There are thousands of archaeological sites in Kentucky, mostly unmarked. Archaeologists have found a Native American settlement or burial site in every county in the state.
Because the Native Americans didn't leave behind writings of any kind, all that we know about the people who settled along the banks of the Ohio and Green rivers thousands of years ago comes from what archaeologists have been able to pull from the ground.
Archaeologists trained to survey such sites document where items are found in a piece-by-piece attempt to determine how people at ancient sites hunted, prepared food, lived and died. Such sites also give archaeologists an idea of what the region was like thousands of years ago.
But archaeologists aren't the only people out hunting for archaeological sites. There's a major black market for ax heads, arrowheads and other items. But when "pot hunters" dig in search of treasures, they destroy any hope of learning the history of the site.
"The problem with archaeological resources is they are nonrenewable," said Tom Des Jean, an archaeologist with Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Oneida, Tennessee. "If you dump wastewater into a river, you might get fined for violating the Clean Water Act. But if you dig up an archaeological site, that prehistoric information is gone forever. You can never get it back."
While there are state and federal laws against desecrating graves and removing artifacts from archaeological sites, the location of the sites makes those laws difficult to enforce. After all, most of the sites are in unmarked fields or caves, and sheriff's departments can't post a deputy at every field in a region.
Also, although there are laws on the books, police and sheriff's departments often don't know such laws exist.
Kentucky established laws against disturbing prehistoric graves after a 1987 Kentucky State Police investigation at Slack Farm, a Union County burial mound that had been extensively looted by treasure hunters. According to state law, people who find graves are required to notify law enforcement, and the deliberate digging of graves for artifacts is a felony.
"One you get human remains, you have to call in the medical examiner and the county coroner," Des Jean said.
Kentucky state archaeologist George Crothers said artifacts found on public lands, such as state parks, are treated differently by the law than those in farmers' fields. On private land, any artifacts belong to the landowner, while artifacts on public lands can only be collected by professional archaeologists.
"On private property, the (land) owner would own any archaeological (items) on his or her property," Crothers said. "Technically, if someone (other than the property owner) is collecting on the property, they would be trespassing and stealing."
Historic artifacts are "like mineral rights, or anything else on your property," Crothers said. When people who are not the landowner remove historic items from private land, "it's like stealing your crops," he said.
A property owner who finds an arrowhead, for example, lying on the surface of his property owns the arrowhead, Des Jean said. But that only pertains to artifacts, not to human remains.
"This is a real gray area," Des Jean said. "When a farmer is plowing his field and is going to plant his crop ... and he turns up some bones, he may not recognize they are human. But if he is out in the (field) and he plows up ... a skull, his responsibility is to contact the sheriff and let them know he's found remains."
But if a farmer finds arrowheads or tools on his land, "it's good if he lets that state know that, but there's no law that he has to turn over those materials to the state," Des Jean said.
On public lands, historic items are considered to belong to the public. That doesn't mean those items can be removed by anyone who finds them, however.
"You have to have a permit to collect" artifacts on public property, Crothers said. Such permits aren't publicly available; only an archaeologist who can fulfill the requirements of the permit to properly document the find and the site can be permitted to dig at archaeological sites.
When an archaeologist receives a permit, he or she must turn any finds over to a state museum, Crothers said.