Stiff fines for site looting handed down in Burke County

Submitted by Tom Gresham (

Archaeologist Jerald Ledbetter records stratigraphic information to provide context for the looted artifacts and bone.

Burke County State Court Judge Jerry Daniel in January 2010 handed down heavy fines on four east Georgia men who pled guilty to multiple counts related to looting a Late Archaic, Stallings culture shell midden site on the Ogeechee River in southern Burke County, Georgia. The four men were apprehended on private land by Georgia Department of Natural Resources Ranger First Class Jeff Billips and Ranger First Class Grant Matherly in late September of 2009. Two were found on the site with digging tools and fled when approached by the rangers. They were caught and charged with criminal trespass and interfering with the duties of an officer. They initially pled not guilty.

The other two men were arrested the next day when they were observed in the act of digging on the site. They had a number of artifacts in their possession, including a bone tool, several spear points and a shell gorget. One of the latter two men was digging through a human burial when caught. They were charged with criminal trespass, digging on an archeological site without permission and littering, and pled guilty to all counts.

In statements made during the sentencing, Judge Daniel said he knew that important archeological sites in Burke County were being badly harmed by site looters and that he wanted to put a stop to this long-standing activity. He also emphasized that the looters were trespassing on private property, and stealing private property, since archaeological sites (with the exception of burials and associated artifacts) under law belong to the landowner. In an attempt to put an end to destructive site looting the judge levied heavy fines and penalties, which included a $1000 fine for each count, a minimum $7384.00 fine to repair the archeological and physical damage to the site, 12 weekends in jail, community service, three years of probation (which requires a surcharge payment of $52/month) and a ban on attending any type of artifact show. After hearing about this heavy sentence, the first two men then pled guilty to avoid potential harsher sentencing in a trial. The three men who live outside of Burke County (one is from Swainsboro and two are from Metter) were banned from Burke County for three years.

All four men have been digging on sites for many years and one acknowledged that he has dug on many sites on the Ogeechee River acknowledged selling artifacts.

Testifying at the sentencing were State Archaeologist Dr. David Crass and Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns (GCAIC) archaeologist Tom Gresham. Crass requested GCAIC involvement in the case, and Gresham was called to the site in early October to document the site and the extent of the looting. He saw numerous piles of Stallings/Thoms Creek pottery, animal bone and chert artifacts left by the looters, as well as spoil piles containing abundant fresh water shell. After the DNR officers gathered the evidence they needed, Gresham and three colleagues mapped the extent of the looting, calculating that about 290 square meters had been disturbed. They also gathered about 47 pounds of bone, 56 pounds of stone artifacts and 82 pounds of pottery. This material is now being analyzed by Jerald Ledbetter and Lisa O’Steen so that some scientific value can be salvaged from the site. The site dates to the Stallings and Thoms Creek cultures of the Late Archaic period, which spans a critical time in Georgia prehistory, from about 3500 to 4000 years ago. This was a time when Indians in the Southeast were becoming more sedentary and began heavily exploiting freshwater shell fish.

Dr. Crass told Judge Daniel that Burke County contains some of the most important Archaic Period sites in Georgia, and that DNR believes an educated and caring private landowner is often the best protection for such sites. He also pointed out that there is an important distinction to be made between wholesale digging and casual surface collecting, and that DNR (and Georgia code) recognizes this distinction.

The Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns actively supported the efforts of DNR’s Law Enforcement Division to prosecute the case and rectify the damage to the site and to the human burials. Although the Council was disappointed that felony charges of burial disturbance were not brought, it was explained that misdemeanor convictions and appropriate penalties in State Court were a better bet than the uncertain outcome of a felony charge in Superior Court.

Tom Gresham notes that these sentences were largely a result of several actions taken by the archeological community in the past two decades. The principal charge was excavating on a site without written permission of the landowner and without notifying DNR. This law was proposed by archeologists in 1993 to allow prosecution without requiring the landowner to press charges. Additionally, the DNR rangers had been trained and sensitized to the problem of site looting and were very effective in gathering evidence and presenting a strong case. Dr. Crass lauded the two rangers and their colleagues, Sergeant Max Boswell and Captain Thomas Barnard, saying that they handled the case with high professionalism.

Third, it is likely that a long running campaign by archaeologists to inform the public about the harm that site looting does to all Georgians created the atmosphere for harsher sentencing.

Society for Georgia Archaeology President Dennis Blanton observes that

the outcome of this case sends all of the right signals: Georgia’s irreplaceable archaeological sites are under siege and require vigilant protection, there is a broad spectrum of our citizens out there that cares deeply about them, and such sites have a critical story to tell about our human forbears. We can only hope that looters will take note and that others will be alert to illegal digging elsewhere in the state.

Tom Gresham remarked that he had never seen such a wide array of punctated and stab-and-drag motifs on the pottery. One sherd alone has five types of punctation. As noted a decade ago by Ken Sassaman, Stallings-like pottery on the Ogeechee River is mostly sand tempered, with very little fiber. Thus, it is more accurately typed as Thoms Creek pottery. Of the approximately 700 sherds collected from the spoil piles, every one is Thoms Creek/Stallings pottery. The animal bone contains a great deal of deer and turtle bone, and only small amounts of bird and other mammal bone. No fish bone has yet been identified. As mentioned, human bone, probably from two individuals, has also been identified.

Illegal digging on shell middens along the Ogeechee River is a long-standing problem, presumably fed by the antiquities market that highly values bone pins often found in shell middens. Ken Sassaman, Kristin Wilson and Frankie Snow wrote an article in the Spring 1995 issue of Early Georgia citing this problem and documenting two looted sites on the Ogeechee River not far from the recently looted site. It is anticipated that the analysis of the pottery, stone and bone from the present site will be described in an article in Early Georgia.

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