Guest column: Veteran archaeologist takes issue with treasure hunters
Reading The St. Augustine Record articles on Saturday and Sunday about history, archaeology and treasure hunting, I am both dismayed and depressed. Having worked as an archaeologist committed to St. Augustine for the past 40-plus years (a fact I would normally never reveal), I feel compelled to put my two cents into the dialogue.
In the past two days, two programs that are extremely destructive of St. Augustine’s historical integrity have been featured. One is the supposed reality TV show based on people digging up artifacts in their yards for TV and TV producers’ fun and profit. The other is the celebration of treasure hunters’ destruction of important archaeological sites for their own personal fun and profit. Neither of those programs seems to have any clue about how history is revealed and acknowledged (which is a critical economic and cultural concern for St. Augustine as we approach 2015, the city’s 450th anniversary).
Nobody involved in these programs seems to understand what City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt has repeatedly but gently pointed out (and what most fourth graders in Florida already understand) — neither archaeology nor history is about artifacts. And history is not “brought to light” by artifacts. Artifacts have historical importance and meaning only in their stratigraphic context (that is, soil layers or “dirt stains”) and in their associations (that is, the other artifacts that are in the dirt above, below, and beside them). Without those contexts, they can only be aesthetic objects.
Let me suggest an example — somebody digs a hole and finds a Catholic religious medallion. It may be a lovely object, but we already know that Catholics and Catholic medallions were present in St. Augustine. It adds nothing to what we know of our history. But, if careful excavation and analysis can show that the medallion came from a deposit dating to the British period of St. Augustine, it would tell us that the site was occupied by either a Catholic Minorcan, or a secret British Catholic.
Another — in St. Augustine, British and French goods were illegal during some decades, but very illegal in others, depending on the wars in Europe. If somebody digs up a beautiful piece of a French porcelain plate, well, it is a beautiful piece of porcelain, but we already know there was French porcelain in St. Augustine. It adds nothing to our history. But, if careful excavation and analysis can show that the porcelain was deposited in the ground during a period when it was illegal, we have learned something new about illegal — probably pirate — trade and activity in St. Augustine.
What troubled me particularly about Sunday’s article on metal detector treasure hunters Bob Spratley and John Powell was the clear statement that “It gets in your blood, and once it gets in your blood….,” he (Spratley) said, a Spanish silver piece of eight worth $35,000 hanging from his neck, “if you want a collection like this, you dig everything.” And you destroy everything that would allow those pieces to be historically meaningful and understood.
If the Matanzas massacre site has really been found in this way, it will never be part of St. Augustine’s historical landscape unless the evidence can be assessed independently by the St. Augustine historical communities, and for that matter, the nation’s historical communities. Spratley makes it clear that this will never happen, since he keeps his finds a secret from all. And meanwhile, holes dug into the site based on metal detector hits will destroy any possibility of anyone ever being able to confidently identify what might be one of Florida’s most important places. This seems almost unthinkably selfish.
Nobody who has taken the time to look at Florida Statutes — especially archaeologists — would challenge the statement that objects found in the earth belong to the owner of that earth. That is the law. But St. Augustine is an extraordinarily unique and special historical place, and it has been my experience that the great majority of St. Augustine citizens are eager to protect and contribute to our real history, and to share the revelations about history that are contained in their property with the whole community, rather than keeping the information secret and wearing it around their necks.
St. Augustine’s economy depends to a great extent on its history. Yet these articles seem to imply a certain eagerness to toss aside what make artifacts into history, and instead embrace what reduces them to fun and profit for a few individuals. This would be a national disgrace in Jamestown, Plymouth or Williamsburg. Come on, St. Augustine, we are better than that!
Kathy Deagan holds the university rank of Distinguished Research Curator Emerita, Lockwood Professor of Florida and Caribbean Archaeology, University of Florida.