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Isolated Finds 2016: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

Bills recently introduced in the Florida Legislature (House Bill 803 and its companion Senate Bill 1054) really concern me; they appear as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This proposed legislation requires the agency charged with preservation of Florida’s non-renewable archaeological resources to issue permits allowing individuals to remove artifacts from sovereign State waters (our rivers and lakes). All that one need do is report your finds to the Division of Historical Resources within 14 days and the artifacts you have removed will become your personal property. It allows you to take home as many of these “isolated finds” as you want after you find them on or embedded in the floor of a river or lake. You are allowed to use tools to aid in their removal (the proposed law even refers to this as “excavation”). The only exclusion is that items are to be “isolated finds” and that the state can restrict collecting and excavation by providing a map of excluded sites and areas.

An image may come to mind of a father (or mother) and son (or daughter) wading along a river bank or scuba diving on a sunny Florida day marveling at Florida’s heritage and adding an arrowhead or old bottle to their prized personal collection. Look way, way beyond this, and realize that what this bill will also allow (and what at least some of those promoting its passage intend) is the wholesale mining of Florida’s heritage for commercial gain:

  • Once an artifact is removed from state waters, and its transfer to private ownership is documented through this process (title will be passed from the state to a private individual, who may or may not be a Florida resident), the value of this artifact on the antiquities market will increase exponentially. This will happen because of the existence of proof of legal title to the artifact, and because its’ precise provenance will no longer need be hidden. As recent law enforcement actions have shown, illegally recovered artifacts already have a high market value; this permit and title system will only increase this value and will make Florida the go-to place to acquire antiquities dating back as far as 10,000 years or more.
  • There is no way to verify that reported finds are really isolated (that is, not associated with other artifacts, or part of a site or shipwreck) and there is really no way to verify exactly where the artifact was found (that is, if it was excavated within an excluded area). Florida’s rivers and lakes are remote, and they are generally what divers call black-water environments (no, or very low, visibility). In these settings, it is impossible for others to know the context of the find in non-restricted waters, and it is equally easy to conceal finds found in restricted areas. Once an artifact is out of the water, in the boat, car, or home, any hope for accountability is gone.
  • The lack of accountability for new finds under the proposed legislation would make it possible for individuals to claim artifacts collected earlier in violation of Florida law to claim these as finds under the new permit system.
  • If made law, this bill would provide cover for those who use more than a trowel or hand-held tool to dig into the banks of rivers where sites are common. Once burrowed or blasted out of a riverbank, artifacts once part of an intact site can be picked up and touted to be “isolated finds.” What happens under water, stays underwater; that is, it is very hard for anyone to see what is, indeed, going on.
  • This bill presumes the moral integrity and honesty of those who would take advantage of its provisions. Recent law enforcement actions in Florida have demonstrated that many who will certainly take advantage of this law are not honest and have no integrity; this law will give similar people the cover they need to collect with impunity, and they will take advantage of it to steal everything we have for their own personal gain.
  • While some honest collectors would certainly follow the rules and be diligent in reporting their finds, the last time Florida tried to implement an isolated finds policy (attempted between 1994-2005), only 22 percent of people who land managers observed collecting artifacts reported them. This dismal failure proved a lesson in how this sort of unenforceable program results in loss of artifacts, loss of information, and loss of our heritage.

The state of Florida has long been a leader in preserving what is uniquely ours in terms of environment, culture, and heritage. The proposed legislation would move the state backwards, and literally give away our cultural heritage from beneath the State’s waters. It will give our heritage away to those who will systematically come to Florida, scour and excavate our rivers and lakes for artifacts, and then sell the artifacts for appreciable personal financial gain. The program described in this proposed legislation will further deliver an unintended 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.

The artifacts in Florida’s waters are not unimportant—they are part of our irreplaceable heritage. These artifacts and the sites they come from hold a story about our heritage that cannot properly be told by an unenforceable isolated finds program that mostly benefits those who care little about the big picture of Florida heritage.

For more information on Florida’s longstanding commitment to the preservation of the State’s archaeological heritage, and to the serious threat to it posed by large-scale looting of our publicly-owned sites, I refer you to an excellent report recently prepared for the Legislature, Feasibility Study on a One-Time Artifact Amnesty Program. For more insight into the issues related to the proposed Isolated Finds Program, I also refer you to a 2013 blog post by Della Scott-Ireton on a Citizen Archaeology Permit (aka Isolated Finds Program) and to the State of Florida’s report on the failed Isolated Finds Program. For more information on these bills, see FPAN’s page on Protecting Artifacts on State Lands.

If you look close enough, you can see the wolf.

William B. Lees, PhD, RPA
Executive Director
Florida Public Archaeology Network


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