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2 Franklin County towns back contracts for archaeological digs

DEERFIELD — Two Franklin County historical commissions have adopted a policy that would require archaeological entities with state permits to draw up contracts with private landowners if they want to dig or survey private lands.

The accountability policy, created by the Deerfield Historical Commission and adopted this winter by the commission and Board of Selectmen, is designed to create transparency, protect town cultural resources from being mismanaged and provides a contractual agreement between the private land owner and the archaeology entity, said David Driver, the Deerfield Historical Commission member who championed the policy.

The Northfield Historical Commission has also adopted the policy. Another town, Erving, is expected to adopt the policy as well.

The policy would likely prevent disputes over artifacts like the current one between Deerfield farmers Chester and Butch Yazwinski and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Archaeological Field School. The Yazwinski family allowed the field school onto its property for years between 1989 and 1997. The family is now asking for the return of Indian artifacts found on their property, which are kept at UMass.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, is now facilitating a meeting between the Yazwinskis, UMass, the Deerfield Historical Commission and the Massachusetts Historical Commission to discuss the future disposition of the artifacts.

Driver is also asking the Deerfield commission to create an Indian Affairs Commissioner to deal with archaeology issues for the town.

As Franklin County towns take up the accountability policy, a related state House Bill is still pending review.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 744 by Rep. Peter Kocut of Northampton and Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst, would create a commission to study the existing state laws governing archaeological and geological resources and to hold public hearings. The proposed 11-member commission would determine whether current laws regarding archaeological, geological and fossil resources found within the Connecticut River Valley are strong enough.

Driver questions the merits behind the proposed bill. Driver contends that the laws are currently adequate. The local accountability policies would be sufficient enough to help address areas where the state law doesn’t, such as artifacts found on private property, and would require a contract between private landowners and public entities to help clear up that lapse in state law.

“Archaeological laws as written are more than adequate for protecting Massachusetts Commonwealth’s assets on public-owned or controlled lands. The penalties for breaking the laws, however, are weak,” wrote Driver in a letter to Kulik this week.

Currently, state law requires a state body to acquire a state permit from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to work on public land. If the body goes on public land with a permit, the artifacts belong to the state, but if the land is privately owned, the artifacts belong to the land owner according to federal law. State law doesn’t address private land and ownership.

Driver suggests an informative public campaign surrounding private landowners’ rights should be held and that there should be a tax deduction for private landowners who wish to give his or her archaeological rights to a state entity. He also states that the private landowners should receive copies of all literature generated from the research conducted on his or her property as a common courtesy — all requests made by the Yazwinski family.

He also contends that site reports on field digs conducted by state taxpayer-funded entities should be public records. Currently, state law says there is no public access to site reports.

The bill has been in the House Ways and Means Committee for several months now and is still pending review. Though the formal legislative session ends July 31, the bill could still be taken up between August and December in an informal session. If that doesn’t happen, the bill would die and have to be filed a second time in January.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268 on Twitter, follow @RecorderKatMcK

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