State Archaeology

Division of State Archaeology (DSA) staff provide a variety of services to record and explore archaeological sites both on land and underwater, manage and conserve the millions of objects in our archaeological collections, and provide technical expertise to public and professional communities while promoting stewardship and preservation of these valuable resources. DSA staff provide dozens of presentations and training events each year and provide access to educational materials for teachers correlated to the Virginia Standards of Learning.

State Archaeologist

Virginia archaeology spans more than 16,000 years. There are below ground and underwater sites representing thousands of years of Native American life and culture, Colonial expansion of European settlements, African American history, into the history of the 20th century.

The state repository for archaeological collections is located in DHR headquarters in Richmond, where there are millions of artifacts housed that were recovered from nearly a thousand sites in Virginia. DHR’s mission is to care for these collections and provide appropriate access to them for researchers, students, and educators.

We do so through an Archaeological Collections Program that encompasses artifact preservation, conservation, cataloging, long-term curation, loans for museum partners, and technical assistance.

To learn more about some of this activity, see our Spotlight On DHR Collections, where we post occasional blogs about curating and conserving select items in our Collections. 

The following information about DHR initiatives, programs, and resources offers ways to encourage and support the identification, stewardship, and use of Virginia’s archaeological resources for educational and cultural benefits.

  • Virginia Archaeology Network:  Offers information and links to places and websites that focus on archaeology in Virginia and beyond.
  • Ask an Archaeologist: Do you have an artifact you’ve found in Virginia that you would like to know about? Send us a photo or several of good quality and focus. Ideally, the photo(s) will have a scale – a ruler or a coin or something recognizable pictured next to the object so that we can get a sense of the size of the item. Also, please let us know approximately where the item was found. Our team of experts will get together, identify the item, and give it some context—its function, and who would have used it and where it was made, etc. We are interested in both pre- and post-Contact period artifacts—broken or whole. It doesn’t matter, just ask an archaeologist. See this listing of queries and responses.
  • Teaching Archaeology: Learn about resources available to schools, organizations, and museums for teaching Virginia archaeology. DHR has Archaeological Resource Kits (ARKs) available for classroom use. One ARK covers topics in archaeology for Virginia Indians, another covers African American–associated artifacts and archaeology. Contact Allison Mueller, Collections Manager, State Archaeology Division 804/482-6100.
  • Virginia Archaeology Month: Every October, Virginia celebrates archaeology through special events and programs at libraries, museums, historical societies, clubs, and at active archaeological sites. DHR is currently compiling an October Calendar of Events for Archaeology Month that we will post to our website. For more information about archaeology month, or to receive a copy of this year’s poster, please contact Allison Mueller, Collections Manager, State Archaeology Division (804 /482-6100). To submit an event for the archaeology month calendar, please use this form. Visit here to see archaeology month posters from previous years.
  • Archaeological Site Stewardship: Do you have archaeological sites on your property? Private landowners and local governments can protect clues to our past by being stewards of archaeological properties within their ownership. Follow the link to information about being a good steward or contact one of the Regional Archaeologists.
  • What’s so bad about collecting artifacts? Learn why digging up artifacts can be harmful to Virginia’s archaeological sites and what you can do instead.
  • Projectile Point Types and Lithic Types: Provides information and images of 44 projectile point types applicable to Virginia, and 47 lithic types from Virginia and surrounding states. The point types may be sorted by time period and general shape. Also features a timeline to show point relationships. The lithics may be sorted by type of stone or by general location. (Reference and publication sections are included in the module.)
  • Threatened Sites Program:  Learn how significant archaeological sites in Virginia that are threatened with destruction may be eligible for financial aid if no other funding is available for their investigation.
  • Underwater Archaeology Program: Learn more about archaeological sites that lie along the coast or are completely submerged, and how Virginia is attempting to better understand and protect shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites.
  • DHR Archaeological Report Series: See a list of archaeological reports available directly from DHR.
  • Radiocarbon Dates for Virginia Archaeology: DHR is in the process of updating the Excel spreadsheet of Virginia C-14 dates for recovered artifacts. When completed, you can find that spreadsheet on this page. Go to this document for Virginia Radiocarbon Dates References Cited.
  • DHR-ASVArchaeological Field Schools: Each year DHR conducts archaeological fields schools in Virginia in partnership with the Archeological Society of Virginia. If you are curious about the field schools, this video (5 mins./YouTube) highlights a portion of a field school in Northampton County’s Eastville on the Eastern Shore. 
  • Archaeology and Environmental Review: Both state and federal laws and procedures require that significant archaeological sites be identified and considered in a variety of public projects. In fact, more archaeological survey and excavation projects are conducted in Virginia as a result of these laws than for any other purpose. As the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), DHR assists federal and state agencies in meeting their responsibility to take historic properties into account in planning and carrying out their projects. The reports resulting from these efforts to identify, evaluate, and treat historic properties are available in the DHR Archives and some may be available online under the Archives’ Special Collections or online as part of Archaeological Reports.
  • Archaeological Permits: Conducting archaeological survey and excavations on private property does not require permission from the Department of Historic Resources unless it involves graves or cemeteries: 
    • Any archaeological work conducted on human graves—marked or unmarked—requires a permit from DHR
    • Any archaeological work on state-controlled lands also requires a permit from DHR.
    • Removing objects from underwater historic sites requires a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Please contact State Underwater Archaeologist Brendan Burke for more information.
    • Any archaeological work or removal of historic artifacts from federal lands requires an Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) permit from the federal land manager for that property. For information on the ARPA, visit the National Park Service’s website.
  • Registering Archaeological Sites. In order to obtain an official state site number and incorporate information into our archives and mapping systems, archaeological sites must be registered. Professional archaeologists must record archaeological sites in Virginia in DHR’s VCRIS (Virginia Cultural Resource Information System). Non-professionals wishing to record archaeological information may contact the Archaeology Inventory Manager, Jolene Smith.

