History in the taking 

Just south of New Smyrna Beach lies a pristine sliver of flora and sand. At the Canaveral National Seashore, sea turtles nest, manatees bob in the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon, and 30 miles of beaches barely blemished by footprints stretch to the horizon. Hundreds of years ago indigenous tribes walked and fished this area. For 2,000 years the Timucuans resided on Central Florida's Atlantic coast, leaving behind midden mounds of discarded shells and refuse, and burial sites to mark passings.

John Stiner, a National Park Service resource manager at Canaveral, likes the view looking north from the top of Turtle Mound, a midden just inside the park's New Smyrna Beach entrance. "You can see where civilization stops," he says, clearly relishing the abrupt end of look-alike condos and hotels.

The southward vista offers little other than miles of lagoon and trees. "I think every inch of Mosquito Lagoon was probably inhabited at some time" by indigenous people, he later says while sitting in a decidedly unlush office in the park's information center. That means that when visitors look south from Turtle Mound over the park's 140,000 acres, they're seeing an area thick with not only vegetation but archaeological sites. More than 100 known sites dot the park; probably just as many haven't yet been found.

"We don't have a lot of arrowheads lying around," says Stiner of the park, "but we do have burial sites." This fact is terribly interesting to certain people, and not only to Native Americans and archaeologists.

In June, Oak Hill fisherman Daniel Martin Goodrich was sentenced in Orlando's federal courthouse for possessing Native American remains. He got caught with them three years ago, when a police officer found the bones stashed in the back of Goodrich's pickup truck. The remains had been dug up -- by someone else, Goodrich insisted -- from a site in Canaveral accessible only by boat. In a handwritten statement included in the case file, the 38-year-old fisherman wrote to federal Magistrate James Glazebrook, "I come from a very religious family and know better than to dig up anybody's remains. I just thought it might be interesting to find out how old `the bones` were when they brought them to the dock that day."

As Margo Schwadron, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, descends Turtle Mound's wooden walkway with Stiner, she talks about people exhuming and selling Native American remains. "That happens frequently," she says with dismay. "Everybody has stories. Every year there are a dozen or so cases that are prosecuted."

One story comes from Glen Doran, chair of the anthropology department at Florida State University. He tells about some people who found a unique way to display the Indian remains that they owned. The bones were encased in a glass coffee table.

Another story involves William Stevens, owner of a New York City shop called Evolution: Natural History. Stevens was busted in 1998 for possession and sale of at least 20 Native American skulls and bones that were taken from Seminole and Peoria Indian graves in Florida and Missouri.

Here's one more: The remains that were stuffed in Goodrich's truck have had a remarkable lack of peace. In 1995 they had been dug up by someone else, who earned a $400 fine. Later that year a leader with the Independent Traditional Seminole Nation of Florida had performed a reburial ceremony.

For possessing the Canaveral remains, Goodrich faced up to a year in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. What Judge Glazebrook gave him was a year probation and a $50 fine.

"I was very disappointed with the judge's $50 fine," Schwadron says. "And that's not typical," she adds, citing cases where looters were heavily punished.

For their part, the state's Indian community was outraged at the piddling fine, staging a protest outside the courthouse. After the verdict, Sheridan Murphy, executive director of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Florida, issued a news release that announced that AIM "is demanding that the National Park Service encircle with a fence and increase security patrols around Indigenous cemeteries within the Cape Canaveral National Seashore." Asked about the reaction to this demand, Murphy reports, "We have not gotten a response as of yet from the National Park Service," adding that if the agency won't do anything, Florida AIM will occupy the site and provide security. "In the specific case of Mr. Goodrich, we are planning several legal actions for this fall," Murphy says, but offers no specifics.

Archaeological crimes sound too Indiana Jones to give them much thought. A casual observer would agree that, yes, of course, looting sites and selling the objects on the black market is wrong. But not every issue is so clear-cut. For example, when it comes to fines, how do we put a price on a piece of history? Should laws extend to private property? Perhaps the trickiest question is this: What's the role of nonprofessionals who are interested in gathering historical information, though perhaps not meticulously? Does the answer change if a site is about to be paved or developed, thereby losing the record altogether?

When it comes to the destruction of archaeological records, everyone agrees with FSU's Doran: "This sort of thing is a real problem and is very, very serious."

"It's a worldwide problem, and it's been so for some time," says George S. Smith, associate director of the National Park Service's Southeast Archaeological Center, adding, "Wanting to protect them is new."

For several reasons, however, getting a precise handle on the scope of the problem is near impossible, partly because of the nature of the crime itself.

Florida's borders hold a healthy portion of North American history. Up to 1 million Indians lived here before Europeans landed, but surprisingly little is known about the indigenous culture. Europeans were more interested in treasure-hunting and in getting the natives out of the way rather than describing them, so there's an awful lot yet to learn.

"I'm biased," says Miller of the state's historical worth, "but I'll brag a little bit. I think we're among the top states in a variety of archaeological measures, and site significance and site uniqueness is certainly high up there. ... We do have some of the oldest archaeological sites in North America. We have a very wide variety of sites which have very good preservation because our environment and landscape is so wet."

