Tip of the Arrowhead: Hobby Lobby and the Antiquities Black Market Problem

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The story that Hobby Lobby illegally purchased stolen artifacts is getting a lot of attention in the news and on social media. This is great, and I am pleased to see that so many are aware of and are condemning what appears to have been willful ignorance at best. However, this is not an isolated incident, only a high profile one, and it is systemic of a much larger problem.


For those who are not familiar with the case, Hobby Lobby is being fined $3 million for illegally purchasing 5,500 looted artifacts from Iraq with the intention of using them in the Museum of the Bible. There are several problems with this. First, this antiquities black market has been identified as a source of funding for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Second, this is Iraq’s heritage, not ours. Finally, though their motivation seems to be simply enthusiasm for the Biblical time period, these artifacts are now nothing more than things, the stories they could have told us are gone forever.

 While I am pleased that we are denouncing this act, the looting of sites for personal profit is something that we deal with on a national and state level all the time. In 2007, 24 individuals in Utah were charged in a sting operation that seized 250 artifacts, such as a blanket almost certainly from a child’s burial, which were illegally looted from federal and state lands. In 2013, the Florida Fisheries and Wildlife Commission conducted a sting operation in which they arrested 13 individuals for  illegally looting artifacts on state managed land. They are still working on what was seized but there are over 5,000 artifacts which will never tell us their story.

These stings are just two of the biggest. In the last two years there have been three other cases in Florida involving stolen artifacts where people were arrested. This is a very real problem at our state level for many of the same reasons it is a problem in the Hobby Lobby case.

 This is one spot of extensive damage found on the Aucilla River, Florida just last March. (Image courtesy of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Resources)

Though the local antiquities black market does not fund terror groups, it has very solidly been linked to the drug trade, particularly meth. While the linked article is featuring the southwest, we had at least one drug-related case here in Florida last year when a teacher was murdered while being robbed for her collection. Articles at the time cite drugs as a suspected motivation.

While these artifacts are not being stolen from another country, they are being stolen from us. Sites on state or federally managed land are held in the public trust, they are for all of us and are not just for someone looking to make a quick buck. Poaching on a wildlife preserve is pretty despicable, but plants and animals grow back (to a point). Once a site is destroyed there will never be another one like it.

 Finally, many people do not realize that in archaeology the artifact is only as valuable as the story it tells and, for this story, context is everything. Imagine someone walks into a police station and says, “Here, I found these bullet casings at a crime scene.” Even if they remember exactly where the casings came from, that evidence is forever tainted. Artifacts are evidence. Everything from a building to a ceramic pot to a tiny stone flake to pollen and starch residues are a piece of the puzzle. Guess which of those things I just listed are what looters are after? Guess how many of those things they disturb, damage, and destroy in the process of looking for the “pretty” objects?

This is why archaeologists get so upset when it comes to looting sites. They do not want the artifacts for themselves. This is not about job security. They see the lost potential of not just the objects up for sale, but for everything else lost while they were being ripped from the ground in the name of greed.

Looters dug up and rejected all of these artifacts last March. We lost far more than whatever they took. (Image courtesy of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Resources)

So, what can you do? Well to start with, be aware of your legislature and tell your representatives that this is important. Last year Florida almost passed a bill that would have effectively legalized the looting of sites on state managed lands. Currently, South Carolina is the only state in the U.S. that has such a law.

Otherwise, tell people about why it matters, why we want to leave things in place. Here is a comic/slideshow I made a while ago that explains what is lost: http://bit.ly/2uP5LEu. Please feel free to share if you find it helpful.

If you simply cannot slake your thirst for all things history with just taking a photograph of an artifact, get involved! Check out your regional FPAN office for events and volunteer opportunities. Also, do not hesitate to contact us directly. Most of us have a few volunteer projects in reserve for just that occasion.

And just to be clear, I am talking about for-profit looting of archaeological sites in this post. There are perfectly legal ways to collect artifacts from sites, and while there is still the problem of removing the story from the artifacts, in my experience these individuals are at least motivated by a genuine passion for history rather than a desire for personal profit. I still wish that they would not remove the artifact from its location, but at least we have some common ground in that enthusiasm.

While I am happy to see people being critical of Hobby Lobby’s blunder, this really is just the tip of the arrowhead. The looting of archaeological sites and the antiquities black market are major problems that do not get much attention. If we can simply be aware of these issues, we have made a step towards getting them under control.





“Blended Lives” Pieces Together History in Tallahassee

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Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a program called “Blended Lives”. It took  place at Goodwood Museum and Gardens and the Riley House Museum, both located in Tallahassee. Last week all the forth grade

Prehistoric artifacts recovered from the Goodwood property. From left to right, an Archaic stemmed projectile point (arrowhead) and a Ft. Walton period decorated ceramic sherd.

students in Leon County had the opportunity to visit both historic sites and learn about all the different people of various backgrounds who lived at those sites and contributed to the history of these two historic homes in Tallahassee. This year the organizers brought FPAN into the mix to teach the students about an archaeological site that was excavated at Goodwood. When you see an old house or another type of existing structure from long ago it is easy to forget that there were most likely  people that were living on that piece of land before that structure existed.  The Goodwood plantation house was constructed in the 1830s, but some artifacts from the excavation date as far back as the Ft. Walton period (A.D. 1200 to A.D. 1500). While the archaeologists were excavating at this site they found both historic and prehistoric artifacts. In other words, they found artifacts that came from the people living in the 1830s plantation house and other

Historic artifacts, probably associated with the Goodwood house, recovered at the Goodwood site. Bottom Left: etched glass fragment, Top Left: Whieldon ware ceramic sherd, Right: small clay marble.

artifacts from the people living there during the Ft. Walton culture period all at the same site. Archaeologists sometimes refer to these types of sites as multi-component sites. This, as you can probably imagine, is a fairly common occurrence at archaeological sites. The students learned briefly about Florida’s prehistory – from the Paleoindian time period to when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Then I had the opportunity to share with them actual artifacts that were recovered from the Goodwood property during the excavation. All in all, I had a wonderful time, and I think the students, teachers and parent chaperones did as well! My hope is that now when the students look at a site they will think about all the different groups of people that were there before them and will have a new found appreciation for Florida’s rich and diverse cultural history.

