Outreach :: State Lands Permits

The Section 233 Permit Program provides for archeological and paleontological research on state lands and is coordinated by the State Museum. This program is mandated by Education Law and protects public cultural and geological resources. Proposals for access to state lands for research purposes are reviewed and permits issued in conjunction with other state agencies. Most applications relate to diving activities and this program provides effective protection for many recently discovered underwater sites in New York.

Recently the Museum participated in an interagency initiative to create precedent setting submerged history diving preserves of several sunken French and Indian War vessels in Lake George. As an aspect of Education Law Section 233, staff also provide interagency consultation on the management of historic collections on State property.

What is New York State Education Law Section 233?

People have occupied portions of New York State for over 10,000 years. Only the last few decades of this long and complex period are thoroughly recorded and well understood. The only way we can come to know and appreciate the one hundred centuries that came before is through archeology. If we can find the remains left behind of the sites these people inhabited, the tools they used, the constructions they created, and even of the people themselves, we can finally reveal the way life was in New York hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Yet the archeological record that remains hidden in the ground is a fragile record. It is finite and nonrenewable. Once destroyed, it can never be duplicated, and once the information these sites contain is lost, it can never be recreated. Every time the ground is disturbed, whether by natural or human events, the potential loss of these endangered resources increases. Almost daily some part of our common archeological heritage is damaged or lost, often unintentionally, by the actions we come to accept as part of everyday modern life.

To help prevent such losses on land under its own control, the State of New York enacted Section 233 of the Education Law in 1958. The intent of this law was to protect these "publicly owned" cultural resources "both for scientific and for educational and historic purposes." This law represents the interests of all the people of New York in their common heritage and protects their rights to benefit from the scientific and educational values preserved in these resources for all time to come.

Section 233 has three major components. First, it protects archeological sites and "objects of historic interest" from damage by preventing artifact removal from state lands without written permission. Second, it provides a program of archeological study permits by which serious students of our cultural past may pursue scientific studies on archeological resources on state lands. And third, it requires of anyone who unexpectedly discovers such objects on state lands to report it to the appropriate persons.

Section 233 is part of Education Law and is mandated to the State Education Department in recognition of the very strong educational motives which underwrote the original intent of this archeological preservation effort. The administration of Section 233 is delegated within the Education Department to the New York State Museum, because "scientific specimens and collections, works of art, objects of historic interest and similar property . . . owned by the state . . . shall constitute the collections of the state museum." Responsibility for the management of publicly owned cultural resources under Section 233 falls to the State Museum's Historical and Anthropological Surveys, which have expertise and longstanding research traditions in these areas.

What is Covered by Section 233?

The legislation generally describes the protected resources as "any object of archeological or paleontological interest." In general, objects deposited on state lands that are less than 50 years old are not considered to be of "archeological interest." However, there may be specific collecting policies that prevent the removal of such objects of even relatively recent vintage (such as in State Parks or State Historic Sites). Archeological sites in which deposits of spatially related objects exist can reveal a great deal about the events which created these sites and are clearly "of archeological interest." Certain types of isolated objects may also be of significance even if not associated with any particular site. Before removing any object that appears to be in isolation, consult with the State Museum. Many apparently isolated objects are in fact merely the exposed portion of a buried site that would be damaged if surface materials were continually collected as they become exposed.

Archeological sites on state owned lands fall into two major categories: land sites and underwater sites. Land sites are most frequently thought of as "Indian" sites. The thousands of years of Native prehistory in New York, from Paleo-Indian migratory bands to the Iroquois and Algonkian farmers encountered by the first explorers, represents one of the most important components of our archeological heritage. Since there was virtually no written record created of these prehistoric times, archeological studies represent the only means of coming to know our prehistoric predecessors. But there is also a great deal to be learned from the remains of Colonial habitations, military sites, transportation systems, and the more common archeological resources that represent the Historic Period. In spite of volumes of documentation, historians still find many areas of our past that cannot be fully understood without the archeological data contained in sites of these more recent times. A significant portion of these irreplaceable land sites are situated on some form of state land.

Underwater sites are also on state lands, only these are submerged lands, covered by navigable bodies of water. Very few bodies of water in New York State are privately owned, and even small lakes and ponds that are completely surrounded by private lots may still be public waterways. Such public waterways and the lands beneath them are under the jurisdiction of the State, and therefore any archeological resources resting on these bottomlands are under the protection of Section 233.

For the most part, these submerged resources are represented by sunken ships and boats and the sites of cultural materials associated with such sinkings. The data on nautical technology and maritime history that is so often missing from libraries and archives can only be found in the sites of original vessels from the period of interest, be it prehistoric canoes, batteaux of the colonial period, great fighting ships of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, or the vessels of commerce of the 19th century canal-boat and lake-freighter era.

But even deposits of what many would term "garbage" that lie on our lake bottoms can reveal as much about the people that created them as can modern books full of words and pictures. The deep refuse deposits alongside docks and commercial establishments can reveal more about the business of business than the paper records that may or may not be preserved.

What is a Section 233 Permit?

A permit granted under Section 233 is an authorization to collect or excavate archeological materials on state lands. Given the mandate to preserve and protect these resources for their scientific and educational value, the State Museum only grants permits for projects that are consistent with the standards and goals of scientific research.

When Do I Need A Permit?

