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Sunday Favorites: Artifacts Underground


About three years ago, I wrote a column about an unusual hobby, fossil and artifact hunting. In Search of the Missing Link followed a local Manatee man to several excavation sites around the county while he looked for artifacts.

The man, Jake, had no formal education in archaeology. Growing up near the Rye Bridge he had collected them, often from private property, since he was a small boy. Many times, he found artifacts on the shoreline, or while scuba diving in the river. 

While the article received a fair amount of criticism because is illegal to dig for artifacts on state-owned and controlled lands, including all waterways, it caught the attention of several educators who wanted to work with Jake, an amateur archeologist, because he had more experience in the field than professionals who spent much of their time in the classroom.

The problem with the law is that almost all sites where artifacts are found are near or in water. 

Early man crossed the Bering Strait between Asia and Alaska in pursuit of the large mammals that were their primary food source. Around 40,000 to 20,000 B.C., they traveled south into Central and South America as well as the eastern U.S. and Florida. At that time, Florida was larger, the temperature was cooler and there was less humidity. When the Ice Age ended, melting water covered much of the lowland. The mammals died off and people migrated to coastal areas where they depended on seafood as their main sustenance.

However, digging for artifacts on state lands is a third-degree felony. Florida Statute 267.12-13 leaves it up to the state to determine who can qualify to obtain the permit – but most of the time, permit-holders must be accredited professionals with a master’s degree in archeology. 

People like Jake, with decades of experience -- aren’t eligible. Officials can confiscate entire collections if someone is reported and caught. 

Fossils are another story. It’s relatively easy to get a fossil-digging permit, much like obtaining a fishing license.

But what happens when the fossil is an artifact? Several years ago, James Kennedy, of Vero Beach, Fla. found a piece of fossilized bone, dating back to the ice age, with an etching of a mastodon on it three years ago. It took researchers from the Smithsonian three years to determine its authenticity. 

A morning edition segment on National Public Radio refers to Kennedy’s find as “One of the most significant pieces of prehistoric art ever found in North America.”

While there is evidence that mastodons lived in Florida, there were not any images of these mammals like those found in European cave paintings.

“Although there are stone points and other archaeological evidence suggesting humans lived in North America during the Ice Age, it may be the only piece of art in the Western hemisphere dating back to that period,” the article states. 

However the bone sat under Kennedy’s kitchen sink for over two years before he discovered it had any kind of archeological significance. He says he picked it up one day while digging in Vero Beach.

According to Florida law, people who find artifacts – the non-living remains that tell the history of now extinct Native-American tribes, are told by officials to leave them where they lie, or take a picture and inform the Bureau of Archaeological Research. 

Yet another find by an amateur archeologist is the Weedon Island dugout canoe, which had been discovered on Weedon Island Preserve,  St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2001, but wasn’t excavated for 10 years.

Archaeologists and volunteers excavated an ancient dugout canoe from the shoreline of Weedon Island Preserve. The canoe was nearly 40 feet in length from bow to broken stern. 

The canoe is far longer than any other dugout found in Florida and is the only one directly associated with a saltwater environment. 

The canoe is estimated to have been built between AD 690-1010. Prehistoric Native American people who hunted by and fished in Tampa Bay, and are also responsible for leaving the shell mounds along the coast, built the canoe. 

The amateur archaeologist, someone like Jake, Kennedy or the guy who found the canoe, doesn't seem to get much recognition or any compensation for the hours they put into digging for their relics. The result is a vicious cycle. Diggers live in fear of being discovered, significant sites go unfound and essential collections are kept in living rooms and basements instead of museums.

Hopefully the state will come up with a better solution and we will be able to obtain a better recognition of our state. 


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