Is it Legal to Collect Arrowheads on Federal Land?

Posted on June 3, 2013


I have spent some time on arrowhead collecting forums and have been told by some collectors that it is legal to hunt arrowheads on Federal land in the US. This is only for arrowheads as all other forms of collecting/looting (depending on your views) are illegal on Government land. The law (more on that below) states:

(a) “No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on public lands or Indian lands unless such activity is pursuant to a permit issued” – Title 16 (conservation) U.S. Code § 470ee. You can read the full code here –

Some collectors, but not all, would tell me about something called the Carter loophole, named after the former president. Carter liked to collected arrowheads so an exception was made to archaeology laws, so the story goes.

You can see it in that law a few paragraphs down:

(g) Removal of arrowheads located on ground surface

Nothing in subsection (d) of this section shall be deemed applicable to any person with respect to the removal of arrowheads located on the surface of the ground.

Recently there was some discussion on the NMAC listserve about this loophole that has been very enlightening:

FYI, the so-called “Arrowhead Exception” was allegedly included in ARPA due to President Carter having a collection of same since his Boy Scouts merit badge days: he’d have to sign the legislation into law. It doesn’t make the collection of arrowheads on Federal or Indian lands legal, but per  16 USC 470 ee (g) exempts them from the penalties of ARPA under 16 USC 470 ee (d). Federal agencies still protect these heritage resources using their Code of Federal Regulations (36 & 43 CFR). Some “misguided public lands abusers” that have been cited and had points/arrowheads taken from them and into evidence have tried to use the exception under ARPA as a legal argument for this collecting to be OK. To date: this has failed as a legal strategy (and I still have some of the points which I use for educational purposes).

ARPA is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and it is what I quoted at the beginning of this articles. If you buy and sell artefacts then you should be aware of the very next paragraph of the law:

“b) No person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, receive, or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange any archaeological resource if such resource was excavated or removed from public lands or Indian lands”

But back to the loophole in the law,

“No penalty shall be assessed under this section for the removal of arrowheads located on the surface of the ground.”
So any excavations are illegal but if you find an arrowhead on the surface you are exempt from penalty. So why then has it not worked for people who surface collect on Federal land? Well, several other people jumped in with explanations:
As a retired federal archaeologist, my understanding & experience with this issue were that isolated arrowheads could be collected under ARPA, but this behavior could be (and was) cited by law enforcement as theft of government property. GFS

You may avoid penalties under ARPA but there are many regulations that the government can use to charge you with stealing government property. Read them all here-

Actually, the punishment for theft of government property can be up to tens years, under ARPA the first time offense is one year max. You really don’t want to be charged with anything but if you are getting charged then you probably actually want ARPA.

Finally, there are problems with the definition of arrowheads as pointed out on the listserve,
JR is correct but I seem to recall some point collectors decided to test the extent of the law and wound up in federal court within a few years of passage of the act.  Some got off, since they were indeed collecting arrowheads but some others had been collecting paleo points and were convicted.
This brings up an interesting point, most of what people collect are not really arrowheads. Bow and arrows did not come over with the first people but was independently invented and then spread around the Americas, some times quite late, like only 2000 years ago in parts of the Southwest. Even after arrows started to be used the First Nation groups still used spears and darts. These Clovis points are not arrowheads:
Image by Bill Whittaker. CC-BY-SA-3.0

DON’T do it

Basically, there is an exception but there are other laws, with higher penalties, that people can be charged with, and are. Moreover, many of the ‘arrowheads’ are not actually arrowheads and thus not covered by the exception. If you must collect – it is usually legal on private land in the United States. I say usually as in you have the landowners permission. Also, there may be exceptions to this.
Edit– This loophole view is not held by every collector and since writing this post have been informed while these views are still expressed many collectors set other collectors straight about the legality, using many of the same facts. Apologies, if earlier versions implied all collectors believed the loophole.
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