Courtesy of Fossil Expeditions


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:


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 Florida)

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 rest behind.

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 collected.

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 appreciate.

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 professional.

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 landowner.

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
Tel: (352)392-1721
E-mail: **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 or go to their general website at

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