Archaeology and the Media: How do we Connect?

In today's fast-paced, media-driven world, journalists, broadcasters, and other non-specialists are often requested to write or report on subjects with which they have little familiarity. Probably due to its adventurous and exciting nature, archaeology is frequently one of those topics. However, most news articles are covering the token aspects of archaeology--the long hours of fieldwork in the hot sun, the "thrill of discovery", the ancient artifacts and cities, and so forth. Less frequent are those articles dealing with the federal and state laws governing archaeological practice, and the ethical codes of archaeologists. Legal issues pertaining to the sciences can be difficult for both journalists and the general public to interpret and digest, partially because the entire scope of the story can never be captured, and partially because the subject matter is too dense to be printable/accessible media.

I raise this issue because for the first time, I had to explain the part of the story outside the scope--in multiple messages of 140 characters or less via twitter. Let me elaborate, I tweeted my displeasure to the Tampa Bay Times in lieu of a recent article, "North Florida Arrowhead Sting: What's the Point?."  (You will need to read the piece to understand fully the rest of the blog.)

I was surprised when the article's author contacted me directly to discuss the report. A series of opinionated--yet friendly--tweets followed, bringing each person's biases to the table. Becky O' Sullivan of FPAN's Tampa office also chimed in. I feel that the author's writings (despite being very well-informed and researched) present only one side of the coin, exposing the disconnect between specialist and non-specialist, an intimidating degree of separation that forms the core of both complete misunderstandings and failed relations between all parties.

 I'll dissect some key points to illustrate my thoughts:

A) Distinction between Looters and Ethical Amateurs? 

The line between an amateur archaeologist and a looter can be a blurry one. While there is little doubt a "looter" conjures up an image of someone digging into a Native mound for fancy artifacts to sell, an ethical amateur archaeologist is probably many things to many people. An archaeologist's idea of such an individual likely corresponds to someone who documents their findings, participates in fieldwork with professionals, and contacts authorities when they stumble upon a site. There are plenty of active, field-trained "amateur" (non-degree holding) archaeologists that do the job well, such as the St. Augustine Archaeological Association (SAAA) here in St. Augustine, and the Arkansas Archeological Survey, which co-sponsers an annual field school aimed at amateurs. Archaeologists are in tune with such programs and practices, but its important to remember that the general public is not. Therefore, an ethical amateur to a layperson might be something totally different--perhaps someone who casually collects arrowheads, selling and trading them because of their interest in the past.

On the surface, there appears to be little harm in this line of thinking. But, the problem is, the sale of illegally-obtained antiquities is estimated at 200 MILLION dollars worldwide. In the case presented here, the artifacts seized by Operation Timucua (OT) were estimated to net two million dollars on the street, a figure that even if halved, is nearly eight times the Florida Wildlife Commission's budget for this investigation (~$130,000). The (frankly) outrageous prices--FWC spoke of single points being worth in excess of $10,000--of these goods is fueled by collectors and dealers who participate in a market of state-owned property. Whether or not someone ever stuck a shovel into state soil, they're directly supporting those who did, and further driving the commodification of Native American heritage while simultaneously eradicating it. Diggers and collectors are not mutually exclusive--an extreme example can be seen here in the St. Louis Riverfront Times.

B) Distinction between Federal and State Land, Private Property

There is a very clear distinction between the regulation of artifacts on federal, state, and municipal lands versus private property, often glossed over by media. Federally, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 required all projects on federal land to consider archaeological resources, and laid the framework for section 106 process for National Register eligibility. The Archaeological Resource Protection Act or ARPA (1979) made a permit necessary to excavate on federal or tribal lands, and made it illegal to solicit excavation by others, and also to sell artifacts across state lines. All states adopted versions of both of these laws for state-owned properties shortly thereafter. More recently, some cities, particularly those historic in nature (e.g., St. Augustine, Colonial Williamsburg, Alexandria and others) adopted municipal archaeology ordinances. However, currently, there is little protection (if any) provided to sites on private property.

