Harmless collectors or dangerous criminals? Controversy about trial in Florida

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by Teresa Teklic

April 17, 2014 – In February 2013, 14 US citizens were arrested during a raid. The suspects were surprised in their homes, woken from their beds in the middle of the night and held at gunpoint by the agents. The wife of one suspect was bullied until she finally agreed to let the agents search her house while her husband was out. Apart from the 14 arrests, 6 houses were searched and the arrested accused of over 400 felonies. Even without the cost of the raid and the outstanding trial costs, “Operation Timucua” has already cost more than $130,000.

All of the defendants have a clean criminal record. All of them are normal citizens, among them a 24 year old military veteran, a 74 year old retired university professor and a brick layer. For some of them, the events have had disastrous consequences: slander, debts, divorce, suicide.

Operation Timucua were actions taken by the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission‘s Division of Law Enforcement) in order to battle the looting of artifacts on state property. Objects such as horse teeth or boar tusks may legally be removed from their find spot, mainly rivers, given that the collector owns a special permission. Artifacts, on the other hand, i.e. man-made objects that are older than 50 years, may not be taken from state property. Removing such artifacts from rivers, lakes or woods that are property of the State of Florida is a criminal offense.

Collecting artifacts has been a long tradition in Florida. People have pursued this hobby for more than 100 years. Although collecting artifacts was officially banned in the 60s and 70s, the ban did not stop plunderers and collectors. In the 90s, a new legislation was meant to end looting. The “Isolated Finds Program” distinguished between artifacts that were found in their original historical environment and which could not be removed legally and other “isolated” artifacts which had already naturally been removed from their original environment and could be legally collected. An Indian arrowhead, for instance, that is found on a river bed next to empty beer cans would be an example of such an isolated find. However, as looters successfully ignored this law again and again, it was repealed in 2005.

For those arrested during Operation Timucua, collecting artifacts is a hobby. Some of them only archive, buy and resell arrowheads and other artifacts, others also dig for them themselves. Many of the defendants say that collecting arrowheads is their passion, that they have been fascinated with the history of the country for as long as they can think; a fascination inherited from their fathers, who used to take them for walks in the fields, looking for remnants of civilizations long gone. In court they will argue exactly this: that it is just a hobby, that they did not harm anybody and that they have merely fallen victim to the FWC who wanted to make an example of them. One of the defendants claims that he never knew what he did was illegal. He said that he had a good relationship with several archaeologists in Florida and that nobody had ever told him his hobby was against the law.

Archaeologists have expressed their support for the defendants. Historical finds were a matter of public interest and it was completely unjustifiable to treat the defendants like dangerous criminals. Another major controversy in the whole affair is the fact that museums and public institutions in no way have the means to archive all of the artifacts that are regularly found in Florida. According to the Tampa Bay Times, 150 people reported 10,720 finds in 51 rivers and lakes during the 9 years of the “Isolated Finds” legislation. The state, which already owns 500,000 artifacts, rejected the objects.

10 months after the arrests, two of the charges have already been dropped. 4 out of the 14 defendants have never been formally charged by the Attorney General’s Office, the rest are going to trial. The actions taken by the FWC remain controversial. Not only has the FWC been accused of twisting facts and incorrectly presenting data at press conferences, the agency has plainly got the wrong people, as the accused claim – harmless collectors instead of professional plunderers, and has gone too far in the choice of their methods – strategic raids, intimidation and even an undercover agent. Another, more general question which remains open is who in fact owns historical artifacts. Is the history of a country really “owned” by the state or shouldn’t every citizen, as part of that state, have a right to own a piece of history, too?

All information has been taken from an article published in the Tampa Bay times. You can read the original article here.