Sunday, 22 January 2012

"Alabama Needs Our Help"

Steve, Forrest and Spencer Phillips (Southern Skin Diver Supply of Birmingham, Alabama) ask US metal detectorists to support an amendment they have proposed to Alabama's archaeological resource protection legislation ("Please Support SB-81. Save our lost history..." - "Save" it that is by taking it away and adding it to a private collection). Militant anti-preservationist Dick Stout of Texas reckons its a good idea to help out, "these folks need our help and they need it fast. It will involve emailing quite a few state reps, but you can easily do that by copying your letter, and simply pasting it when contacting them. Let's get on it...".

The background to this effort is that Steven Phillips is reportedly the only person to ever have been arrested under the Alabama Cultural Resources Act:
At trial, Phillips was found not guilty of felony theft of a cultural resource but was convicted of misdemeanor third-degree theft. The charge stemmed from Phillips' 2003 expedition in the Alabama River near Selma in search of Civil War relics, which ended with his arrest and the confiscation of a Civil War era rifle he'd found.
So, it looks like (Selma here for example) we have another case of somebody looking for collectables on a battlefield/site of conflict. And the metal detectorists of the US rallying behind such people asserting their "rights" (no mention of responsibilities) to plunder such sites of collectables such as rifles.

Steve, Forrest and Spence write that the new bill, SB-81, they have introduced in the Alabama Senate "will make the current law easier to understand". They have deleted three words from the definition of Cultural Resources. What in fact they intend doing is to remove any artefacts not part of a shipwreck from any form of protection in public-owned waterways. Note that in the new wording, Treasure trove which is not associated with a shipwreck is NOT protected from Treasure hunters working outside the permit system, hoiking it out and flogging it off would be legal under the amended law (Section 41-9-292 of the Code of Alabama 1975). The navigable waterways contain however much more than shipwrecks, artefacts lost, dropped, discarded, deposited for ritual purposes in antiquity or historical times. They may be traces of activities in the past using the rivers, they may be elements of sites on the river banks now submerged, there may be artefacts embedded in anthropogenic layers containing well-preserved organic materials which will be disturbed if divers start excavating for collectable items. they may be artefacts lying in situ from when they were dropped in the past during a documented event, such as an historic battle (like the battle of Selma for example). The proposed amendments to the bill aim to render the disturbance of these artefacts and their context legal and the artefacts themselves up for grabs by metal detectorists and unregulated divers. Permits would only be needed for removing collectables from (known) historic shipwrecks. (In any case what precisely does "associated with a shipwreck" mean in legal terms? Not defined in the proposed amendment)

Here are the amendments proposed to SB-81 (file 'aucrap')

Like Bangor's Raimund Karl discussed at the beginning of the month, and the other supporters of the PAS, Mr Philips thinks preservation is all about "finding things":
Divers should find isolated items and save as much of our lost history as possible, and we need them to not be afraid to tell what they find because they fear harassment. Significant finds will be made in the future and we all want to learn from these finds. Other states have friendly dive laws that encourage divers to search and share what they have found, and we don't want Alabama divers to feel they must keep their finds secret.
The finds-seeking divers are incensed that "some of the professional archaeologists and their cronies" have been "emailing and calling the Senators and Representatives asking them to kill our bill". The same tired old arguments are used to justify this: "These items are rusting and eroding away and need saving", "We are the public and the public waters are ours individually as much as theirs", "Items that are found are often placed in museums", "All reference books identifying relics and artifacts have been written by authors using collectors", "We don’t want grants or contracts as the professionals try to get for anything they do". Note how they shift from being "divers who find things" ("finders" in PAS-speak) to "collectors" between the beginning of the page and its middle.

As Thomas Spencer reports:
Teresa Paglione, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society, said without legal protections, artifacts from the Civil War, the settlement of the state, the age of European exploration and thousands of years of Native American history could be extracted, kept privately or sold, and lost to history. Those artifacts in state waters belong to all the people of the state, Paglione said. "(The changes to the law) would allow divers like Mr. Phillips to conduct little more than scavenger hunts for relics -- like a game of finders-keepers, except individuals get to keep what belongs to the state of Alabama and its citizenry," she said.

It seems gold-prospectors with metal detectors are about as bright as those who use them to hunt coins etc: "This affects gold prospecting as well" declares a poster on the Gold Prospectors Association of America Forum. He seems not to have actually read the proposed amendment and its definition of "artifact" as the subject of the legislation. So, no, no it does NOT. I expect gold prospectors will be writing in ignorant droves nevertheless, not having read the document either and thinking it through.

Note the name of the archaeology-insensitive proposer of the Alabama collectors' rights bill: Senator Cam Ward (R) [pictured above from his website]. He has apparently been told that there are "100 000" find-hungry divers in Alabama and obviously counting on their vote if he can get this archaeology wrecking bill through - hang the cost to the heritage.

Perhaps the resolution here is not to redefine archaeological artefacts to a much narrower field to allow their legal and unregulated harvesting for collection and sale by artefact hunters and collectors, but - as I pointed out in the case Raimund Karl was discussing - to make it easier - and broaden the scope of those eligible - for those whose real intent is to increase our knowledge of sites to obtain the requisite permits.

Thomas Spencer, 'New Alabama law could mean finders-keepers for historic artifacts found underwater', The Birmingham News , January 16, 2012.

Public Lands and Waters, Southern Skin Divers Supply: Blog of the South's oldest dive store, 1/21/2012.


