The Florida Legislature, in the 2015-2016 General Appropriations Act, has charged the Florida Division of Historical Resources (DHR) with the task of “preparing a study of the feasibility of implementing a one-time amnesty program of limited duration for persons who possess specimens, objects, or materials of historical or archaeological value found on land owned or controlled by the state or on land owned by a water authority” (http://dos.myflorida.com/historical/archaeology/artifact-amnesty-feasibility-study/). As part of their feasibility study, they are seeking public input via an on-line survey which asks five questions:
- Did you know that it is illegal to remove, without authorization, any specimens, objects or materials of historical or archaeological value from land owned or controlled by the state or on land owned by a water authority?
- Do you think it should be illegal to remove, without authorization, any specimens, objects or materials of historical or archaeological value from land owned or controlled by the state or on land owned by a water authority?
- Do you support the implementation of a one-time amnesty program of limited duration for persons who possess specimens, objects or materials of historical or archaeological value collected from land owned or controlled by the state or on land owned by a water authority?
- If you were in possession of any specimens, objects or material of historical or archaeological value from land owned or controlled by the state or on land owned by a water authority, would you return them during an amnesty program?
- Do you think other people would participate in an amnesty program?
- Please list the positive and/or negative impacts you feel that an amnesty program could potentially have on the stakeholders and historic resources of the state.
From the outset it is important to understand that this is a feasibility study for a proposal that is at best only vaguely defined. From the survey questions, it is possible to presume that a requirement of this program would be that in order to receive amnesty any illegally acquired items would be turned over to the state, but this is an assumption. Even if artifacts are turned over, how about information on the location of the find and other details that would help to establish as much about the original context as possible?
In general, we do not see how a proposal for Artifact Amnesty will help the preservation of archaeological sites that exist on land owned by the State of Florida for the public benefit. We do not believe it will do anything to improve the protection of archaeological sites in Florida.
In opposing artifact amnesty for public lands and waters, we refer to, and express our support for the appropriateness and wisdom of the legislative intent expressed in Florida Statutes 267.14, “It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the state to preserve archaeological sites and objects of antiquity for the public benefit and to limit exploration, excavation, and collection of such matters to qualified persons and educational institutions possessing the requisite skills and purpose to add to the general store of knowledge concerning history, archaeology, and anthropology.” While this intent refers to all of Florida, it is particularly important for our public lands and waters which protect for the future what is uniquely Florida in terms of our natural environment as well as the remains of our diverse and unique heritage.
Our public lands and waters help us to ensure that the animals and plants, forests and wetlands, and springs and waterways that have always been a part of Florida will still exist and be accessible to the public for countless generations to come. Imbedded and submerged on these same lands are the remains of those who have come before. These remains are not just individual curiosities, they are complex archaeological sites where people lived, where they are buried, and where they have made their livings hundreds and thousands of years ago. Current law appropriately supports the public ownership of archaeological sites on public lands and waters and appropriately recognizes the value of their preservation for future scientific study by appropriately trained professionals.
Preservation of archaeological sites on public lands is all the more critical because of the rapid development of the State’s privately-held lands. Over the last several decades, development of our coastlines for residences, hotels, and businesses, and construction of highways, airports, and other needed infrastructure, has resulted in the wholesale destruction and loss of many thousands of archaeological sites, often without any record or study.
In opposing creation of an artifact amnesty program, which we presume would be accompanied by forfeiture of illegally obtained Florida artifacts and disclosure of their find locations, we believe such a program would:
- Send a message that the Legislature does not take seriously its commitment to preservation of our publicly-owned lands and waters and the archaeological sites contained therein.
- Not be taken seriously by many, including those who have systematically looted sites on public lands and waters.
- Not prevent future collecting or looting of archaeological sites on public lands or waters.
- Confuse rather than clarify the public understanding of law and regulation that protect archaeological sites and materials in Florida.
- Provide rationale for calls to reinstate the failed Isolated Finds Program, which we also oppose (see http://www.flpublicarchaeology.org/blog/?p=49).
Florida has always been a leader in state-level historic and archaeological preservation and its current policies are consistent with an international recognition of the importance of preserving the archaeological remains of our cultural heritage for the future public benefit. Regardless of how it might be constructed, we believe any artifact amnesty program would represent a retreat from this position of leadership.
If we forgive those who obtained artifacts illegally from public lands and waters in Florida, we fear that this will set the stage for a push to just make it legal to collect on these lands through a program such as the former Isolated Finds Program, or the recently proposed Citizen Archaeology Permit which we believe is also a bad idea for Florida’s irreplaceable archaeological heritage (see Della Scott-Ireton’s blog on CAP).
We encourage anyone who has interest in the proposal to establish an Artifact Amnesty Program in Florida to provide DHR with your input through response to their on-line survey, which closes September 4, or through a letter or call to Division Director Rob Bendus, R.A. Gray Building, 500 S. Bronough Street, Tallahassee, FL 32399-0250, Phone: 850.245.6300., or via email to Feasibility@dos.myflorida.com.
William B. Lees, PhD, RPA
Florida Public Archaeology Network