Sites, Artifacts, and Collecting

Q: What is an archeological site?

Mention archeology and most people think of the Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge, but there are many places and objects that can be considered archeological.

An archeological site is any location that contains evidence of past human activity. The Apostle Islands' pre-European contact sites include ancient fishing sites that doe the coast, habitation sites (the places people called home) and other sites whose functions have not yet been well studied. The region also has historic, or post-European contact, sites. These sites are important because the represent a significant period of American history. Fishing camps, shipwrecks, logging camps, hunters' cabins, abandoned quarries and early recreational sites are also important post-contact archeological resources.
Q: What is an artifact?

An artifact is any object from an archeological site that displays human modification. This can include finished tools or the debris created by making tools. Artifacts can tell interesting stories, but this story is richer if the location of the artifact in a site is known. Did the artifact come from someone's house or from their garbage? What types of artifacts were found nearby? These are some of the questions archeologists ask.
Q: Why are archeological sites important?

Throughout the world, the period of written history is very brief. There are many thousands of years for which there is no written record. The Apostle Islands have been inhabited for more than 7,500 years, but you can only read about the past 350 years. For many long periods of human history, archeological sites are the only source of information. In addition, these sites contain important geological and biological information that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. Archeological sites are like library books. They are accumulations of information, and each holds a unique story.
Q: Who owns archeological sites and artifacts?

Archeological sites and the artifacts they contain belong to the owner of the land on which they occur. In Wisconsin, artifacts found on submerged lands belong to the State of Wisconsin (e.g. shipwrecks), but the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the state work together to protect these sites. It is also important to recognize that Native American people feel very strong ties to materials made by their ancestors. To many, these artifacts are sacred and belong to the Native community.
Q: Who can dig an archeological site or collect artifacts on the surface?

All professional archeologists arrange permits before conducting any excavation or collection. These permits state how materials will be obtained and where they will be stored.

Under the Archeological Resource Protection Act of 1979, it is illegal to dig in, or to take, purchase, sell, receive, or transport materials from a site on federal land without a permit. Similar laws protect state and private lands, and Native American burials. Damage to a site on federal lands that exceeds $500 is considered a felony and can result in the seizures of any vehicle (car, truck, fishing vessel, plane, RV) used in the crime, fines of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison.

Q: What does recreational digging and collecting do to an archeological site?

Recreational digging and collecting are enormously destructive because much of the information stored in a site is lost when excavation proceeds unscientifically and when artifacts are removed without scientific documentation. Artifacts are removed from their location in a site and delicate materials are destroyed. Moreover, artifacts taken for private collections are lost to history. The information they contain cannot be shared with Native people, the scientific community, or the public.

Archeological sites are a non-renewable resource. Once disturbed, they cannot be repaired. Recreational digging or removing objects from the surface is like ribbing pages from a book. It damages the site and limits interpretation.
Q: Can I collect artifacts if I bring them to a museum?

No. Most museums cannot accept artifacts collected illegally (i.e., without permission of the landowner). This would be equivalent to accepting stolen property.
Q: What can I do to preserve Wisconsin's past?

Set a good example. Never dig in an archeological site or collect surface artifacts except under the guidance of a professional archeologist. Leave any artifact you find in place and report it to an archeologist. This will allow the archeologist to contact the landowner about saving the artifact and document its precise location. In the event that you encounter possible human remains, it is very important not to move or otherwise disturb them. Local law enforcement will need to be notified so that an investigation can be conducted. Teach your family and friends about the importance of site preservation. Most people have no idea that recreational digging or artifact collection is destructive and illegal. Report acts of site vandalism or illegal artifact trade to the National Park Service (1-800-478-2724) or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement (1-800-847-9367). Rewards of up to $500 are available for information leading to a civil or criminal conviction under the Archeological Resources Protection Act.
This information was developed by the Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska, the Cultural Resources Programs at Lake Clark and Katmai National Park and Preserves and was modified by the Cultural Resources Program at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Last updated: April 19, 2021

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