by Liz Daube
A new push to get the public interested in Florida’s historical sites and artifacts is trying to unite archaeologists and collectors – groups that have long argued over who owns remnants of the past.
Saturday, about 50 people gathered for “Artifact Amnesty Day” at Camp Milton, a site on Jacksonville’s Westside that became a historic preserve in September. Many local artifact collectors showed up to let experts document their finds, which ranged from pewter underwear buttons to bullets with bite marks.
The photographs will be used for displays in the park’s planned museum, according to Shorty Robbins, chief of park development for the City. The “amnesty” title of the event was meant to draw in collectors – letting them know their artifacts wouldn’t be reclaimed and they wouldn’t be judged for taking them in the first place, according to Sarah Miller, the archaeologist who organized the event with the Parks Department. As director of the new northeast center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, Miller is part of a statewide effort to renew interest in local archaeology.
Miller said the event was a success – 30 items were donated to the camp and 100 more were photographed – but she was told the word “amnesty” offended rather than assured most collectors.
“The issue of who owns the past is very complicated,” said Miller. “It would not be appropriate for us (archaeologists) to host an artifact show ... Archaeologists say it’s ethically wrong (to take artifacts) any time on any land. If you remove the artifact from the context, it loses its value.”
Now that Camp Milton has a government-recognized historic status, it’s illegal to take artifacts from the site. Before September, however, Milton was a popular spot for local collectors to search for – and take home – items like Civil War-era bullets and pocket knives.
The amnesty day was supposed to get those collectors to share those items with archaeologists, but some declined to come because of the event’s name, according to County Court Judge Gary Flower, a longtime artifact hunter and researcher who attended the event. He said some people found the term to be “provocative” because “it presupposes you have done something wrong.“
In Flower’s opinion, there are three approaches to artifacts. Looters “tear up” sites looking for anything of value for their own personal gain. Artifact hunters and researchers – the group Flower said he fits into – want to find and preserve artifacts as a hobby, often taking them home and sometimes donating them to museums. Archaeologists typically don’t want artifacts removed at all, an approach Flower calls “leave it where it’s at for future generations to never find and pave over.”
Flower said the local community of artifact collectors totals around 100, and he’s devoted countless hours, multiple vacations and many trips throughout the Southeast in serious pursuit of his hobby.
“We know where they (historic sites) are. We’re the ones who spend hours and hours researching them,” said Flower. “If it wasn’t for the researchers and artifact hunters, there’d be nothing to share.”
Miller said her office is “here to reach out to the whole public ...With all the rapid development, we need people to help us find these sites.”
The archaeology network is a state-funded initiative that aims to have eight regional centers throughout Florida. Miller’s northeast center in St. Augustine is the first in the state. She said most people don’t realize that Florida is rich in artifacts and history, so her job is to get them excited about the pieces of the past still lingering in their own neighborhoods.
“I think my biggest hurdle to overcome with the public is for them to know and acknowledge and appreciate that archaeology happens in their community,” said Miller. “It’s not just in ancient Greece.”
Robbins said the parks department will hold another event at Camp Milton in six months. That event will be more of an “expo” for collectors with an exhibit of the City’s local Civil War findings.
“Jacksonville has a very individual Civil War history that, really, the general public that lives here doesn’t know,” said Robbins. “It was a pivotal location.”
Plans for a museum at the park aren’t complete, Robbins said, but a Florida Civil War theme has been suggested. The museum won’t be open for at least a few years, she said.