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UPDATED: State-wide reaction to our treasure hunting Action Alert

Updated! Letter by Professor George R. Fischer describing the events of the public meeting is included below . . .

We were hoping there would be an overwhelming response to our recent call to action to let the state know that we are against legally sanctioned treasure hunting in Florida waters. The opportunity was a proposed change--the first in 30 years--in the rules currently governing this practice, and a call for public comments and public meeting in Tallahassee.

Well, this early it hard to judge numbers of comments but they are a matter of public record, and so eventually we'll have this data. We do know that our message got out there and spread fast.

I've come across it in a number of places, such as here in the Historic City News. They link to this editorial on their front page. I originally sent this message out to the St. Augustine Archaeological Association and the St. Augustine Historical Society I knew word would spread fast. Its great to live in a community so in tune with the importance, and the fragility, of our historic and archaeological heritage, and the amplification of our voices will help us share these concerns with the rest of the state.

The public meeting was yesterday. I was planning on driving over to Tally to attend, despite the fact that it was in the middle of our field school. But unfortunately I suffered an injury offshore which kept me at home recovering. I haven't heard back from any of my colleagues who were in attendance, but there is at least one media report out, from Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. (Hat tip to SEARCH Maritime archaeologist Jason Burns, who found this story).

As the name Treasure Coast implies, this area to the south of us is the heart of Florida treasure hunting country (though this distinction is shared by the Keys). So it is not too surprising that there is a little pro-salver bias. But it seems to be a fair overview of the issue at hand:


TALLAHASSEE — Private treasure hunters say a proposed set of state rules could sink their business.

State historic officials want to institute the first major rewrite of the treasure salvaging rules in 30 years — and their plan includes provisions that would require a certified archaeologist on site at all times and ban searching on wreck sites that could include human remains.

Treasure hunters, also called salvers, balked at the proposals at a meeting Thursday and said without private searchers the flow of artifacts to museums will drastically decrease.

This last bit (which I put in bold) is a very false concern, but I suppose its the best argument they could come up with. There is no shortage of shipwreck artifacts available for display at our state's museums. The state has probably the finest collection of Spanish shipwreck material from the 16th-18th centuries anywhere. This collection would have been more than three times as large if the state had not agreed to give away 75% of all finds salvaged by treasure hunters over the past 4 decades (as opposed to archaeological research excavations in which all artifacts remain property of the people of Florida). Regardless, the state has a huge surplus of display-worthy shipwreck artifacts that are available to any Florida museum for temporary or long-term display (as is the case with our own museum).

A second argument is similarly misleading:

But some Treasure Coast salvers told officials private treasure hunters have always been integral components in finding underwater artifacts for private and public use.

"(The state) will never have the funds nor the resources to find these artifacts," said Tommy Gore, who with George Biggles runs Tradewinds Salvage in Fort Pierce. "If the artifacts are going to be put into museums, it will not be done by the state of Florida."

Certainly treasure hunters have discovered a lot of shipwrecks. Almost all of them back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s before there were any maritime archaeologists doing any work in Florida. Since the mid-1980s there have been an increasing number of professional archaeologists working in Florida waters, who have been finding more sites and investigating them using accepted scientific methods and analyses, preserving all recovered artifacts in an accessible collection, and publishing their results. Underwater archaeologists working for universities, museums, environmental consulting companies, NOAA, National Parks, FPAN, and the state are all discovering and exploring submerged archaeological sites in Florida waters. There is no reason to lower our scientific standards or give away artifacts belonging to the people of Florida by allowing treasure hunting. A wide variety of private and public income streams fund legitimate archaeology, including state grants. While some state monies may be scarce in lean budget years, there will always be public money available for archaeology as long as we as a society are willing to fund the exploration and preservation of our past. In Florida that turns out to be a wise investment even in tough economic times, because money spent on archaeology and historic preservation generates exponentially more money in our tourism-based economy.

While plenty of treasure hunters were in attendance there were archaeologists who came from around the state to stand up and demand 21st century laws to ban treasure hunting and protect our heritage:

Backers of the proposed changes say they would enhance the protection of cultural artifacts in state waters and bring the state into compliance with other states and foreign countries that have drastically limited or eliminated private excavation of historic underwater sites.

"It is wrong, and it has always been wrong," said William Lees, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida, echoing scores of other researchers who sent letters and e-mails. "These are incredible, non-renewable resources that belong to the people of Florida."

I couldn't have said it better myself, Bill.

We'll keep you all updated on this issue as we get more information . . . stay tuned.

For now, heres a link to a timely and somewhat related story. NOAA has enacted a (temporary?) ban of treasure hunting in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, due to its environmental impact (rather than the cultural resource impact). Treasure hunting is especially entrenched in the Keys, as can be seen by anyone reading this article. But there seems hope that there may one day be a statewide ban of this irresponsible management practice.

