Courtesy of Fossil Expeditions
ETHICS, LAWS AND PERMITS
We take pride in being guided by the laws and ethics
regarding paleontology and archaeology in Florida, and try
to leave a site as clean or cleaner than it was before we
arrived. As outlined below, it is now illegal to search for artifacts on state owned (or controlled) land.
You are welcome to keep what you find. However, if it
is a potentially new species or an unusual specimen that the
Florida Museum of Natural History might find useful to
science, we ask that you contribute it to them.
The Florida Paleontological Society has had in place
for over 20 years, a code of ethics for its members. We
adhere to them as well:
FOSSILING CODE OF ETHICS
- Members are expected to respect all private and public
- No member shall collect without appropriate permission
on private or public properties.
- Members should make a sincere effort to keep themselves
informed of laws, regulations, and rules on collecting on
private or public properties.
- Members shall not use firearms, blasting equipment, or
dredging apparatuses without appropriate licenses and
- Members shall dispose of litter properly.
- Members shall report to proper state offices any
seemingly important paleontological or archaeological sites.
- Members shall respect and cooperate with field trip
leaders or designated authorities in all collecting areas.
- Members shall appreciate and protect our heritage of
- Members shall conduct themselves in a manner that best
Staying Out Of Trouble
A layperson’s lesson in legalities
(Excerpted from the book, "Fossiling in Florida: A Guide for
Diggers and Divers" By Mark Renz, University Press of
While our fossil guide service involves hunting for the
bones and teeth of ancient animals, one can’t help but
occasionally stumble across Native American artifacts in
that pursuit. And because the science of paleontology and
archaeology overlap in so many areas, laws governing both
disciplines are included here.
No one can deny that amateurs are responsible for a
great many significant discoveries in both sciences, but it
is also true that amateurs have been
responsible--intentionally and unintentionally--for the
destruction of many historical (archaeology) and
prehistorical (usually paleontology, sometimes archaeology
or a combination of the two if human artifacts are found in
association with ancient animals) sites.
Destruction doesn’t have to be intentional. We
amateurs run the risk of doing it every day on a small scale
that collectively can add up to major headaches and
heartaches for the professional community. For instance,
while fossil hunting with SCUBA gear, an amateur comes
across mastodon bones partially buried on the bottom of a
river. He’s interested only in the three teeth and a
partial tusk he finds mixed with the bones, so he leaves the
Later, a professional team of divers from a
local university are searching the same area for connections
between early humans and the extinction of such animals as
the mastodon at the close of the last Ice Age.
They find the bones, but the teeth, which may have
helped provide clues as to the mastodon’s precise diet, are
missing. The tusk, which had butcher marks on it indicating
it may have been killed by ancient man, is also gone. It
might have told scientists if and approximately when, the
mastodon was killed by humans.
With a small trowel, the amateur fossiler had also
scraped away at the river bottom in search of fossils below
the top layer of sediments. The harm here is that in
certain Florida rivers, these sediments are laid down and
preserved in the exact order in which time progressed. When
the bottom is disturbed by an amateur fossiler, the context
of the different layers is compromised.
In another situation, an amateur discovers the skull of
a rare prehistoric animal. He offers it to his state museum
knowing they don’t have such a specimen, but they cannot
afford to buy it for the asking price. So the finder
instead sells it to an out-of-state or out-of-country buyer,
who resells it again at a higher price. As a result, the
skull is not available for local or visiting paleontologists
to study, or to compare as other similar finds are
In archaeology, we all know someone--perhaps
ourselves--who has visited a historical site and picked up
or broken off a small souvenir to take home and set on the
mantle. Maybe it was a piece of pottery on the ground or a
chip of stone from an already decaying historical structure.
No one will notice one little piece missing, we reason,
until we step back and see that thousands of people removing
"one little piece" has significantly altered a site for
archaeologists to study and future generations to
Amateur paleontology does not have to be a destructive pastime. There are responsible ways to search
out the past and share that information with science--most
of them involving plain old common sense.
For instance, if you carry a shovel into a shallow
creek or river while looking for sharks’ teeth, limit your
digging to gravelly areas that look as if the bottom has
been all stirred up by the current or a previous Ice Age
ocean. And if you come across something that appears to be
significant, stop working immediately and call a
And here’s where it gets sticky when you have hold of a
shovel or other digging device. In most cases it is legal
for you to dig with a hand shovel for fossils (not
artifacts) in a creek or river bed bordered by private
property. Of course, you still need to get permission from the
In most cases you are allowed to dig for fossils
in a creek or river bed owned by the state, providing it doesn’t
border a state or federal park or preserve, or there are not
other restrictions regarding that specific site. You must
obtain a fossil permit from the state.
