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Looters of artifact sites raked: 'Like spitting on history'

Archaeologists say incidents of looting and damage at Indian sites are increasing, in part because Internet Web sites tell looters where to go and how to retrieve the artifacts.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001

[Times photo: Steve Hasel]
Kory Bennett of the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute shovels soil into a hole left by looters at an ancient Indian midden on a Withlacoochee River island between Yankeetown and Inglis. A team repaired the damage Friday left by looters at an archaeological site off limits to the public.
YANKEETOWN -- Gary Ellis has spent a lifetime digging in the dirt but invoked a celestial image to describe the damage looters inflicted at an American Indian site on the bank of the Withlacoochee River.

"It looked like a lunar landscape," the 51-year-old scientist with a long, white moustache said aboard a 20-foot landing craft that cruised along the Withlacoochee on a recent sun-splashed morning.

As the boat skidded to a stop, Ellis leapt across to the shore and walked up a small bank, brushing aside tree limbs. Under ideal conditions, the director of the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute would have visited this site for research.

Instead he has spent the past two months repairing, as best he can, the damage caused by freelance artifact hunters, who were probably in search of projectile points that can sell for hundreds of dollars.

More than 50 holes were dug on this 1-acre site, halfway between Yankeetown and the Gulf of Mexico. The area, known as a midden, or trash mound, was probably utilized from 2000 B.C. to the 11th or 12th century.

"It makes me sick," Ellis said. "It's a total disregard of the past in every way. It's like spitting on history, or history doesn't matter except for personal gain."

Sites in Citrus County and across Florida have been looted over the years, but now some experts say the incidents may be on the rise, in part because of the Internet. Some Web sites offer detailed instructions where to find the artifacts and how to retrieve them.

There are several sites along the Withlacoochee that are popular among looters because they are remote and loaded with points and other tools. "Word gets out that good artifacts are coming from a site; literally dozens of people could show up the next weekend," said Jim Miller, the state archaeologist.

"It seems that it's going to become a bigger problem. There is a market out there for these artifacts," said Guy Wheaton, a law enforcement officer for the Department of Environmental Protection in Crystal River.

[Times photo: Steve Hasel]
Gulf Archaeology Research Institute director Gary Ellis, who has spent the past two months repairing damage caused by freelance artifact hunters seeking projectile points that can sell for hundreds of dollars, says of the damage, "It looked like a lunar landscape."
Late last month, Wheaton came upon five men on a private island near here who were suspected of digging in submerged lands. The men were issued notices to appear in court on trespassing notices but the property owner later dropped the charges.

One of the men was linked to the site Ellis is working on, which is part of the Crystal River buffer preserve, but no charges have been filed. Another investigation is under way in salt marshes in Bennett's Creek, off the Withlacoochee.

Digging and removing artifacts from state lands can be a felony. Items can be removed from private land but not if the land contains a burial site.

Prosecuting such cases is difficult, Wheaton said, because "you need to catch them in the act."

Sensing a need for increased enforcement, the state has partnered with the Coast Guard, which has an outpost in Yankeetown.

The Guard was given maps of the upland areas, informed of the laws regarding looting and trained to be on the lookout for the tell-tale signs of looting: people with shovels or people caked with mud from digging.

"We will try to stop a lot of the illegal diggings," Coast Guard officer Alan Romero pledged.

Aside from the obvious loss of historical artifacts, looting can undermine the natural landscape and set back legitimate excavation efforts because it makes it difficult to retrace the historical timeline, experts say.

Armed with shovels and stacks of sod, Ellis and his crew have tried to replace the soil to preserve what historical value is still left and to prevent erosion by the Withlacoochee.

One of Ellis' crew members, Chuck Taylor, used vivid language to describe the looting during a break. "It p----- me off," Taylor said, sweat running down his face.

"The total lack of concern shown by the people who do this sort of thing is disturbing."

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