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What is an Artifact?


Whether you're new to metal detecting or have been digging targets for years, you probably have imagined uncovering something really BIG... meaning really important (not necessarily big in size). What if while out hunting you dug up a relic — something of real historical and cultural importance? Would you know what to do? Do you know what you SHOULD do?
Laws and regulations and ordinances vary from state to state, county to county, and city to city. And if that's not enough to keep track of, there are also federal laws that regulate the collecting of relics, too. Each state has a wealth of regulatory laws that govern metal detecting and artifact recovery.  Keep in mind that even if you are not on state-owned land, there are state laws that govern private property archaeological finds.
The really big federal law to pay attention to is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA). This law will be enforced no matter what federal or Indian lands you happen to be treasure hunting on. ARPA covers archaeological resources and not mineralogical resources like gold and silver and other precious and semi-precious minerals. What is an "archaeological resource" exactly? It's a fancy term for an artifact. Which leads to the question, "What is an artifact?"
The Federal Bureau of Land Management defines an artifact as "...objects made or used by humans... examples are pottery, baskets, bottles, weapons, arrowheads, rock paintings and carvings. Artifacts also include graves and skeletal materials that are at least 100 years old."
In very simple words, the ARPA defines an artifact as any man-made object or object used by man that is more than 100 years old. So this could include coins, rusty tin cans, or other "trash" commonly found in old ghost towns.  Download the entire 13-page Archaeological Resources Protection Act .pdf here.

Many metal detectorists keep what they find a secret. Not only because they might want to go back to the spot several times to make sure they have uncovered everything there is to find, but also so that governmental agencies don't close yet another area to the public. Whether or not you decide to "do the right thing" or even what the "right thing" means to you is a personal matter. But it's good to know what the rules and laws are just in case you uncover that really significant treasure we all dream about.

In the meantime, if you follow the metal detecting and treasure hunting code of ethics below, you can avoid getting into trouble even before your next big find!

Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs, Inc. Code of Ethics

  • I will always check federal, state, county and local laws before searching. It is my responsibility to "know the law."
  • I will respect private property and will not enter private property without the owner’s permission. Where possible, such permission will be in writing.
  • I will take care to refill all holes and try not to leave any damage.
  • I will remove and dispose of any and all trash and litter that I find.
  • I will appreciate and protect our inheritance of natural resources, wildlife and private property.
  • I will as an ambassador for the hobby, use thoughtfulness, consideration and courtesy at all times.
  • I will work to help bring unity to our hobby by working with any organization of any geographic area that may have problems that will limit their ability to peacefully pursue the hobby.
  • I will leave gates as found.
  • I will build fires in designated or safe places only.
  • I will report to the proper authorities any individuals who enter and or remove artifacts from federal parks or state preserves.
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