A troubling new piece of proposed legislation (HB 803) puts Florida’s submerged (and likely all) cultural resources on public lands at risk by amending the state’s statutes relating to the discovery of “isolated” historic or archaeological artifacts. The changes would compel the state to implement a program by which private individuals could apply for an annual permit (for $100) that allows them to “discover” and remove artifacts on State submerged lands and even officially transfers ownership of these artifacts to the permit holder. The only legal requirements: 1) individuals have to promise to report their finds and 2) no tools are allowed for excavation… ***EXCEPT*** trowels, shovels, or any other “hand-held implement” (jeez, I’m glad they narrowed that down).
While this bill ostensibly only applies to submerged and isolated artifacts, this change in the statutes would in effect endanger all archaeological and historical sites on public lands. There are so many issues that could come out of this, but two huge problems I see with this legislation are these:
First, applying the term “isolated” to essentially all artifacts found in rivers or lake bottoms assumes a priori that they are not part of sites with potentially intact contexts. Indiscriminate digging certainly does not facilitate determining if such contexts are present. As one of our own SEACU contributors can attest (ah-hem…Morgan Smith), important stratigraphic sites can be found in underwater contexts! And to rely on non-professional diggers to make such determinations (who potentially stand to make $$$ by selling said artifacts) is like putting the fox in the hen-house and saying it can eat only the “abandoned” eggs.
Second, even though this bill deals exclusively with submerged public lands (lake bottoms and rivers), I suspect that it would be incredibly difficult to prevent dry land digging once access was granted. I suppose it is a matter of trust to hope that permit holders will restrict their activities to rivers and lakes, and that they will report honestly, but when there is a financial incentive to mine public lands for artifacts, that trust evaporates. The stated maximum penalty for violations of this program being only $1000 does not seem like it would be an effective deterrent when a quick search of eBay suggests “authentic” artifacts can bring in multiple thousands of dollars for a single piece.
I understand that looting and theft of natural and cultural resources already occur on public lands with disturbing regularity, but the solution should not be to simply open the doors to looters for $100 a pop.
If you live in Florida, or work in Florida, or if you know people in Florida, please contact the appropriate state representatives and encourage them to reject this attempt to legalize the destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage sites on public lands!
PS. What did I miss? I know there are other important facets to this issue. Please feel free to add to this conversation in the comments!
PPS. Thanks to Tanya Peres Lemons for bringing this to our attention here at SEACU.