by John M.R. Bull
Daily Press - Newport News, Va.   -   January 23, 2005


Archaeologists back a bill to stop diggers from looting artifacts on private property.

Well-organized expeditions of relic hunters are sneaking onto private property, under cover of darkness, and digging up historic artifacts to sell for big bucks, the state's archaeology community says.

Some diggers wear camouflage and hide their work under heavy tarps, poaching pieces of the state's past.

The problem is getting worse, fueled by Internet sales of American Indian pottery, jewelry swiped from burial grounds in the southwest part of the state and Revolutionary War-era relics taken from Peninsula sites, archaeologists say. The market for Civil War memorabilia is booming.

A bill before the General Assembly would make it a misdemeanor to prospect for relics on historically important land without permission.

"It is very hard to guard against this kind of behavior," said Marley Brown, chief archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg. "If people want to find things and they're willing to trespass, it's very hard to guard against. Some people will dig wherever they think they can't run into people."

A Civil War sword belt plate, supposedly excavated from somewhere in Charles City County, is up for sale on the Internet for $450. A Jefferson Davis hatpin is priced at $225. Jacket buttons can fetch up to $300.

Spent Civil War bullets are routinely bought and sold on the Internet for $35 a shot.

It's impossible to tell whether those pieces were found by legitimate means -- by those who have either a landlord's permission to dig or permits to excavate on state or federal property, as current law requires.

But archaeologists have seen evidence of illegal digs on private property and are pushing for a law to address the problem.

"We think the bill really builds on existing trespass laws," said Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. "Virginia has a wealth of treasures, and some of them happen to be below ground. It's a serious problem, and it's getting more serious."

The bill, sponsored by Del. Marian Van Landingham, D-Alexandria, isn't viewed as a cure for the problem but as another tool to prevent illegal relic hunting. Supporters say the measure would preserve property owners' rights, while allowing up to a year in jail for digging without permission and disturbing sites that could be historically important.

The measure would also create a state archaeologist, at an annual cost of $97,000, which could be a problem with some legislators. But bill supporters are focusing on the private-property penalties.

"This is destroying our heritage," Van Landingham said. "You destroy an archaeological site, you make it very difficult to reinstate it."

State Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said he heard of problems near Williamsburg with people digging without permission around a golf course.

"We don't want any Northerners coming down here and stealing our stuff and selling it for a profit," Norment said.

Some relic hunters say the bill targets a problem that does not exist and is being pushed by snobby archaeologists who look down their noses at the "metal-detector community," as they sometimes call themselves because they use the devices to uncover relics.

"In general, the treasure-hunting community thinks these archaeological boards go along the line with environmentalists all the time, saying, 'My God, we have to protect everything,' " Matt Mattson said. He's a relic hunter who gained national prominence in 1989 when he found two Civil War blockade-runner ships in Florida.

At least relic hunters are finding items of historical significance, even if they are sold, instead of being tucked aside in a museum, said Mattson, who lives near Tampa, Fla.

"So some people sell what they find. Should we make that a crime?" he said. "Thousands and thousands of musket balls are already sitting in archaeologists' drawers, never to be seen again. What harm is there with some guy waving his metal detector around, looking for more? I think archaeology boards are fine, but by God, do some archaeology on something important."

The damage isn't so much that a relatively common object is taken but that the ground around it is disturbed, said Dave Hazzard, head of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources' Threatened Sites Program

That could render a potentially important archaeological site all but useless to those seeking to better understand the state's past, he said -- something that he refers to as a "time crime." Other objects dug up nearby can help explain how people lived at the time, he said.

Hazzard said he'd seen holes dug by illegal excavators in a York County park, probes dug in privately owned woods and evidence that professional relic hunters use heavy tarps to hide what they're doing as they conducted large-scale digs in farm fields at night, using headlamps for light.

"They leave a real mess, holes all over the place. It's a real problem for the farmers," Hazzard said. "That kind of thing can be a travesty."

He said he once saw the grave of a Civil War soldier, buried in a privately owned cemetery, desecrated by a single waist-deep hole by someone clearly searching for a highly prized belt and who wasn't interested in anything else.

Hazzard said he'd seen pickup trucks full of Revolutionary War- era memorabilia hauled away from Yorktown sites.

The archaeology community was shocked to learn last fall of a Web site that advertised a two-day relic-hunting expedition, in which participants would pay to be taken on guided tours, so they could dig all they wanted -- a kind of relic-hunting safari. The Web site has since been taken down.

"Where there is a market, there are going to be people who are just going to go for it, regardless of whether it is private property or state or federal land," Hazzard said.

"This is a nonrenewable resource. Once you've torn it up, it's a problem.

"And it's all about the buck. It's the dollar."

Brown, of Colonial Williamsburg, said the archaeological community is especially incensed at the "systematic looting" of American Indian burial grounds and caves in the southwest part of the state by organized networks of relic hunters.

Colonial Williamsburg did a survey of its property in the 1980s and found plenty of evidence that illegal diggers had been busy, Brown said.

"We were kind of surprised. We suspect it's been going on for 40 to 50 years," he said. "I think it's going on all over the place.

"These people offend me. They're after money. I think my colleagues cannot believe the audacity and visibility of these people ... and the specious arguments used to justify their behavior."

Virginia's relic-hunting community is mobilizing to battle the bill, think that archaeologists are exaggerating a problem best handled with trespass laws on the books now, said Stephen W. Sylvia of Orange County, who publishes North South Trader's Civil War magazine.

"A lot of those lands aren't posted. It's a don't-ask, don't- tell situation," said Sylvia, a relic hunter since 1969.

"It's private property, but who gives a damn? They aren't battlefields. They're often Civil War camps.

"They're not important to history."

The large-scale digs cited by archaeologists were conducted with the permission of landlords paid to allow diggers to come onto their properties, Sylvia said.

And though some diggers do trespass, it's usually on properties owned by big corporations or farming conglomerates where it isn't feasible to get permission, he said.

"Yes, there are always a few jerks, the guys who work at night with headlights, but the archaeologists have targeted all of us," Sylvia said.

"They want to get rid of us. Some archaeologists I've talked to think we are just amateurs and shouldn't be entitled to do this in any way, shape or form. That seems to be their attitude." *

Copyright Chicago Tribune Co. Jan 23, 2005