ONEIDA, Tenn. - Archaeologist Tom Des Jean is fighting a constant battle to protect Native American relics at Big South Fork National Recreation Area.
He told the Knoxville News Sentinel that looters are common, especially at out-of-the-way rock shelters contained in the 120,000-acre preserve that straddles Tennessee and Kentucky.
Located on the Cumberland Plateau, Big South Fork has an estimated 1,500 archaeological sites, which is more than other national parks in the Southeast.
Des Jean says some sites have been destroyed by looters, who dig pits and sift the dirt looking for whole pieces of prehistoric artifacts such as arrowheads and pottery. He says everything else is thrown out.
He said destroying the items is not just a crime, it's a tragedy. For example, the floor of a rock house called Mountain Dew is filled with pits and dirt piles. A ranger found the shelter in 2009, but looters had already been there.
Around the floor are bits and pieces of history, including a fragment of a mussel shell, a chert flake that was probably used as a paring knife.
"This site has been supremely destroyed," he said. "The relic collectors dig their pits, then sift the dirt and throw out anything that's not intact. When you come onto public lands and take things, you're taking from the American people as well as from researchers. You're taking things that can never be recovered again."
He said the sites may still contain information that is buried deeper.
Des Jean said archeologists want to protect these "layer cakes of occupation" until there's funding for proper excavation.
"At this site we found 5,000-year-old points next to 1,200-year-old pottery," said Des Jean. "When looters dig for relics they mix things up to the point where we cannot separate them out. You can find a 10,000-year-old point right next to a late Woodland piece of pottery, and you can't deduce or document any relationship between the two because they've been pulled out of context.
"There are still questions to be answered from these cultural resources - how these early inhabitants lived, and perhaps ultimately, where they came from."