Artifact looting not illegal

Published January 6, 2007

The men caught digging for ancient stone tools on Thursday will face charges of trespassing and damaging private property.

But they weren't breaking any law simply by digging up antiquities.

Contrary to what law enforcement officials said initially, no federal or state law protects an archeological site on private property unless it contains human remains, state Fish and Wildlife Officer Alton Still said Friday.

Archeologist Robert Austin, who first excavated the eastern Hillsborough County site in 2000, said that legal gap allows looters to plunder Florida's rich archeological heritage.

"I don't think there's a major site in Florida that doesn't have some evidence of looting," he said.

A spokeswoman for the landowner, KB Home, said the company would press charges against the five men: Joe Clifton, 54, Ellis Wayne Jenkins, 42, and Mark Andrew Rose, 51, all of Lakeland, and Randall Betts, 49, and Phillip Swain, 19, both of Thonotosassa.

The Thonotosassa group and the Lakeland men told officers they didn't know each other.

"We were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Rose said Friday. "We got caught in this whirlwind."

The site of the arrests is one of the most scientifically significant in the county, Austin said.

That's saying a lot: The region is dotted with the archeological remains of human habitation - some as much as 12,000 years old.

Back then, Austin said, people were drawn to Tampa Bay for the same reason they are now: waterfront property and good job opportunities.

Thonotosassa in particular once stood at the edge of marshland rich with game. Flint deposits drew toolmakers, who chipped the stones into exquisitely shaped knives and arrowheads.

Austin and his group, Southeastern Archeological Research, first excavated part of the site just north of Interstate 4 at the request of firm seeking to lay a gas pipe.

The law requires an archeological survey whenever a company seeks a federal or state development permit, Austin explained.

As he dug, he got excited: A geological quirk of the site had preserved animal bones, charcoal and the traces of 4,000-year-old wooden structures.

In most parts of Hillsborough County, the acidic soil long ago dissolved artifacts, Austin said. But the Thonotosassa site is sloped and rich with iron, allowing bones to fossilize over the millennia.

"The exciting thing was seeing that we had so much potential to really reconstruct the past," he said.

Even in 2000, there were signs of looters.

But it was worse when Austin returned to the 56-acre tract in 2004 to excavate another 15 acres at KB Home's request.

This time, Austin said, looters were so brazen, they were sometimes digging alongside his scientists.

"The first week or so we just left them alone," he said. "I'm not going to get into being a policeman."

But more damage came after the second week, he said.

"We'd dug nice, square excavation units. We'd leave at 5 o'clock and come back the next day and all our units had been dug into, the walls gouged out, the floors gouged out, I mean totally destroyed. ... That pretty much infuriated me."

Security at the site will be stepped up, KB Home spokeswoman Cara Kane said.

So-called pot hunters or artifact poachers are common throughout the state, Austin said. Some keep their trophies but others sell them to collectors, flea markets and antiquities dealers.

Not everyone who deals in artifacts is a looter, Austin stressed.

"I know a lot of good collectors, and I don't have a problem with people walking along the beach and picking up an artifact," he said."I think the public should have an outlet to hold some of that tangible part of the past."

On Friday, Rose said that was what he and his friends were after.

They're in the building business, had found arrowheads at construction sites and were interested in finding more, he noted.

To him, he said, artifact hunting seemed like just another outdoor hobby. And after seeing the prior damage done by others, it's a former hobby.

"As far as what I saw over there, I don't want any part of that," Rose said. "That place was a mess."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.