Treasure hunting on Hilton Head? Town law says to leave those relics alone

June 12, 2010 

David Meenach of Independence, Ky., scans the sands of Hilton Head Island's Coligny Beach Park for buried treasure during low tide Thursday. Meenach said he always brings his metal detector during his frequent island visits, but usually only finds objects -- like coins and jewelry -- of fairly recent origin. He said his biggest find ever was a three-carat diamond ring. After five minutes of looking Thursday, he had unearthed two quarters and two dimes.

JAY KARR

Hilton Head Island might be best known by visitors for its clean air, wide beaches and warm waters.

But for a subset of tourists, the best stuff on the island is under the island -- or in the ground, to be more precise. Relics and historic treasures can be discovered with a metal detector and a shovel.

But in many places on Hilton Head, treasure hunting is illegal.

The town's code is one of few in the state that prohibits the removal of relics and artifacts from any of its historic or archaeologically significant sites.

The town's ordinance, in place since 1993, prohibits anyone from damaging or disturbing a site that could be reasonably expected to yield information on the prehistory or history of Hilton Head, or from disturbing its artifacts, defined as "an object or fragment thereof made or shaped by human workmanship prior to Jan. 1, 1940."

Town attorney Brian Hulbert couldn't remember the last time the town issued a citation for the offense,and said a treasure-hunter would be ticketed only for a repeat offense.

But with more than 120 sites on the island classified as historically significant, it can be difficultto tell when harmless metal detecting on the island becomes an illegal activity.Many of the island's historical sites have no signage to indicate their existence.

Some relic hunters ignore local laws to find artifacts, said Jon Leader, state archaeologist for the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"It's a treasure mentality," he said, adding that some hunters in the state believe since they know where artifacts are and others don't, they are entitled to dig them up, no matter whose property they are on.

Leader didn't know how many relics were being recovered from the state illegally.

"I can say for a fact though, that I've had instances where we've tracked people down selling artifacts from South Carolina across state and international boundaries," he said.

"A number of things are being recovered from sites marked 'no trespass' that are of strong monetary value," he said.

For example, a search on eBay for relics dug from South Carolina yields buttons and belt buckles, with a single button being sold for $900.

The black market trade in ill-gotten relics has become strong enough to yield a tough law specifically punishing treasure hunters that passed the General Assembly last week, Leader said. The bill, which needs the governor's signature to become law, would make hunting for relics on private property without permission a misdemeanor for the first and second offense and a felony for the third, Leader said.

Those hunters give others a bad name, according to Jim Thomas, a metal detectorist from Lady's Island.

"They will go out under cover of night, and dig the relics up knowing that it's against the law to trespass," he said.

Most detectorists and "avocational archaeologists" follow the law and aren't doing it to turn a profit, said Thomas, who likes to hunt for Civil War treasures such as suspender buckles and bullets. And most people who realize that Hilton Head law protects its artifacts will follow it, said Robert Smith, president of the island's Heritage Library.

"Just recently I had a correspondence with a fellow from out West someplace, who asked me where he could go to hunt for relics on Hilton Head," Smith said. "I discouraged him, telling him that his exploration wouldn't be appropriate for the historical sites."

In other parts of the state with less strict protections than Hilton Head, historians worry hunters will snatch up all that is of historical significance.

"It is a concern that sites get looted and information that could have been learned is lost," said Elizabeth Johnson, deputy state historic preservation officer for the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

"We lose that opportunity to learn about our past and the people that were here. That's sort of a constant, nagging worry," she said.

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