There is an issue brewing just under the surface, and the main subjects are really, really old.
Archaeologists, paleontologists and geologists are calling on the Legislature to advance a bill that they say would help bring clarity to outdated and vague laws around recovering, studying and protecting fossils and artifacts. The push follows a spike in popularity around finding fossils in Massachusetts as a result of the campaign to create an official state dinosaur.
A poll to decide which dinosaur would take the official spot in legislation from Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis garnered over 35,000 votes and even national media coverage. As part of that project, experts and lawmakers are hoping to raise awareness of all the different fields of science that have touch points with recovering and preserving artifacts.
Barnas Monteith, the head of the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair and a paleontologist, has been involved in the state dinosaur initiative. The attention is good, he said, but there is a side effect to the popularity: a concern among professionals that “a lot of folks are going to go out there, potentially start digging, and quite possibly could find some important specimens in our state.”
“While we love that idea, obviously, we encourage folks to find and report the things; we do have some concerns that maybe some folks might go out there and try to personally collect some fossils and keep them in their private collections,” he said. “In Massachusetts, we obviously don’t have too many dinosaurs floating around in our state, and because of that, it is sort of important to preserve and study those specimens.”
Monteith and other experts are hoping the Legislature will pass a bill (H 3982) filed by Rep. Daniel Carey setting up up a commission to review laws, and consult with public and private experts to figure out how to adequately protect and provide public and professional access to archaeological, geological and fossil resources in the state.
Alfred Venne, of the Amherst College Beneski Museum and Bassett Planetarium, helped with the state dinosaur initiative. He said one of the first questions asked of him during the process was where could people find fossils of the potential state dinosaur.
“A chill went through my spine going, ‘Oh, my goodness’; well, we have to make sure that people are doing things appropriately and that we don’t just say, ‘Oh, well, the original fossils were found down the street, around the corner, over here, so, start digging,’ ” he said.
“In our world, we preserve the locations and the integrity of those locations, for either archaeological or scientific reasons, and we try not to just make them a kind of a free-for-all, so to say.”
Mark McMenamin, a geologist and paleontologist who specializes in the origin of animals and the Cambrian explosion, said the laws around preservation, ownership and protection of fossils need an update.
“It’s confusing, both for those who would like to see resources protected and for those who would like to recover and study the resources, because it’s not entirely clear what the legal way to do that is,” McMenamin said. “So, this will be a great chance to put some clarity into the laws, which will both protect the resources and then also encourage them to be brought to light.”
Members of the commission would include four legislators whose districts have significant fossil, archaeological or geological deposits, the state geologist, and nine appointees from the governor, among others. The commission would need to file a report with the Legislature by Nov. 1, 2022.
“It would put a commission together to really look at our current laws around these issues. It seems many of them are outdated as technologies have changed,” Carey, of Easthampton, told the News Service. “No one’s put a magnifying glass on it for a really long time.”
The legislation is a revival of a proposal from former Rep. Peter Kocot, who filed it multiple times during his tenure in the House from 2002 to 2018. In 2016, the bill made it through initial committee hearings and was reported out of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The House on July 19 referred Carey’s bill to the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture; the legislation previously has been reported out favorably from the committee all four times Kocot filed it. A hearing date has not yet been scheduled for Carey’s bill.
State laws, McMenamin said, mostly gives priority to the owner of the land where the artifact is found. But, it’s not entirely clear from the laws whether the landowner can conduct excavations on their own land without permission, and if they do need permission, it’s not clear who grants it, McMenamin said.
“For example, should you be asking the state archaeologist for permission to dig a paleontological dig? That’s not entirely clear. So, we need some clarity. And just some clear guidelines on how to proceed,” he said.
“It’s not just an academic exercise, because we’re falling behind other countries, like China, in terms of bringing out great material from underneath the Earth’s surface and learning more about Earth’s local history.”
Another concern is how to crack down on potential fossil poachers, people who seek out valuable artifacts and sell them online.
Take a dinosaur trackway — a series of fossilized footprints from the same animal. Venne said there are really two enforcement measures associated with pilfering a track: trespassing or theft of a stone, a Colonial-era law that prohibits removal or destruction of a stone wall that has a $10 fine. The fines associated with breaking those laws don’t outweigh the potential financial gains from finding important artifacts and selling them, Venne said.
“You don’t have any teeth in it with regard to the value of them,” he said. “So, as a result, because it’s just theft of a stone and trespassing, if somebody pilfers a trackway, you’re going to find that the fines that are incurred are far exceeded by the possibility of putting it on eBay.”
As far as promulgating new laws, Monteith said, the idea “is not to come down on everybody” and discourage exploration. Instead, experts are looking to create an environment where people can go out a find artifacts with a degree of knowledge and resources made available to them by the state.
“We want to make sure people are cataloging things mostly on their phones, mostly taking pictures with their iPhones and tagging them with a GPS location, and maybe leaving natural markers behind,” he said. “... But, generally speaking, we want folks to leave sites not disturbed. And we want folks to kind of try to remember where they saw a really important fossil, if they found one, and be able to find that spot again.”