To learn more about Goodwood Museum and Gardens please visit their website at GoodwoodMuseum.org. To learn more about the Riley House Museum you can visit their website at rileymuseum.org.

Take Only Pictures: The Importance of Context in Archaeology

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Context is a very, very important concept in archaeology. Unfortunately, it is also one that most people are not very familiar with. Context is the place where an artifact is found, Not just the place but the type of soil, the site type, and what the artifact was found with or in relation to. I always emphasize this concept when speaking with adults and children about archaeology. The example I always use is a person’s bedroom. If you were to step into a stranger’s bedroom what would you be able to learn about them? By looking at the items in the room, within their context, you might be able to figure out the gender, age, interests and other unique aspects of that individual. However, if you were to take those objects out of that room, one by one, and look at them separately you may come up with very different answer regarding who that person is.

This is one primary reason that it is considered a bad thing, and in many cases illegal, to take artifacts from an archaeological site.  The object itself can give us some information, but most of the information that archaeologists gather from a site comes from the context of those objects. If everybody were to visit a site and take one artifact each, soon there would be nothing left for us to study. Additionally, because archaeology is a destructive science, and we can never put things back the same after they have been excavated or taken, the context is destroyed and vast amounts of information have potentially been lost. This is the main reason that archaeologists are so tedious in their efforts to record everything. We take photographs, notes, drawings and various other records to ensure that we can learn everything there is to learn about that site.

Archaeology studies the physical evidence from past cultures that has survived a long time buried in the ground. This physical evidence provides us a direct-although fragmentary- link with the past.  The objects, or artifacts, that we recover can’t “speak for themselves”, but instead they must be interpreted by archaeologists. The process of interpreting these objects must be done carefully and can be a painstaking process. As part of that process archaeologists try to make associations between various artifacts in order to better understand a site. An archaeological site is similar to a puzzle. We put the objects and features of the site together to tell the story of the archaeological site. Have you ever gotten to the end of a puzzle only to find that you are missing one or more pieces leaving you with an incomplete picture?  When visiting an archaeological site, do your part to leave archaeologists with all the puzzle pieces necessary to gain a complete understanding of that site. Enjoy the site, and remember the old motto, “leave only footprints and take only pictures”, and in doing so you will provide archaeologists with the context needed to understand the past!

My Brief Encounter with the Slave Canal and the Wacissa River

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This past weekend, like I mentioned in my previous post, I had the opportunity to paddle the Wacissa River and the Slave Canal. It was something I had heard about and  have wanted to do for awhile now, but something always came up that took priority to a day of kayaking (very unfortunate, I know!). Well, my brief encounter with the beautiful waters of the Wacissa and the historic setting of the Slave Canal has  left me wanting more!
Slave Canal Entrance from the Wacissa River
Now, you are probably wandering what the Slave Canal is and why it is named such. The Slave Canal was constructed in the 1850s using slave labor. John Gamble, a nearby plantation owner decided it would be a benificial project for local cotton merchants. The purpose of the canal was to connect the Wacissa River to the nearby Aucilla River so that cotton barges could be floated to the Gulf. You see, the Wacissa River diffuses into an almost impenetrable swamp, impossible for cotton barges to pass through to get to the Gulf of Mexico so that the cotton could be loaded on to larger ships for export. Unfortunately for the cotton merchants, the canal scheme did not work very well-it was too shallow. In some places the canal never reached more than a foot deep, and the canal was never able to be used by large boats. Shortly after the Civil War the canal was abandoned.
Signage for Slave Canal
Luckily for us adventurous types, the canal remains open  today as a premier three mile paddling trail connecting the Aucilla and Wacissa Rivers-that is, if you can find it. The entrance to the canal can be a bit tricky to find (there are signs though, so keep an eye out). Once  you do find it though, you are in for a treat. The deadfalls and swift current at high water create a somewhat challenging, but delightful paddling trip. The Slave Canal is part of the Wacissa River Paddling Trail. According to the trail guide it is an intermediate paddle. I only had a chance to kayak a small portion of the canal, but I already have plans in the works to kayak the whole thing. Paddling is a wonderful way to experience, not only nature, but history as well.  There is no documentation of who the slaves were that constructed the canal, but kayaking the canal somehow brings to light the challenges that they must have faced.


In addition to the history of the Slave Canal, don’t forget about the people that made their homes on these waterways long before the canal’s construction. The wonderful thing about the Wacissa and Slave Canal is that there are no houses or buildings visible from the river starting from Goose Pasture (where I launched ) to the Slave Canal. It is almost as if you are kayaking into a time long, long ago. You can almost imagine people paddling in dugout canoes along this stretch of remote wilderness. And remember, you may encounter archaeological sites along these waterways, you can look, but don’t touch. Leave any artifacts you might encounter where they are so that the next visitor can enjoy looking at them (and not picking them up) and so that archaeologists in the future can have the opportunity to study them and learn about the people that lived along these rivers in Florida’s past. Hopefully my future plans for kayaking the whole canal will come to fruition soon, and of course, I will tell you all about it!