The Florida Master Site file includes more than 20,000 listings, ranging from villages to middens to shipwrecks. There could be two or three or four times as many sites as that, underground -- possibly literally underfoot -- not known until someone with a shovel or a construction crew with a bulldozer comes along.

"Often a way that new archaeological sites are identified," explains Miller, "is when the ground is disturbed by some means and artifacts which were never seen before are suddenly exposed, and some of that ground disturbance amounts to looting and vandalism. So even some looting is damaging unknown archaeological sites."

What about known ones? "If you ask any archaeologist in the state, ‘Can you take me in five minutes to a site that's been destroyed?'" offers Doran, "they'd say, ‘Which direction do you want to go?'"

"There is no way ever to go look at all those 20,000 sites and find out which ones have received damage in the past year or so," Miller sighs. "All we try to do is keep track of updates as they are reported to us by people as they happen to visit archaeological sites."

As for Central Florida, we have plenty of prehistoric artifacts around us. "There used to be burial mounds, but those are pretty much gone," says Rollins College anthropology professor Marilyn Stewart. She mentions a few specific areas that hold potential information, but then she asks that those places not be identified in this article. It's a quandary: How to inform the public of the problem and foster an interest in the state's resources without putting information in the wrong people's hands?

Unfortunately, some who dig up archaeological sites care about history in only an acquisitive way. Others have a real fascination for the past and want to experience it first-hand. Says Smith: "We've been trying to understand why people do this. People have an interest in the past and want to possess part of that. But in doing that, they destroy the past."

Indeed, some people might want to explore the past, to hold it in their hands or keep it on a shelf, but others just want to make money off it. Doran thinks there's been a "reduction in ‘casual' looting, but an increase in what amounts to professional looting."

"These are people who make a profit," says Stewart. "Go to any flea market and you'll see artifacts."

Recently on eBay, the virtual flea market, one person's collection of items for sale included a "Florida late archaic blade" ("this was a personal find"), asking price of $22, and a clay point ("found in Northern Florida"), with a price tag of $8. Another wanted $5 for pottery shards "found in numerous Florida rivers." In an e-mail that seller, Michael Searle, of Lutz, Fla., explains his passion: "It's neat when you find something that other people drool over. And I think it's pretty neat when you find out that something you have found would command a hefty price in the market. And I find it to be an honor when I find something that the state or scientists at a university are interested in. But what really excites me, what makes me walk for countless hours in hundred-degree heat, or dive in freezing temperatures in pitch-black water with alligators, is when you reach down and actually pick up a spear point that has been laying where you found it for 10,000 years. The last person who held it was a prehistoric Indian who mined the stone for the projectile, knapped it with his bare hands using only the elements of the land, hafted the point to a dart and hunted animals. ... Until I picked it up, it was theirs."

Searle takes pride in the fact that he himself found almost everything in his collection. But he adds, "Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to be said for the person who has an outstanding collection and bought or traded for it all. The good items are hard to come by, even when you have a thick wallet to pay some of the exorbitant prices some ask. You have to know the people who have the items. ... You also have to know how to find out where the items are that you want. Sometimes you have to know who is on their death bed and if the spouse will sell off their collection, and to who they're willing to sell it to. Sometimes there are many branches in the trading tree. It's an art in itself."

Flea markets, conventions, Internet, black markets -- the trade in artifacts is big business, although the chain of commerce might be lengthy. "Something sold for a few hundred dollars here, by the time it gets to Germany or Japan, it's worth thousands," says Smith.

Stewart displays nothing but exasperation when she talks about witnessing offhand or careless treatment of historical artifacts. She cites an episode of Antiques Roadshow that blithely ended with a segment offering, "If you want to know more about collecting artifacts," and proceeded to offer instructions. "People just don't understand," says Stewart, explaining that some look at these repositories of historical information and say, "They're just antiques."

Nothing in the world can fix the fact that when archaeologists face a dug-up site, they don't know what they've lost. It's like ripping a page out of a book that you haven't yet read. An archaeologist can gain knowledge from the relation of artifacts to each other, the soil they were in and so forth. "It's the context that's important," stresses Doran. "These people are looking for complete pots, and they toss aside shards and such. But those shards could tell you a lot. It's not necessary for you to find a whole pot. But buyers want something intact." Explains Smith: "We spend a lot of time looking at the things looters would toss aside."

Only recently have legislators gotten around to writing laws addressing archaeological crimes. In 1979 the federal government passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Doran notes, "It's now a small component in every law-enforcement training program: What is an antiquity? What are the state laws? What are the federal laws?"

State archaeologist Miller says that Florida's laws are "very comparable" to those of other states. Indeed, in 1993 a Florida Senate committee reviewed the laws protecting archaeological sites and added some stiffer penalties.

But the legislation only covers state lands. "In Florida our law is only about state-owned or -controlled land," explains Miller. "There is a small provision in there that lets a private landowner voluntarily have their site designated a state archaeological landmark. ... But I have to tell you that in the 30 years that's been on the books, no one has ever stepped forward to do it."