Above all, if you’re in doubt, make a phone call to the
appropriate agency listed here. Ask questions.
Take copious notes about where you found your more
interesting fossils, in case a paleontologist later wants to
compare the environment of the find with similar finds in
other locales. What was the date of your find? Weather
conditions? Was the river high or low, fast-flowing or
still? What was the geological formation; in other words,
what type of sediments were surrounding your find? Shell
layers? Black dirt? Blue-green clay? This may all be
helpful information later.
Even if your find is a common one, wouldn’t it be an
honor to know that you’re helping science in a small way?
Wouldn’t a lot more people benefit from the saber-toothed
cat skull you uncovered if it was made available to the
state museum rather than displayed in your dining room
cabinet or sold to a collector?
But what about all the hundreds of thousands of
fossils stored in boxes in the bowels of
museum basements, you ask? What good is it to donate
something to science only to see it packed away where no one
will ever see it?
I wondered the same thing when I donated a nearly
complete fossilized dugong (manatee cousin) skeleton to the
Florida Museum of Natural History. The museum assembled all
the parts, except for the skull, which was badly crushed.
Then, instead of placing it on display for all the world to
see (with my name on it!), they filed it in a locked
cabinet. Was I disappointed? A little, at first. But in
thinking it through, I realized that even though the public
at large doesn’t get to view the dugong, the file cabinet
was still the best place for the bones.
The museum is a centralized location for study by
in-house and visiting scientists. Imagine the time and
expense if a dugong specialist had to visit every Florida
amateur’s home to examine dugong bones. Imagine too, how
difficult it would be to study skeletons which are already
assembled and covered with a protective coating of bone
hardener or repaired with glue. How does a scientist set
up shop around a complete mammoth skeleton when it’s on a
show room floor?
And just because there may be boxes and boxes of
fossils in some museum basement that haven’t been cataloged,
cleaned, or assembled, doesn’t mean that eventually they
won’t be looked at as time and funding becomes available.
At least they’re safer there than in a creek or cow pasture at the
mercy of the elements, or on somebody’s mantle where they’re
handled until they break or are stored away in a shoebox in
the attic and forgotten.
Questions about fossil vertebrates should be directed to:
Dr. Richard Hulbert
Program of Vertebrate Paleontology
Florida Museum of Natural History
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida 32611
**You must get your permit from the Program of Vertebrate Paleontology. Here is the link to their site:
Program of Vertebrate Paleontology
Fossil Expeditions does not actively search for Florida Native American artifacts, only fossils (bones and teeth of sharks, mammals, reptiles, or prehistoric shells). The laws governing fossil collecting are different than those in archaeology.
Florida has more than 11,000 miles of rivers and
streams containing many submerged archaeological sites. Most
of these sites are prehistoric camping areas, food
preparation sites, resource gathering stations; others are
historic landings, mill sites, or fishing camps. The older
sites, once on dry land, were drowned when the water level
gradually rose after the last Ice Age. Occasionally, sunken
watercraft are found in Florida's rivers.
Ownership of archaeological sites and artifacts located
on state-controlled lands, including submerged lands, is
vested in the Division of Historical Resources. The
Division's Bureau of Archaeological Research administers
policies and programs to protect and interpret these
archaeological resources. Written permission to conduct
research and recovery activities at state-owned sites must
be obtained from the Bureau.
NOTE: Please refer to the Florida Bureau of Archaeology regarding the privilege to pick up isolated Native American artifacts. THE LAW HAS CHANGED. See http://dhr.dos.state.fl.us/archaeology/underwater/finds/ or go to their general website at http://dhr.dos.state.fl.us/archaeology/.
If you find an Indian artifact, such as an arrowhead,
the easy--and ILLEGAL--thing to do is hide it and take it
home. More than likely you’ll get away
with it. But you may be subject to arrest if caught. The state of Florda has recently decided to abolish the Isolated Finds Program, which would have allowed you to keep your finds, with certain restrictions.
Because the decision to abolish the program is still in legal limbo, your best bet is to bookmark the authoritative agency's web site and keep track of the changes.
Courtesy of Fossil Expeditions