 Because these regulations have been around for decades, the archaeological community is well aware of the permits and professional credentials it takes to excavate sites on government land. Conversely, the public is not familiar with these laws; they do not always know what constitutes state, federal, or private property etc., much less the charges one might face for digging or dealing in state-owned property. For example, Florida's rivers and springs are state property, and thus, cultural resources that are protected by Chapter 267 of the Florida statutes. This is relevant to the Operation Timucua case because numerous artifacts were reported to be recovered from the state's riverbeds. The (important) difference here is, collectors--who are engrossed in the entire process--are well-versed in the laws governing archaeological resources and choose to ignore them. This is unfortunate, particularly in Florida's waterways, because the anaerobic (no oxygen) environments provide for excellent artifact preservation, and have yielded some of the state's most important archaeological sites (e.g., Little Salt Spring, Windover, Wakulla Springs).

C) Who was really targeted by Operation Timucua? 

The article argues that those arrested were law-abiding citizens with no prior criminal record, and that the state has historically turned a blind eye, only to come down swiftly in order to make examples of these folks. First, one does not require a criminal record to be accused of a crime. Second, record or not, FWC staff spoke to a group of over 100 archaeologists at the annual meeting of the Florida Anthropological Society (FAS) about the sheer number of misdemeanors and felonies committed by those who were charged, at least one of which possessed photographs of himself collecting on state property. Although there is an ongoing investigation of suspects in this market of illegally-obtained, state-owned property, FWC clearly stated that for the performed arrests, only the "ringleaders" were targeted, in order to dismantle the artifact trade throughout  northern Florida and across state lines into southern Georgia (which they feel confident that they accomplished by the way).

D) Does the Punishment Fit the Crime? 

 There is an observable distinction between archaeological and market value. Archaeologists see artifacts as individual pieces of a puzzle, parts of the whole that make an archaeological site. This archaeological site is an irreplaceable piece of our collective human history, one that once removed, can never be replaced. Although a collector may too be intrigued by and share a love for the past, he/she either knowingly or accidentally contributes to its destruction. Who owns the past is a complicated question that cannot be addressed here, but it's my opinion that it shouldn't be those that seek it for personal financial gain.

Both the avid collector and mainstream society usually cannot separate monetary value from archaeological or historical value because it is often only comprehensible in reference to monetary value (Shows like Pawn Stars, American Diggers, and others only perpetuate this). Likewise, our country's judicial system adjusts the legal repercussion to positively correlate with the monetary value of the commodity (i.e., you're going to face more intense charges for stealing a 1-karat diamond than if you steal a loaf of bread). However, how does one place a dollar amount on Cahokia Mounds? The Pyramids of Giza? Or even a humble Florida projectile point? Further, how do you place a value on a story that can now never be told because a site was looted? Short answer--it's tough. Long answer--you can measure income from Florida tourism to parks, museums, sites, and you can evaluate natural (e.g., plant and animal species) and cultural resources protected in the implementation of state-managed lands, which are directly linked to countless profiteering methods.

The question then remains, as raised in the article. What's a reasonable jail-sentence for these interrelated (digging, dealing, selling) crimes? Should they even go to jail? Unfortunately, I do not have the answer. I am not a politician, law enforcement, or a judge. As an archaeologist, this is the problem--asking what an artifact is worth  is an extremely obscure question, one most are not sure how to answer. I see only stories of the past; I do not see dollar signs. This creates a conundrum where archaeologists are simultaneously the best- and worst-suited to determine the "value" of cultural resources. On one hand, archaeologists understand the great wealth of information artifacts can provide, and on the other, it seems incomprehensible to place a monetary value on them, much less determine the charges one should face for stealing one.

Final Thoughts

As with 99.9 percent of all things in modern society, media is all about money, and the public's perception of the objects most closely associated with the money. At present, many people do not see the significance or importance of protecting our state's prehistoric and historic past. In my mind, this is odd, given how difficult it would be to find a state that relies more heavily on tourism than Florida. And of course, museums, parks, natural springs, and other cultural-environmental centers are major tourism attractions and income generators (though its difficult to compete with Disney!). If mainstream media has any lesson to teach archaeologists, it is that now, more than ever, is the time to explain how we can protect cultural and environmental resources (what we want) and create sustainable profits for our state (what they want).

Please look here for FWC's photos of their press release and more information concerning this investigation.

All text and opinions herein are those of Ryan Harke, and do not reflect the opinions of the Tampa Bay Times, nor its staff. Full credit to TBT for their article, and to Becky O' Sullivan for her supportive insight and commentary on Twitter. Credit to SAA for the "Thief of Time" photograph.