In Search of the Missing Link: A Look into the Underground World of Artifact Hunting

 

 

Jake displays a portion of his artifact collection

PALMETTO– The 1990 white Toyota pick-up plows past a road barricade into a field of tall grass and continues slowly down a dirt trail. The brake lights glow as it rounds a corner near a lowland swamp and comes to a halt. Jake gets out and opens up the tailgate decorated with pencil drawings of different varieties of arrowheads. There is a WWJD sticker on the topper, but under the J, “AKE” is spelled out vertically in permanent marker. Jake pulls out four shovels, one is a much smaller than the others. Tonight his 3.5-year-old son, Jacob, is digging with him.

Jake hands the boy his shovel. Jacob scuttles into the high grass, selects a spot and starts to dig. When Jake catches up, his awkward steps signify uneven ground. “Someone’s been digging here,” he says. He bends down and lifts up a square of cut sod, leftover landscape of the planned development set to occupy the location. Like thousands of other subdivisions, this one was abandoned and now remains overgrown. “You see, they tried to cover their tracks,” he says, “we should move to higher ground.”

He starts a hole for Jacob then explains to the two newcomers how one goes about finding the sought-after artifacts. You have to gently scrape small amounts of dirt from the sides of a hole then use the shovelhead to slice through the loose soil at the bottom. He says the slices have to be thin; otherwise, you could miss the tiny relic. The trick is to angle the shovel just as you would a chopping knife, almost rocking it as you cut through the fine dirt, listening for that sweet clank of metal hitting something hard. Some people even sift the dirt through screen after they’ve sliced through it with the shovel, not taking any chances at overlooking a fine piece. Once it is thoroughly inspected, you throw it out of the hole. “You have to always keep your hole clean,” Jake says.
“Why don’t you talk about the arrowhead you found, Jacob?” Jake asks the boy. Then he says, “I planted it in his hole, but you should’ve seen the look on his face.” Even without any miraculous discovery, the boy seems perfectly content just being out on the grassland caused by a developer’s collapse. If housing had gone up here, ancient remains would be lost under the concrete foundations of houses that mirror one another. Tonight, as the last rays of sun disappear over the horizon, the landscape resembles its untamed condition. The curbs and utility meters are hidden by over growth and one can sense the similarity of what it was when it was inhabited by the ancient aborigines.

 

The translucent color of this Newnan point is caused by the use of  fossilized coral Native Americans found in swamps. They heated the material in the fire creating the iridescent result which is extraordinarily sought after in the artifact world

Early man crossed the Bering Strait between Asia and Alaska in pursuit of the large mammals that were their primary food source. Around 40,000 to 20,000 B.C., they traveled south into Central and South America as well as the eastern U.S. and Florida. At that time, Florida was larger, the temperature was cooler and there was less humidity. When the Ice Age ended, melting water covered much of the lowland. The mammals died off and people migrated to coastal areas where they depended on seafood as their main sustenance.

In the middle archaic period from 8,000 to 1,000 B.C., natives began to build small villages around these coastal areas, making pottery for cooking. There is evidence that these communities traded with others as far away as Mississippi and Alabama because of the types of material used. They journeyed on foot or by canoe. Using fossilized coral they had found in swamps, they heated the material in the fire creating a translucent color then chipped the material into the shape of an arrowhead. The iridescent result is called a Newnan point, which is extraordinarily sought after in the artifact world – sometimes valued at several thousand dollars. This is the point that Jake is after – it’s his holy grail.

Jake isn’t sure how old he was when he started collecting artifacts, but growing up near Rye Bridge, there was no shortage. While scuba diving in the upper Manatee River, he once found a whole set of Mastodon teeth, but Jake isn’t really after fossils – he holds a fossil permit as a reason “to be in the water” excavating finds. In the State of Florida, it is illegal to disturb artifacts on state land or in waterways.

When Jake thinks he’s on to something, he’ll use certain “techniques” to deter others. Sometimes, he’ll put shoe polish inside his old wet underwear and leave it in a tree, so people steer clear of the site. To clarify, Jake isn’t digging in state preservation or conservation areas – those areas are protected and he respects their historical and environmental significance.

He only takes his son to safe places, now that he won’t stay right beside him. When Jacob was around one year old, Jake would travel to sites hauling Jacob, a car seat and the diaper bag. After a single encounter with three copperhead snakes, Jake is more apprehensive about bringing the small boy. He would never put him in danger by going to high-risk locations – ones where he has to worry about farmers running him off, or chasing him with cars.

It is easy to see why farmers become upset. When word gets out about a “hot spot” harboring many treasures, diggers can cause a lot of destruction on private property. Even being near these spots can be risky – especially during the day. Jake prefers to travel there by car, someone else at the wheel while he sits shotgun with his shovel between his legs, When he spots the perfect opportunity, his cohort will pull off the road on to the shoulder, and come to an incomplete stop while Jake jumps out the door and slips safely into a ditch covered with palmettos. Wearing full camouflage, he quickly disappears into the brush while his friend drives off as if nothing happened.

On the other side of a barbed wire fence, the shrubbery opens up into a prairie. Like an anxious deer, he is careful not to reveal himself too quickly. Once the coast is clear, he starts hiking toward a wooded hammock signifying lowland. As he nears the destination, massive depressions are visible as far as the eye can see, sometimes six-feet wide. The area looks like a warzone, but no major battle took place here – at least not in modern times. “This is what happens when you start telling a bunch of people where your spots are,” says Jake, as he shakes his head. He finds a shady spot out of the sun and starts to dig. This time, he won’t worry about covering his holes back up, since there is so much devastation.