Paul Zoetbrood said...

Congrats. Mend to bring it to your attention last week.
Anotherinteresting link (and potential contact might be(

Paul Barford said...

Thanks, actually I saw the Birmingham News article last week and decided to ignore it, but when I saw the wording of the document itself, I thought I had to draw attention to it.

StarRider said...

The proposed change in the law is nothing more than a clarification of existing law. The earlier interpretation, indeed published after Mr. Phillips arrest (and the subsequent investigation of the Alabama Historical Commission, which revealed rampant corruption and incompetence within that agency), made it legal to remove isolated artifacts from state-controlled stream beds. Some employees of the state apparently disagreed with this interpretation, so that now divers are being threatened with confiscation or prosecution for activities that the Alabama Historical Commission admitted were perfectly legal.

Nobody in the collecting community is advocating the uncontrolled pillage of Alabama's waters. Intact sites, both historic and prehistoric, should be protected, and will be...under the proposed change, sites that are or are eligible for the NRHP will be protected. The end goal of the effort has always been to force the AHC and other state agencies to follow the law as it was written, not as they choose to interpret it. All the divers want is the freedom to collect isolated finds from riverbeds.

Paul Barford said...

well, this is exactly the problem with the way the USA goes through the motioons of protecting the heritage. Instead of creating a proper professional heritage body (like membership, among other things, of the 1970 UNESCO Convention requires) it seems Alabama merely has an ad hoc committee:

"it consists of 21 appointed members who represent a broad cross section of Alabamians. Architects, historians, archaeologists, and representatives of Alabama’s universities are members of the AHC"

Yeah, right - "way to go"? Nobody from the antiquities trade then? Why not?

Whether or not it is "legal to remove isolated artifacts from state-controlled stream beds" rather depends I suppose on how you interpret the US Archaeological Resources Protection legislation. 16 USC § 470bb and 16 USC § 470cc

Certainly in Great Britain (not to mention many other areas of Europe) such artefacts would be considerd part of the archaeological resource (and thus fall under the remit of the PAS for example), so this raises the question of why one would want to legalize the wanton destruction of part of the archaeological resource? Why not have controls on its exploitation to make sure it is used for everyone's benefit and not the selfish needs of a few collectors?

StarRider said...

I would encourage you to check out the program South Carolina has in place, which is a permitting system for divers. You buy the permit, which allows you to collect isolated finds from submerged state lands; any finds must be reported to the state, after which the diver gains ownership. Florida formerly had such a program, which was rescinded for various reasons...which has led to a schism between the collecting and professional communities that has widened to the point that there is little communication going on. The key phrase here is "isolated find"; these artifacts are redeposits that have much reduced archaeological value, and realistically the state can't (and shouldn't) allocate the resources to survey river bottoms for artifacts that have been displaced from context and that will produce limited data anyway. These artifacts are in many cases slowly, inexorably, making their way into the Gulf. With a permit system you gain many people searching, on their own dime, and if planned and implemented properly it could well be revenue neutral or even positive. It's really a win/win avenue of approach, which involves collectors in the collection of data, and can do nothing but improve relations between the two groups. Collectors are gonna collect, that's what they do; why ignore the data they are producing? I truly believe that often professionals are really more interested in control of the record, rather than preservation, this is one of those cases; seemingly the pros would rather the artifacts be lost than those offensive collectors laying their grubby hands on them. (And last time I checked, Alabama was neither part of Great Britain or any other part of Europe...I understand there is a point there somewhere, but the glare from the non sequitur has evidently blinded me to seeing exactly what it is.) So, as they say, everybody is entitled to their opinion; I would guess we could use every bit of bandwidth on the server debating and still be unmoved from out original positions, but I would encourage you to look more at end results than sometimes stifling ethical stances that are counterproductive to what you are trying (or, critically, claim to be trying) to accomplish, which is the furtherance of the archaeological record. Carry on.

StarRider said...

One more short example often put forth of the impending pillage of Alabama's waters should something like this ever pass is the Alabama River at Selma. Without going into a history lesson, huge quantities of Civil War materials were dumped into the river during and after the battle there. So these collectors are goig to come in here nad get filthy rich looting this stuff, right? This is the AHC's talking point...whatisn't brough up is the fact that the people in the area remembered all this stuff being thrown in the river, and after the war as much was recovered as possible (times were hard, as is well documented).50 years later, metals were in scarce supply for the war effort in WWI, so the federal government dredged the river for scrap metal. So much was recovered that when WWII broke out, the river was dredged again. So that yes, there are Civil War artifacts in the river at Selma; however not only have scavengers spent may decades retrieving the stuff, Uncle Sam made no less than two concerted efforts to get this stuff out of the river ad melt it down...the river isn't teeming with valuable artifacts, in fact they are rather scarce.

Paul Barford said...

I think there is a misunderstanding here, when I mentioned the ARPA I was, I thought, indicating that I thought a "permit system" was appropriate to this sort of situation.

My post was about collectors wanting to remove a requirement of obtaining a permit for the seeking of certain types of underwater archaeological remains. My reference to Great Britain was in order to make the point that elsewhere this is treated as part of the archaeological resource - it was not a territorial claim.

I do not think any resolution should allow the automatic passing of ownership of archaeological finds found in such circumstances to the finder, there ouht to be some way that significant finds and records from the search go to a public collection, while other items can enter the market.

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