historic features or other manmade objects from a park without the express written permission of the Park Authority. For the purpose of these regulations, ‘historic artifacts’ are any material remains that give physical evidence of human occupation, habitation, use or activity; and ‘historic features’ include, but are not limited to walls, fence lines, cellars, fire pits, mill races, trenches, tent platforms, quarries, or any other manmade arrangement of materials or the trace thereof.”

Over the years our blog has tried to relate the importance of our heritage resources and some of the techniques that we use to best research these. Removing artifacts from their “context” compromises critical data we are trying to gather that allows archaeologists to determine past human behavior and land use. Come volunteer with us and learn more about our methods and our past!

Further Information:
The Antiquities Act of 1906: http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/anti1906.htm
Learn more about U.S.’s first national monument: http://www.nps.gov/deto/index.htm
More on Virginia State Laws: http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/review/orcLawsRegs.html#VAA
Fairfax County Park Regulations: http://www.nvrpa.org/uploads/Files/NVRPARegulations.pdf
Further reading on federal law and regulation: King, Thomas “Cultural Resource Laws & Practice”

Discussions on Archaeological context:
Context: Where its at!
Stratigraphy- Soils and Archaeology
What is Archaeology


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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