UPDATE: Letter from Professor George R. Fischer, in attendance at the public meeting, to the ACUA (Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology), reprinted here with permission:

Hi Gang - I attended the public meeting on revision of Florida's regulations on treasure hunting last Thursday. It was not a particularly exciting afternoon, but I think it was good I went. There were about 40 people in attendance, although the population diminished as the afternoon bore on and the proceedings began to exceed attention spans and bladder capacities.

The main changes in the program will be conversion from contracts to permits, which will presumably give the Division of Historical Resources more control; and requiring a professional archaeologist to be present during operations to insure conformance with state regulations, professional standards, and protection of historical remains.

The treasure community was represented by Taffi Fisher Abt (the late Mel Fisher's daughter), Jim Sinclair, Ivan Sales, a another treasure hunter with whom I am unfamiliar, and a couple of others whose names I did not know or do not remember. Our side was represented primarily by Bill Lees, Sonny Cockrell (former state underwater archaeologist), Ross Morrell (ex-director of BAR) and me. Florida Underwater Archaeologist Roger Smith, State Archaeologist Ryan Wheeler, Division of Historical Resources Director Fred Gaske, and others from that organization were also in attendance.

The THers opened with statements about how they did not need more regulation, did not think the changes were necessary or desirable, and that in their continuing contacts with the public they found them to be overwhelmingly supportive of treasure hunting. A point they made emphatically was that the requirement of professional archaeologist participation in their activities was a conundrum, as the professional societies do not permit members to engage in for profit activities. Mr. Sales suggested it was a "Catch 22" because of the exclusivity of SHA and RPA.

The point of restricting from permitting shipwrecks with human remains was addressed, and it was stated that almost all shipwrecks contained human remains because people died when they sank, a fact of which I have been blissfully unaware. The only human remains I've ever seen were a partial skull fragment from the San Jose de Las Animas which was recovered in 1968. When we got down there they had reconstructed much of rest of the skeleton with what I identified then as mostly pig bones, but some from other quadruped mammals. Mendel Peterson suggested because of its apparent location deep in the hull, the skull fragment was probably from someone whose body was being shipped home for burial pickled in a barrel of rum.

They also waxed on eloquently at various points about how the shipwrecks were just rotting apart down there and they were the only people who could or would rescue them. I would comment that the courts, specifically in the Klein case in Biscayne National Park, have found decisively otherwise (even stating in that case that the only "marine peril" the site faced was from the salvors themselves). I sometimes wonder whether they really believe this stuff, or it is just window dressing.

Our side basically made the point in different ways that archaeology for fun and profit is not in the best interests of the public, the resources, or historic preservation, and more control is highly desirable.

They then read all the email comments which had been received, which took up most of the afternoon. These were overwhelmingly in support of the rule changes, and almost all expressed opposition to the treasure salvage program. The number of international responses, I assume generated primarily through ACUA activities, seemed particularly impressive. It certainly makes the point to them that the world is watching Florida.

What they were looking for primarily were specific comments and recommendations on the actual language and mechanics of the proposed changes, of which there were few. The many comments on the undesirability of exploitation of the state's historical resources certainly represent the strong opinions counter to the state's program. Of course, only the legislature can implement termination of treasure hunting, but this is a step in that direction, and the opinions voiced in this exercise certainly are indications to the state of a pervasive sentiment.

I believe the large number of responses, and the diversity of sources, are an indication of just how effective this committee can be in situations such this. I think we should all give ourselves a pat on the back.

George

PS - I had prepared the following statement, but was unable to present it. That was probably just as well, as I doubt if it would have really been appreciated, or understood -

"Unreasonable restrictions on commercial salvage of treasure shipwrecks are only one example of a growing trend in our culture to invent and impose unnecessary and overly restrictive rules. I recently returned from a very disappointing trip to Africa where I had intended to do some big game hunting. I’ve been an avid hunter and rifleman all my life (a life member of the National Rifle Association) and my trip was ruined by some stupid rules I encountered. Radical tree-hugging environmentalists and selfish game managers have made it illegal to trophy hunt for many prize species, like mountain gorillas and rhinoceroses. These animals have been breeding and multiplying for all of time. It is stupid to prohibit hunting of them just because there aren’t very many. Zoos and circuses are full of them. Their relative rarity greatly enhances their value as trophies. This is just one more example of a pervasive tendency for a few misguided people to selfishly impose arbitrary and unfair rules on the rest of us."

George R. Fischer
Cultural Resource Assessments, Inc.
retired Professor of Anthropology, Florida State University Program in Underwater Archaeology

UPDATE 2:
Click here to download my own letter to the state in pdf format.

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Thank you for valuable information.

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