Vernon Lake sits upon a significant archaeological site containing Native American artifacts. And it's being looted.
Now that the lake has been drained for repair work on the dam, some local residents have been digging for and taking items such as arrowheads and spearheads.
The bottom of the lake is state land, said Scotty Delaney, Senior Agent with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. This fact makes the removal of such items illegal.
According to the Office of Cultural Development, the law states: “No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise any archaeological resource located on state lands unless such activity is approved by the agency with ownership responsibilities.”
The penalties for any person violating these provisions can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. “Upon conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for not more than 30 days, or by both,” the law states.
President of the West Louisiana Archaeological Club (WLAC) of Leesville and former president of the Louisiana Archaeological Society (LAS), Johnny Guy of Anacoco, has been diligently following approved procedures in order to properly identify notable areas on the exposed bottom of Vernon Lake.
Since the WLAC has begun their work, 13 new sites have been discovered. “That’s just so far,” said Guy. “We have maybe ten percent done.”
The tribe(s) that occupied this part of what is now Vernon Parish would have been nomadic, hunting and fishing, then moving when resources became depleted.
Access to water would have made this area attractive to Native American tribes.
The soil of the region is not conducive to farming, preventing a more permanent lifestyle for the tribes of the region.
Five men of various but similar backgrounds and interests in areas of archaeology and anthropology, including a hobbyist and a supporter, headed out this morning to the prehistoric site on the exposed bottom of Vernon Lake.
Little orange flags peppered the landscape, poignantly described by a six-year-old as a scene from “The Lorax” with the seemingly endless span of tall gray stumps emerging from the lake bottom.
Another described the scene as looking like a different planet– surreal.
Venturing out into this landscape, the group scattered in different directions looking for evidence of artifacts from another time. Bits of stone flakes resulting from making arrowheads, spearheads, and other tools, or “little chips,” as Guy called them, are marked with flags indicating an area that may be rich with other items below the surface.
Right now the WLAC members are scoping the situation. “We are just registering sites for the state of Louisiana database,” Guy said. “This is diagnostic, not picking.”
Archaeologist Nathan Mountjoy said the goal is to “find, identify, and protect.”
When an intact arrowhead turned up on the surface of the land, Mountjoy made a preliminary assessment to determine it originated from a tribe that existed around 4000-6000 years ago in what is now Texas. This would be the Middle Archaic Age in that region, according to Mountjoy.
Being caught taking, or having taken, a relic such as this arrowhead is against the law not only because it is property of the state, but because removing artifacts from a prehistoric site results in the immediate disturbance and contamination of historical evidence. These areas need to be studied so current and future generations can learn about who and what came before them.
“We can just rely on the public to know they can’t dig or move artifacts from the property,” Delaney said. “If you see someone doing that, notify the authorities to let us know what’s going on.”
To report this kind of activity, call the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Monday through Friday at 318-487-5634 or Operation Game Thief at 800-442-2511.