 

This is not the scene of a warzone. When amateur archaeologists find “hotspots” something as simple as word of mouth can cause mass destruction.

On nights when the moon is full, he’ll have his girlfriend drop him off in a secluded area. His sites are determined by several environmental factors that the natives would have depended on for survival. Hickory, huckleberry, a natural spring or water tributary are all telltale signs of an aborigine camp. Jake loves to dig by himself at night. He’ll set his gear to the side, start to dig and continue on for hours. After the recession is dugout and he gets too tired to go on, he’ll curl up and sleep in the hole – waiting until morning to call for a pick-up.

One night, as he dug in the dark he heard footsteps coming toward him. He instinctively ducked into the near brush, paralyzed with fear. Then he heard the familiar sound of shovels clanking from the movement of a hiker. His fear quickly transitioned to excitement. He jumped from his hiding place and exclaimed, “I’m a digger too!” The other man, named Tim, almost had a heart attack.

Since their chance encounter, the two have bonded, becoming protégé and mentor. Tim is older with a much more extensive collection than the one Jake has, but Tim also shares with Jake coveted secrets of the trade. Tim talks to spirits as he digs, bartering tobacco to the Earth, so she will reveal a unique piece of history. He turns down any attempt to publicize his hobby. When Jake told him of his media opportunity, Tim refused to answer his calls. But there is a valid reason for his secrecy.

It is illegal to dig for artifacts on state-owned and controlled lands, including all waterways. Almost all sites are near or in water. Digging for artifacts on state lands is a third-degree felony. Florida Statute 267.12-13, leaves it up to the state to determine who can qualify to obtain the permit – but most of the time, permit-holders must be accredited professionals with a master’s degree in archeology. People like Jake and Tim, with decades of experience — aren’t eligible. Officials can confiscate entire collections if someone is reported and caught.

The law, which is designed to protect important sites, doesn’t mention that for the last 100 years the state has been removing shell from Native-American mounds for all its major roadways. There are three types of mounds built by the original tribes in Florida, each one signifying a different period of civilization. The rubbish mounds were created from 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C when humans first started creating pottery for cooking. Burial mounds were constructed from 1000 B.C. to 700 B.C. when heads of tribes began to rule. Instead of burying the bodies of the important chiefs, natives began to cover their remains with sand creating small knolls of dead. From A.D. 700 to A.D. 1700, the first temple mounds were erected. They were 20 to 30 feet in height and served as ceremonial locations as well as observation points. Most of this history is disturbed and serving as the base of state roads 301 and 41.

 

 This mastodon tooth was found in the Upper Manatee River.

What is really puzzling is that collecting fossils in state waterways is legal. People who find artifacts – the non-living remains that tell the history of now extinct Native-American tribes, are told by officials to leave them where they lie, or take a picture and inform the Bureau of Archaeological Research. The amateur archaeologist, someone like Jake who did all the work to find the relic, doesn’t get any compensation for the hours he put into digging for the piece. The result is a vicious cycle. Diggers live in fear of being discovered, significant sites go unfound and essential collections are kept in living rooms and basements instead of museums.

Jake’s friend recently found a shell carving of a conquistador behind the Crab Trap Restaurant at Terra Ceia. This rare find alone could help to determine the exact location of Hernando de Soto’s arrival in Florida, since his landing place has never been proven. His historical trail up the west coast and into Mississippi was mapped in 1939 by the government-appointed Swanton Commission, but historians have criticized their projected path for years as inaccurate.

Mike, a publisher of a statewide magazine, is searching for the link to solve the problem. He travels to archaeology shows all over the country in order to gain an understanding of a better way for amateurs and archeologists to work together.

“The information and help of advocational archeologists are integral parts of the state archeological program,” he said. “In South Carolina, for example, every year they award someone for helping the state learn what they learn, hand in hand, side by side with the academics. It advances the science of archaeology. You have to understand that these people have been doing this for generations and archeology is a relatively new science.”

Mike is currently conducting video interviews with “old timers”, people in their upper 80’s who don’t care about going public because they aren’t digging anymore. Until he has enough information collected, even he won’t reveal his identity to the world. Losing a life’s work is not yet worth the risk.

Amateurs like Jake will continue to build their collection regardless of how the government feels about it.

While looking for possible sites, he and his boy hike to an unusual hill formation in a clearing. The rise isn’t natural, it’s man made – dirt piled up from the emergency spillway below in case the Manatee River dam overflows. Still, it feels as if they’re standing on an ancient temple mound, looking over the vastness of the countryside. They hear a distinct cry and look up just in time to see a hawk gliding above. Jake’s son tugs at his sleeve and points. Just then Jake’s cell rings and he smiles.

“Well wouldn’t you know, Tim is callin’ me just as the hawk flies over head,” he says happily, eager to speak to his estranged friend.

Author’s Note:

The sources in this story did not want their full identities revealed because they are fearful of being reported to state officials. Tim’s name was changed completely to protect his identity.

Merab is a writer at the Bradenton Times. She can be reached at merab.favorite@thebradentontimes.com

 

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