Too much ado about old bottles

A state rule barring property owners from digging for old bottles in their own backyards without a permit is a classic example of good intentions gone awry.

Local collector Dale Mlasko, who digs up long-abandoned pit toilets in search of old bottles, uncovered a little-known state rule in the process. It seems the state may consider anything older than 75 years to be an "archaeological object."

Such objects may not be excavated or removed, even from private property, without a permit from the state, and the work may have to be supervised by a qualified archaeologist.

This requirement is understandable when the objects in question are human remains, especially American Indian remains, or artifacts of great antiquity. But it's difficult to get too concerned about a medicine bottle tossed down a backyard privy in 1931.

To the state's credit, assistant state archaeologist Susan Lynn White says her department doesn't want to be punitive, and would rather educate than punish. Still, two aspects of the state rules seem too restrictive.

First, 75 years is not a long time, well within the life span of many Oregonians. It is interesting to note that federal rules for what are called "archaeological resources" on public land apply to artifacts older than 100 years — a much more reasonable standard.

Second, it is unreasonable in our view to require property owners to bear the cost of a qualified archaeologist to excavate such relatively recent artifacts from their own property. If there is a compelling public interest in protecting 76-year-old objects from untrained people digging on their own land, then the state should pick up the tab for qualified supervision.

The reality, of course, is that this rule will be enforced only when state officials know it is being violated. In most cases, property owners interested in sifting through their own dirt in search of bottles or other interesting objects will just do it and not tell anyone.

Again, truly historic artifacts, and especially any human remains or burial objects should be carefully protected, even on private land.

But if collectors want to dig up old outhouses in search of whiskey bottles from Prohibition, we say, let 'em.

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