Permits are required for any activity that will "appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any object of archeological or paleontological interest, situated on or under lands owned by the State of New York." Under the regulations of the Commissioner of Education, reconnaissance survey projects may also require a permit, even though no excavation of any site is proposed. Even though some land survey involves little more than walking around, and most underwater surveys involve little more than swimming or boating, having a survey permit on file opens up a dialogue between the surveyor and the State Museum through which they can exchange information. It also places others on notice that the applicant has a prior interest in the survey area. In lieu of a formal permit for non-contact investigations, where no physical disturbance of the site is proposed, the State Museum offers the option of registering the survey with a simple one-page form. This is particularly useful in identifying the researcher's intent to study an area and helps avoid conflicts that may arise later.

Who Can Apply?

Permits are usually granted to professional archeologists associated with institutions which have a tradition of solid research and the facilities to support the project. At the data recovery stage, preservation facilities and qualified conservation staff are critical to the success of the project. The applicant must be able to comply with the State Museum's policies regarding acquisition, preparation, and care of collections.

However, individuals may apply, particularly at the survey stage, to conduct data gathering and identification studies. Even though not professional archeologists nor affiliated with a museum, university, or other institution, such researchers can make a significant contribution to the knowledge of our archeological heritage, particularly in the realm of underwater resources. Such studies are most effective if they use field data to resolve questions arising from documentary sources or reveal new historical data relating to past events. Activities designed merely to retrieve artifacts are not usually considered appropriate on archeological sites that belong to the public. Site preservation is a priority in the management of these resources for the benefit of all New York residents.

How Does One Get A Permit?

To obtain a permit, individuals should write to the address given below, giving a brief description of their proposed project and the beginning and ending dates of their field activities. Permits are usually given for a one year period, at the end of which time a brief report is expected on the results of the project. The appropriate application and information forms will be sent to the applicant as soon as the request is received. These forms will indicate the information needed to complete the application.

Once a completed application is received by the State Museum, it will be reviewed by an interagency panel to determine whether the proposal merits approval. The State Museum is responsible for the approval of applications in terms of their scientific research design and the ability of the project to comply with museum policies regarding State-owned collections. Consultation with the interagency panel assists the State Museum with this review and also provides compliance with other state laws regarding impacts to cultural resources.

If approved by the State Museum, the application is sent to the state agency which actually administers the land on which the project will take place. For example, a permit to investigate a shipwreck in Lake Champlain would require approval by the State Education Department, but also approval by the Office of General Services, which administers New York's submerged lands. In some cases the proposed research design may be perfectly acceptable, but the project may interfere with other priorities the managing agency has in terms of use of that land.

How Long Does It Take?

If the application is approved by both agencies, and is in compliance with all other state or federal requirements for the protection of cultural resources, the signed permit will be returned to the applicant. Normally the review and approval process takes about 45 days if all the necessary information is available.

Who Owns the Artifacts?

By law, material on or under any land belongs to the landowner, whether the land is public or private. On public lands this material belongs to the state or federal agency that manages the property, and their permission is required before this material can be removed or disturbed. Where these items are of "historic interest," additional protection is afforded them under Section 233. Permission for the disturbance or removal of these objects of "historic interest" is obtained through the permit process described above.

Removal of objects during an approved Section 233 permit does not alter their ownership, and they remain the property of the state agency which administers the land in the interest of the residents of New York, along with any records generated as part of the research project. Under Section 233 the care and preservation of these "objects of historic interest" is usually delegated to the New York State Museum. Therefore, any collections derived from a permitted activity on state lands must be made and prepared in accordance with the State Museum's policies regarding collections acquisition and care. For the purpose of study, a loan of the collections resulting from a permitted project will automatically be made to the applicant for a period up to one year (depending upon the size and scope of the project) after the end date of the permit. Extensions of this loan may be requested, as necessary, from the State Museum.

It is the policy of the State Museum to encourage the general public to become interested in local history and prehistory. To aid in this educational effort, the State Museum frequently arranges for loans of collections for exhibition to secure and responsible institutions. Requests for such loans should be made to the State Museum.

Because the purpose of the management of public archeological resources is to preserve these resources for all the residents of New York, present and future, and to create educational benefit from these resources through controlled scientific study, it would be inappropriate to release artifacts from integrated archeological sites to private ownership or sale. The possible benefits such sale might seem to provide in support of scientific research would not equal the negative consequences such a policy would produce. In some cases, however, isolated objects which lack historic interest for one reason or another may be released from public ownership if requested in writing.

In no case should any form of excavation or disturbance be undertaken on state land without first seeking and obtaining permission, even when it is believed that the objects to be collected are not of "historic interest." The judgement of "historic interest" can only be made by the interagency permit panel.

How Can I Help?

When archeological sites on public lands are damaged or destroyed, everyone loses a part of our shared heritage, spanning over 10,000 years of human history. The greatest loss falls to our children and to unborn generations who will inherit a State in which the opportunities to see, appreciate, and investigate our archeological resources will be greatly diminished.

No state agency, no governmental program, no law can protect these irreplaceable resources unless people interested in seeing this part of their heritage preserved make a conscious commitment to contribute to this effort.

Some things you can do:

1. Let people know that archeological resources on public lands belong to everyone and are protected.

2. Let people know that you support the protection of our public resources for the future.

3. Develop permit projects that enhance our understanding of these resources, or cooperate with projects others are planning.

4. Report violations of your right to have these resources protected under Section 233 to local law enforcement officers.

For more information contact:
Christina Rieth
Room 3122
Cultural Education Center
New York State Museum
Albany, NY 12230-0001
phone: 518) 402-5975
email:  Christina Rieth

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