Treasure Hunter Pleads Guilty to Excavating Cemetery during Search

man hunting famous 'fenn treasure' digs in yellowstone, leading to legal charges

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Forrest Fenn treasure hunt led one man to a cemetery in Yellowstone, NPR reported. He excavated the cemetery illegally and pled guilty to two felonies for doing so. Excavating proper sites takes precision and patience.

Excavation tools
After using proper excavation methods and tools to uncover artifacts, archaeologists work to develop an idea of what life was like during the time period of individual artifacts. Photo By kray_obrazov

According to NPR, an overexcited treasure seeker made a costly mistake while hunting for riches. “An art dealer hid a treasure chest filled with gold and gems somewhere in the Rocky Mountains for the world to find,” the article said. “A map and poem were the only clues. Before it was found, a 52-year-old man, overzealous in his search, went digging in pursuit of the treasure in a cemetery inside Yellowstone National Park.”

The article said the man pled guilty to “excavating or trafficking in archaeological resources” and to “injury or depredation to United States property.” Besides the obvious poor choice of location, his plan fell short of a proper archaeological excavation in many ways.

Tools of the Trade

Dr. Eric H. Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of The George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute, said that the biggest surprise in an archaeologist’s excavation toolkit is the pickaxe. It’s colloquially known as a pick.

“You can use a pick for anything and everything,” he said. “You can dig quickly but carefully through a set number of centimeters of dirt. Or you can use the pick to straighten up the balks—that is, the interior of the five by five square in which you’re digging—because the balks have to be completely vertical if you’re going to get a clear picture of what you’ve already dug through.”

Dr. Cline said that the balks get straightened out on a daily basis so diggers can keep track of what they’re doing.

He also said that the remainder of typical tools in an archaeologist’s collection consist of a Marshalltown trowel or a WHS trowel, a patiche—which is what a small hand pick is called in Israel—dustpans, brushes, brooms, and various measuring tapes.

“Get to know and love them; they are your friends,” Dr. Cline said.

Excavation Tips from a Pro

Dr. Cline also offered a number of tips for excavating a site—aside from avoiding cemeteries in Yellowstone. One was to use a color-coded bucket system.

“If you’re digging with us at Kabri, you’re probably going to put your dirt in the black buckets, your pottery in the orange buckets, and the animal bones that you’ll find into green or blue buckets,” he said. “Every so often, when the black buckets all get filled up with dirt, you’ll form a bucket line and you’ll pass the buckets down the line to the dump where they’ll be sorted out.”

Dr. Cline said that when an archaeologist is on a dig, one very important thing to notice while they are digging is if the color of the dirt changes. This could mean they’ve dug into some different level of strata in the soil. If the color of the soil changes, he said, stop immediately and alert somebody. A dig supervisor will likely ask the digger to change buckets in case the change in dirt represents “a change in antiquity.”

“Now, never—never ever, ever, ever, never—yank anything out of the ground when it first starts appearing as you dig,” he said. “It’s more important to know where the bottom of an object is than where its top is; you need to know the context of the object.

“If you come across something, first of all tell your square or area supervisor; then continue digging as you were until the object, or whatever other objects might be related to it, are sitting as if they’re on top of your dining room table.”

At that point, if the object is significant enough, supervisors may wish to photograph or draw it while it’s “in situ,” which is Latin for “still in place.” After all this happens, removal of the object comes closer to becoming a reality.

Just stay out of cemeteries.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Eric H. Cline contributed to this article. Dr. Cline is a Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of The George Washington University (GWU) Capitol Archaeological Institute. He holds a PhD in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from Yale University, and a BA in Classical Archaeology modified by Anthropology from Dartmouth College.