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Removing trash without disturbing history

Posted at 4:10 PM, Jan 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-25 19:10:40-05

Archaeology is often thought of as the study of the prehistoric (pre-European contact) past using items such as arrowheads, grinding stones, and artistically modified stones. But the archaeological record also encompasses the historic period—the remains of American history across the landscape. Historic artifacts can range from rusty cans to railroad ties, glass bottles and fragments to mining tools and equipment, horse tack to enamelware bowls, tools and farming gear, and any form of household goods. Under federal standards, if an artifact is over fifty years in age then it is considered archaeological. 

The Kern River Valley has been occupied by Native Americans for several thousand years.  The tribal communities of the valley engaged in extensive trading networks and used it as a travel route between destinations.  Since the 1850s the valley has also been home to farmers, miners, ranchers, loggers, and to the communities that supported these activities.  Many of the beautiful places we visit today for recreation were homes for those that preceded us. The valley’s rich history has left a mix of pre-historic and historic artifacts scattered across the landscape.

Archaeological artifacts on public lands belong to all American citizens – not just the person who finds these artifacts on the ground. The Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) provide legal protection for the archaeological record and both acts set substantial penalties that can be levied against convicted violators. Archaeological artifacts are fragile and irreplaceable; and they provide an essential tool in the understanding of how we as people have related to our landscape. Oftentimes small pieces of history give us our only tools for understanding the past. Questions as to what a site was used for, how old the site is, who lived there and why, what their material culture was, and how long a site was occupied all depend upon the archaeological record.  The study of these artifacts enables archaeologists and others to tell the story of those that came before us.  Special care and consideration must be given to a record that is remarkably fragile and non-renewable—once it has been removed from the land its meaning is lost forever.

With Isabella Lake at its current low level, however, some artifacts have become visible and accessible in places that are usually lake-bottom. Mixed with these archaeological materials are thousands of pieces of modern trash. One of the challenges facing people engaged in cleaning trash from the lakebed or other public lands is differentiating between modern trash and historic-period artifacts. The issue is complicated in that many pieces of the archaeological record of the historic period—bottles, cans, bits of clothing, scrap metal, and so on—were discarded in the past as trash. So, if you find older trash should you throw it away and risk a fine for disturbing an archaeological resource or leave it in place?

The answer to this question is found through a mix of common sense and education.  If you think the item is 50 years of age or older chances are it is. Bottles with legible paper labels, aluminum cans (for the next 10 years), fishing tackle, and boat parts are all likely to be less than 50 years of age and are safe to throw away. If you are unsure of an item’s age it is best to leave it in place. As a follow-up a person may want to contact their local Forest Service office (or BLM office if on BLM land) to tell them about their potentially historic find and give a general description of the item and its location. Leaving the item where it lies, however, is all that is required.