"Florida has very strong legislation," says Smith. "There's just not enough people to enforce it."

"I don't think the laws are good," counters Stewart, "because they don't apply to private property." Not only can people unearth whatever they please on private property, but, Stewart adds, "There are too many municipalities that have no laws at all." Which means that a developer can without hesitation pave over a stretch of land without first being required to find out, even to a small degree, what might be buried there.

One law that Stewart has nothing but praise for is Florida's 1986 Unmarked Bodies in Graves Law, which protects all burial sites, regardless of where they lie, by making their destruction a felony.

AIM's Murphy likewise applauds this law -- or at least its spirit: "While I think the laws that exist on the books are sufficient to do something, there needs to be clearer, more strict laws. However, the indefensible lack of enforcement of laws as regards indigenous peoples is, while not new or surprising, deplorable." As an example, Murphy says in 1995 AIM supporters videotaped a man illegally digging into the Reedy Mound in Hudson. "The Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's office refused to prosecute, claiming there wasn't enough evidence."

The unfortunate reality is that enforcement is almost impossible. As an example of the problem, Schwadron refers to a river near Tallahassee that's home to hundreds of mounds and encampments, some dating back 10,000 years, which have been frequently looted: "Go down the Aucilla," she says, "and it's just mound, mound, mound. And there's just one guy to monitor all that."

Of those who are caught, their treatment at the hands of the courts can be unpredictable, with jurists sometimes careless of the nature of the crime and the damage done. State archaeologist Miller isn't familiar with the Goodrich case, but he approves of the expression of outrage shown by AIM regarding the verdict. "In Florida, as recently as 10, 15 years ago," says Miller, "it was impossible to obtain a conviction in any court for the kind of activity that you just described. At the same time if someone were to vandalize a cemetery downtown, knock down the stones, spray paint, whatever -- that's front-page news. To dig up graves and strew the bones around, or to collect the bones and put them on your mantel, it's heinous, it's hideous. We don't do that. But we do do it all the time for Native American human remains and burial grounds. It's almost as if somehow that activity is more like natural history, it's more like collecting artifacts or butterflies or curios or something."

Asked about the Goodrich case, the park service's Smith avoids commenting on the judge's minuscule fine. He explains how, under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the value of artifacts is determined. "It's very clear," he notes. Then he concedes: "There are ways of putting value on it, but there's no way of putting a value on information."

You don't need to be a paid archaeologist to appreciate the information buried in our land. Several amateur groups exist in the area, their goal being to increase the amount of information that comes to light. Some, however, find these groups to be a mixed blessing.

"In the Central Florida area," says Stewart, "there are probably at least three groups whose main goal is to collect artifacts by digging archaeological sites." She is not saying this appreciatively. "These groups are primarily collectors," she emphasizes, as opposed to researchers and recorders. Some of them even get favorable press, she laments, noting an April Sentinel story about the theft of a collection of thousands-of-years-old Native American spear points from the Seminole County Historical Museum. The points had been donated to the museum by the Mid-Florida Archaeological and Historical Society, one of the groups that Stewart decries. "It's ironic that these people had lent `the points` to the museum, then they got stolen," she says, implicitly drawing a line between the donators and the thieves.

Roy Singer, a member of the Mid-Florida Archaeological and Historical Society, sees the thieves as having stolen something that his group was trying to share. "I would not think anyone would break into a museum where people come to see history and they would take a piece of that history," he says.

Singer adamantly defends the society's activities. "There are areas where archaeologists from Tallahassee have been, and they've taken their digs and said, yes, the Indians were there," says Singer, noting that sometimes these state excavations deal with a patch of ground encompassing just a few square feet. "As long as it's been gone over by the state, with permission we go over the entire site before they put condominiums on it." In Singer's mind, he's acquiring information that would otherwise be lost to our growing concrete-based projects. "When the condo goes up or the parking lot goes in, that's it."

Nonetheless, all aren't convinced. Digging up sites, notes Doran, is "technically legal on private property. In my opinion, it's still wrong."

David B. Burns, president of the Central Gulf Coast Archaeological Society, stresses that his group's digs are done in conjunction with professionals. "It is often because of this volunteer work that many excavations can be completed," he points out. Furthermore, such groups are often the ones who discover and report looted sites, and who conduct educational programs. But he admits, "There are a few professionals who feel that avocationals should not be involved in archaeological work, believing that they are the only qualified people to do it."

"We're trying to do a thorough job for the public, even though we're hated by the professionals," says Singer. "Of course, there are good and bad apples."

After hearing many different people praise the state's buried treasures, one starts to feel the presence all around us of undiscovered history. But there's also the bleak prospect of that history leaking away. New sites are always being found, but state archaeologist Miller says that when a discovered site is registered with the state, "There's places in our site form to record degree of disturbance and type of disturbance, including looting and vandalism. The result of that is to have a generalization -- that many, many of them, a large proportion of them, are already disturbed by the time they are recorded," says Miller. "People, by anecdotal information, rarely find undisturbed archaeological sites. Especially burial mounds."


More by Theresa Everline


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