Two Volumes on Virginia’s Archaeology Now Available as PDF Downloads

The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples (2020) [link]

The Historical Archaeology of Virginia from Initial Settlement to Present: Overview and New Directions (2017) 

In conjunction with the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV) and the Council of Virginia Archaeologists (CoVA), DHR has posted to its website the PDFs of two volumes that examine archaeology in the state from its millennia of occupation by Native peoples through the recent past.

Both volumes consist of essays authored by archaeologists with long careers in Virginia archaeology. Collectively, the two publications represent the culmination of a years-long effort between the ASV, CoVA, and DHR to chronical recent research from archaeological investigations conducted in Virginia during three decades or more.

Although the PDFs are now available at no cost to make the research widely available, both volumes, which are richly illustrated with photographs, maps, and drawings, are still available for purchase as print-on-demand bound books through Amazon.

“DHR is proud to have been a part of the team that produced these two volumes” said Elizabeth Moore, Virginia State Archaeologist and contributor to the project. “These books provide an important update to the initial synthesis in volumes produced 30 years ago that became essential reading for anyone working in Virginia archaeology. Research conducted since then has drastically changed and enhanced our understanding of the past.”

“These two volumes emerged from the shared mission of COVA, ASV, and DHR to present current research about thousands of years of Virginia’s buried past, and also to encourage new scholarship and insights on Virginia’s archaeological sites and collections,” said Eleanor Breen, City Archaeologist for Alexandria and the current president of COVA.

“The ASV is proud to join with DHR and COVA in such impressive publications about Virginia’s First Peoples and later historic settlement,” said Mike Barber, ASV’s current president. “Although a long time in arriving, the volumes do much to enhance our understanding of the long and proud history of friends and neighbors, both past and present.”

Read the December 2020 announcement from DHR about the publication of The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples.

Archaeological Collections

The Archaeological Collections programs of Curation and Conservation aim to ensure the proper management and preservation of archaeological collections. It provides for the curation and care for artifacts and associated documentation while providing access for researchers, students, and educators.

Regional Archeologists

Regional archaeologists are experts who specialize in specific geographic regions of Virginia, and work with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to identify and preserve historic and cultural resources in those areas. They provide technical assistance, support, and guidance to local governments, organizations, and individuals on archaeological matters.

Underwater

DHR’s Underwater program focuses on the identification, evaluation, and protection of historic and archaeological resources in Virginia’s waterways and submerged bottomlands.

Frequently Asked Questions

Archaeology is about studying material remains and environments to understand the past. Archaeologists carefully excavate a site and record the precise location of each object and feature. They make this special effort because any kind of digging is destructive. As soon as we take a special artifact out of the ground, we lose lots of other information. Learn more here.

For the public, please refer to DHR Places Explorer.

For professionals, please refer to the VCRIS program page.

They can be found here.

More information can be found here.

DHR commonly receives calls and emails asking about permits for metal detecting in Virginia. Contrary to what some websites for hobby detectorists have posted, there is no general permitting process for metal detecting in Virginia.

Like any other activity, if you wish to metal detect on private property, you must have permission of the property owner. Metal detecting on private property without the owner’s permission has the potential to lead to charges of trespass and theft.

Both state and federal land is generally not open to metal detecting and removal of artifacts. There are a few exceptions. Some state parks allow metal detecting in defined beach areas; those parks require that you apply for a permit directly from them. Here is the information from the Virginia State Parks website: “Metal detectors may be used only on designated manmade beaches and only with a DCR [Department of Conservation and Recreation] special use permit. Such a permit may be obtained from the park’s manager. See State Parks Rules and Regulations. Some counties allow metal detecting on manmade beaches or around sports fields. Contact the parks and recreation departments for the county you are considering to learn if and where metal detecting is allowed.

Underwater bottomlands in Virginia’s rivers, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic coastal zone are state property and do require permits for the removal of artifacts. Pursuant to § 10.1-2214 Code of Virginia, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission has the authority to permit underwater archaeological investigations on historic resources on bottomlands owned by the Commonwealth. DHR is consulted prior to the issuance of the permits and is charged with determining which properties are historic. Contact VMRC for more information. DHR does not encourage metal detecting and removal of materials from archaeological sites, whether on land or underwater. You can learn more about why we take that position at this DHR webpage. You can also learn about how metal detecting can assist archaeologists on some archaeological sites by viewing this video.

DHR is not positioned to offer legal advice regarding trespassing. The Code of Virginia includes several laws that make trespassing a crime. For that reason, DHR recommends that visitors to this page consult a lawyer for legal advice as well as the following sections of the Code of Virginia: Virginia Code 18.2-119 states that it’s unlawful to enter or remain on a person’s land after seeing a notice that prohibits trespassing. You can commit such a crime by violating a protective order against intrusion or staying on the property after the owner asks you to leave. Other relevant laws from the Virginia Code include 18.2-121, 18.2-23, and 18.2-120.

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State Archaeologist
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